Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Alex Chilton

  • Like Flies on Sherbert [Peabody, 1980] B
  • Bach's Bottom [Line, 1981] B+
  • Feudalist Tarts [Big Time, 1985] A-
  • No Sex/Under Class/Wild Kingdom [Big Time EP, 1986] B+
  • High Priest [Big Time, 1987] B+
  • 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton [Rhino, 1991] A-
  • Blacklist [New Rose, 1992] **
  • Clichés [Ardent, 1994] ***
  • A Man Called Destruction [Ardent, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • 1970 [Ardent, 1996] Choice Cuts
  • Set [Bar/None, 2000] Dud
  • Ocean Club '77 [Norton, 2015] A-
  • From Memphis to New Orleans [Bar/None, 2019] A-
  • Songs From Robin Hood Lane [Bar/None, 2019] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Like Flies on Sherbert [Peabody, 1980]
Right, this bag of wrecked covers and discarded originals is, what's it say here, "self-indulgent." If Keith Richards or Rat Scabies were to dare such a thing, I'd throw it in the garbage myself. But that don't take nothing away from "Baron of Love, Pt. II"--the opening cut, in which composer Ross Johnson raves distractedly about sex and gore. Or the line about nipples in "Rock Hard." A very bright music nut who knows from the inside how much craziness goes into the most normal-seeming product (he did front the Box Tops, remember), this long-time advertisement for self-abuse doesn't prove craziness is universal. Just makes you forget that things most certainly wouldn't be more fun if it was. B

Bach's Bottom [Line, 1981]
These 1975 tracks, the best already released on Chilton's long-gone Ork EP, are about as Memphis as a garbage strike. Not only does anarchic equal chaotic equal sloppy equal a mess, but soulful equals spontaneous equals off-the-cuff equals a mess. None of which is to deny that he knows how to mess around. B+

Feudalist Tarts [Big Time, 1985]
After ten years of falling-down flakedom only a cultist could love or even appreciate, Chilton looks around and straightens up. The bottlenecked "Lost My Job" comes close to such beacons of his lost decade as "Bangkok" and "Take Me Home and Make Me Like It." The precocious Memphis soul singer and the prescient American pop eccentric both get their chops into the Carla Thomas and Slim Harpo covers. And when he slips into Willie Turbinton's amazing "Thank You John"--that name is upper-cased and lower-cased simultaneously--he remembers that it isn't only too-much-too-soon white boys who get twisted around in this world. A-

No Sex/Under Class/Wild Kingdom [Big Time EP, 1986]
Too blocked or tuckered out (from what?) to put a whole album together, the inventor of power pop follows Feudalist Tarts onto the brutalist charts with yet another award-winning shortie. A's an AIDS song: "Can't get it on or even get high/Come on baby, fuck me and die." Lead B points out that he's not "a rich musician." And while the finale's title promises a summing up, instead it's a real B, with throwaway guitar solo rendering it almost as long as the other two combined. Really does deserve a side all to itself. EPs sure do help you get away with stuff. B+

High Priest [Big Time, 1987]
Chilton had a chance to lead his little flock back onto the paths of righteousness. In a microcosm where nobody can tell good pop junk from utter shit anymore, his first four cuts are a refresher course: one Slim Harpo let get away, a callow Goffin-King throwaway, his own tasteless Buddhist joke, and "Volare." Each the real thing, each different, each undreamed by the Fanzine Filosofy. But after that he lets things slide, from a straight (for him) declaration of love to a Lowell Fulson boogie to covers the Fleshtones could think of. These are parlous times, Alex. Sloppy's getting harder to bring off, and cute ain't enough. B+

19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton [Rhino, 1991]
Even if Chilton approved the selections himself, his retrospective isn't what it ought to be--we get half of Third (with "Thank You Friends," "Jesus Christ," and other goodies left to the spiffy new Rykodisc reissue), the Lust/Unlust seven-inch (no Ork seven-inch), bits of the eminently excerptable Like Flies on Sherbert (no Bach's Bottom), dollops of mid-'80s spurt (no "Under Class" or "Dalai Lama"). So you were expecting maybe Exile on Main Street? If Chilton had ever figured out his calling, he would have made a living at it; he's the EP king because coherence and endurance mean less to him than quantum physics (which he no doubt studied on his own when that dishwashing job dried up). You can't excerpt such an eccentric to anybody's satisfaction but your own, and even then you couldn't build an hour's momentum. But listen to any three cuts in any order and I guarantee you'll get off on two-and-a-half. A money-saving introduction to his self-abusing pop and Southern-hipster r&b. A-

Blacklist [New Rose, 1992]
the Shakespeare, or Gregory Corso, of the EP ("Little GTO," "Guantanamerika") **

Clichés [Ardent, 1994]
recorded performance art--rock hipster misprises classic pop as acoustic folk ("My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Time After Time") ***

A Man Called Destruction [Ardent, 1995]
"What's Your Sign Girl" Choice Cuts

1970 [Ardent, 1996]
"Sugar Sugar/I Got the Feelin'" Choice Cuts

Set [Bar/None, 2000] Dud

Ocean Club '77 [Norton, 2015]
Chilton's 1977 NYC residency fell apart before the year was over, but it began on a high--the young punk/alt godfather gigging amongst us, nowhere more mythically than at his February 21-22 engagement at Mickey Ruskin's short-lived, way-downtown successor to Max's Kansas City. I attended the first of these shows, and it was incandescent--jammed, noisy, charged with ambient adrenaline. Even a quality recording like this one can't capture such an up, but you can definitely hear a more raucous, confident, and engaged Chilton than was his quirky norm. The 16-song set leads with the brand new "All of the Time," includes five loud Big Star covers plus a rough-hewn reading of the Box Tops smash "The Letter," introduces Chilton's great nonhit "My Rival," and covers the Ventures, the Beach Boys, the Seeds, and Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Cult history is being made. Of course we were psyched. A-

From Memphis to New Orleans [Bar/None, 2019]
A cranky and eclectic guy of limited stick-to-itiveness, the teen Box Top and ironic Big Star's signature format as a solo artist was the EP. His great album post-Big Star, mostly recorded after he left his native Memphis for New Orleans in 1982, is the 19-track 1991 Rhino compilation 19 Years, dominated by but hardly limited to obsessive, off-kilter, achingly fragile sex/love songs with titles like "Kanga Roo," "Bangkok," and "Holocaust." Yet 28 years later Bar/None's alt-pop major domo Glenn Morrow has assembled a terrific 15-track comp that duplicates only five of Rhino's, none of which you'll mind hearing twice--in particular the supernally sardonic 1986 AIDS song "No Sex" and the supernally tender 1987 love/sex song "A Thing for You." Morrow highlights the pop polymath who loved Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," Skeeter Davis's "Let Me Get Close to You," and Ronny & the Daytonas' "GTO." But he's also proud to preserve for CD posterity the lifelong radical's "Guantanamerika" ("Breathing in the mist of the crop duster/Gazing at the stars that have lost their luster") and "Underclass" ("I oughta go to work but I'm not gonna do it"). A-

Songs From Robin Hood Lane [Bar/None, 2019]
With jazz piano sunk deep in his raising, Chilton was a Chet Baker fan by age seven, but he never did pop standards truer than by his guitar-strumming self on 1992's long-lost Clichés--certainly not with jazz-lite combos dominated by a David Bowie saxman ("My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Let's Get Lost") *