Free Again

Alex Chilton (at right) with Big Star.

Alex Chilton’s enduring popularity stems almost as much from his stature as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel as it does from his musical talent.  Chilton was commercially successful at a young age as the lead singer for the blue-eyed soul group the Box Tops; he was only 16 when “The Letter” hit #1 on the pop charts.  As the story goes, Chilton was chained creatively at American Studios by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, songwriters and musicians primarily known for churning out gritty southern soul work with the likes of James Carr and Aretha Franklin.  Not content to provide vocals and guitar to the compositions of others and live at the mercy of market success, Chilton eventually broke free from his artistic captivity and took a hard left musically, incorporating the British pop sound into his more soul-oriented style and going on to gain hip credentials by forming a band — Big Star — that was not very popular during its time but eventually inspired a large number of rock groups with its combination of rock force and gently harmonized lyrics.

The music on Free Again: The 1970 Sessions was recorded by Chilton secretly at Ardent Studios in Memphis (where Big Star later recorded) while Chilton was still under contract with Moman at American Studios.  It could not be released until his original contract expired (in 1996).  Recently re-released as Free Again, this collection shows why Chilton’s legend endures: more than a rebel, he was also a versatile songwriter, capable of singing with remarkable sensitivity or extreme aggression, of playing country-tinged ballads, funky numbers, or driving, melodic guitar pop. He goofed around with big hits and classics when he covered them, but balanced his irreverence with an enthusiastic appreciation of all forms of pop.

The 1970 Sessions show signs that Chilton was thoroughly enjoying the autonomy that his secret recordings provided him.  On “Free Again,” Chilton sings, “Free again, to do what I want again/ free again, to sing my songs again/ free again, to end my longing/ to be out on my own again.”  The song is supposedly about leaving a girl who couldn’t understand him, but the message of individuality and personal control over his artistic process is strong.  Later on “Every Day As We Grow Closer/Funky National,” Chilton emphasizes this theme again: “Travel a brand new highway/ doing things finally my way/ and now at last my life feels full/ every day seems brighter/ all of my dark seems lighter/ I see happiness when I look at the world.” He likes to do his own thing.

Free Again contains 13 songs, 2 demos, and 5 repeats that are recorded mono instead of stereo.  The 15 different songs can be roughly grouped according to style: country-ish tunes, pop, guitar heavy rock, and ballads.  The pop and ballads foreshadow Chilton’s early 70s work with Chris Bell in Big Star.  “Something Deep Inside” transitions between verses with a chord progression evoking Rubber Soul era Beatles; the piano-ditty demo “If You Would Marry Me” is more in the mode of another British invasion group, the Zombies.   Chilton’s lyrics are straight forward, and their charm stems from their direct honesty — “Something deep inside of me tells you to love me and will not stop.”  “The EMI Song (Smile For Me)” may be the most reminiscent of Big Star, balancing sweet lyrics of love with a thudding rhythm section (though pianos are more prominent than guitars, while Big Star’s albums were largely guitar oriented).

Chilton also flexed his guitar muscles in the Free Again sessions, either through raucous covers or volatile, fiery workouts.  His playing can be every bit as raw, loud, and loose – in the tradition of a garage rock group like The Sonics — as it is detailed and liquid on gentler songs like, “Something Deep Inside.”   “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” takes Keith Richards’ signature riff and drags it through the dirt.  Chilton plays the chords — skipping or improvising notes when he feels like it — like he’s wielding a battering ram, issuing rough screams and slurring his words like a drunken maniac.  “Sugar Sugar/ I Got The Feelin’” is another deconstructive (and destructive) cover where Chilton takes the #1 pop hit “Sugar Sugar,” pumps up and distorts it’s melody, fudges the last note, and howls the lyrics.   It’s passionate and boisterous rock and roll.

Just as Chilton can drawl and growl, he can communicate sorrow and melancholy with careful phrasings.  “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” is a mournful ballad, where Chilton is backed only with his acoustic guitar.  He lightly caresses the strings, but his voice gets the spotlight.  The heartbreaking chorus – “All we ever got from them was pain/ every time was us that got the blame/ they never gave a damn for us, never gave a hand to us/ all we ever got from them was pain” – is sung in harmony to give it additional poignancy.  Free At Last shows Chilton working in top form in a wide variety of genres.  Unfortunately, Chilton’s sense of individuality and his musical productivity were frequently at odds over the years.  But when they worked in conjunction, Chilton was a flexible, resourceful musician with a keen ear for enduring melodies.

[A longer version of this review appeared on Popmatters]

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