Sunday, June 03, 2007

Big Star (1997)

When Scott and I were living together in Albany (he was my roommate, not my "partner" as one local proprietor asked), he owned a copy of #1 Record/Radio City, their first two albums on one cd. I couldn't get past Chris Bell's vocals on the album opener, "Feel", and instantly dismissed it, without even getting through one song.

I'm not really sure what possessed me to buy it on a whim a couple years later. This was still a year before "In the Street" would become the theme song of "That 70's Show". Honestly, I just think it was a case of the intrigue of knowing their reputation as a band that never achieved commercial success but had a tremendous influence on numerous acts that followed. I figured that, if I gave it a chance, I would probably like it. This turned out to be not entirely true. I was absolutely awestruck, to the point that I began referring to Big Star as the band who picked up where the Beatles left off. That is, they would have if anyone was really paying attention, and if they stopped letting Andy Himmel occasionally contribute one of his songs. It's a little unfair of me to say that, I suppose. "Way Out West" isn't bad, but "The India Song" is abominable, possibly one of my least favorite songs by an artist that I love. Well, I guess Neil Young would have something to say about that.

I can still see myself living in my little dive of a motel room in Framingham that I got a monthly deal on because I was tired of checking in and out of the Red Roof Inn every week. I was in the process of relocating to the Boston area for the job that is associated with the aforementioned evil pager. I have vivid memories of sitting in that room, escaping from the reality of my very stressful new job, listening to my two recent discoveries, #1 Record/Radio City and Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac. Unfortunately, that wasn't my only means of escapism.

Escapism...I know it's going to be difficult to believe, but I'm going to go off on an unrelated tangent here. Tom Petty's 1999 release, Echo, was a nice little comeback...not necessarily a return to his original Heartbreakers-era form, but better than his decent but unremarkable material from earlier in the decade. I absolutely loved that album's first song, "Room at the Top", which was clearly about using substances to temporarily forget one's troubles, maybe the by-product of his recent divorce. I purchased Echo at Rock Bottom Records in Portsmouth, NH, during one of the many times I passed through while traveling between Boston and Poland Spring, Maine.

It was also during this visit that I heard James Iha's Let it Come Down playing in the store and instantly fell in love. Basically, the album consists of 11 beautifully sappy love songs, reminiscent of 70's AM radio soft rock, that have a certain melancholic optimism unrivaled by anything else I've ever heard. I realize that's a bit of an oxymoron, and that the album has been criticized for recycling essentially the same melody over and over, and that I'm going way out on a limb here, but I'll forever stand by my contention that this is one of the best albums I've ever heard.

For those of you who don't know, Iha was the rhythm guitarist and co-founding member of The Smashing Pumpkins, and his only solo album bears absolutely no resemblance to that band's output. I've often fantasized about starting my own record label and releasing albums by criminally underappreciated acts such as Reservoir and Tom Leach, and maybe even Shore Leave. In retrospect, though, I have to say that my first order of business would be to convince Iha to sign on for the long-awaited followup to this masterpiece.

Getting back on track here, for years I was under the mistaken impression that Alex Chilton was Big Star. I guess I never bothered to reconcile the fact that there were two distinctly different voices on 1971's #1 Record. It wasn't until I heard the excellent, but posthumously released, Chris Bell solo compilation, I Am the Cosmos, that I realized the original Big Star was just as much Bell's band as it was Chilton's. In fact, Bell was a founding member and Chilton was recruited to join the band after his stint as the teenage lead singer of The Box Tops.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many co-fronted bands, the two couldn't get along and Bell left after the first record. 1974's Radio City was clearly an Alex Chilton affair, and it was just as good as its predecessor, but it seems a shame that this tremendous collaboration only existed for an album's worth of material. Any hope of a reconciliation ended when Bell was killed in a 1978 car accident.

Big Star would release only one more album, 1978's Third/Sister Lovers, before calling it quits. Their 2005 comeback album, In Space, doesn't necessarily tarnish their legend, but still kind of reminds me of Michael Jordan's comeback in his late 30's...not disastrous, but pointless.

Big Star defined power pop and paved the way for bands like The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub and Cheap Trick. More importantly, to me that is, they played a major role in influencing my eventual shift in taste, away from country influenced rock towards music firmly grounded in pop sensibility.

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