Monday, May 10, 2010

Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers

Pop quiz: You're the leader of a critically revered band, and fans drive for hours, sometimes days, to see your band perform. But the first two albums you release flop, and aside from these few trickling fans, NO ONE knows you. Your band is falling apart member by member due to internal strife, and you still have a contractual agreement with your record company. Whaddaya do?

If your name is Alex Chilton, apparently you indulge in self-destruction. You get drunk and wasted a lot, show up at the studio while still wasted, slur your singing, sometimes play like crap, and fuck with the producers who are trying to salvage what chaos you have wrought, so that your third album is all but unapproachable - and certainly unmarketable. But your efforts at self-sabotage are foiled by a few things. You write some really, really good music that withstands the barrage of shit you run it through. And on some songs, you actually care that what you create is worthwhile, even beautiful at times...and it shows.

Some of the best music ever created - especially great pop music - sounds effortless, perfect, totally meant to be. Third/Sister Lovers is practically the antithesis of that concept. This sounds like it took a Sisyphean effort to create, and you can hear all the evidence of heads banging against walls that won't budge, of unbelievable exhaustion, dejection and pain, and of lives (and a band) irretrievably falling apart. Somehow, the music survived, in some cases barely intact. Somehow, it made it past the producers. Somehow, a company convinced its shareholders or board members that the album was worth releasing to the public...four years after the fact. And somehow, this album found its way into some young musicians' hands - a few of whom ended up being very influential, popular, and willing to drop the album's name. (For example: Peter Buck of R.E.M. once compared it to well-known classics like Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exile on Main Street.)

Is Third/Sister Lovers really the classic that so many admirers make it out to be? I don't think so. It's much more inconsistent than its two predecessors. It's definitely easier to appreciate than like. Third/Sister Lovers is NOT where one ought to start with Big Star. It takes a long time to get into a lot of this stuff, and it's best to go at it on a song-by-song basis, rather than digesting the whole album at one sitting. Here's some of the best stuff:

1) "Kanga Roo" - One of the tougher songs on the album to get into, but man, what a mindblower. It sounds like it's a warped transmission radioed in from some underwater ice planet, with random misfiring cowbells, way-overdubbed drums, and space-age guitar feedback. Then suddenly, it all resolves in a gorgeous crystalline minor chord in the choruses, with Alex soaring vocally through the stratosphere. "Kanga Roo" may be the best song on here...and it's been covered gobs of times since.

2) "Jesus Christ" - Here's the closest you'll get to a straight-ahead pop song on here. Begins with a warped piano ditty that sounds like an overplayed cassette tape that's about to spit its contents out of the tape player. But the song is solid guitar pop, almost a relief to listen to amidst the wreckage of the rest of the album. And interestingly enough, it's a completely sincere paean to Jesus Christ.

3) "Holocaust" - My God...this is the sound of ultimate depression. Alex can barely slur "Your eyes are almost dead, can't get out of bed, and you can't sleep," as a funereal piano plods behind him and ghosts moan in the background. Otherworldly, it's so sad.

4) "For You" - The only original song that Alex didn't pen for this album, written and sung instead by Jody Stephens, the drummer. Romantic chamber pop heaven, utterly beautiful.

5-7) "Blue Moon", "Nightime", "Take Care" - And the chamber pop heaven continues, with "Nightime" taking the honors for being the most scintillatingly gorgeous and having the best lyrics. (Love at first sight was never expressed better than "Caught a glance in your eyes and fell through the skies." Meanwhile, Chilton's unburnished negativity rears its head later: "Get me out of here, get me out of here. I hate it here, get me out of here.") "Take Care" is an anguished farewell, ending the (original) album on the most uncertain of chords played by fragile gossamer strings, completely unresolved.

8) "Downs" - How deranged did Big Star get? How willing was the rest of the band to follow Alex down the rabbit hole? Witness this mess of piano, steel drums, out-of-tune...uh..."singing," and nearly indecipherable lyrics. No surprise, this one was not on the original album. Still, it's kinda fun.

Hmm. Maybe that was the big deal about this album. It was a crystal-clear vision of how fucked-up a band could get and still turn out great music. On that level, Third/Sister Lovers is an unqualified success. It's just hard to plod through, that's all.

And here ended (at least, for a few decades) one of the most frustrating and sad stories in pop history. As I said before, this band proved that life could be a shitstorm of unfair. But man, they turned out some great stuff in the meantime, and their influence on popular music lies up there with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, and Led Zeppelin. With just three brilliant, essential albums.

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