Word is out today that Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of the Box Tops, and one of the guiding forces behind the awesome Big Star has passed away.
Chilton first became prominent as the voice behind “The Letter,” the great Box Tops song from 1967 with which Joe Cocker later had a big hit. Despite the hits with the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby,” “Neon Rainbow”), it was his tenure in Big Star, and the pop perfection that they released, that immortalized Chilton. Despite the fact that Big Star never became even moderately well-known, their influence as one of the original, seminal power pop bands of the 1970s stretches wide and far. Much like the Velvet Underground, the reverberations created by Big Star are still being heard today. R.E.M. and Wilco owe a huge debt to Big Star, and Chilton acolytes run the gamut from their #1 fanboy Paul Westerberg (who wrote the great Replacements song “Alex Chilton“) to Brendan Benson. In fact, the entire school of power pop owes a debt of thanks to Big Star.
Them Crooked VulturesThem Crooked Vultures. What goes around comes around, and we seem to be going back to the era of the “supergroup,” the preposterously named aggregation of stars from various bands pitching together to create a new project. Not since the days of Cream and Blind Faith have the airwaves seen so many of these combos. It was kicked off by a combination of Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine (Audioslave), furthered by the Guns/Pilots/Nails combo of Velvet Revolver, and brought to an art form by Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather). The most recent salvo is this combination of Queens Of The Stone Age, Nirvana/Foo Fighters, and Led Zeppelin. Them Crooked Vultures had a lot of buzz around them last year after an appearance at Austin’s South By Southwest festival and hopes were high for the debut album. Unfortunately, the album itself rarely rises to the hype. For starters, drummer Dave Grohl is particularly understated throughout, and while bassist John Paul Jones does his usual exemplary bass and keyboard work, he is all too frequently buried under the guitar onslaught of Josh Homme. Considering the star power of Grohl and Jones (the two most well-known members of the group), Them Crooked Vultures sounds a lot like a good record by Queens Of The Stone Age. Homme is unquestionably the dominant force here and the record has the good parts and the weak parts of any QOTSA album. There are some great riff rockers, like the four-song combination that opens the album: “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I,” the fantastic “Mind Eraser” and “New Fang,” and “Dead End Friends.” The brilliantly-titled “Caligulove” is a ferocious rocker, and “Gunman” rides a Tyrannosaurus-sized riff straight into your brain. But there are also plodding, dull riff rockers like “Elephants,” and meandering psychedelic mood pieces like “Interlude With Ludes.” Most of the rest resides somewhere between these two extremes: they’re good, but not great and not particularly memorable. The songs that work best are the ones that have melodies to go with the riffs, and unfortunately nearly half of the album lacks anything approaching memorable melodies. Grade: B-
SailorThe Steve Miller Band. Several years before he was joking, smoking, and midnight toking, and making AM radio safe for smooth guitar rock, Steve Miller was one of the best and brightest stars to emerge from the San Francisco rock scene. Some of the early Steve Miller songs have survived, most notably “Living In The U.S.A.” and “Space Cowboy,” but the early albums are well worth hearing in their entirety. They are the best work of Miller’s long career. While Sailor doesn’t quite rise to the level of the album that followed it (Brave New World), it’s still a wonderful album. The opening “Song For Our Ancestors” is the only drag on the album: a five-minute instrumental that is comprised of the sounds of foghorns and a mournful organ sound. And yet…it works. While it doesn’t stand on its own as a song, it provides a nice mood setting for the album that follows, especially the gorgeous “Dear Mary” with it’s sleepy rhythm, plaintive vocal and low trumpets trilling in the back of the mix. But Miller at this point was not the pop rocker he became. “My Friend” is a terrific mid-tempo rocker, and signifies the beginning of when this album starts to pick up speed. The classic “Living In The U.S.A” revs the engine faster before Miller steps back with “Quicksilver Girl.” The country-tinged blues “Lucky Man,” and the Jimmy Reed cover “You’re So Fine” bring Miller back to his blues roots. While the cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster Of Love” is almost a throwaway, breaking down into laughter and incoherence less than a minute and a half into the song, it remains a Miller classic (largely due to the line in the huge hit “The Joker”: “Some call me the gangster of love.”) The album ends with a couple of Boz Scaggs-penned rockers, “Overdrive” and “Dime-A-Dance Romance,” and despite the fact that the opening and closing numbers of the album could not be more dissimilar, the album represents a coherent vision from start to finish. I love Steve Miller’s 1970s hits, but for me the real Steve Miller Band classics came out of the late Sixties. This album is one of them and deserves to be known for more than “Living In the U.S.A” and “Gangster Of Love.” Grade: A
Psychedelic LollipopThe Blues Magoos. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid full-length LPs from one-hit wonders. Especially one-hit wonders from the garage rock/psychedelic Sixties. The Music Machine’s Turn On is a case in point: a brilliant single and a decent album with several filler songs. So it’s a relief to say that the Blues Magoos’ Psychedelic Lollipop is a rough gem of an album. The kickoff of “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet” is a hard act to follow; the song is rightly considered a garage rock classic. Somewhat surprisingly, the rest of the album sounds fresh. There isn’t a lot of original songwriting on the album, but the covers have been worked over enough so that they bear the stamp of the band. In this sense, it’s akin to The Who Sing My Generation (though not as good). “Tobacco Road” becomes an intense freakout, “Queen Of My Nights” is a really solid ballad, the band does a ? And the Mysterians-style take on James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy,” and the version of “Worried Life Blues” sounds like a cross between a great bar band and The Doors. Best of all are “Gotta Get Away” and “She’s Coming Home” which are as good as “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call the album a lost classic, but it’s definitely a work of a much higher order than what most of their garage band peers were turning out: cohesive, well-played, well-sung, and consistent. Grade: B+