Big Star

Big Star Story

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If you've collected pop records for any length of time, you have come across Big Star and know that the band is the standard-bearer of power pop, along with Badfinger and the Raspberries. Chances are, you've plunked down a little cash and purchased #1 Record/Radio City, a single CD that contains their first two albums, two records that remain the standard by which post-British Invasion guitar pop is judged. Then, there's also a good chance that you've picked up Third/Sister Lovers, a moody album recorded by Alex Chilton as the band, which at that time consisted of him and drummer Jody Stephens, was falling apart. And then, if you're really dedicated, you've picked up I Am the Cosmos, the posthumous album by Chris Bell, the singer/songwriter and Big Star visionary who left the band prior to recording Radio City. That's a grand total of three CDs, and that ain't all that much to own for the record collectors who, after all these years, are virtually the entirety of Big Star's audience. But if they really needed more Big Star, there was the erratic but valuable 1992 album Big Star Live, which captured a radio concert from 1974, the 1999 collection Nobody Can Dance, which is split between rehearsals and a live show, and for those who just can't get enough, the live 1993 reunion Columbia, featuring Chilton and Stephens backed by members of the Posies. That brings the grand total of all official Big Star discs up to the whopping total of six discs. Again, not that much, especially for record collectors.

And, let's face it, everybody who knows about Big Star -- particularly in 2003, over 30 years since the release of the band's first album -- will either have the first two albums or, if they don't, they know what to get. To be introduced to Big Star is as simple as buying the two-fer. They don't need an introductory single disc, since they not only did not have hits but most of their best work is on the two-fer, but if one were going to exist, it could work by narrowing it down to their most brilliant, indelible pop moments. Big Star Story does not do that. It does provide a jumble of classic album tracks, live cuts, alternate takes, rehearsals, and a new song from the '90s that proves that it is possible to suck and blow at the same time. Ironically for a collection billed as a "story," this has no narrative, throwing chronology to the wind for no discernible purpose since this doesn't even have the flow of a good live show. Worst of all, the disc is cluttered with these live tracks and rehearsals, yet nowhere on the back cover or in the liner notes is it mentioned that these are alternate takes! (For the record, "Don't Lie to Me," "You Get What You Deserve," and "Mod Lang" are all taken from the collectors-only Nobody Can Dance, as is a live cover of T. Rex's "Baby Strange," while "Thirteen" is from Big Star Live, as is "Motel Blues.") Then, there's the flat-out fact that much of the dark Third material doesn't fit with the band's overarching pop aesthetic -- a problem amplified by the non-chronological sequencing, since "Holocaust" would make sense at the end of the record, as the band is falling apart, but it makes absolutely no sense as the fifth song here, following "The Ballad of El Goodo" and totally disrupting momentum. Finally, there are simply too many songs missing: "Feel," "When My Baby's Beside Me," "My Life Is Right," "O My Soul," "Way Out West," "She's a Mover," "I'm in Love With a Girl," "Kizza Me," "Thank You Friends," and "You Can't Have Me."

Since Big Star is a band without charting singles, all the hits are in the mind of the listener, so it makes such omissions seem particularly egregious. Even so, the spotty selection and sequencing give Big Star Story less impact than it should have; it seems like more is missing than actually is due to that lousy sequencing. And the liner notes by Alex Chilton devotee Rick Clark fit the project; the testimonial may be heartfelt, but it feels like the details of the band are missing, and the accompanying Pete Frame-styled Big Star family tree is a good idea executed haphazardly, with R.E.M. figuring more prominently than the pre-Big Star bands Ice Water and Rock City (not to mention that there are songs mentioned in the notes that aren't on the disc, and that the tree plays fast and loose with the facts: "Femme Fatale" is called the first American cover of a Lou Reed song, which simply isn't true, since Mitch Ryder & Detroit had a hit with "Rock & Roll" in 1971 and fellow Detroit heroes Brownsville Station covered "Sweet Jane" two years later, all before Chilton warbled "Femme Fatale" for Third). Consequently, instead of providing a good introduction, this slipshod collection does a disservice to the band's legacy. Face facts: if you're interested in Big Star, whether it's a longstanding interest or a nascent curiosity, you're going to wind up with two CDs, and then you can make a best-of that's far better than this.

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