Growing up in Memphis back in '67, I used to get tired of hearing the Box Top's ‘The Letter’ (#1 hit in the world that year) on the radio every second because DJs felt obligated to reduntantly remind listeners that here, at last, was a hometown band that had hit the Big Time. (In The eyes of Nehru-clad visionaries, Memphis's Sun rockabilly and Stax soul – the untamed past – were irrelevant to the expectations for a bright Sgt. Pepper future.)
Fame's a brief candle though, and soon the Box Tops were inserted in the annals of anthropop history. That is, until '72 when their ex-vocalist Alex Chilton began making racket with Big Star, a name not meant as a cynical reference to the Box Tops' instant stardom but simply referring to Memphis' Big Star supermarket chain, where as a teen I used to buy Hit Parader (which printed the lyrics to all the Box Tops' hits).
Much has been written about Big Star's initial lack of success. True, #1 Record and Radio City are infectious pop LPs, but they're also rather uneven, their best moments on singles (i.e. ‘When My Baby's Beside Me’, ‘September Gurls’). As for Alex Chilton, his cultism is worth examining, not only because his recent works, the Singer Not The Song EP and ‘Bangkok’ 45, are well-crafted gems, but also because he's still out there fighting for fresh sounds (despite a disbanded Big Star, whose influence is heard in the music of Sneakers/Chris Stamey and Memphis Scruffs).
And it is Chilton that, after Big Star LPs became bulk items in cut-out bins, went back into the studio, undoubtedly depressed as hell, to record a third album, one that he often has called "strange." "I don't know how to connect it with the other two," Chilton has remarked of the album, which was cut a few years ago and has only recently seen the official light of day. "It's a totally weird thing."
Personal albums can be a real pain (e.g. John Lennon screaming for his mom on Plastic Ono Band or Pete Townshend accepting one note on Who Came First), but Chilton doesn't expose himself so openly; instead, he chooses to hide behind every quirk – untuned guitars and spastic cadences – letting each sound conceal his troubled psyche. Sometimes, as Chilton's persona takes over, Big Star's 3rd sounds like the record is actually warped – the needle, as it dips, eating into a groove and then, as it bounces up, skipping into space. The album even seems to begin at the wrong speed with ‘Stroke It Noel’, a sagging melody that suddenly bursts into the flowery ebullience of the Left Banke. Fortunately by the second cut (‘For You’), the speed accommodates warm sentiment smothered in baroque orchestration.
Produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, 3rd never becomes bogged down with Chilton's own bitterness. Each grey moment, like ‘Take Care’ (about the anguish of partings) that ends side one, is always followed by a colorful frolic like ‘Jesus Christ’, the glorious epiphany that begins side two. Most of the songs convey the serenity of solitude (esp. ‘Big Black Car’), evoking the lonesome moodiness of Alexander Spence's Oar (perhaps the quietest, but quirkiest, personal LP of all time).
But what causes Chilton's work to finally congeal is not introspection but exploration – a search outside himself for a musical structure that will contain all emotional flux. If that seems like a contrived analysis, then listen to ‘Holocaust’ on which an eerie synthesizer and a cello struggle to a dissonant death and a pianist, as silently as possible, diminishes a chord in the background while in the middle Chilton sings, "Your mother's dead...you're on your own...she's in bed." Next, play ‘Kanga Roo’ with its random drum swats, feedback, distortion, guitars strummed with clubs and fists, and listen to everything jump into place when Chilton grunts, "Doin' the..uh..cool jerk." Concluding this twisted LP is ‘Thank You Friends’, a humble bow to those, dedicated few who have shared an experience beyond the common rabble of techno-babble.
Since the LP's songs were in the compositional stage when finally recorded, Big Star's 3rd--or, rather, Alex Chilton's 1st--is a sloppy surprise quite difficult to approach. Chilton's genius was in allowing the songs to remain untouched, a decision that intentionally reflected his confused state. Because they tend to reveal little more than the artist's mushrooming ego, personal albums usually bore the hell out of me. But this one just happens to be a haphazard masterpiece.