It might seem counterintuitive to move to New Orleans, a city where folks go to party hard, if you want to get sober and restart your life, but Alex Chilton was a guy who stubbornly did things his own way. After going from success to failure to dissolution in his birthplace of Memphis, Chilton pulled up stakes and settled in New Orleans in the early '80s. There, he put down the bottle, worked a variety of odd jobs as he took a long look at himself, and watched as he went from forgotten man to a cult hero as R.E.M. and the Replacements dropped his name and the Bangles covered "September Gurls." In 1985, Chilton returned to music, but he set aside the sound of his previous work in favor of a lean, stripped-down style that filtered the rolling R&B of his new hometown through scrappy guitar leads and a "first thought equals best thought" philosophy of record-making. More than a few fans of Chilton's masterful work with Big Star were thoroughly puzzled with such '80s comeback efforts as Feudalist Tarts and High Priest -- especially his emphasis on covers rather than original songs -- but in retrospect that music represented Chilton making a clean break from his past and finding a new avenue of creativity that championed spontaneity and living in the moment. Chilton's music of the '80s also gave him a platform for the sly wit that had previously lurked in the background of his music, and originals like "Lost My Job," "Underclass," and "No Sex" were funny but deeply cutting at the same time.
From Memphis to New Orleans compiles 15 tracks from Chilton's '80s releases, and it's a strong, entertaining summation of this sometimes misunderstood stage of his career. If this isn't a complete picture of that era, it does pull together most of the highlights from the EPs Feudalist Tarts (1985), No Sex (1986), and Blacklist (1989), as well as the album High Priest (1987), and the material is consistent enough in approach and production that it flows together very well. Chilton's angular and inventive guitar work is consistently the best thing about these tracks, as well as his playful, casually committed vocals; and while the backings are straightforward, the players give their performances a strong Southern personality and generate a groove that favors the material (especially drummer Doug Garrison). Given that most of this material has been out of print for some time, From Memphis to New Orleans is a very welcome release for Chilton fans, and it's an intelligently complied tribute to an artist in the midst of rediscovering himself.