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Neon Rainbow - Box Tops

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Audio CD: 7 Dec 2009 / Label: Sony Music

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      05.03.2013 14:11
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      A bargain-priced summary of an often-overlooked US pop talent of the era

      THE BOX TOPS

      The Box Tops were formed in the Memphis area around 1966, fronted by 16-year-old Alex Chilton, renowned for a gravelly voice which evoked comparisons with our own Steve Winwood. Like several bands of the time, they resented being puppets of their songwriting and production teams which gave them hit singles (three in Britain, ten on their home patch, all on this collection) but were reluctant to let them write or play on their records, and they disbanded in 1970. They have reformed sporadically since then, while Chilton had a critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful career as a soloist and with cult band Big Star, before succumbing to a heart attack in 2010.

      THE MUSIC

      Their 1967 debut 'The Letter' was easily their biggest hit, a US No. 1 and No. 5 in the UK. Barely two minutes long, it's a catchy number with dark strings, brass and organ, all topped off by Chilton's gritty vocal cords - remarkable to think he was still in his teens at the time - and ending in a whoosh of sound effects as befitting the subject matter of the lyrics - 'Give me a ticket for an aeroplane, etc.' It still evokes the summer of 1967 for me in a way as much as any other major single of that era. A more soul-funk version was a minor hit for Joe Cocker three years later, but this has to be the definitive one.

      'Neon Rainbow', the follow-up US Top 30 hit, is slower and more soulful. Although it's one of their more critically respected works, it's never really appealed to me. This might be the place to note that most of their songs were heavy on the organ, brass, bass and drums - but with rarely a guitar to be heard. But 'Happy Times' is an improvement, with a single sustained organ chord developing into a brisk tune with shades of Tamla Motown at its earliest, most uncomplicated.

      'Cry Like A Baby' (No. 15 UK, No. 2 US), their second finest moment, is another pop classic - or not far removed from same. I've always loved the quavering organ intro, guitar/sitar, call-and-respond backing vocals, and a section near the end where everything stops for a moment except for the bass, joined after a few seconds by the organ, and then the brass and vocals come in full tilt.

      'Fields Of Clover' follows in similar vein, and with shades of Motown again it would have made a good single in its own right. Instead it was the B-side of 'Choo Choo Train', which is slower and has some nice moments in the good brass licks and touches of bluesy guitar, but isn't such a strong song.

      'She Shot A Hole In My Soul' could again almost be a Motown number, and I can imagine the Temptations or Marvin Gaye having done this one. 'People Gonna Talk' is another song which takes a few listens to make the full impact, with harmonica adding some colour.

      'I Met Her In Church' opens with some brisk piano that reminded me of much of what Joe Cocker was doing in those early days. A mid-tempo gospel sound, with plenty of 'Alleluia' backing vocals, the tempo slows down after about a minute, letting the organ and a countryish guitar take over behind the vocals before it returns to the gospel tempo - all within less than three minutes.

      'Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March' is a cherry little bubblegum number with - appropriately - something of a martial beat. Although a single in America, I can't imagine it having been played much on the radio there, especially if the powers that be listened to the lyrics and realised that the ladies being sung about were obviously those who plied their trade on the streets by night in the red light areas: 'Sweet cream ladies, do your part, Think of what you're giving - To the lost and lonely people of the night - Out of need, they seek direction for their life - They will love you in the darkness, take advantage of your starkness, And refuse to recognize you in the light.'

      'Together' and 'I Must Be The Devil' are both written by Chilton, who was proving even then that he could develop as a songwriter as well as vocalist. Both are fairly slow, moody numbers, the former characterised by plenty of brass, the latter a bluesy tune which sounds as though it could have been ideal for Ray Charles or someone of that ilk. The gentle jazzy piano and guitar solo are superb, and to be honest these songs do sound rather out of character with the rest of the album. They also suggest why the group did not last very long - sheer frustration at not being able to do their own thing, I imagine, rather like their more famous contemporaries The Monkees.

      I can't raise much enthusiasm for 'I Shall Be Released', another minor US hit, which has always been for me one of Dylan's less interesting songs. Like similar versions from the Tremeloes (the only act to have a British Top 30 hit with it) and Marmalade, it's pleasant enough but little more than that. But 'The Happy Song' is a definite improvement, living up to its title with a country feel. 'I See Only Sunshine' is definitely further into the mellow soul market. It's not just the title which makes me think of Stevie Wonder's 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life', though this one came first.

      'Soul Deep' was the final major hit (1969, No. 22 UK, No. 13 US, and Top 10 in Australia - I hope you're taking notes here). This has always been a favourite of mine, with that infectious chorus. It was also a minor hit for Gary U.S. Bonds in 1982 when Bruce Springsteen was giving his recording career a new lease of life as producer and backing vocalist.

      Their last two minor hits in America were 'Turn On A Dream', and 'You Keep Tightening Up On Me'. Both are enjoyable though the latter is superior, with a stronger chorus, and a reprise of that guitar-sitar and organ sound that served them well before. Sadly the group were running out of steam by then.

      PACKAGING

      A three-way foldout with brief history of the band, pics for and notes on each member, and full track listing. As it's only a budget price CD, don't expect too much - but it does the job.

      Note - this collection was originally released as 'Soul Deep' in 1999. 'Neon Rainbow' is basically the same package (identical track listing and very similar design), under a different name after the song was used in a TalkTalk advert, issued in 2009.

      FINALLY

      Basically, they were a blue-eyed soul band, with tinges of psychedelia. If you remember or have come across their English contemporaries Simon Dupree & The Big Sound ('Kites'), or the Love Affair ('Everlasting Love'), the Box Tops aren't that dissimilar. I bought it really because I liked the singles, but after a few listens I find most of the other tracks growing on me as well. While there are a few less than interesting selections, the good outweigh the indifferent, and some of it is superb. At budget price it certainly gets my recommendation.


      [Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]

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