|Side One:||Side Two:|
I was left in a vague lurch on this one: I got seven people to vote on which Big Star album I should talk about, and 3 picked #1 Record, 3 picked Radio City, and one lone voice (which I very well might be able to guess) picked 3rd. In the end, my friend Brian suggested I consult my friend George¹, and so the dilemma was resolved. Honestly, it indicated to me basically exactly what I’d suspect. I don’t know, naturally, what motivated any votes (not even a single one, this time)–whether it was familiarity or gut reactions to titles or research or what. Still, it tends to be a very thin line between #1 Record and Radio City if you ask anyone who knows, and then a decent minority that prefers the frustrated, misanthropic nihilism of 3rd (aka Sister Lovers, but the version issued and reissued on vinyl bears the title 3rd). I was stuck myself–I have personal attachments to either, songs I love on both, a very mild preference and contrasts in stories of acquisition (one’s interesting, one isn’t). I couldn’t complain about ending up with any of them (though I’d stumble a bit more with 3rd, if I’m honest). If one marked out a ratio of amount of recordings versus listneing time, Big Star would likely be at some absurd height in my listening record. The only known set of statistics comes from my last.fm listening habits. You’ll note Big Star comes in quite soon, and behind artists that released at least twice as many albums.
All of my Big Star records are reissues, and only one was purchased used (and not by me–as a gift for me). I picked up Radio City as probably the most recent, making a trip out to purchase it deliberately when a then-local record store (Bull City Records) listed the reissue as newly in stock. I will often list Radio City as my favourite Big Star record by far, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. #1 Record has some sentimental elements in its favour (it was the gift, for instance, as well as the first Big Star record I heard), as well as a few songs it’s really difficult to argue with. But it’s Radio City I bought my first (and, to date, only) 33 1/3 book on², and it’s often “O My Soul” that I find myself craving or drawn toward.
“O My Soul” is the album’s opener, and I’ve touched on it before, when I previously wrote about Big Star. It’s a scorcher of an opener, with Andy Hummel setting the stage for the bright, clear guitars of Alex Chilton that can’t seem to decide whether to ring or be immediately muted, bouncing back and forth between the two, Jody Stephens pounding away with the sound of drums heralding an arrival, which is answered by Alex turning to consistenting ringing–but finger picked instead of strummed chords. Alex inserts brief flashes of Mellotron throughout the verses, but particularly on the lead-up to the chorus, three down-up, down-up repetitions that are finally let ring as he slides his pick up the guitar strings and breaks into an exquisite guitar lead that ties things into place for the chorus. It’s the longest track on the album by far, but it doesn’t feel like it–it feels like it should just keep going. That lead is unbelievable, the way it just bends and twists and seems to just pull your heart along in each and every direction, beating just a bit faster because it’s exactly where you want to go.
There’s a much more deliberate pace to “Life Is White”, bass, guitar, and drums all hitting on beat as it starts, before allowing themselves a bit more breathing space–space that Alex’s harmonica takes freely from the start. Of course, on guitar in overdubs, Chilton’s willing to let the guitar find various nooks and crannies, too. The counterpoint of his harmonica to his vocal, though, manages to give it the same feeling as forlorn harmonicas, without actually sounding like them–which is some kind of neat trick. The song pumps itself up for just a moment halfway through, and Alex works in a semi-honky tonk piano. The song is a point of view on relationships not seen often: the lines might hint at actual animosity, but the delivery and the way they go on says something else. They aren’t temptation, they aren’t disgust, they are just statement of rational explanation of a decision: “And I don’t want to see you now/’Cause I know what you like/And I can’t go back to that.”
There’s only one song on the album on which Alex doesn’t receive writing or co-writing credit, and it’s the third track, which is the responsibility of Andy Hummel, though Jody Stephens is tasked with singing it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “India Song”, his song on #1 Record, but it’s more fully developed by far. Like many tracks on the album, the introduction sounds something like a riff or lick from a previous song ending before it seems to “actually” start. Alex’s place as just guitarist (other than backing vocals, anyway) allows for a more fully realized guitar approach. He and Andy spend the earlier portions matching each other with riffing that seems to imply two steps forward and one back, but Chilton drifts off halfway through the verse, and the chords begin to ring and cascade string-to-string instead. Hummel’s chorus is sweet: “And why don’t you come on back/From way out west/And love me/We can work out the rest”. When Andy returns to his previous bassline, Alex doesn’t even return to his previous ringing, single string approach to his own part, instead moving all throughout the chords and tones, up and down and all over, but with hammer-ons and pull-offs that carry that twist to the heart that he does so well. One of the more interesting parts is the final repetition of the chorus, which has the same run-out, only Alex doubles the tempo of his playing briefly and it seems to yank the entire song in the same way, only for them all to drop back to normal speed for a final repetition.
