Review Summary: A pratfall into beauty..
For all intents and purposes, between 1979 and 1984, Alex Chilton had all but disappeared from the public eye. After wrapping up Big Star’s tour behind Third
, he’d retreated back to Memphis and would spend the next few years playing around in cover bands and rarely venturing out of his home state. It was in the middle of that professional recession that Like Flies on Sherbert
came to be, threaded together in ’79 and put out a year later.
There’s a sense of artful detachment running through most of Sherbert
. False starts, instrumental lapses, wonky tuning, and odd vocal tics that are usually tightened up or struck out on repeated takes are all left on record. At the time of release, it was mostly dismissed as a lazily-strung collection of studio toss-offs, thrown together in slapdash fashion and casually thrown out into the ether.
But for all its erratum implications, at the very least, Sherbert
carries the appeal of a prolific and nuanced musician laying his process bare. Unfiltered though it may be, the album retains scores of instants that had previously made Chilton’s stretches in the Box Tops and Big Star such taut exercises in power pop perfection. He coats KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” in strokes of early Costello-esque disco punk, gives Ernest Tubb’s honky-tonk Americana “Waltz Across Texas” the full-body treatment, and manages to preserve “Alligator Man’s” Cajun tilts while giving the song his distinctly elegant sheen.
As for the originals that make up the main volume of Sherbert
, they are as patently Chilton as they are fractured. “Girl After Girl,” “Hey! Little Child,” “Hook and Crook” and the title track all come together into that comely twist of sparkled pop and Memphis boogie-woogie that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
It’s easy enough to see why Sherbert
’s recording quality was maligned at the time of release. Punk aesthetics may have already began spilling over in the underground scene, but the recording industry itself was still a good decade away from properly embracing the budget-savvy marketing tacks of DIY. But whether intentional and foreseeing or otherwise, in contemporary retrospect, Sherbert
acts as a sort of preamble to the kind of slacker lo-fi that would colonize college radio by the time the 80’s were ready to roll over. Though it may and often does sound like a well-curated blunder, it’s difficult to listen to Sherbert
in hindsight without seeing primitive blueprints being laid out for indie strongholds like Camper Van Beethoven and Teenage Fanclub, and more recently the kind of zonked-out, feet-on-the-table songwriting Kurt Vile and Mac DeMarco are currently trading in.
And in the face of all realities, even if Chilton was recording Sherbert
at half-mast, he still musters more quirky oomph and grace off the cuff than the bulk of his former peers were doing at the time and an even bigger bulk of modern acts can prospect. What Sherbert
stands for is a record of an artist at a slight crossroads in his life and career, briefly stooping back to his roots, before pulling them back up again.