Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Big Star: Third / Sister Lovers (1978)

(PVC [orig] / Rykodisc [reissue; horrendous cover not pictured])

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

[Review is based on the fourteen principal tracks on the Rykodisc edition; nobody in the universe knows how this record's actually supposed to be sequenced but I tend to prefer the PVC edition, only with the sides reversed.]

It was an accident. Sister Lovers was created by a disillusioned man, his faith lost in the "bottom line" mentality that had engulfed his life's work. It is thrown out with little care for how it sounds, almost no concern for the final product or for order and sense. It is a mental breakdown on record... and its beauty is harrowing, shattering, something everyone must hear. The record has no real title, no sequence, no definitive track selection. Stax went under and nobody wanted to release it. The final product, surfacing in some form four years after it was recorded, is a haunting discovery that never leaves you.

This music is different from #1 Record and Radio City in absolutely every sense. The energy and pop appeal of those records has disappeared along with Chilton's enthusiasm. Like the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, it feels like an abortion, and it is, but the magnificence of it just underneath the surface outweighs almost anything else in rock music for seduction and grace. It leaves you feeling that you have witnessed an elegy, for much more than the disintegration of a band... maybe more like a dream. Sister Lovers, mildly surreal and sonically off-kilter, sounds precisely like a dream, by turns nightmare and fantasy, never close to linear. No effort has been made to knock the songs into perfect shape to tantalize the listener, the trademark perhaps of Chilton's songwriting. This material is ragged and gloriously so... it doesn't take the easy way out, but it pulls you into its web and won't let go.

For all his unrest, Alex Chilton -- alone on this record as a disintegrating duo with drummer Jody Stephens -- always rocked with the utmost confidence, but his quicker songs here share the remainder's obsessive feeling of things-falling-apart. He's half-insane on "Kizza Me," his vocals screeched out as he's surrounded with completely extraneous piano and strings. "You Can't Have Me" attempts a "Don't Lie to Me" that sinks quickly into Jim Dickinson's reeling bed of sound, soon obscured by the elements. The dissonance is ultimately impressive, but not until after it's just strangely addictive.

The climax of the dissonance is in the record's most vital track, "Kanga Roo," a theater of paranoid soundscapes that sinks you into a universe of its own, confusing and gorgeous and bizarre and ethereal and riveting. Opening with a squeal of feedback, the song is a ghost with a bag of erotic tricks, the instruments obeying no melodic rules from a random drumbeat, the noises bouncing off the walls from all directions before Chilton's fragile voice arrives speaking in tongues. "You didn't say excuse / Knew what I was doing / We looked very fine / As we were leaving." The lyrics are poetry of the unconscious, the words of a dream that is deeply moving for reasons we cannot explain. For all his cynicism at this point, Chilton had never sacrificed himself so totally to the music before this. He has created a unique moment that startles, surprises, taunts, and ultimately comforts. It's one of the most brilliant and fascinating rock songs ever recorded.

And what does it take to conjure up something like this? Is Chilton's bitterness responsible for the subdued, magnificent insanity of "Kanga Roo" and Sister Lovers as a whole? How much can this possibly be a rejection of pop-music values when it is so impressive and, looked upon today, such a signature moment for it? The hardened creature we see here is no longer reaching out so unconditionally; he is not creating "September Gurls" or "Back of a Car" or anything so easy on the ear, and I don't think it's because those were difficult songs to write. It is not wholly unreasonable to see the sound of Sister Lovers as a result of Chilton's distress at his band's lack of success, but at the same time, its style is a linear progression from the slightly off-kilter Radio City in the same respects that the second LP went farther than the first. It was, after all, Chris Bell whose life and dreams were all poured into #1 Record and who was devastated almost beyond help when it was not a success. (Perhaps appropriately, Sister Lovers contains a tribute to another pop-music exile with a cover of "Femme Fatale.") One natural conclusion from the buried, unkempt beauty of these songs (except "Stroke It Noel," which buries nothing) is that they are not designed at all to shock a listener with disarray. Chilton is not a psychological loss; he is just hardened, and he will make lovely music but he will not give an inch. The listener must do some work of their own to uncover the power here, and that makes the songs all the more rewarding. It is in this sense that the album's disorganization makes it even more magical.

There is something appealing about the haphazard nature of some selections, but it would be unfair to cite this as a trait of the entire album. A great deal of work obviously went into elaborate productions such as "For You," a song by Jody Stephens that amounts to pop perfection and doesn't really even sound uncommercial at all, even for 1974 (or 1978). Nonetheless, a feeling of vast loss is palpable; nobody who could come up with the solemn "Big Black Car" could be thrilled with the world. That's, of course, to say nothing of "Holocaust."

"Holocaust" is one of the most unworldly, hopeless cuts in the annals of recorded rock music. No forgiveness here, and no pleasure -- "Your mother's dead / She said 'don't be afraid' / Your mother's dead / You're on your own / She's in her bed." The bleak, naked piano-driven meditation evokes John Lennon's primal-scream Plastic Ono Band. It feels as if there is no way out. Then comes the fragmented "Kanga Roo" and the world falls into place. More than a remarkable feat of production and songwriting, it's awkwardly, audaciously romantic.

Speaking of which, Bell had populated the second half of #1 Record with sweet, quiet ballads assuring his place as a master of his craft. Chilton has his own collection of acoustic popcraft on Sister Lovers -- "Nightime" is one of his most enormously affecting songs, beautiful and desperate with lyrics eloquent enough to stand up to the astonishing melody, and "Blue Moon" is as fragile as a Nick Drake cut and even more emotionally exhilarating... its production as note-perfect in its quiet, sad romance as "Mod Lang" was in its own fast-paced agenda. These gentle cuts are never simplistic; Chilton always bites as much as he croons, but you are still ready to surrender by the end of both.

It is "Stroke It Noel," however, which provides the album's must humbling grace, and it's one of the prettiest songs in anyone's catalog. Just over two minutes in length, its every second devoted to sheer magic, the strings and singing and silent suggestion of a dance swooning along with (most assuredly) the listener. Nobody has captured this so perfectly and unpretentiously; far away from the dirge of "Holocaust" is this song that exhibits Chilton's boyish enthusiasm and joy, his untouchable lyricism adorning a song of indescribably affectionate elegance. This track alone would make Big Star worth knowing and loving.

But there's more astounding pop alchemy, even if the evocative subtlety reaches its peak with "Noel" and "Roo." "Jesus Christ" is bliss, "O Dana" is joyful, teasing anger, both wrapped up in overwhelming packages... but never tidy ones. The songs stack up seemingly at random, yes, but in whatever order, they add up to so much. It is all accidental transcendence, but that's what all pop music ought to be. Chilton is doing his best even if he no longer feels that there is a purpose; it's only a bonus that he is a master of his craft.

Even with such a tiny following, Big Star never stopped caring about their audience, never stooping to insult them or careening overhead to perplex them. This is music for the people, so no wonder they were bitter about not being noticed. But they were always charged with love. "Thank You Friends" might be ironic but it doesn't matter now; it sounds like truth, and it's just what we (and they) need(ed). And "Take Care" is a landmark of supreme vitality, a band given the rare chance to say goodbye knowing they meant it, possibly knowing it wouldn't mean much to anybody but them for a good while. It means the world now; "Take Care" is a steady waltz that welcomes as much as it leaves behind. It's a final message from pioneers who got scalped and a songwriter with so much to provide. This album might be the best present any rock band has ever given. Take it, and enjoy.

[Originally written and posted in 2004 at my old website.]

Keep an Eye on the Sky (1970-74)
#1 Record (1972)
Radio City (1973)

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