THE BOX TOPS: CRY LIKE A BABY (1968)
1) Cry Like A Baby; 2) Deep In Kentucky; 3) I'm The One For You; 4) Weeping Analeah; 5) Every Time; 6) Fields Of Clover; 7) Trouble With Sam; 8) Lost; 9) Good Morning Dear; 10) 727; 11) You Keep Me Hangin' On.
This is a rather typical example of the «sophomore» approach: a record that is intentionally (and also rather hastily) designed to follow up on the preceding success, formula-wise, and almost inevitably one small or one large notch below its predecessor, depending on the amount of talent and resources involved. Here, we have the same players (or the same «non-players»; I am not sure how much was left to session musicians this time around), the same focus on the lead singer, the same team of songwriters, the same styles, the same mechanisms to prolong the band's commercial success. So — minus the «freshness» of 1967. Any pluses?
No «special» pluses, but some good songs. The title track, written by the Dan Penn / Spooner Oldham team in a rather tense brainstorming session, was right on target and almost ended up returning The Box Tops to the top of the charts, stalling at #2; today, it is often considered a blue-eyed soul classic, and even veteran R&B artists like Arthur Alexander would later cover it with verve and admiration. It is undeniably catchy and has a fun electric sitar lead part, but the match between lyrics and melody does not seem to be nearly as perfect as in the case of ʽThe Letterʼ — its main chorus hook triggers the «happy» nerve with its resolution, whereas the words are undeniably tragic (and the song would sound even «happier» in Alexander's rendition; at least Chilton does everything in his power to impersonate a broken-down human being despite the melodic odds being so seriously against him). I do believe it would have worked much better if the «cry like a baby» chorus were to imply tears of joy and happiness rather than tears of loss and loneliness — but then, that might be the very reason why ʽCry Like A Babyʼ would ultimately be a tad less popular than the perfectly self-adequate ʽLetterʼ.
Then again, this raises the chances for the rest of the tracks — what with the quality gap between the lead single and everything else diminishing and all, I actually like the second track, Bill Davidson's ʽDeep In Kentuckyʼ, more than the first one: a subtly and eerily arranged folk-pop gem, thoughtfully stuffed with oboes, trumpets, chimes, electric pianos, strings, ghostly hushed backing vocals — far more complex, actually, than ʽCry Like A Babyʼ, and with all of its elements working in coordinated tandem to convey a general feeling of gloomy rejection. And the third one, ʽI'm The One For Youʼ, is one of those perfectly executed «consolation tunes» ("I'll come running to you", etc.), with a wonderful series of epic-tragic "no, no, no, no" flourishes winding up each chorus — unfortunately, the authors of the tune failed to fully capitalize on this «now I'm being so protective and chivalrous... and now I'm being so paranoid and desperate» mood shift, and ultimately the "no no no"'s do not go anywhere. Still, really good song.
Eventually, the tunes do begin to merge together, as it often happens with blue-eyed soul records, and the moods, chords, and bags-o'-tricks begin repeating themselves: there is even another «aeroplane song», ʽ727ʼ, clearly written by Penn and Oldham as a «sequel» to ʽThe Letterʼ, but this time a much fluffier and happier one. As a rule, they are pulled out, one by one, mainly through the charisma of Chilton's voice, but even that one only goes up to a certain limit.
So it is quite a shock when the band finishes its pleasant, but tiring program with a surprisingly heavy-rocking ʽYou Keep Me Hangin' Onʼ, adapted from the Vanilla Fudge version rather than the Supremes original. Chilton goes all-out Gargantuan on the track, and I'd say he pulls it off fairly well, but the key moment comes at the end — as the band braces itself for the frantic noisy coda, Alex drops off a single ad-libbed phrase, "and he walked on down the hall", which, perhaps, was not immediately understood by the recording supervisors, but in this context, worked like a sign of allegiance: they may be covering Vanilla Fudge all right, but Chilton's real heart lies with Jim Morrison, as would later be reconfirmed time and time again with Alex whenever he'd be in one of his dark periods, and this surreptitious quote from ʽThe Endʼ (confirmed moments later with a chaotic raga-like guitar solo which, too, sounds suspiciously influenced by ʽThe Endʼ) is one of these first quirky signs.
In any case, on the whole it's a good record, perhaps deserving of a slightly less enthusiastic thumbs up than the first one, but as you can see, at least there's enough going on here to hold detailed discussions on several of the songs — not every «sophomore effort» by a band that does not write its own songs has that kind of good luck. And don't you forget that Alex Chilton was still only 17 years old! (They told me that every mention of the Box Tops in a popular source has to have at least one reference to Alex Chilton's age, until he gets old enough to drink).