Alex Chilton fronted the Box Tops but he never led them. He was a hired hand, picked for his preternaturally soulful voice but, like any red-blooded American teen, he soon bristled against the constraints on his freedom. Chips Moman and Dan Penn masterminded the Box Tops, rarely letting Chilton record his own material, so he did what any rebellious adolescent would do: he sneaked around, cutting material at the fledging Ardent Studios without the knowledge of American Studios, who owned the rights to Chilton's recordings. These contractual issues meant that the recordings Alex made at Ardent in 1969 with Terry Manning were still called "1970" when Ardent released them on CD in 1996 -- it was the year Chilton was released from his American contract -- but this tremendous 2012 reissue adds a more poetic title in Free Again. It's a title that accurately reflects Chilton's frame of mind: he was breaking free of the constraints of the Box Tops, finding his voice as a songwriter and musician, leaving behind the strict blue-eyed soul of his first band without quite ditching soul. He hasn't left behind the light, Baroque psychedelia that marked some of the latter-day Box Tops LPs, either -- there’s a distinctly British undercurrent to the sweeter pop tunes here -- but there are also hints of country and loose-limbed, dirty rock & roll, particularly in a wildly inventive cover of "Jumpin’ Jack Flash" that slows down the groove and turns Keith Richards' riff inside out. In that sense, the music on Free Again is just as much a bridge between the Box Tops and Big Star -- something that's quite clear on the more delicate moments here -- as it is an indication of what he would do after Big Star. Much of this points the way toward the willful, ornery vibe of Like Flies on Sherbert, or the casual R&B crooner of the '80s and beyond, but in 1969, Alex has yet to prize contrariness over craft: he is still writing with passion and, with Manning and the Ardent renegades figuring out just what they could do in the studio, this crackles with invention and spirit. Sure, it's messy, but Alex Chilton always was -- it's also some of his richest and best music, and it's never sounded better than it does on Free Again: The 1970 Sessions.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine