Maybe it’s not such a surprise that Cubist Blues made essentially no impression whatsoever when it first came out in 1996. By then, only embers remained of the early-’90s indie-rock explosion that had launched underground music into the mainstream. Though it would difficult to overstate the role that Alex Chilton and Alan Vega played two decades earlier in fomenting that surge with their respective bands, Big Star and Suicide, neither was quite basking in adulation, or even recognition, as alt-rock was overtaken by a rising tide of boy bands and nu-metal.
Chilton and Vega had converged a couple of years earlier at Dessau, a New York recording studio where the latter was working on an album. Vega had invited Ben Vaughn, a similarly under-heralded singer, songwriter and producer, to drop by the studio, and Vaughn brought Chilton. Though Chilton and Vega had surely crossed paths in 1977 when Chilton was living in New York and playing at CBGB, their two-day rendezvous at Dessau marked the first time they had collaborated together.
They met with minimal expectations. In fact, Vega thought they were just going to jam, he writes in the liner notes to a new Light in the Attic reissue of Cubist Blues, and only wrote lyrics to one song. “Little did I know, we would record for hours and hours,” he writes. “By the last song, my brain was burning up. I literally felt myself on fire. I was depleted. Yet, we could have gone on and on.”
The results of their jam session were distilled into a dozen tracks. Some of them play like they were meant to be songs, while others more resemble ideas unfolding in mid-flight. Chilton by then had resurrected Big Star, but his playing on Cubist Blues owes more to the weird roots music of his solo career than elegant power-pop: noodling glimmers of trebly guitar over a chugging train beat and “Peter Gunn” bassline on opener “Fat City,” for example, or minimalist blues licks played through a thick curtain of shuddering tremolo on “Come on Lord.” Piano takes the lead on “Lover of Love,” laying into a slinky, New Orleans-style boogie-woogie vamp adorned with splashy drums, and fills in the spaces left by a full battery of rhythm on “Do Not Do Not.”
Vega is a natural foil, playing a more resonant, grown-up version of the twitchy provocateur who used to swing a motorcycle drive chain around onstage in the early days of Suicide. He sputters with the fervor of a street-corner prophet on “Fat City,” croons over a jet-engine synthesizer that ebbs and flows on “Freedom” and jabbers in barely intelligible bursts on “Candyman.” The Cramps would have envied the B-movie vibe of “The Werewolf,” as Vega talks his way through a thicket of guitar noise and distant piano, while his rambling patter on “Sister” is the kind of thing you’d edge away from at a party (or, more likely, in a dingy bar you shouldn’t have entered in the first place).
Though it’s often a fascinating collection, Cubist Blues is, frankly, not an everyday-listening kind of album. It’s almost more of a reference work, a document of a moment when two of indie music’s most noteworthy figures came together to explore where their creative impulses intersected. Sometimes the results are sublime, and sometimes Vega repeats “Come on, Lord,” 21 times in a row (not that those things have to be mutually exclusive). If nothing else, the mere fact that Chilton and Vega spent two nights in a room making music is noteworthy, and the fact that they made a recording that survives nearly 20 years later is just gravy.