Liner Note Author: Keith Glass.
One can consider the recording career of the Box Tops in two ways: as an example of Memphis' contribution to pop record making in the '60s, as producer Dan Penn and a crew of talented musicians and songwriters turned a handful of high school kids into consistent hitmakers; or as the juvenilia of Alex Chilton, where the great skewed pop genius learned the ropes before gloriously upending expectations with Big Star. An examination of the Box Tops' body of work helps this debate, and Australia's Raven Records have offered a concise but comprehensive overview of the group's recordings with The Original Albums 1967-1969, a two-CD set which includes in full the four albums the Box Tops recorded during their original run: The Letter/Neon Rainbow (1967), Cry Like a Baby (1968), Non Stop (1968), and Dimensions (1969). Listening to this music, the former perspective carries more weight; it's common knowledge that Penn had studio players do most of the work on these albums, and Chilton was the only member of the Box Tops who appeared on every track. In hindsight, it's clear that Chilton, who was 16 when he recorded "The Letter," was still studying the finer points of singing when they knocked out The Letter/Neon Rainbow (using a studied rasp markedly different than the higher, clearer register of his later work), and while the album sounds like it was thrown together quickly to cash in on the single, "I Pray for Rain" and "I'm Your Puppet" prove Chilton was a fast learner. Cry Like a Baby is a more confident effort, as Penn refined his studio formula and Chilton learned a few more tricks, but despite the presence of a few obscure Mickey Newbury compositions, the material isn't especially memorable. By the time of Non Stop, Penn seemed to have given up any pretense that a proper band was recording these albums, but his fusion of pop and soul was at its best here, and the song selection is satisfying (and includes Chilton's first songwriting credit, "I Can Dig It"). Dan Penn bailed on the Box Tops by the time they cut Dimensions; Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill oversaw the sessions, and with three Chilton compositions and the mildly daring "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March," it seemed like an effort to make the Box Tops into a hipper commodity, though the nine-minute workout on "Rock Me Baby" was a bad way to close out the set. If this isn't absolutely everything the Box Tops recorded, it's close enough that only the most obsessive fans will need more from the group's golden era; in addition, the remastering sounds wonderful, Keith Glass' liner notes are fine, and seven non-LP sides have been tagged on as a bonus. If Alex Chilton wasn't a genius just yet when he made these albums, The Original Albums 1967-1969 makes it clear he learned a lot during those years, and the best stuff here is as good as Southern pop of the '60s gets. ~ Mark Deming