During their all too short lifespan, Big Star were a brilliant band who could not catch a break (their influence is still wildly out of proportion with the size of their audience), and for years this tribute album didn't seem destined for a brighter fate than the group who inspired it. Compiled by an independent label called Ignition Records with the participation of original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Big Star Small World was scheduled for release in the spring of 1998, but Ignition went under before the album ever made it way into stores, and the project sat in limbo until Koch Records obtained the rights to the tapes in 2006. As a result, Big Star Small World features tracks from three bands who no longer exist (the Afghan Whigs, Whiskeytown, and Idle Wilds), while two others have managed to split up and reunite during the eight-year waiting period (the Posies and the Gin Blossoms). One can be excused for wishing that after such a long gestation Big Star Small World would be some sort of landmark in the land of the tribute album, but that isn't quite the case. While pretty much everyone onboard sounds pleased as punch to be paying homage to Alex Chilton and his partners in power pop, too many of the performances on Big Star Small World sound like slavish covers of the original recordings (especially Juliana Hatfield's "Don't Lie to Me," the Gin Blossoms' "Back of a Car," and "The Ballad of El Goodo" from Matthew Sweet). The best tracks tend to be the ones that put a new spin on the songs, such as the Afghan Whigs' ominous stroll through "Nighttime," Teenage Fanclub's sprightly and Byrds-ian take on "Jesus Christ," and a cover of "What's Goin' Ahn" from the Posies that suggests they remembered well the lessons on Frosting on the Beater. And while neither Kelly Willis nor Wilco add anything especially unusual on their contributions, they get over on the strength of their delivery, with Willis' gorgeous country pipes buoying "When My Baby's Beside Me," while Jeff Tweedy is all glorious wonder and confusion as he sings "Thirteen." Big Star Small World's anti-climax comes with what was supposed to be its most important moment -- Big Star cut a new song for this, their first studio material since their 1993 live reunion, but "Hot Thing" is an uninspired R&B pastiche that has little in common with the pop genius of the group's salad days. There's just enough good stuff on Big Star Small World to justify its belated release, but not enough to make it essential to anyone besides obsessive fans of either Big Star or the artists included.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming