THE BOX TOPS: TEAR OFF! (1998)
1) Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll; 2) Wang Dang Doodle; 3) Ain't That A Lot Of Love; 4) It Tears Me Up; 5) Last Laugh; 6) Treat Her Right; 7) Soothe Me; 8) I'm In Love; 9) The Letter; 10) Trip To Bandstand; 11) Little Latin Lupe Lu; 12) Keep On Dancing; 13) Last Bouquet; 14) Big Bird.
I suppose that even fewer people are aware of this surprising Box Tops comeback than those that know about the Big Star comeback — then again, maybe not, since I really have no idea whether «old school power pop» still remains more popular among the knowledge-seeking youngsters today than «old school blue-eyed soul». Anyway, this particular comeback was actually quite a proper comeback, since it did reunite all the original band members from 1967, right down to the rhythm section (not that the rhythm section had much to play in 1967). The resulting album, however, was downright odd.
I mean, you could rightfully expect the guys to go nostalgic, but Tear Off! goes way beyond simple nostalgia — it plays out like a consciously assembled encyclopaedia of pop music forms in the pre-Sgt. Pepper era. Putting together a jumbo-combo of golden oldies, forgotten oldies, and some pseudo-originals, these Elderly Box Tops begin with stereotypical rockabilly (ʽFlying Saucers Rock'n'Rollʼ), continue with some rockin' Chicago blues (ʽWang Dang Doodleʼ), follow that up with gritty R&B (ʽAin't That A Lot Of Loveʼ), throw in some torch ballads (ʽIt Tears Me Upʼ), heat it up with some hard rock (ʽTreat Her Rightʼ), mix it with pop-soul (ʽSoothe Meʼ), spice it up with late Fifties' novelty-comedy stylistics (ʽTrip To Bandstandʼ), bring on a bit of twistey innocence (ʽKeep On Dancingʼ), remind us how country music used to sound when Hank Williams was king (ʽLast Bouquetʼ), and finally, end things with a loud, overdriven garage-rock jam (ʽBig Birdʼ) that seems to suggest — «yes, boys and girls, and then, eventually, the angry, crazy, distorted rock guitars took over and swallowed them all, and they all lived happily ever after in the satiated belly of the heavy rock guitar».
Oh, I forgot: in the middle of it all comes a re-recording of ʽThe Letterʼ, because otherwise, I guess, the record label wouldn't let them release the package. Come on now — what good is a Box Tops album in 1998 if it doesn't have ʽThe Letterʼ? It's like a Sgt. Pepper with no ʽYesterdayʼ on it!... oh, never mind. Anyway, this new version sounds almost like the original, except that Chilton's voice, retaining its gruffness, has lost much of its frailty and vulnerability, and that makes them sound like their own inferior tribute band.
Anyway, on the whole this is a totally harmless, perfectly fun, and completely useless record. Very cleanly and wholesomely produced, which is the only thing that betrays its date of origin (sort of like Clapton's From The Cradle), but little more than a respectable tribute to all those heroes of long ago — nobody is going to cherish this version of ʽWang Dang Doodleʼ over Howlin' Wolf or this version of ʽSoothe Meʼ over Sam Cooke. This is disappointing in that Chilton had gone a long, long way since the Box Tops last saw each other, and with their legacy that, after all, goes a little deeper than generic rockabilly and twist numbers, this may have been a more meaningful album. Instead, it's just like a gathering of old friends for old times' sake — stick around, have some drinks, play a couple songs we used to play when we were thirteen, except we do it like professionals now.
In the end, the lengthy ʽBig Birdʼ cover happens to be the only place where they seem like they're trying to do something — even if that something largely amounts to kicking up a ruckus, and is not very successful even as a ruckus (the exaggerated screaming is way too «acted»: all these "OH BIG BIRD!" and "TAKE THE BIG BIRD HOME!" and all the ooh-aahs seem sort of pointless). And everything else is just a nostalgic souvenir — and it's not even the kind of nostalgic souvenir you'd most likely expect from these former soulsters. But yeah, everything sounds kinda cool. If you were a directionless teen in 1998 and you saw this in a used bin and had your first acquaintance with ʽI'm In Loveʼ and ʽSoothe Meʼ by donating fifty cents, it would at least give you a fairly good understanding of the essence of Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett. Wouldn't let you understand too much about Alex Chilton, though.