One of the more morose songs on the album (hinting in some ways at the material that would be released as 3rd), “What’s Going Ahn” seems adrift and lost lyrically, bolstered by a meticulous but more spacious, open and seemingly free sound to the instrumentation. The electric/acoustic “duet” at the beginning has the sort of smooth-faced innocence of “India Song”, but is followed by a more oppressive mood emphasized by the deep drop of Andy’s bassline, seemingly miles below the airy guitars, and even Jody’s deliberate drumming. Chilton’s electric part is empowered by hesitant in most parts, other than the portions that slide, but they all inevitably slide downward, emphasizing the feeling of loss the song carries–which only makes the introductory moments that much more appropriate: the shift is like that opening innocence is lost. The way it ends, too, is somewhat less melodious and more like the stutter of braking from high speeds.
At first seemingly cheerful, Andy’s brief thrums on bass hint at the chorus that defines “You Get What You Deserve”. There’s a menace, but the kind that threatens less directly and more insinuating inevitable negative futures. The guitars overlaid are nothing of the kind, and Alex sings in the most comfortable upper portion of his range, even when he hits the chorus, where the tempo picks up, and there’s the feeling that the song is turning its head away and wagging a finger, telling you you’d better be careful where you carry that train of thoughts, words or actions–after all, “You get what you deserve/You ought to find out what it’s worth/And you’ve gotta have a lotta nerve”. At its second repetition, there’s a bass-driven passage, that turns too a castanet-rattled bridge that turns into a blistering solo from Alex that defines the tone of the song as a whole–that awareness that someone’s actions might turn out worse for them than they are considering. One more repetition of that chorus leads right back into that solo, which Alex briefly sings along to without words, bringing home just how high it is going, and with it, tension.
Side Two releases us from that tension entirely, with the easier groove of “Mod Lang”, which is heavily riff-oriented, and allows for some more interesting percussion instruments to appear (cow bells, for instance). Those riffs are powerful and pushy, and the whole song is exemplified by Alex’s call, “All night long/I was howlin’/I was a barkin’ dog”, which has too much character to worry about enunciation and gains, rather than suffering, from that.
“Back of a Car” is the other highlight of this album (for me at least–if you ask most people, it’s “September Gurls”). There’s no introduction, no easing in, it just blasts in: “Sitting in the back of a car” Alex sings as the ringing guitar notes seem to spiral up and drift toward the sky. The words manage to establish and identify the feeling immediately, even if it has no personal experience on the part of a listener to confirm its feasibility. It’s a blaring, space-filling sound, but one that seems constrained–ah, by being in the back of a car! Of course! Jody gets to stand out most on this track, too, his drums rarely able to stick to a single beat, filling constantly, and often with very full rolls and trips across the toms. Alex continues to send guitar up to define and bounce off the unexpectedly high but very “real” ceiling of the space they’re filling. It’s simultaneously a huge and an intimate sound: cold, but familiar and somehow warm for that.
Gone almost completely in the opposite direction is “Daisy Glaze”, which seems to be just Alex and guitar for a moment, both Jody and Andy hiding their rhythms within the much louder guitar sound. When they make themselves known, it’s quietly and gently, matching Alex’s voice. It’s very separated from the immediate, a floating sensation as of being out of one’s body, that Jody is eventually allowed to build up to with increasing tempo and more powerful hits, the melody suddenly whipping itself into a frenzy, Alex turning to a great, tight lead, Jody propelling the song faster than it thought it wanted to go prior to this, and sounding that much greater for it, as this is the sweet spot for “Daisy Glaze”. It ends on this same progression, but closing with a chord progression that sounds like group of guitars looking at each other and striking the chord in unison, but with enough pause between to make that apparent.
A brief flash of studio conversation and a count off announce “She’s a Mover”, which sounds like Big Star in general (if you can distill that) at first, but that quickly gives Andy his moment to shine, as his is the driving force there, but suddenly more emphatic and louder through the chorus, giving it a groovier, funkier feeling than it starts with.
