“Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions”
As a teenager, Alex Chilton helped to deliver the No. 1 hit “The Letter” for the Box Tops in the late 1960s, supplying his age-defying, gruff vocals. In the early-to-mid ’70s, Chilton was the front man for the highly influential proto-guitar-power-pop band Big Star, whose first three albums—“#1 Record,” “Radio City” and “Third/Sister Lovers”—are nearly flawless and packed with unforgettable melodies. In the time period between Chilton’s participation with these two groups at the age of 19, he recorded the solo album “1970” at Ardent Studios, which was shelved until its first official release in 1996. The package at hand, entitled “Free Again: The ‘1970’ Sessions,” revisits the album with different song sequences and different sets of bonus tracks depending on the format: the CD includes eight extra tracks, five of which are previously unissued, while the vinyl release appends “All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain” to the end.
The album may catch Chilton fans off guard, opening with the catchy, easy-going country-rock, pedal-steel-enhanced “Free Again”—most notably, Chilton’s vocals sound nearly unrecognizable, as he affects a sort of meaty, Southern accent and tone. One of the CD’s bonus tracks is an alternate version with more identifiable singing from Chilton. Unsure of a direction at times, the album often falls back on bluesy licks, like on “Come on Honey,” but it also features the gentle, piano-focused rock of “The EMI Song (Smile for Me)” and the pop-oriented “The Happy Song.” All of these approaches presage Big Star’s fresh power-pop amalgams.
While most of Free Again isn’t quite as enduring as Big Star’s material, there are several notable highlights, including “Every Day As We Grow Closer,” the vulnerable, finger-picked-guitar-and-vocals track “All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain,” and, oddly, a messing-around-in-the-studio take of the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” oozing with sleazy abandon. Although uneven, “Free Again” is definitely recommended for Chilton fans, documenting a vital period of uncertainty when he’s working out his vocal identity and trying out genres.
Mouse on Mars
The German electronic outfit Mouse on Mars, featuring the core duo of founders Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, plus drummer/singer Dodo NKishi, has never been easy to pin down in its nearly two decades of existence, refusing to neatly settle into any particular electronic sub-genre, with a playfully restless, evolving sound. Although it bore early influence from IDM and ambient sources and the robotic electronic pioneering group Kraftwerk, Mouse on Mars differs from that group, along with many in the electronic realm, with a distinctly non-clinical style, often avoiding both uniformity and a strictly beat-driven slave-to-the-rhythm approach. A typical mid-to-late period Mouse on Mars track is chock full of ideas and strange sonic details, enclosed in a loose framework, delivered with a sly smile, yet never going too far into ironic, distanced self-indulgence.
The group’s tenth proper album, Parastrophics, is another palatable slice of the band’s madness; fans might not be blown away by it, but they’ll likely find a lot to love on it. Newcomers may rightly be confused by it, unable to bring to mind distinct precursors or points of comparison, but those who favor exploratory, fidgety excursions may be drawn to it. The nonsensical “Chordblocker, Cinnamon Toasted” uses odd digital textures with an oblique hip-hop method and references to breakfast cereal, conveying an abnormal charm. “Syncropticians” is a weird gathering of disparate elements, with effervescent, bubbling keyboard notes, severely warped vocals, and a sauntering, laid-back jazzy pace with finger snaps and peculiar beats. Mouse on Mars keeps the proceedings interesting for the album’s duration, and it saves two of its best numbers for the album’s closing. “Baku Hipster” is a take on a track originally by Mesak and Ya Tosiba (a.k.a. DJ Zuzu), with staccato, machine-gun sprays of syllables paired with beats and a locomotive propulsion, and “Seaqz” is a chaotic mesh of frantic video game scrambling, like an out-of-control wind-up robot grinning while spitting sparks.