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Previously Unreleased Tracks By Alex Chilton: Songs from Robin Hood Lane
(image) Album Reveals A Jazzer's Progress
When Alex Chilton reinvented himself in the 1980s, he mined cleaner sonic territory, playing tightly focused R&B, soul, country, blues and pop that he would stick with for the rest of his life. And even these genre studies hinted at his deeper understanding of music, littered as they were with jazz chord clusters played with reckless abandon. "The Thelonious Monk of rhythm guitar," as Tom Waits dubbed him. In live shows, he occasionally laid into an old chestnut like "Misty," and his records were sprinkled with gems like "Volare," "April in Paris," or the free jazz rave up of "Wild Kingdom." (For those who don't know Chilton's original 80s releases, the recent compilation From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar None) collects many of the highlights).

But until he released Clichés in 1993, his jazz chops were more implied than explicit, except for those who knew him well. Even Clichés, which featured him singing standards with his own sparse acoustic guitar accompaniment,  was a sleeper, being a uniquely restrained album for its day. Around that same time, he was the featured singer on three more standards, "Look for the Silver Lining," Like Someone in Love," and "That Old Feeling," recorded by the jazz ensemble Medium Cool for an even more obscure album, Imagination. Nowadays, both records are out of print.

So it's a relief to see material from both albums available once more, along with four previously unreleased full-band tracks, on Songs from Robin Hood Lane (Bar None). The title harks back to Chilton's childhood home in the Memphis suburb of Sherwood Forest, when the seven-year-old first became enamored with Chet Baker's voice. But the album also evokes a later period in the artist's life, when the Chiltons moved to a roomy old house in Midtown and hosted popular salons for artists and musicians.

"When I was ten, it was party time around my parents' house," Chilton recalls in the biography, A Man Called Destruction. "I remember countless nights of going to sleep with, like, sixteen jazz musicians playing downstairs." His father, a jazz pianist, had a record collection fully stocked with such artists as Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, and Dave Brubeck, and would demonstrate the theory and chords behind the music to his son. Though soon overshadowed in the public eye by the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops, the power pop of Big Star, and the deconstructive genre-busting of his later years, Chilton's love of jazz never faltered.

You might call the album North Montgomery Street, after those Midtown salons, but what matters most is the music. These tracks reveal a nuanced jazz singer, in the mellow, unaffected manner of his beloved Chet Baker, yet with Chilton's own personal stamp. The real magic is in the effortlessness of the phrasing, the clarity of his tone. Or perhaps it's the  effortlessness of his pitch, for the iconic melodies fit his voice like an old pair of gloves.

The album sequence skips among the two albums' cuts, with restrained band tracks flowing into Chilton's solo guitar work and back. One standout from Clichés is "My Baby Just Cares for Me," with its ever-tumbling bass line and lyrics delivered with aplomb. And while the songs originally released on Imagination were associated with Baker, the newly released tracks are nods to Ray Charles' version of "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" and Nancy Wilson' "Save Your Love for Me." In sum, it's some of the most heartfelt singing Chilton ever did, performed with his minimalist knack for understatement.
Memphis Magneto Recording Company Opens in Memphis

This week marks a watershed moment in the local studio scene: On Monday, the owners of the new Memphis Magnetic Recording Company discovered that their freshly renovated building on Vance Avenue, near Downtown, had passed inspection and was ready for business. It's news that many on the Memphis music scene have anticipated for some time. Producer/engineer Scott McEwen and studio designer Bob Suffolk have been working on the space for over a year and half, and, due to their past track records and known love of vintage gear, forging friendships and raising eyebrows all over town.

Suffolk, who's lived in Dallas for many years, plans on relocating to the Bluff City. "Our tracking room's huge. All the bands from Dallas — and we've got some great bands there — they just go to work in Nashville," Suffolk says. "I keep telling the bands, 'Stop driving through Memphis! Turn off, come see us. Stop driving to bloody Nashville!'" Indeed, the studio owners hope to add to the growing profile of Memphis as a recording destination in its own right, and their aesthetic fits right in with the existing, sometimes legendary facilities here.

"Our studio is brand-spanking new, although it's done in what I call a purpose-built vintage style," Suffolk says. "It's all analog, though it has ProTools if needed, and it's huge. It's a performance tracking room. And with a vocal booth and a lounge. We hope to help bring Memphis to life again, because there are so many great musicians here. And so far we've had a tremendous response from a lot of people in the city. Scott and I just stuck our necks out. When I first saw this raggedy old building on Vance, I thought 'Oh, dear.' It was built in 1927. It's been empty since 1954, and it was full of vagrants and all sorts of crap. It was nasty. We started from scratch. Self Tucker, the architects, have been helping us."

Walking into the space does feel like a step back into the past, and it's not just because of the decor. Over the past 20 years, McEwen has made a name for himself at his Nashville facility, Fry Pharmacy, where he's been amassing vintage gear and perfecting his analog recording chops. But, feeling the pinch of rising costs there, he's throwing in his lot with Memphis, a city that has loomed large in McEwen's imagination since the 1990s.

"I love Doug Easley's work. I used to live with Mark Ibold, the bass player for Pavement," he says. "So I was listening to the records Doug and Davis McCain were making, and I realized Sonic Youth and Jon Spencer and all these guys were going to Memphis. I loved Doug's work from afar. I feel like he put Memphis back on map, for my generation. So he was really important to me. I feel lucky to call him a friend."

Now McEwen hopes to bring his long list of clients, including J.D. McPherson, to Memphis with him. Like him, they tend to favor the indie/Americana side of things and have a taste for the richer sounds of analog and tube gear. He likes to point out that their primary board, a Sphere, "was the Grand Ole Opry's mixing board, in the 1970s." And Suffolk, for his part, harks back to the original glory days of analog studios, when the revolution on the horizon was not digital, but solid state electronics.

At 19, he was hired as the "tea boy" at London's Pye Recording Studios. "The first session I did was bringing in tea for the Kinks. I remember I walked into Studio 1 with a tray of tea, and they were tracking. Ray Davies was on the harpsichord, and he looked up and stopped, and all the people in the upper booth looked at me and motioned, 'Come up here.' And I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm such a bastard.' And to this day, I'm still the tea boy. Tea boy and studio design."

A lucky break gave him the chance to renovate London's famous Trident Studios in the 1980s, and from there he's worked on many such facilities. Now, as he and McEwen open up for business, they're looking to bring more of that big studio sound to Memphis — and tea as well.

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