As the end of January approaches, three reissues have spent more time on my iTunes than normal. First is a holdover from last year: Roy Wood’s Music Book, a hand-selected stroll through his bewildering backpages, so frustratingly close to being a definitive overview that its shortcoming are all the more maddening. Sure, it certainly seems that licensing restrictions have kept him from including full-fledged Move recordings but did he really have to favor Status Quo’s leaden cover of “I Can Hear The Grass Grow” over his own? Well, yes, he did: he’s not so attached to the past that he needs to own it, he prefers the fractures and refractions apparent in these covers. Apart from underscoring the inherent oddness in Wood’s taste, they don’t say much about the artist, nor do they provide a good context, they merely illustrate how difficult Roy is to love because he’ll never give you everything you want. But he comes close: Music Book has more of his best in two-discs than most previous comps, so that makes it a representative overview even if it’s hard to call it a great introduction.
Alex Chilton also never was easy to love. Unlike Wood, who just seemed oblivious of his audience, Chilton cultivated a clear disdain for some of his fans, particularly the ones who placed Big Star above any of his other work. Free Again: the “1970” Sessions comes from a time where he was unencumbered by his cult, when he was just hungry to strike out on his own. Breaking free of the Box Tops in secret, he started to find his sea legs at the nascent Ardent Studios, indulging his love of British Invasion, hard R&B, delicate folk and ugly rock & roll as he was developing his own distinctive voice. At its prettiest, this points the way to Big Star but as a whole, it appears as the catalyst for what he did after Third, when he was happier with mess than perfection, spent more time singing soul than pop. All this makes it historically interesting but Free Again is special because the music still crackles with vitality. Chilton is free to follow his muse wherever it takes him and this music retains the excitement of discovery.
Unlike either Roy Wood or Alex Chilton, Dick Curless never seemed conscious of his artistry. More than Johnny Cash, who was his only peer in intimidating baritone physicality, Curless just seemed to <I>exist</I>, singing songs about the perils of the road because that is what he lived. Naturally, this is something of a myth: Curless drove trucks in the Korean war, long before he started singing professionally, but his casual virility lent gravitas to his songs of traveling, suggesting that he absorbed every travail in his tunes. That assurance was part of his appeal but another wonderful thing about Curless’ recordings is that because he never was a truly big star, he adapted to his times out of necessity—if he didn’t, the contracts may have dried up. So, he’d touch upon the cinematic sweep of late ‘60s progressive country and would get down and dirty, even sleazy, in the ‘70s, singing about jukeboxes and strippers. Most of this is on Omni’s new greatly expanded reissue of 1968’s The Long Lonesome Road, the first CD that wasn’t a big Bear Family box since Razor & Tie’s 1998 hits disc Drag Em Off The Interstate. There’s overlap between the two titles but many of these songs haven’t shown up on CD outside those Bear Family boxes so this disc offers an embarrassment of truck driving country: richer than Red Simpson, who hewed a little closely to the Bakersfield borders, this is varied, funny and resonant, some of the best (relatively) obscure country of the ‘60s and ‘70s.