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Alex Chilton
Like Flies on Sherbert

Virtually ignored upon its limited-edition release in 1979 but subsequently hailed as a masterpiece by critics and altrockers alike, Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert has finally been reissued in pristine form, along with four bonus cuts, by the same tiny Memphis label that first unleashed it. And 20 years after the fact, Sherbert remains a disturbing, throttling, occasionally brilliant document of Chilton's mindset following the commercial failure of Big Star.

As "classic" albums go, Sherbert is vastly overrated: Throughout the set Chilton sounds ravaged by drugs and drink, singing like he couldn't give a good goddamn about what was being caught on tape by producer Jim Dickinson and splattering guitar across the songs with the kind of snot-rock abandon of the sloppiest punks. At times it's all too painful to hear; there's something voyeuristic about even listening to the thing as he stumbles through the Carter Family's "No More the Moon Shines on Lorena," turns "Waltz Across Texas" into an utter shambles of a country and western standard, and gurgles his way through "Girl After Girl" like a hapless, shitfaced rockabilly. And there's something disappointing in hearing the man who earlier in the decade penned such enduringly innovative power-pop gems as "September Gurls," "In the Street," and "Back of a Car" wasting his time on the trifling originals "Rock Hard" and "Hey! Little Girl." Hell, drummer Ross Johnson steals the album on the first cut, "Baron of Love Pt. II," on which he rants like a drunken Jerry Clower over a mangled blues riff.

You can hardly call it a classic, but the album is redeemed nonetheless by a few songs that rank among Chilton's best and represent his apparent last attempts at doing something different with his songwriting, expanding his artistry far beyond the listless covers that have comprised most of his post-Sherbert solo work. "Hook or Crook" is a crushing, savage thumper with a pained vocal, while the bonus track "Baby Doll" is a bent, battered homage to the great AM pop of the pre-Beatles rock era. It's the title cut, though, that fuses the devastated mood of Sister Lovers with the punk sensibility that Chilton had embraced at the time. Harnessing the chaotic energy of Sherbert's better moments, the song is a swirling mix of synthesized squiggles, furiously pounded piano, and Chilton's voice alternating between piercing wails and deep moans that are bone-chilling. What's he going on about? Hard to tell from the lyrics, but the effect is what he was aiming for with Like Flies on Sherbert. Sadly, as his sporadic later recordings have since revealed, it would be the last time he so accurately hit the mark.

-- John Floyd

Ron Sexsmith

Possessing what must be the drowsiest voice in contemporary pop, Ron Sexsmith is an acquired musical taste. A masterpiece of monotony, Sexsmith's vocals are so narcoleptic and tuneless, he could be arrested for Performing Under the Influence. It's a voice you either love or hate, and while critics uniformly tout Sexsmith's work, Joe Recordbuyer has been slow in discovering the Canadian singer-songwriter. This dichotomy is probably attributable to the fact that Sexsmith creates fashionably arty albums that border on the unlistenable. In other words, he makes music only critics could love.

All of that makes Sexsmith's latest album, Whereabouts, such a surprise. It is undoubtedly the singer's best record; an ambitious and uneven CD full of beguiling ballads and pleasant midtempo rockers. Credit is due producer Mitchell Froom, whose animated arrangements help offset Sexsmith's listless drawl. The record also benefits from snazzy guest performances by violinist Tracy Bonham, former Del Fuegos singer-songwriter Dan Zanes, and Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas.

But while Whereabouts is an improvement over Sexsmith's previous efforts, the new album is still only mildly entertaining, and this impotence is largely due to Sexsmith himself. Listening to otherwise engaging tracks such as "Still Time," "Right About Now," and "In a Flash" can make even the most patient listener want to slap some passion into the singer. Celebrated balladeers like James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt rocketed to the pop forefront on the strength of magical vocals. But where Taylor and Raitt croon and shout like suburban bluesbirds, Sexsmith never attempts anything wilder than a whimper. His mawkish performances greatly diminish the impact of his songs.

Yet despite his limited vocal capabilities, there's still something endearing about Sexsmith. His passiveness is an aesthetic badge; sure, he's unspectacular, but at least he's uniquely unspectacular, which is more than can be said for many alternapop sound-alikes.

And perhaps therein lies the explanation for Sexsmith's cult success. In this age of calculated wildness and irreverence, his namby-pambiness could be viewed as downright rebellious. Whereabouts is one of those albums that's easy to admire but hard to like. Sexsmith is pioneering a new brand of shock-rock -- shockingly monochromatic and startling in its very tepidness. Perhaps he should change his name to Droop Doggy Dogg.

-- Bruce Britt

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Bruce Britt
John Floyd