Quick Summary! If you like Big Star, you need to own this album called Free Again: the ‘1970’ Sessions by Alex Chilton. If you like bands that jangle and swagger like Wilco, Son Volt, The Posies, The Byrds (pre- and post-Crosby), Badfinger, Tom Petty, Superdrag, The Bongos, R.E.M., The dBs, and Matthew Sweet, you will want to own this album. Heck, if you like The Beatles and The Kinks you’ll probably enjoy this record a whole bunch. What’s that you say? You don’t know what Big Star is??? Ok. Stop! Look! Listen! Now read this entry on the Wiki and then listen to a few key tracks here and here and here. Now, to continue… While the Big Star recordings are essential listening for any pop music fan , the solo recordings issued by band leader/founder Alex Chilton after the band split up have been something of a hit-or-miss affair. Well, at least the ones I’ve heard, each with moments of glory and other songs that sound… lets say… disheartened. The latter is understandable since Big Star created two (or three depending on how you count) of the most influential records released in rock history this side of The Velvet Underground — #1 Record and Radio City. (For those not in the know, the third Big Star album, released after the band split up, was either called Sister Lovers or Thirdin its various incarnations sputtered out over the years).
All of these records were solid failures at retail initially — yet, the music has endured and grown to legendary stature, influencing generations of Punk, New Wave, and Indie Rock bands and artists. But, to paraphrase an interview I read once with San Francisco-based singer/musician Gary Floyd (of The Dicks, Sister Double Happiness, and Black Kali Ma fame): “try cashing legendary status at the bank.” Alas, an artist can’t live on albums that don’t sell, unfortunately (side note: this why you should buy albums and downloads from your favorite artists, not steal ‘em for free, kiddies). Gary Floyd is still thankfully with us. Sadly, Alex passed away in 2010. But thanks to the folks at a new label, Omnivore Records, here we have a new slab of GREAT Alex Chilton music to listen to. Actually, it’s new to me — some of the music here was apparently issued in 1996 on CD, but frankly I never saw a copy of that around anywhere. So it is great to hear this now in a fresh pressing on lovely clear vinyl: an exuberant and not completely cynical Alex Chilton rocking his heart out at Ardent Studios in Memphis (where he soon would create his master works with Big Star). From the Omnivore website, here is as succinct a background on this album as any:
In the latter months of 1969, somewhere between the moon landing and the start of the Vietnam draft, the concerts at Woodstock and Altamont, Alex Chilton decided to take back his life. During that annus mirabilis, while the world experienced a generationally sparked social, political, and cultural upheaval, the 18-year-old Chilton was in the midst of a revolution of his own. For the past year, Chilton had been strapped in a creative, professional, and personal straitjacket. He was the lead singer of a million-selling band, The Box Tops, but felt like little more than a puppet of the group’s producers. In the era of free love, he’d been pressured into a shotgun marriage and fatherhood. And he’d ultimately come to see himself as the pawn of an unscrupulous business machine, sent to grind it out on the road in a series of silly lip-synched TV performances and one-night stands while someone else cashed his checks. As he entered the studio that summer to make his first solo recordings, the man who would come to define the very spirit of musical independence was still bound in chains. At a time where liberation and self-expression were rallying cries, Alex Chilton was about to break free.
The album kicks off with the (current album) title track “Free Again” in its original mono mix, clearly celebrating Chilton’s then newfound freedom. “The EMI Song (Smile For Me)” is as beautiful as any song on the Big Star records, showcasing the great sense of melody Chilton had at his disposal. “Come On Honey” kicks off Side 2 in a grand rocker fashion — apparently it’s already become a mini hit on NPR. On “I Wish I Could Meet Elvis,” Chilton channels Buddy Holley as if backed by the post-Crosby version of The Byrds (with Clarence White’s awesome steel guitar-esque B Bender Telecaster leads). “The Happy Song” is just that, a bit of a country-western infused pop tune that could double as a Christmas song (just add sleigh bells and snow!). Possibly the biggest shocker of all on this is a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that rocks harder than any cover I’ve EVER heard and fantastically works while refusing to mimic the original. Somehow Chilton pulls it off by playing the song at its rocking rawest — a grooving power trio sans the obligatory guitar hero soloing — and most crucially avoiding playing the signature Keith Richards riff that made this song a standard at everything from Bar Mitzvahs and Weddings to Junior High School dances. This makes a lot of sense since — face it, folks: no one can really “do” Keith Richards but Keith Richards. But the song itself is still great, so why not make it more your own by avoiding Keith’s imprint entirely. A brilliant move.
Anyhow, I had read a while back that a clear vinyl reissue of these sessions was coming out, but didn’t realize it was happening so soon. That said, I just picked this up yesterday at Amoeba Records, one of the first 1,000 copies on a nice thick quiet pressing void of any dyes and colorations. It sounds wonderful. I have no idea if it was made from the master tapes, but I have to assume it was. The album has all the hallmarks, sounding quite warm, with very natural midrange, especially on the guitars, vocals, and drums. Even if you have the original 1996 CD issue, you will want this because there is a lovely previously unreleased track called “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain.” Actually, if you get the CD or Download versions of the album (at the Omnivore Records site) you get a bunch of demos and such (probably my only disappointment — as a completist — is that this LP didn’t come with a free download of the full CD, but that is a relatively minor nit I suppose, since the LP sounds so good!). You can read about all the different versions available at this link here Listen to “Free Again” at this link here Omnivore has made the absolutely gorgeous “The EMI Song” available on YouTube Here is a hysterical studio outtake of Chilton doing “Sugar Sugar” and calling it out on nicking Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night”. For more, check out Omnivore Recordings.