“September Gurls” is a defining song, there’s no doubt about it. It’s called a masterpiece by Bruce Eaton (who wrote the 33 1/3 on the album and played onstage with Alex on numerous occasions). It’s the most heavily layered song, perhaps, in sound if not reality. All three of them bring their A-games, with a song that doesn’t push any of them into the front for too long, all three playing so well throughout, though of course Alex does throw in a solo halfway through, but the kind that’s less about showing off and more about exploring the melody and defining the feel and tone of the song, and it’s followed by one of Jody’s best fills in an album that has a number, and a song that has quite a few by itself. It’s true that this is probably the best vocal chorus on the album, Chilton’s approach to “December boys got it bad” stretching that last word and chopping it into multiple descending syllables.
The last two tracks on the album are, on occasion, considered to have been just tossed on in some respects. While there are demo versions of most tracks on the album, these are the only ones on the album that feature Chilton by himself. “Morpha Too” is Alex (singing along with two more of himself via overdubs) next to a piano that mostly just sticks to strong chords, but occasionally doubles its tempo with simple little dances key-to-key that give us the chorus of the song, as well as the chorus of “Alexes”.
One of the most famous Big Star songs (after “In the Street”, for its placement as theme song for That 70s Show) is “Thirteen” (which also made numerous appearances in that same show). It’s a sweet, acoustic love song. And so is the closer of this album: “I’m in Love with a Girl”. While “Morpha Too” has the studio trick of overdubbed vocals (as well as some cleverness with the way the piano was recorded), “I’m in Love with a Girl” is a polished solo performance of one voice and an acoustic guitar. It’s very much to the point, but it’s carried by Alex’s fragile, occasionally brittle voice. It’s honest and it’s earnest, and it says something familiar and immediate, simple and obvious, yet not eye-rolling or clichéd in the way it’s done.
It’s frustrating to write these sometimes. I feel the limits of my musical knowledge and my vocabulary, and it becomes that much worse when I love an album like I do this one. It’s generally a given that if I bought a record new and sealed (and you can check the tags on any entry to see which I did, as well as looking at the images of my sleeve art–generally, the new ones have little or no wear, and are likely to still be in shrinkwrap, barring the gatefolds, at least) I deliberately sought out that album or felt it was really worth having personally. There are exceptions here and there where it was an album I stumbled into and felt I “should” own, or just couldn’t resist the idea of, but these are few and far between.
I decided I’d try to describe the music alongside the feelings as best I could this time, because I wanted to try to use words to convey something that “Hey, go listen to this band,” won’t necessarily achieve. If you can appreciate music but are not inclined to seek it out, or, if you are like me and like an anchor to attach new listening experiences to, then that’s what I’m trying to speak to. I can only phrase “This album is amazing” in so many ways, and my notoriously “egalitarian” taste in music doesn’t often convey the peaks very well. But, make no mistakes at all: this is a peak.
If I was given the chance to disseminate the experience of a musical recording to anyone and everyone at the snap of two fingers, I would–well, actually, I would choose one other band, but only because I think of Big Star as so obvious that I feel that I shouldn’t have to push it. I feel like playing these records should click for people who like catchy, tuneful pop (indeed, this album is often considered the pinnacle of “power pop”), or people who like obscure gems (the complete failure of distribution by Stax via independents for #1 Record and then Columbia fort this album is a travesty, but did give this band that obscure allure), or people who like quality playing, or good songwriting, or strong personalities, or pessimism, or romanticism–sure, there are some exceptions. It’s not going to be heavy enough for the metal-exclusive, or twangy enough for the country-exclusive, it has too much craft for the organic chaos of some of the most emotive music and so on, but, for most people, there’s something here.
It’s criminal how lost this band is, and inexplicable to me how it does not catch the ear of anyone who hears it. Certainly, it’s all subjective, but there’s so much good here, that all I can do is throw my hands up if someone finds it passable. What else can I do or say? The music should speak for itself, and I’m only trying to get you to that music.
¹aka Mr. Washington, aka Mr. President, aka “Old Wooden Teeth” (however inaccurate that actually is), aka “The One Without Carver at the End”. George Washington.
I flipped a quarter.
²It’s a series of books about classic/influential/important records, so named for the speed (in RPM) that albums are played at.