Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Alex Chilton: Like Flies on Sherbert (1980)
It's been opined often by various blowhards that Alex Chilton somehow wasted his talent. This he supposedly did despite living two complete lives in the pop hemisphere -- as atypically sincere teen idol then best-kept-secret pop savant -- before spending his last three decades making artistic choices that were wholly his own and frequently made no sense to others. In other words, aside from never achieving the comfortable wealth he deserved, he essentially did everything right, tried it their way and his way, and died a happy man. That this somehow translates to an abortion of promise simply indicates that most of us have no deep understanding of an artist's relationship to their own work.
Like Flies on Sherbert, technically but not strictly Chilton's first solo album (earlier material he'd made on his own ended up seeing release much later, in the '90s), is a good example of how little Chilton cared for adhering to the strict regimens others would have him observe, and how completely justified his own instincts usually were even (especially) at their most unorthodox. A singular, strange creation that often resembles a private joke or compulsive psychodrama more than an album of rock music, it follows along fairly neatly from the progression of the most crucial music Chilton had made early in the '70s. His three albums with Big Star are an amputation in three acts, with each successive record shedding a member and more possibility of absorption into any commercial marketplace. Though Chilton himself was never satisfied with Third, perhaps because it came from a tumultuous time in his life and undoubtedly in part because it was released without his consent, it's a fair bet that if you are attuned to the subtle beauty in the grooves of that now far more famous album, Like Flies is likely very much up your alley. It's the next logical step in that complete extended breakdown. (It's a whole album of "Downs," "Dream Lover" or "Kanga Roo" though perhaps without so much of their ethereal sweep.)
That's breakdown solely in a musical sense, because if anything Chilton sounds exuberantly cheery or at least bemused on this release. Everything about the record is sloppy, including the spelling of the title, the typeface on the front, its release history (multiple pressings with different track listings), and of course unquestionably the music. Songs are tracked complete with false starts and frequently keep going despite breakdowns in performance, missed cues and notes; often they're a complete shambles within a matter of seconds. Like Third before it, such flagrant disregard of Power Pop listener-friendliness was met with stern glares and finger-wagging from the rock crit establishment. A waste of talent! The worst album ever recorded! Unlistenable! One can only be reminded of the similar treatment once afforded the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, obviously one of the most deliriously beautiful albums in the rock canon. Chilton's album has a warmth not even found in the likes of Skip Spence's Oar, because it's a record that celebrates its own deficiencies -- it's a fuck-all, not a fuck-you, and its weirdness is blissful.
Let's dispense immediately with the idea that anyone could make music like this, that it's some DIY-aesthete misfire recorded by musicians who couldn't play. (Chilton's joined and produced here by Jim Dickinson, so let's not pretend to unprofessionalism.) In much the same way that only someone with a great and wide-ranging talent for drawing legitimately well can be a good cartoonist -- in the way that you must know how to do something well to do it truly off-the-cuff and badly, as opposed to incompetently -- Chilton pulls this recording off masterfully because he obviously has such considerable chops as a singer, writer and (especially evident here) guitarist. The record's accidents are deliberate; it's all a question of attitude, of performance style.
So what makes an exceptionally bizarre and challenging original like "Hook or Crook" or "My Rival" so compelling is that we don't only hear the Sister Lovers guy drunkenly losing his shit in real time, we hear the #1 Record architect of hook-perfect deep cuts, somewhere in there even the tender singer of "Soul Deep." Chilton's own songs here are relentless in their catchiness and could have been user-friendly classics with "proper" treatment, but he had no use for that notion of this material. He wanted to make it strange and sad and glorious, with wisps of devastating beauty amid what sounds like a session of noodling that falls only periodically and briefly into shape.
Chilton was probably conflicted about his life and career at this point, and you can hear this clearly in the unexpectedly magnificent "Hey! Little Child" -- a dirty-old-bluesman leering session at a Catholic schoolgirl that he somehow lends the most resigned, passionate vocal against a persistent non-riff that sounds both like a boorish regional garage-trash hit circa 1965 and like it burst out of the climax of "Marquee Moon." It's a mixture of Chilton's most and least ambitious ideas but it's all approached with the same brusque nonchalance. And this makes it powerful.
The primitive covers have the feel of private memory, dredged up simultaneously as jokes and as longing clasps at Chilton's most beloved music. The Carter Family's "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena" and Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas" get approached with unprofessional, irreverent sarcasm but also bottomless levels of enthusiasm and respect. Nowhere is this more evident than on the revision of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Shoes," already one of the greatest pop singles of the period and a record deeply admired by Chilton. But his own version is nearly as good for the opposite reason -- it almost fails to make any kind of melodic or rhythmic sense and is in the end a massive send-up doubling back on itself. In a sense it's more punk rock than any thrashy revision of some MOR hit; it destroys the song, but also uncovers the broken-down sublime underneath its disco sheen. (And Chilton can't help but duplicate the funky guitar solo with wryly surprising faithfulness.)
These deconstructions and original mutterings won't speak to everyone, but the more one falls in love with it the more hard it becomes to imagine not noticing its elegiac sweetness and comical impatience. Is it that he's too lazy to polish anything or that he's too interested in the next weird moment he's out to capture? Either way, one wonders what kind of rock & roll life we'd have without shambolic messes like this, and if that results in suspicion of anyone who'd doubt Chilton's sincerity or brilliance when confronted with this, perhaps that's well justified. If you hate Like Flies on Sherbert, you hate rock & roll and you are its enemy.
The album's startling clarity and elegance of vision peaks with its title cut, an upside-down doo wop that sounds unfinished, insane, completely falling apart, and to this listener as gloriously personal and beautiful and inexplicable as recorded music gets. It's a mass punk insult. It's an ugly, distorted mess. It hums and moans and makes an awful, cathartic racket. It is melodic and strange and terrifying. It is Alex Chilton. Sometimes I think it's the best song ever recorded.