Throw The Beatles, The Byrds, The Kinks, and Memphis soul into a blender, and what you’ll get is the brilliant Big Star. Unfortunately, distribution problems with the band’s record label ensured this album’s failure even before it had a chance, and as a result it never became the #1 Record it surely deserved to be. Instead, Big Star have had to make do with being a belatedly revered cult band who have influenced the likes of The Replacements, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, and The Posies, among many others. And though Big Star have long been lauded as arguably the best ever practitioners of power pop, they excelled at far more than just that one style. For example, check out the high energy album opener “Feel” for a raucous Memphis rock workout (and only Chris Bell could make a line like “feel like I’m dying” sound so gloriously liberating), while “Ballad Of El Goodo” is a sweet song sung by the band’s other leader, Alex Chilton. Few songwriters have ever better articulated the highs and lows of teenage love than Bell or Chilton, and lines like “won’t you let me walk you home from school” convey a simple sweetness that’s both rare and irresistible. However, a harder edge is also present on Bell’s no-bullshit “Don’t Lie To Me” and Chilton’s hummable, riff-driven hit “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” which demonstrated what an excellent guitarist he was (Bell was no slouch in that department, either). Elsewhere, “Thirteen” is simply a wonderful Chilton ballad, “My Life Is Right” when listening to that Bell gem, and even bassist Andy Hummel’s “The India Song” has an airy melody and a child-like charm. Yet for all the album’s refreshing air of innocence, it also shows the flip side of love, asking a former lover to “Give Me Another Chance” and acknowledging that “Lord I feel the pain, but I’ll try again.” Fortunately, these songs always have enough hints of optimism to let listeners know that everything will turn out all right in the end; this album is more than all right. Note: Big Star fans Cheap Trick recorded “In The Street” as the theme song to That '70s Show.
Radio City (Ardent ‘74, Rykodisc ‘92) Rating: A
Frustrated by the commercial failure of #1 Record, Chris Bell (who provided some of that album’s finest songs) departed Big Star, though he allegedly contributed to some of the songs here. Fortunately, Alex Chilton and, to a lesser extent, Andy Hummel (who co-writes five songs and solely penned the evocative “Way Out West,” which he also sings), picked up the songwriting slack. Big Star were now Alex Chilton’s band, and as a result Radio City is much rawer and edgier than #1 Record, which is ironic considering that Bell had contributed the more rocking songs to #1 Record. Throughout the album there there is a feeling of unpredictable interplay that often seems on the verge of collapse, yet the band’s inspired songwriting and cocksure playing (Jody Stephens is a great rock drummer) holds things together. The tension in some of these songs is palpable, but the songs of Big Star always remain tuneful. Prime examples of the band’s exemplary sense of melody include “You Get What You Deserve,” which features some of Chilton’s best guitar work, and “Back Of A Car,” an almost perfect power pop song that’s musically anchored by Stephens’ big beat, as are many of these songs. But the crème de la crème here, indeed the best Big Star song, period, is “September Gurls,” a classic shoulda been hit that’s a model of pure pop sweetness – the song’s ringing guitar break is one of the most magical 15 seconds in all of rock. I also like the sparse, ever so slightly unhinged “What’s Going Ahn,” and the way “Daisy Glaze” starts softly but ends in a different place entirely (again with Chilton’s rocking guitar and Stephens’ storming drums taking over), while “Morpha Too” and “I’m In Love With A Girl” reverse the downcast ending of #1 Record by signing off with arguably the band’s most disarmingly innocent songs ever. Like #1 Record, I'd argue that there are a couple of songs here that aren’t quite up to par, but this was still another superlative release, one whose peaks arguably rise even higher. Unfortunately, ongoing record label problems caused Radio City to suffer the same unfair commercial fate. Note: In 1992, Rykodisc packaged # 1 Record and Radio City together on a single disc, along with detailed liner notes by Brian Hogg, making for an essential reissue.
Third/Sister Lovers (Rykodisc ’78, ‘92) Rating: A
By the time of this album Big Star had completely fragmented, and this is a Big Star album in name only. This was because Andy Hummel had departed and Chilton’s true collaborator here was Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, though Jody Stephens also participates (he wrote “For You” and his drumming takes center stage on the rocking “You Can’t Have Me”). This album was never really even finished, and it took several years before it was released. Thankfully, Rykodisc has finally reissued a version that appears to have gotten it right (this is the only “classic” album without a definitive song sequence) by getting the two catchy rock songs (“Kizza Me” and “Thank You Friends”) out of the way at the beginning, since most of the rest of the album has a much different mood. The latter song in particular is worthy of comparison to the two previous Big Star releases, while “Jesus Christ” also has a lovely mid-tempo melody (and a neat little carnival-esque intro) and “O, Dana” is a catchy sing along. But the bulk of the album sees the band taking a sharp left turn by showcasing the gloomy side of Alex Chilton to a dangerously unprecedented degree. Burdened by bitterness over the commercial failure of Big Star’s first two albums, and consumed by a serious drug habit, bleak songs such as “Big Black Car” present desolate, despairing soundscapes that are framed around Chilton’s druggy vocals. “Holocaust,” “Kangaroo,” and “Nighttime” are some other songs that frame Chilton’s fragile voice around skeletal arrangements, which are fleshed out by ornate strings and Dickinson’s echoey production effects. The haunting, heartbreaking, at times harrowing results are often strangely beautiful, such as on their superb version of the Velvet Underground’s "Femme Fatale," the touching "Blue Moon" (not the Elvis Presley song), and “Take Me.” These songs form the true heart of this deeply melancholic album, which has often been compared to other morose and messy late night drug trips such as Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night. Granted, it doesn’t have the energy of the first two Big Star albums (probably due to Chilton’s “nobody’s going to listen to it anyway” attitude at the time), and it will probably take several listens before the album starts to weave its spell. Over time, however, the off-kilter beauty and unflinching honesty of this belatedly recognized classic becomes completely addictive. Note: The cd reissue includes five bonus tracks, including a storming version of The Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day” and a much less necessary take on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Meanwhile, “Nature Boy,” “Dream Lover,” and “Downs” all echo the downcast mood that most of this singular album carries. Note #2: Apparently, Third/Sister Lovers was so named because Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters during the time that this album was recorded.
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