Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Two new rarities albums show the songs Alex Chilton was in love with

Cover art for Songs From Robin Hood Lane

By the end of the 20th century, Alex Chilton—pop hit Box Tops singer, Big Star legend, Replacements inspiration—was finally becoming a cult hero in his own right. He had moved from his hometown of Memphis to New Orleans in 1982, pouring his heart out, alongside all of his other musical efforts, into a series of nostalgia-inspired recordings in the ’80s and ’90s: from covers of his beloved Chet Baker songs to ’60s-steeped tracks that don’t sound that far-removed from his Box Tops days. During these decades, before his death in 2010, Chilton not only toured with drummer Jody Stephens and a few members of The Posies as a revamped Big Star, he also showed up on stage in a separate tour as a makeshift Bobby Darin: short hair, shiny suit, cigarette in hand. Enraptured kids pleaded for a “Thank You Friends,” but Chilton stuck to the songs of his youth, going back to the life of a vocalist that kicked off his influential career.

Songs From Robin Hood Lane

Bar None Records
Grade: A-

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From Memphis To New Orleans

Bar None Records
Grade: B

That latter persona is captured on a pair of new releases from Bar None: From Memphis To New Orleans and Songs From Robin Hood Lane. In Robin Hood Lane, Chilton expands on the nostalgic side he hinted at with that cover of “Nature Boy” on Sister Lovers. In a different era, he might have been a Rat Pack performer, a nightclub singer wearing his heart on his well-cuffed sleeve, fervent emotions broadcast via the sweetest, sincerest vocals imaginable. His version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” with an acoustic guitar replacing the plinks of piano Nina Simone made famous, is a revelation, as is his fearless, melancholy take on Ray Charles’ version of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” Chilton urging, “Let’s get lost in each other’s arms,” is just a grown-up, cocktailed translation of “Won’t you let me walk you home from school,” from Big Star’s “Thirteen.” Lest we draw too many comparisons, Chilton pointedly ends the record with “What Was,” a plaintive plea to leave his storied past behind him: “Just remember to remember what was is just what was.” The success of Songs From Robin Hood Lane almost makes that seem possible.

From Memphis To New Orleans is a bit less successful but still fun. Chilton merrily covers favorites like “Little GTO” and “B-A-B-Y” (sounding very Box Tops-y), while writing from the perspective of his later years on new songs like “Underclass” (“People think that I’m a rich musician / But no, that isn’t my condition”) and releasing some Big Star-sounding guitar riffs. The overall effect is less cohesive than Robin Hood, but we still get to hear Chilton play with some ska in “Paradise” and adopt the swagger of a suave playboy in “Make A Little Love.” While From Memphis’ curios will mostly be of interest to die-hard Chilton and Big Star fans, Robin Hood Lane could actually win the underground icon some new followers.

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