Saturday, April 24, 2010

Big Star - Radio City

The story so far: former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton travels back to his hometown of Memphis after unsuccessfully giving being a solo musician in New York a try. He gets together with a few bandmates, and they all end up releasing one of the great unsung pop masterpieces of all time: #1 Record. The creative tension between the mercurial genius Chilton and melodic perfectionist Chris Bell is largely to credit for the album's (critical) success. Unfortunately, unlike Lennon and McCartney, who were able to sustain this tension and feed off each other for years, it got to be too much. Bell left the band once #1 Record was released, leaving Chilton on his own to front Big Star.

Bell left his beautiful imprint on Big Star's sound, and it's sad to ponder for a bit what could have been. But as it turns out, Chilton and the rest of Big Star could do just fine without that fourth member, thank you. Unrestrained by Bell's meticulous attention to detail, Radio City makes for a harder, rawer, looser, and more exhilarating ride. Its sparse production (the virtual antithesis of Spector's "wall of sound") reveals frequent holes of sound that presage punk by a few years; it sounds like a live album in spots. And it's just as successful as its predecessor.

It's a bit easier to choose the highlights of Radio City; after all, with this wildness comes some inconsistency. So here we go:

1) "O My Soul" - The clarion call to get wild, get drunk, and kick up your heels, and the perfect way to start this album. Loose as loose can be, but funky...and that rhythm section is unstoppable.

2) "What's Going Ahn" - Chilton's penchant for weird song titles continues here in this achingly sad tune. "I like love, but I don't know/All these girls, they come and go," he moans, resigned to be unsuccessful at love. And the drums sound like they're ready to fall apart at any moment. The most despondent that Big Star ever got...well, until the next album, at least.

3) "Mod Lang" - Then they turn around and deliver this glamalicious number, with Chilton howling almost inaudibly in the background. Fun, fun stuff.

4) "She's A Mover" - Sounds like the best outtake from Revolver the Beatles never released. So Big Star picked it up, dusted it off, tambourine and all, and went to work. Not so much a song as a three minute-long relentless groove.

5) "September Gurls" - Yes, the one critics the world over adore. I first heard this one and couldn't get past the clanging guitars. But the song is still power-pop heaven, and the most straight-ahead song here.

6) "You Get What You Deserve" - Chilton's bitter side comes out hard here in a pretty little ditty that recalls CCR's "Have You Ever Seen The Rain." Ends on an ominous single piano note.

And actually, that's something that really separates Chilton from so many other pop stars. He isn't afraid to express the negativity that permeates his psyche, and just about every song on Radio City has a dark edge to it. "Life is White" begins with the kiss-off: "Don't like to see your face/Don't like to hear you talk at all." (Apparently, that song was all about Chris Bell - kinda makes sense why he left, don't it?) Even the lightness of "September Gurls" is brought down by the line, "I loved you...well, never mind. I've been crying all the time." Ouch! Self-pity was never disguised so well or expressed so succinctly.

So there you have it. Two of the greatest pop/rock albums ever released. And no one knew about it back in the early '70s. And now you can get them both on one CD. Do it. Now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Big Star - #1 Record

Holy shee-it. What a find I have made. And this is truly rare treasure that most people haven't even heard of. It's Big Star, people. The group that proves that life can be a shitstorm of unfair. These guys, were there any justice, should have been the ones who took the torch from the Beatles and run with it, enjoying wild success all through the '70s. Critically, no question. I mean, read some of these random review excerpts:

"It's safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star."

"Anyone not in possession of Big Star's three landmark studio albums...should stop reading this now and go purchase them."

"Radio City and #1 Record brim over with punchy songs that served as the blueprint for almost every power pop band to follow, and the much darker Third/Sister Lovers is a depressive masterpiece."

I read the first excerpt in a review for Third/Sister Lovers back in the early 1990s, and was dumbfounded. I had never heard of any such group before. And these guys were a major fount from which the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, Happy Mondays, the dBs, the Bangles, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, the Soup Dragons, and Matthew Sweet all came? (For starters.) Wow. Gotta pick this one up. (At the time, Third/Sister Lovers was a major disappointment for me. To be continued later.)

One of the group's founders and the resident genius, Alex Chilton, died on St. Patrick's Day this year. His death prodded me to get their first two albums, both on one CD. And OH MY GOD what was I thinking not getting them sooner?

