In the early to mid-'70s, when longhaired boogie bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd established themselves as the official emissaries of Southern rock, a few little-known bands were playing completely different angles -- slightly skewed pop-rock derived from the mid-'60s tradition of the Beatles and the Byrds. The most significant of these was Big Star, a Memphis band that recorded three commercially neglected but seminal albums before leader Alex Chilton -- who at 15 had sung the Box Tops' No. 1 hit "The Letter" -- moved on to an increasingly eccentric solo career.
The Sneakers, a subsequent Winston-Salem, N.C., outfit, recorded only one EP, but guitarist Chris Stamey and drummer Will Rigby went on to back up Chilton and then form the dB's, while extra guitarist Mitch Easter and engineer Don Dixon became prominent as producers and, later, as performers. Today there's a new generation of Southern folk-rockers, including such well-known bands as R.E.M., but Chilton, Stamey and Dixon remain active and influential.
Alex Chilton: 'High Priest'
After Big Star split, Chilton moved to New York, where he gradually abandoned his Merseybeat models for tougher, raunchier rhythm and blues. As his reputation for self-destructiveness increased, the author of a score of underground classics (including "September Gurls," which finally reached a wider audience when it appeared on the Bangles' "Different Light" last year) began to unearth unlikely nuggets of R&B, only occasionally writing his own material. After releasing the ramshackle "Like Flies on Sherbert" in 1979, Chilton stopped making music altogether, bottoming out with a period of menial labor and heavy drinking in New Orleans.
"High Priest" (Bigtime 6047-1-B), Chilton's first full-length studio album since his 1985 comeback, sounds like a sober version of "Sherbert" -- which is not altogether a good thing. Though his love of these obscure oldies (only three of the album's 12 songs are originals) comes through, the performances are overly deadpan and Chilton's voice sometimes sounds too thin for his new blues-man persona. On stage, where he mixes this kind of material with songs from his Box Tops and Big Star days, the effect is charming, as he will no doubt demonstrate when he appears with Stamey tomorrow at the 9:30 club. He's yet to capture a similar mood of informality and spontaneity on record, however.
Of the originals, none has the kick of the wry real-life laments -- "Lost My Job," "Underclass" and "No Sex," his AIDS-era reply to Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" -- featured on his two postcomeback EPs. Still, "Dalai Lama," a bit of goofball orientalism reminiscent of Chilton's 1978 single "Bangkok," is lots of fun, as are his affectionate renditions of "Let Me Get Close to You" and "Make a Little Love." As for his curious Italian-language version of "Volare'" -- well, just because Chilton is dried out doesn't mean he's straightened up.
Chris Stamey: 'It's Alright'
The dB's, who've become more conventional since Stamey left in 1982, were rooted in mid-'60s pop-rock, but Stamey's horizons were always wider than that. His post-dB's solo records have been experimental and often arch, and he's worked with such left-field Manhattan art bands as Mofungo and the Golden Palominos. "It's Alright" (Coyote/A&M SP 6-5180) is his most mainstream solo effort, but that doesn't mean the mainstream will appreciate it. "It's Alright" is pop with brains, and probably overeducated for Q107.
A few of these songs, notably the hooky opening tune "Cara Lee," would sound appropriate -- and great -- on the Top 40 airwaves, but tracks such as "It's Alright" and "If You Hear My Voice" are elaborate studio chamber pieces in the spirit of the best of the late-'60s Beatles and Beach Boys. Though most are restrained if not outright downbeat -- lost or at least temporarily misplaced love is Stamey's principal theme -- their artfully layered arrangements shimmer joyfully.
The record employs such well-known musicians as Easter and Golden Palominos leader Anton Fier (both of whom also appear on Dixon's new album) as well as Chilton and ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, but their contributions are never showy or inessential. Stamey, who produced most of the record himself, is in complete control. His fastidiousness, though central to the record's success, also keeps it in check: Much of the record is gorgeous, but only a few songs soar as freely as his best dB's songs did. Faced with a record as brilliantly realized as "It's Alright," however, that seems a mere quibble.
Don Dixon: 'Romeo at Juilliard'
Along with sometime partner Easter, Dixon has managed to turn North Carolina into a new-rock production center. Among his credits are R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, the Smithereens and prote'ge' Marti Jones, with whom he will appear at the 9:30 club on Monday.
Despite this neo-folk-rock re'sume', Dixon fancies himself something of a soul man. The best known song from his previous solo disc, "Praying Mantis," used a sexual-predation metaphor that would never have occurred to Motown, but its tune was a dogeared page from the Temptations songbook. "Million Angels Sigh" and "Swallowing Pride," the most fetching melodies on Dixon's new "Romeo at Juilliard" (Enigma ST-73243), are in the same tradition, if not quite so derivative.
His gruff voice adds authenticity to songs such as the Bob Seger-ish "Romeo," but Dixon is fundamentally a technocrat -- for him, grit is just a production technique. The way he spins a concept out of the album title's essentially meaningless pun (he even includes "Cool" from "West Side Story," the modern-day "Romeo and Juliet") is telling: Dixon knows a lot about pop, but he still doesn't have anything to say. "Romeo at Juilliard" is an impeccably crafted record, but it just proves that Dixon's true calling is getting other people's visions on vinyl, because he doesn't really have one of his own.