12/23/2005

The return of Big Star.

I recently learned that Big Star had a new album out. This isn't like their first reunion album, the live "Columbia: Live at Missouri University" from 1994, which merely documented a gig in which Alex Chilton and company performed a dozen or so of their best songs. Don't get me wrong, that was amazing enough, but aside from a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Slut", there really wasn't anything I hadn't heard before on "Columbia". In opposition to what that record offered, the recently released "Big Star In Space" is actually a dozen new original Big Star compositions, the first time something like this has come into existence since "Third/Sister Lovers" was finally given a commercial release in 1979. For those not keeping track, that was 25 years ago. Alex Chilton has done plenty of solo stuff in the interim, and some of it's even been pretty good. But I never thought there'd be another Big Star album released. This is like a dream come true for me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Before I go on, I feel like I should elaborate on just why this is such a big deal. Big Star were always critical favorites, starting with the release of their debut album, "#1 Record", in 1973, and continuing through the rest of their career and long afterwards. They are considered today by people who pay attention to such things as the founders of the modern power pop genre. However, they've always escaped widespread fame; I have no idea why, considering the impeccable quality of the majority of their output, but it's true. Their only real famous song, "In The Street", only gained fame in recent years when it was covered by Cheap Trick as the theme song for "That 70's Show." Big Star were plagued by instability while they were together, too, and only released three albums during the half-dozen or so years they originally existed, none of which featured the same lineup. Rhythm guitarist/sometime vocalist Chris Bell had written some of the best songs on "#1 Record," but left the band soon after. He recorded one solo album, the brilliant "I Am The Cosmos", but died in a car accident before it could be released. Original bassist Andy Hummel hung on long enough to write and play on follow-up "Radio City," but he and Alex Chilton fought so much that Hummel left before the promotional tour for "Radio City." Their final album, the aforementioned "Third", was completed by singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens as a duo, with help from studio musicians, and had to be pieced together years later from unfinished tapes due to the eccentric and mercurial Chilton walking away from the sessions, and the band, in frustration. The albums all came out on small labels based around Big Star's Memphis hometown, and were only rarely in print during the 70s and 80s. It wasn't until a whole new generation of American indie-rock bands all named Big Star as a prime influence (The Replacements went so far as to write a song named after "Alex Chilton", celebrating his songwriting genius) that they received anywhere near the kind of attention and credit that they'd long deserved. In fact, it was this posthumous praise that caused the initial reformation documented on "Columbia"; the reunion gig happened because a Missouri student that worked on the student activities committee was courageous (some would say crazy) enough to call Alex Chilton and ask him to reform Big Star for a show. Many were surprised when Chilton agreed, but he's almost as well-known for his unpredictable nature as his songwriting genius, so a move like this, in hindsight, can be seen as bizarrely in character.

The lineup that plays on "Big Star In Space" is the same as the one that played the reunion gig; joining Chilton and returning drummer Jody Stephens are Posies leaders Ken Stringfellow (who plays bass) and Jon Auer (on guitar), who were quoted at the time of that first reunion as considering the opportunity to play in Big Star "a dream come true". It's no surprise to those who have heard The Posies; if Big Star weren't their biggest influence, they were certainly up there. The Posies are a pretty great power-pop combo in their own right, and Stringfellow and Auer do a great job of assisting their heroes in creating a worthy new addition to the Big Star oeuvre. "In Space" is nothing earth-shattering, though, and those who listen to it expecting some sort of holy grail are apt to be let down. Big Star created their share of deathless power-pop anthems on their classic albums, but it's obvious from songs like "Morpha Too" and "The India Song" that they had their share of fun while making albums too. There's a bit more of that sort of thing on "In Space" than on their 70s albums, and one could make a case for the exclusion of "Love Revolution", which is nothing more than a playful James Brown imitation, or the closing "Makeover", which is pure silliness. That said, there are enough gems here to make "In Space" well worth the price of admission, and many of them are front-loaded.

The album opens with "Dony", a catchy rocker reminiscent of the Chris Bell-penned "Feel", from "#1 Record". It's followed immediately by "Lady Sweet", a typically, er, sweet Chilton love song that turns down the gain to focus on pleasant vocal harmonies and pretty strummed guitars. "Best Chance We've Ever Had" mixes the two into the Platonic ideal of power-pop greatness. At this point, the power-pop lovers who pick up this album are going to feel like they've died and gone to heaven, and the rest of the first half of "In Space" will only further cement that feeling (with the exception of the aforementioned "Love Revolution"). It's particularly nice to hear Ken Stringfellow's lead vocal turn on "Turn My Back On The Sun", which is more overtly Beatlesque than the other songs here, but still every bit the equal of the Chilton and Stephens compositions that surround it.

Things get a bit stranger on the second half of "In Space"; Chilton's tendency on his solo albums over the past couple of decades has been to freely move between widely divergent subgenres of rock n' roll, and he lets this tendency take over here, playing straight up Nuggets-style rock n' roll on "Mine Exclusively" and "Do You Wanna Make It," and detouring into doo-wop on "A Whole New Thing". This is where the power-pop purists are going to get lost, and that's a pity, because despite the fact that Big Star go astray from the sound that made their name, most of these songs are every bit as good as the power-pop gems occupying the first half of the record. "A Whole New Thing" goes on a bit too long for being as simplistic as it is, and the instrumental "Aria, Largo" is a bit meandering, but most of these tunes are quite solid.

There are probably going to be two different camps where the reception of this record is concerned. Those in the power-pop purist camp are likely to be a bit let down, but I am not in that camp. Instead, I'm just happy to be here, listening to a new Big Star album after all this time. Some of the reviews I've read have said that "Big Star In Space" sounds more like the Chilton solo albums from the late 70s and early 80s than anything Big Star themselves ever did, and I can see their point, but those albums, especially "Like Flies On Sherbet", were good, and it's been a long time since that term could be applied to new Alex Chilton material. Maybe working with Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow gave him the energy he needed to create some great new material, and if that's the case, who am I to complain if not all of it sounds quite like "September Gurls"? "Big Star In Space" is a good record, and that's what's important.

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