#1 Record is a brilliant, perfect power-pop masterpiece, brimming with optimism, excitement, wistfulness, puppy love, and just plain fun. Do you dig '70s Aerosmith? Alice Cooper? Badfinger? Todd Rundgren? Love? Moby Grape? The Byrds? The soundtrack to Dazed and Confused? Or even the other bands I've already mentioned? Go out and get this album NOW.

Just like with the Descendents' Somery, I can't narrow down which song is the ultimate pinnacle on #1 Record. But let me see if I can capture the high points.

1) "Feel" - Subtle strumming and an eerie, plangent twang suddenly explode into fireworks of scream-singing and wild drumming that don't let up for the entire song. These guys are going for broke. One hellaciously beautiful way to start off an album.

2) "The Ballad of El Goodo" - Crappy song title. Beautiful, defiant Statement Of Purpose. Required listening for really earnest and idealistic kids who are determined to live life on their own terms, goddamnit.

3) "In The Street" - Big Star's only claim to fame over the past decade. That '70s Show swiped the song for the opening credits. Extra points for the hilarious line "Wish we had a joint so bad."

4) "Watch The Sunrise" - Gorgeous, gorgeous meditative 12-string showcase by Chilton. And yes, you can just imagine the sun rise as the song is playing.

5) "When My Baby's Beside Me" - Kinda lame beginning, but man, I defy you not to clap along to the chorus. Addictive.

6) "ST 100/6" - Indecipherable song title. Not even a minute long. Slightly psychedelic harmonies over some simple guitar chords. Complete in its incompleteness, perfect in its imperfection.

So why didn't these guys get a break? Apparently, Ardent Records (or maybe it was Stax...the details are kinda sketchy), the company in charge of printing and distribution really, really fell down on the job. People heard them and wanted to get their hands on #1 just wasn't available anywhere. Another, much lesser reason was that people in the early '70s were just done with the Beatles and the Byrds and all those other poppy, fun bands that were so last decade. I don't buy that excuse. Music like this is just too awesome and timeless to pass up.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Random quickie song reviews

Ready for the '80s - Village People: Aside from the fact that it's virtually indistinguishable from any other Village People song, it's perhaps one of the saddest songs ever performed - unintentionally so. Just read the lyrics. (And fergawdsakes forgive the atrocious punctuation.) Ain't it so happy, peppy, and bursting with love and optimism for the future? Well, check this out. I doubt any Village People fan was ready for what the '80s were about to bring.

Gentleman Who Fell - Milla: That's model Milla Jovovich, y'all, at the ripe age of 16. With a gloriously untrained voice that swoops and whispers with trepidation to a man she can't catch. And yes, she wrote this (at least, in part), part of her only album, The Divine Comedy. A gorgeous, almost baroque arrangement that is essential listening for Jane Siberry and Kate Bush aficionados. And speaking of Jane Siberry...

Calling All Angels - Jane Siberry and k.d. lang: The best song off the Until The End Of The World soundtrack, itself an early '90s pre-Nirvana, pre-emo depressive classic. A slow funereal drum, pedal steel, and spare guitar plucking back these two chanteuses aching for aid and relief from above, "cause we're not sure how this goes." Who can't relate?

God Bless America - Kate Smith: There's good reason Kate Smith will always be linked with this song. You can just hear her heart swell with pride and unbridled patriotism, and it's impossible not to get caught up in it. She recorded many worthy versions, but this particular beauty was captured at Carnegie Hall in 1963, back when our nation was still brimming with optimism for the future and reveling in its post-war glory, mere days before JFK's assassination. It's a snapshot of simpler times, when it was still cool to be patriotic and have unshakeable faith that our country was on the right track. It's almost heartwrenching now to consider how far we've strayed from that moment. There was once a movement to make this song the national anthem. If they ever bring it back up, I'm in.

Dive In The Pool - Barry Harris and Pepper Mashay: Originally came out on the first Queer as Folk soundtrack back in 2001, and was therefore deemed worthy to pollute gay danceclubs nationwide for years thereafter. It tries to sound tribal, but fails miserably; how pathetic is it that Baltimora and Gloria Estefan sound more authentic? Includes the requisite black diva (with one of the worst drag names ever), here lamely howling at all the boys to dive in the pool and get soaking wet. Hoarksome. I defy you to listen to more than 30 seconds of this shite without banging your head against the wall, or at least shutting it off.