I want to white out: the best of Big Star

Ground zero for the most heterosexual subgenre in rock, Big Star still sound great because Alex Chilton and Chris Bell didn’t sound like men. With their whinnying harmonies and cracked leads, they were perfect glam era heroes if they’d ever had a chance to succeed — hell, even Lou Reed eked out a gold record in 1974. In their brief catalog they scored a dozen fervid, weird classics unmatched by Weezer, the Posies, Gin Blossoms, Matthew Sweet and every poseur with hair parted down the middle holding a Stratocaster. Get past the self-parodic title “Life is White” (I’m sure it is, Alex) and the Radio City track stumbles like a drunkard through a bar, a Bakersfield-Liverpool nexus with a harmonica doing god knows what; it’s dying to fucking pass out and it won’t. This explains Big Star’s penchant for misspelling song titles (“What’s Going Ahn,” “Kizza Me”): Chilton and Bell heard notes skewed.

My favorite sessions resulted in the miscellany optimistically called Third/Sister Lovers, released in an exemplary Rykodisc edition in 1993 that’s among my most played albums. From Tonight’s the Night to Here, My Dear, the era boasted many albums chronicling the collapse of a musician’s systems of belief; Third/Sister Lovers had the mixing board experiments with echo and tracking to match (“Kangaroo” invents Joy Division). In “Take Care” and “Thank You Friends,” Chilton played the weary troubadour shaking the dust off his sandals that I expect from Merle Haggard. Finally, fans don’t need to know a thing about Bell to hear the sexual tensions in his and Chilton’s harmonies. Think of Chilton imagining that Bell’s at the other mike as he sings “You Can’t Have Me.” Exceptions noted, Chilton’s the only figure in the mid 1970s writing love songs who didn’t succumb to received misogyny. I can’t imagine Neil Young writing “She’s a schemer and she makes me mad /But I love her a lot those lonely nights” (maybe David Johansen could); he was too much the formalist anyway to commit to feeling normal things.

1. You Can’t Have Me
2. September Gurls
3. Kizza Me
4. Kangaroo
5. Thirteen
6. O My Soul
7. She’s a Mover
8. Thank You Friends
9. Jesus Christ
10. The Ballad of El Goodo
11. In the Street
12. Holocaust
13. When My Baby’s Beside Me
14. What’s Going Ahn
15. Downs
16. Way Out West
17. Feel
18. O Dana
19. The India Song
20. Take Care

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One Response to I want to white out: the best of Big Star

  1. Yes, all these, roughly in this order, but “Give Me Another Chance” in the Top 3 for me.

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