Through the 1970s, Chance Martin had the sort of connections in Nashville that most aspiring rhinestone cowboys would kill for. He was Johnny Cash’s most trusted stagehand, a drinking buddy of Tanya Tucker, and he served as a sound engineer for director Robert Altman’s Oscar-nominated Music City masterpiece. And when, toward the end of the decade, Chance decided to make the leap from being an assistant to the stars to becoming one himself, he had no less a Nashville legend than “Cowboy” Jack Clement behind the boards. There was just one thing holding Chance back from certain country-music celebrity: The music he made sounded like absolutely nothing else coming out of Nashville at the time, or anywhere else in America for that matter.
Even by the standards of lost cult classics, Chance’s 1981 debut album, In Search, was so overlooked when it was released that it may as well have never existed. (And, according to Wikipedia, it still doesn't). Recorded piecemeal over a span of five years in a kitted-out home studio-cum-clubhouse located above Martins’ parents’ garage, the album was initially issued through a private-press run that barely cracked triple digits. But In Search defies the romantic, outsider-art associations that so often get attached to amateur DIY recording projects, whether it’s that of unassuming innocents naively chasing pop-star aspirations (see: The Shaggs), or day-jobbers living out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasies on a blue-collar budget (see: Guided by Voices). In Search, by contrast, is a master-class in the art of Going For It, proffering a high-concept, cinematically scaled hodgepodge of loverman soul, outlaw country, blaxpoitation funk, arena-rock pyrotechnics, and Zappa-esque meta-prog that sounds just as confounding and bizarre today as it no doubt did to the few who got to hear it 32 years ago.
On first approach, you could be forgiven for thinking this was all a big elaborate ruse, like some salvaged mid-90s Ween album released under a pseudonym. (Indeed, Chocolate and Cheese chestnuts like "Take Me Away" and "Voodoo Lady" would sound right at home here.) As a singer, Chance makes for a good auctioneer, with a lower-register sing-speak that frequently degenerates into the sort of improvised, self-aggrandizing spiel Jon Spencer would no doubt appreciate; when hitched to the rolling and tumbling rhythms of “High Test” and the “Peter Gunn” pastiche “Sunn of Gunn", Chance comes off less as bandleader than the booze-blitzed conductor of a runaway train that’s perilously close to careening off the rails. And even when Chance cedes lead vocals to some guest female singers, his peculiar presence is still felt: the smooth, knickers-shedding soul ballad “Love by Chance” works as both a heartfelt ode to serendipitous romance, and a cheeky jingle for his own imaginary brand of aphrodisiac perfume.
But while Chance is fond of joking, this album is no joke. As In Search plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that the record’s scatterbrained eclecticism and frantic energy is less a product of eccentricity-for-eccentricity’s sake than a manifestation of the very real anxieties fuelling this endeavor. For all the musical bravado on display here (the climactic guitar solos on “Angel” and “Drema” are practically “Comfortably Numb”-worthy), Chance’s lyrics continually suggest his failure is certain (“everyone tells me I’m a loser”; “I’m on the outside looking in”; “the buzzards flying high over me”), and that this record amounts to a knowing act of career suicide, if not the prelude to a real one. (In this light, the “give you all the love that I can” hook of “Mr. Freedom Man” seems less the command of a horny superhero than the delusional fantasy of an insecure Clark Kent.)
In Search hits its delirious peak with “Dead Medley,” a shot of southern-rock funk that ruminates on the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, and Hank Williams while extrapolating liberal quotes from The Doors’ “When the Music’s Over” to emphasize the do-or-die stakes at play here; in Chance’s hands, Jim Morrison’s “cancel my subscription to the resurrection” becomes “cancel my subscription to the Rolling Stone,” as if he were already resigned to his wholesale rejection by the rock establishment. In Search’s swift slip into oblivion didn’t exactly ruin Chance-- he continues to record today under the alias of Alamo Jones and, for the past eight years, he and Clement have hosted a popular country-music radio show on Sirius XM. But now that his most painstaking, singular musical achievement has been rescued from history’s dustbin, Chance is in a much better position to answer a question he asks himself deep into In Search: “Have you ever felt like a loser until you win”? (source)