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.

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