Graded on a Curve: Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, Ben Vaughn, Cubist Blues

Star-studded collaborations have a tendency of failing to meet expectations, but in a positive twist that’s not the case with the union of Alan Vega, Alex Chilton, and Ben Vaughn. Blending twisted roots and lopsided retro-pop into a surprisingly agreeable result, it’s something of a head-scratcher this summit meeting of high-test Americana hasn’t found wider listenership. On December 4 Light in the Attic and Munster Records give the public a fresh chance, reissuing Cubist Blues on double vinyl and compact disc; both are accompanied by digital downloads, with the latter including a live show from Trans Musicales, France on Dec. 7th, 1996. Pick your format wisely.

Alongside Martin Rev, Alan Vega has secured lasting fame through his participation in Suicide, a duo comprising one of the finest examples of punk’s first wave. Helping to shape the non-commercial side of the New York City scene, Suicide’s breakout material is accurately assessed as a crucial early wrinkle in the upswing of electronic music while essentially thriving as a wily mixture of garage rock and Detroit proto-punk; the distillation was a potent and borderline threatening new beast.

Though it’s not immediately detectable, an element of classicism was threaded into Suicide’s attack, as noted fan Bruce Springsteen has covered the group’s “Dream Baby Dream” on numerous occasions. Thusly, Vega crossing paths with Alex Chilton isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. Not a bit, in fact; Suicide shared the stage of Max’s with The Cramps, a band produced by Chilton.

The departed Alex Chilton stands amongst the great and irrefutably complex treasures in rock’s annals. From the blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops to the cornerstone power pop of Big Star to the aural wilderness of the ‘70s solo stuff and connections to punk’s uprising to his impact on ‘80s alt-college radio and a late-career resurgence of unusual vitality, the guy is simply a rough diamond in American Music’s glorious mineshaft.

By extension Ben Vaughn’s bio can read pretty modestly, mainly due to a considerable portion of his achievement deriving from songwriting and film/TV scoring. The Philadelphian did lead the Ben Vaughn Combo for a couple of albums in the ‘80s before breaking off solo; his Mono USA, a covers album issued stateside in ’92 by Bar/None (a fine companion to Yo La Tengo’s Fakebook on the same label) is especially relevant to Cubist Blues and not only because it includes a version of Vega’s “Magdalena.”

Initially released via Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 imprint through Thirsty Ear, Cubist Blues has sometimes been described as the byproduct of a supergroup, but that needs clarification; the contents of this slab are more aptly tagged as the results of a jam session (two back-to-back marathon studio encounters, apparently), though in avoiding supergroup bloat the trio stared unblinking into another potential qualitative abyss. Specifically, jam sessions are frequently attempts by the creatively constipated to gussy up assorted clichés as an exercise in the refreshing (i.e. getting back to basics).

In short, that’s not really what’s going on with Cubist Blues. Vaughn’s Mono USA (indeed, much of his output) can be absorbed by a wide cross-section of possible lobes, but the audience for this set will likely always be a significantly smaller proposition. It’s far from a difficult listen, however; in what’s perhaps a titular nod to Leonard Gardner’s brilliant boxing novel and/or John Huston’s equally boss film adaptation, opener “Fat City” combines unflagging drum-box locomotion, Vega’s loose Presley-ish sprawl, Chilton’s guitar fluidity, and Vaughn’s bass propulsion.

As reflected in the sequence of names, Vega’s role as vocalist is substantial but not dominant. The piano in “Fly Away” lands somewhere between regality and the Southern pop fringe as Vaughn’s tribal drumming and Chilton’s amp-gristle eruptions provide the meat of the matter; both give the side-eye to the ever-pulsating oeuvre of Suicide, and Vega appropriately presides over the mess like a disheveled crooner doing battle with distress.

Featuring gnawing synth and a hefty Spector-descended beat amid melodic richness, “Freedom” is a true rarity, presenting an oddball rockabilly-ish techno state of affairs and wielding those impromptu jam session bona fides to a distinct advantage; tapping inspiration on the fly, the trio struck while the proverbial poker was hot.

And appropriate to the background of the participants, “Candyman” delivers swamp-blues thump powered by the focused simplicity of Vaughn’s drums, the off-kilter aura enhanced by the tandem of Vega’s at-least-semi-improvisational vocalizing, and the tweaked spirals and flailing of Chilton’s guitar. This off-center milieu gets extended in “Come on Lord” as reverb swelter marries torso grind to gospel themes, the subversive ambiance looser than an oversized caftan stitched from curtains liberated from Conway Twitty’s tourbus.

“Promised Land” picks up the tempo by raking the legacy of Sam Phillips against a cast iron grater labeled outsider punk, while “Lover of Love” finds Chilton unfurling some Professor Longhair-styled 88s as Vega oozes more ‘billy-ish lounge grandiosity, conjuring images of a tuxedo-clad lothario serenading a streaked mirror in a backwoods mobile home or alternately, a shoebox-sized Bowery firetrap.

Meanwhile, Vaughn doesn’t keep time as much as he just swaddles the atmosphere with skin thud and cymbal clang, and “Sister” traverses a bluesy avenue reminiscent of a late ‘50s 45 on King or Chess as Vega’s motions mingle R&B oomph with the zonked majesty of Lux interior. From there, “Too Late”’s piano sprinkling and synth excursions emphasize jamming circumstances as the track maintains a proper level of briskness.

Make no mistake; Cubist Blues shouldn’t serve as anybody’s introduction to the three contributors, but fans of Chilton’s work with Tav Falco should certainly investigate if they haven’t already. As the proceedings wind down the extemporaneousness of “Do Not Do Not” flirts with swampy psychedelia and “The Werewolf” launches from a splendid platform built upon the essence of trashy B-movie horror matinees.

“Fat City” unspools to over eight minutes but the LP closes with relative succinctness and a sharp fadeout, “Dream Baby Revisited” reinforcing Vega’s input as it offers a fragment of piano-driven post-Presley pre-Beatle Southern melodicism. Undeniably, these sorts of undertakings are most often of interest to hardcore devotees, yet this collusion of warped visionaries transcends the limitation. Folks requiring well-balanced structure and polish are liable to disagree.

Deepening the accomplishments of Chilton and adding dollop of seriousness to Vaughn’s résumé (he’s infrequently and somewhat unfairly maligned as lacking in substance), the disc carves a notch of versatility into Vega’s belt of innovation. In a musical landscape infused with subtle variations, Cubist Blues is one of a kind.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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