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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Box Tops: Non-Stop

THE BOX TOPS: NON-STOP (1968)

1) Choo Choo Train; 2) I'm Movin' On; 3) Sandman; 4) She Shot A Hole In My Soul; 5) People Gonna Talk; 6) I Met Her In Church; 7) Rock Me Baby; 8) Rollin' In My Sleep; 9) I Can Dig It; 10) Yesterday Where's My Mind; 11) If I Had Let You In.

Maybe this one was rushed out a little too quickly after Cry Like A Baby, because even repeated listens with an extra spoonful of attention do not do much in the way of excitement. Two things are immediately noticeable, neither of them auspicious — first, the Penn/Oldham partnership only contributes two songs, and second, there are way too many horns here, as if somebody were intentionally pulling The Box Tops away from their dabblings in the «baroque» and the «psyche­delic» and urging them to compete with the newly formed Blood, Sweat & Tears (or the not-yet-formed Chicago, in an act of artistic prevention).

I would not say that this latter move is completely wrong — sometimes the results are amusing, for instance, on their cover of Hank Snow's ʽI'm Movin' Onʼ. That one used to be a no-frills country song (which The Rolling Stones had already managed to transform into an ass-kickin' rhythm'n'blues killer machine in their early live shows), and here, too, it starts out all country-like, but then midway through the horns kick in, the bass zoops move closer to hard rock territory, the vocals disappear altogether, and we witness a smooth, natural-sounding transformation from quiet country to loud, anthemic, gritty R&B.

Unfortunately, surprises like these are fairly rare throughout the album. The same horns can sound pedestrian and formulaic just as often as they can sound useful and inspiring, and on the whole, it seems as if once again they were using Chilton here as their main attraction — on some of the songs, his voice is even more wild and gravelley than before, so much so that if I did not know how smooth and clean Tom Waits sounded in his early youth, I'd easily have mistaken Alex for a young Tom on his own ʽI Can Dig Itʼ and particularly on the dark folk ballad ʽYes­terday Where's My Mindʼ, written by Jon Reid and Bill Soden. For this song, the Box Tops earned numerous comparisons with the Doors that came one album too late — musically, this one is very much rooted in traditional Britfolk, which the Doors didn't play much, and is more in line with the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane; also, Chilton's vocal impersonation is much more «earthy» than Jim Morrison's not-of-this-world lizard-king promenades.

(Sidenote: for a really, really bizarre version of ʽYesterday Where's My Mindʼ, check out the recently uncovered Paint A Lady album by odd-folk singerine Susan Christie, shelved in 1970 and critically savored only around 2006. She doesn't necessarily do a better job than Chilton, but her tacked-on three-minute free-form introduction gotta rank as one of the most bizarre perfor­mances of its epoch).

None of these songs were considered for release as singles: instead, that honor fell to ʽChoo Choo Trainʼ, a fairly ordinary tune of longing for one's baby. Apparently, they were once again trying to recreate the «yearning / travel» theme of ʽThe Letterʼ, replacing the aeroplane with a more grounded form of transportation, but for some reason, decided to give the song a slightly «vulga­rized», pub-rock atmosphere. The trick did not work — the single charted much lower than ʽCry Like A Babyʼ, and then it all went further downhill when they tried to remedy the situation with ʽI Met Her In Churchʼ: not only was the title of the song probably not the most appropriate thing to capture the hearts of the single-buying market, but the song itself, though technically ambitious (with a little «mini-serenade» in the place of the instrumental break), brings them into the sphere of anthemic «gospel pop», in which sphere you usually get your ass kicked by the likes of Maha­lia Jackson unless you do something totally mad and unpredictable. In this case, though, Chilton just does not sound as if he's all that into it.

Throw on all sorts of stuff that is just plain boring — for instance, these guys have no business whatsoever covering ʽRock Me Babyʼ (nobody really has, not after Jimi), and ʽRollin' In My Sleepʼ actually puts me to sleep, despite being superficially pretty — and the lack of anything truly outstanding, and there remains little mystery about why this is indeed the beginning of the end. That said, Non-Stop is not a «bad» record: it is simply too self-conscious for its own good, trying way too hard to «do it right» by looking at what everybody else around is doing, comple­tely forgetting the need to cobble together its own face. In this, it is far from being alone, and it is still much better than a lot of the competition — the «Neanderthal model of Alex Chilton» alone is worth a couple visits. But probably not much more than a couple.

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