By the time the album Third/Sister Lovers came out, Big Star was a band in name only. This was Alex Chilton’s baby, and the album is a swirling, difficult listen. There’s great beauty on it, and also real darkness. But buried on the album was this little slice of pop music perfection; a strangely discordant intro, a chorus that sinks its hooks deep into you, a saxophone fade out, and a lyric that straightforwardly tells the story of the Nativity. “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/Jesus Christ was born today” Chilton sings in one of the most sincere vocals ever recorded. “The wrong shall fail/And the right prevail.” It’s entirely possible that this was written for former Big Star guitarist/songwriter Chris Bell, a Born Again Christian, explaining the final line “We’re gonna get born”, but regardless of the inspiration the marriage of beautiful pop music and a completely non-ironic telling of the story of Christ’s birth puts this song on the list.
Hard, soft, and pop perfection.
- Lightning Bolt—Pearl Jam. Picking up where Backspacer left off, the tenth studio album from Seattle’s last survivors finds the band lacking energy. The album starts very strongly, delivering several high-octane rockers and one classic Pearl Jam ballad (“Sirens”), but somewhere around the 30-minute mark the songs suddenly start drifting. It’s almost as if the band was replaced with Pearl Jam soundalikes beginning with “Let The Records Play”, a stale rewrite of Vitalogy‘s furious “Spin The Black Circle”. There’s also a full-band version of one of Eddie Vedder’s solo ukulele songs, “Sleeping By Myself”, before the album closes with two somnolent ballads (“Yellow Moon” and “”Future Days”). What’s particularly noticeable about these tracks is how lethargic Vedder sounds. His vocal on “Yellow Moon” sounds like he’s just woken up. It’s surprising coming from one of rock greatest vocalists, but for much of the album Vedder simply sounds like he can’t be bothered. In contrast, Lightning Bolt features some of Mike McCready’s best guitar playing, especially on “Sirens” and the punky “Mind Your Manners”. McCready is an extraordinary guitar player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves; he’s capable of both shredding like the best heavy metal players and playing stunningly lyrical runs of great power and subtlety. Apparently Pearl Jam had begun recording the album and then stopped for a year while drummer Matt Cameron rejoined Soundgarden. This may be the reason the second half of the album sounds like it was recorded just to get it over. In 2006, Pearl Jam released what may be their best album, the intense, cathartic Pearl Jam, and followed it with Backspacer where the band sounded (for the first time) like they were just having some fun. Lightning Bolt, despite the strong first half, sounds like a band that’s running on fumes.
- Walking In The Green Corn—Grant-Lee Phillips. It’s getting harder to identify Grant-Lee Phillips as the guitarist/vocalist with the alternative rock cult band Grant Lee Buffalo. His old band played a beautiful mix of tender, acoustic ballads, modern folk, and bone-crushing rock. As a live act they could blow the roof off the venue. Grant-Lee Phillips was the undisputed leader of the band; he wrote the songs, played the guitar, and sang everything with a voice that alternated between a blazing bellow, a note-perfect tenor croon, and a sweeping falsetto. His guitar of choice, a 12-string acoustic, was run through enough distortion pedals to create a powerful electric sound the equal of any of their more popular alt-rock brethren. The band was loved and respected by their peers, and played huge stages with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. But Phillips’s solo career has been decidedly different. The Sturm und drang is gone, the distortion pedals locked away. What’s left is the quiet, tender stuff. That’s fine by itself, because Phillips writes and sings so beautifully. Walking In The Green Corn, a meditation on his Native American heritage, is full of lovely ballads. The instrumentation is very spare, and Phillips sings in a “don’t-wake-the-kids” voice throughout. It gives the album a quiet, dreamlike sound. It also makes the songs blend together. The album is a coherent whole, but the songs don’t stand out individually. Conversely, all ten of the songs are stunning but listening to all ten songs in a row is a bit boring. This was the problem that plagued Phillips’s last album Little Moon, which featured six straight ballads on side two. It makes the album difficult to review because the songs are so good, but the cumulative effect of them is a drowsy haze. As such, Walking In The Green Corn is a nearly perfect Autumn album to be playing in the background while enjoying the falling leaves and the first fires on cool nights, but it’s not something you’d play at a party or when you want an active listening experience. It’s a soundtrack, and a good one. But it’s not built for sitting by the stereo and listening.
- Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original Soundtrack—Big Star. They’re probably the greatest lost band of rock history, an act whose legend far outstrips their actual accomplishments. But even as legends, Big Star remains largely unknown. They sold very few albums. The original, best, lineup released only one LP. Their third, and final, album is a notoriously difficult listen swinging between the pop perfection of songs like “Thank You Friends” and the stark, harrowing “Holocaust”. Now comes Nothing Can Hurt Me, the soundtrack to a new documentary about Big Star, featuring demos, alternate mixes, and random ephemera. The audience for this release is the same audience for all Big Star releases: a tiny, obsessive group of fans that hangs on every note. The beauty of the soundtrack is that it hangs together like a real album, making it a great place for a new fan to start. With the exceptions of “Thank You Friends” and “Back Of A Car” all the major Big Star classics are here and sounding cleaner, crisper, and better than ever. In some cases, like “In The Street” (known to some in a bastardized form as the theme song to That ’70s Show), the difference in the mix is remarkable. The vocals are clearer and the music practically explodes out of the speakers. In most cases, the difference is more subtle. What it all means is that this release is not really necessary. The essential Big Star albums remain #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers, and they remain crucial listening experiences for anyone who wonders what the Beatles might have sounded like if they’d continued into the 1970s. But while it’s not necessary, there’s also no denying that this soundtrack is a festival of delights. For the die-hard fan the different mixes are great fun (and the new mix of Chris Bell’s solo song “I Am The Cosmos” is considerably better than the muddy mix on the original CD release of Bell’s album); for the new fan who wouldn’t know the difference this is still an album that has one perfect pop song after another. Based on the music alone, this soundtrack delivers in spades.
Andy Hummel, bass player for the legendary cult band Big Star, is dead at the age of 59 after battling cancer for the past couple of years. Jody Stephens is now the sole remaining member of this great band. Hummel didn’t get the name recognition or icon status of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell, but he wrote some great songs like “Way Out West,” and “The India Song,” and co-wrote the amazing “Back Of A Car” and “Life Is White.” RIP.
Word is out today that Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of the Box Tops, and one of the guiding forces behind the awesome Big Star has passed away.
Chilton first became prominent as the voice behind “The Letter,” the great Box Tops song from 1967 with which Joe Cocker later had a big hit. Despite the hits with the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby,” “Neon Rainbow”), it was his tenure in Big Star, and the pop perfection that they released, that immortalized Chilton. Despite the fact that Big Star never became even moderately well-known, their influence as one of the original, seminal power pop bands of the 1970s stretches wide and far. Much like the Velvet Underground, the reverberations created by Big Star are still being heard today. R.E.M. and Wilco owe a huge debt to Big Star, and Chilton acolytes run the gamut from their #1 fanboy Paul Westerberg (who wrote the great Replacements song “Alex Chilton“) to Brendan Benson. In fact, the entire school of power pop owes a debt of thanks to Big Star.
Alex Chilton, dead at 59. RIP