Not quite a new album and not quite a compilation, Bobby Charles' 2004 release Last Train to Memphis is closer to a clearing-house for little-heard recordings than a proper album. Billed as a single-disc release paired with a bonus disc, the two-CD set contains a total of 34 songs, and since there is no distinct difference between the two discs, it only seems appropriate to treat it all as a sprawling double album. Jim Bateman
says in his perfunctory, largely biographical liner notes that this album "fills in the years between his critically acclaimed 1972 Bearsville release and today," which is certainly true, since all 34 songs on the two discs were recorded sometime between 1971 and 2001. The liners do detail the individual recording dates and lineups for the tracks, but it's hard to tell when and where -- or even if
-- these songs came out prior to this release. This is particularly true because not only does the sequencing make no chronological sense -- the first disc hopscotches from 1999 to 1979 back to 1975 then leaps ahead to 1997 before going back to 1984 -- but because Charles' music is so consistent in both tone and quality it's hard to tell when these recordings are from, based on the production or performance. Of course, there's a certain charm to that. Very few artists could have such a patchwork assembled and make it sound cohesive, which this certainly does. This all flows from his brilliant eponymous 1972 album for Bearsville, which blended his signature spin on New Orleans R&B with an Americana bent borrowed from his friends in the Band
. Overall, it's a little slicker and smoother than the loose-limbed, rustic Bobby Charles
-- plus, its sprawling nature means it's not nearly the compulsive listen as that underappreciated gem -- but it's consistently satisfying, filled with satisfyingly modest new Charles originals and friendly, engaging reworkings of warhorses like "See You Later Alligator." So, even if Last Train to Memphis is frustrating when closely inspected, if it's taken as just a collection of 34 fine Bobby Charles recordings, it's very pleasurable, and not in the least because there are so few Charles recordings that it only seems right to savor every one.