Wednesday, May 28, 2008

BIG STAR: Third / Sister Lovers

Big Star - Third / Sister Lovers
Third/Sister Lovers appeals to me as if it were a dusty diary discovered under some boxes in the musty old utility room. Listening to this record is like overhearing a private conversation. The songs play out like secrects, some of them nostalgic, some of them agonizing, all of them candid.

This album has been released in a few different configurations, but the 1992 CD reissue is, luckily, what you're most likely to find. The extra tracks appended to the now-rearranged tracklist fit in seamlessly. A haunting reading of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" and the more-than-adequate run-through of The Kinks' "Till the End of the Day," for example, are welcome additions.

They aren't the only covers; even in its original form, the album contained a cover of
The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" that annihilates the forced, stilted original. This take on the song brings out a gentler element and is incredibly lovely. The "she's a femme fatale" hook becomes the indecipherable voice of some siren and Alex Chilton's vocals are fragile and pleading. Like most of the record, the arrangement feels a little uneasy; as if it were a rehearsal and the parts weren’t quite finalized. For all I know that could actually be the case, but the spontaneity that comes with that is a big part of this album’s appeal.

Perhaps as a result of the circumstances surrounding its creation (anecdotes I won’t burden you by repeating) this album is reckless, frantic and totally fearless. Alex Chilton is throwing himself into this music like most rock stars are too cool to ever do. It doesn’t feel incomplete, however.

The production is simple, with a fairly rough mix and more reverb than most would prefer. Throughout the proceeding Jody Stephens plays the drums like he’s trying to stop the kit from falling over. On "Kangaroo" and the rollicking "Kizza Me" the record actually sounds as if were in danger of coming apart at the seams, but instead of making it unfocused this gives the music it’s distinct personality; one that is anxious and pitiable. Little vocal asides ("we’re gonna get born now", "play it for me, guitarist"), that punching-the-keys piano solo in the opening track, the cowbell that appears randomly for one verse and scores of other spontaneous details crop up – the kinds of "mistakes" that are so integral to a song you can’t imagine that song without them.

A few of the tracks are familiar
Big Star territory with just slight twist. "Thank You Friends" is beautiful power-pop with only sprightly strings and gospel backup vocals to distinguish it from the first two Big Star albums, as well as the sneering, sarcastic vocals that give it an extra sinister kick. "Jesus Christ" is an is as good as anything on Radio City but with lyrics that just happen, incongruously, to be about the birth of Christ (notice the Yuletide sleigh bells on the chorus.) "You Can’t Have Me" is a great 60s garage rock nugget; all slashing electric guitar chords and retro organ, still maintaining the frustrated, depressed edge that ties this album together.

The depression really kicks in on "Big Black Car." An airy, depressing meditation on self-deception, this is a total inversion of typical power-pop car songs like "Back of a Car" (from Radio City). Listen to Chilton's falsetto in the coda for an example of what people mean when they say a piece of music gives them goosebumps. "Holocaust" is the most depressing song here, to the point where it could easily be described as "harrowing." Over simple piano chords and a weeping slide guitar, an exhausted Chilton sings from some irretrievable depth: "Everybody goes, leaving those that fall behind… your mother's dead, you’re on your own… you’re a wasted face, a sad-eyed lie, a holocaust." Faint backing vocals and a cello appear, absolutely heart-wrenching. It's the emotional centerpiece of Third/Sister Lovers.

This is what the offspring of
Astral Weeks and Pinkerton would sound like; dormitory singer-songwriter cries for help ("Get me out of here/I hate it here") floating over a serene soundscape that manages to be sparse and lush at the same time. And when Chilton sings "Girl if you’re listening, I’m sorry I can’t help it…" doesn’t it sound just a bit like "And God, if you’re listening"?

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