Songs from Robin Hood Lane feels like rediscovering a lost Chilton ‘80s album.
Alex Chilton’s post-Big Star career can seem like an exercise in alienation. The dogged pursuit of glorious, shambolic sloppiness on his early solo albums, unexpectedly made way for a pious R&B revival. Fans have long wondered why the mercurial artist stopped baring his soul the way he had in Big Star and instead chose to hide behind what seemed like ironic posturing and tongue-in-cheek covers. Yet, after he became a teenage star in the Box Tops, Chilton spent his career avoiding fame, making a career out of a series of contrary impulses guaranteed to skirt any threat of a conventional music business arc. His solo albums, whether punk-confrontational or twee-sentimental, are just as expressive and revelatory of Chilton as your favorite Big Star song. For Chilton, trying to do an old song justice was as legitimate an artistic pursuit as any.
With these two albums, Bar None attempts to revive this somewhat maligned part of Chilton’s career, which began with his divisive solo debut Like Flies on Sherbert (1979). From Memphis to New Orleans starts with Chilton’s 1985 EP Feudalist Tarts. Of these, by far the most charming is a cover of Willie Tee’s “Thank You John,” featuring a soulful vocal and infectious horn parts. No fear, though—the raunchier, less buttoned-up Chilton is not far behind, with the anthemic “No Sex” and a cover of Eve Darby’s “Take it Off,” the latter a showcase for some of his signature snarl on vocal and guitar.
Not all the material is gold—some cuts from 1987’s High Priest, despite the slick band, are not particularly inspired (sorry, “Dalai Lama”). Again, Chilton seems to have the most fun with the covers, bringing a Stones-like cocksure attitude to Jimmy Holiday and Mike Akopoff’s “Make a Little Love” and a power-pop flair to Buddy Emmons and Dan Penn’s “Nobody’s Fool.” And toward the end of the album, it was lovely to be reminded of the “Guantanamerika,” which features inspired satirical lyrics (“Breathing in the mist of the crop duster/ Gazing at the stars that have their luster”) and a loose, breezy feel. From Memphis to New Orleans is not especially cohesive—much like his solo career–but it’s a welcome overview of Chilton’s lesser-known 80s output.
With Chilton at his Chet Baker-adoring best, Songs from Robin Hood Lane is the real gem of the two releases. Some of the material overlaps with the hard-to-find “Medium Cool” project and the 1993 album Clichés, but more notably, several tracks are unreleased. Chilton sounds like he’s enjoying himself as much if not more than on the more rocking repertoire, really sinking his teeth into the Great American Songbook and trying to do it justice. In fact, he sounds emotionally invested, which is not something that seemed to come easy for him. The bare, unaccompanied acoustic takes of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Let’s Get Lost” and “All of You” are all terrific, with the real stand-out being the heartbreaking “What Was,” penned by Ken Wannberg and Stephen Lehner. (If you want to enjoy Chilton’s chops unadorned, head straight for his cover of Slide Hampton’s “Frame for the Blues.”) With a full band, Band highlights include tear-at-your-heartstrings takes on “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Like Someone in Love” and especially “Look for the Silver Lining,” with marvelous interplay between the saxophone and Chilton’s vocals.
Songs from Robin Hood Lane feels like rediscovering a lost Chilton ‘80s album. For an artist who so often worked against himself, to allow him to sound exactly how he wanted to is a touching tribute, one initiates and aficionados alike will not want to miss.