Expanded edition of reformulated Big Starâ€™s 2004 return to the studio
After reformulating Big Star with the Posies John Auer and Ken Stringfellow in 1993, Alex Chilton eventually mustered up the interest to record a new album in 2004, and release it the following year. But in ways similar to Big Starâ€™s third album (and to be fair, even the Chilton-led, mostly Bell-free Radio City), one might ask what it means to be a Big Star album. There is material here – largely from Auer, Stringfellow, and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens – that harkens back to the bandâ€™s early-70s British pop inspired beginnings. But there are also strong currents of Alex Chiltonâ€™s rag-tag solo work, and his propensity to record cover songs. Itâ€™s difficult to hear this as continuous with the bandâ€™s earlier work, though there are moments; itâ€™s not an erszatz doo wop band touring under someone elseâ€™s name, but it may be more accurate to think of this Big Star moniker as more ancestry than identity.
Despite having acceded to performing as Big Star, Chilton retained an uneasy relationship with the groupâ€™s earlier material. The new album was apparently born out of both his boredom with the narrow setlist he was willing to play on stage, and the opportunity to collaborate with bandmates with whom he enjoyed making music. After ten years of sporadic gigs, the group was really solid, rooted in the legacy material they performed, but not beholden to its ghosts. Chilton evidenced little interest is writing material for the new album that echoed his past, leaving it to his bandmates to mine the bandâ€™s legacy. Jon Auer and Jody Stephensâ€™ co-writes touch most closely on the bandâ€™s earlier work, with both â€œBest Chanceâ€ and â€œFebruaryâ€™s Quietâ€ offering guitar riffs and melodies that fit comfortably with the bandâ€™s first two albums. Stephensâ€™ drumming on the former highlights just how fundamental he was to Big Starâ€™s sound, and the closing chord of the latter song will provoke aural deja vu.
Chiltonâ€™s funky â€œLove Revolutionâ€ and â€œDo You Want to Make Itâ€ are more in line with his solo career than earlier Big Star, and the Olympicsâ€™ â€œMine Exclusivelyâ€ is just the sort of obscure cover that had long since become a Chilton trademark. Chiltonâ€™s post-Big Star penchant for spontaneous, raw performances threads through several tracks, including the rock â€˜nâ€™ roll rave-up â€œA Whole New Thing,â€ a ploddingly-delivered arrangement of Georg Muffatâ€™s baroque â€œAria, Largo,â€ and the cacophonous closer, â€œMakeover.â€ Thereâ€™s craft to be heard, as on Ken Stringfellowâ€™s Beach Boysâ€™ pastiche â€œTurn My Back on the Sun,â€ but itâ€™s not the sort of crystalline sounds the original band recorded in the early 1970s.
The original album is expanded on this 2019 reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks that include songwriter demos, an a cappella take of Auerâ€™s Beach Boys tribute, a rough mix of â€œDony,â€ and â€œHot Thing,â€ a track originally recorded by Big Star for their own tribute album Big Star, Small World. The demos are particularly interesting as working documents that sketch the initial inspiration and evolving views of the singer-songwriters. Liner notes from Auer, Stringfellow, co-producer/engineer Jeff Powell, assistant engineer Adam Hill, and Rkyo Records exec Jeff Rougvie offer first-person memories and warm anecdotes of what turned out to be a one-off studio effort. In retrospect, this is a nice coda to the Big Star legend, if not exactly a straightforward element of the canon. [Â©2020 Hyperbolium]