The past few years have been good to fans of the Big Star orbit who collect vinyl, thanks to well-done LP reissues of all three of the band's albums and the posthumous, previously CD-only Chris Bell collection I Am the Cosmos. The trend continues in 2012 with the first vinyl issue of Alex Chilton's initial solo flight, previously issued in 1996 on an Ardent CD as 1970 but out of print for years.
As with that earlier CD, Free Again: The "1970" Sessions is a bit of a misleading title since these tracks were recorded in 1969, but that's beside the point. The songs were recorded for a projected solo album while Chilton was planning his escape from Memphis blue-eyed soul hit machine The Box Tops. According to the liner notes of the earlier CD release, the tapes were shopped around a bit and attracted some label interest, but never found a home before being abandoned after the genesis of Big Star. A similar fate befell another great late night Ardent Studios recording project/long-unreleased album by the group Rock City -- a band with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens that was sort of the de facto pre-Big Star outfit.
For this listener, "great" is also the operative term for the music on Free Again. I fell in love with the songs when the 1970 CD was released, and I still feel the same way all these years later. It's an invaluable document of Chilton seeking out his own voice after those teenage years being molded into a gruff-voiced R&B singer by Chips Moman's American Studios machine. Judging by the wide range of musical idioms from his lifetime's worth of other albums, the sort of genre hopping that takes place on these recordings shows he had a pretty good idea right from the start that he didn't want to be tied down to any one style. And in a classically Chilton irony, the 1996 release of these recordings would end up being one of the last albums of solo studio material to emerge before his untimely death in 2010.
Among the facets of Chilton's stylistic journeys on Free Again: gruff voiced, Box Tops-style R&B-flavored workouts ("I Can Dig It," "All I Really Want is Money"); gentle pop songs featuring his "Big Star" voice ("The EMI Song," "Every Day as We Grow Closer"); laid-back tunes that wouldn't be out of place on his New Orleans-era sessions ("Come on Honey" -- a recut of a Box Tops B-side); and the weird Sun pastiche/parody ("I Wish I Could Meet Elvis"). Compiler Alec Palao gets kudos for sequencing this varied material with a better flow than the old Ardent disc did, giving the album a finished feel rather than that of a collection of cast-off tracks.
In addition to being very entertaining music, Omnivore Recordings has created a great sounding LP as well. For those interested in such matters, it doesn't sound like too much remixing has been done from the 1996 CD, but there's one thing worth noting -- unless the headphone jack on my CD player is wired backwards, the channels are reversed!
There's also one previously unreleased song on the LP, "All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain," which falls in the Big Star-esque category.
Unfortunately, missing from the vinyl is the "Sugar Sugar"/"I Got the Feelin'" mash-up that closed the 1970 disc. The CD version of Free Again includes that track, as well as a number of mono mixes and two more previously unreleased songs. More problematic, the booklet featuring detailed liner notes that was included with the CD version is also missing. It would have been preferable that the LP package at least include a digital download of the bonus material, and it's a major oversight to simply exclude the liner notes from the vinyl version.
Despite those issues, though, it's a long overdue pleasure to finally see a well-sequenced version of these recordings on LP. Hey Omnivore, how about taking a crack at the Rock City album next ... and Cargoe? (Omnivore Recordings, 2012)