Monday, November 28, 2005

Review: Big Star, In Space

Big Star In Space
Ah, the dreaded reunion quandary. On the one hand, what's wrong with getting a chance to hear your favorite band (or at least the surviving member(s), or those that aren't tied up in litigation against each other) get up on stage one more time and take a run through a glorious back-catalog? On the other hand, there's something to be said for having a band's glory days preserved in perpetuity and not dragged down by an almost-certainly inferior reunion tarnished by old age and/or crass commercialism. Can there really be any doubt that the deaths of John Lennon and Joe Strummer saved us from what would have most assuredly been disastrous (or at minimum disappointing) reunion gigs, allowing the legacy of the Beatles and the Clash to remain unblemished?

So, yeah, I have mixed feelings. On occasion, the reunion can work. I've heard a few of the Pixies reunion shows on cd, and they sound every bit as tight and energetic as they did in their original incarnation (if not more so). (Then again, the Velvet Underground live reunion disc was pretty lame (at least if played alongside, say, The Quine Tapes...)

And then there's Big Star. Yes, I was ambivalent when frontman Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens reunited in 1993 (along with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of 90s power popsters the Posies) for a string of shows. But if anyone deserved a bit of cashing in, it was Big Star -- having recorded three of the greatest albums ever, to absolutely zero public appreciation, it seemed only fair that they get to capitalize on their rehabilitation among the indie rock elite of the 80s. I caught one of the reunion shows (as well as another one a decade later), and both were among the highlights of my concert-going life. Rough and ragged, sure, but just to hear those fantastic songs played live was a real treat, even if Chilton's voice was shot and Chris Bell -- who only stuck around for the first album but was still a core part of the original band -- had his parts sung by the Posies.

Now, a studio album, that's an entirely different story. We're not talking about a nostalgic trip through the past, but (arguably) an exploitive use of a much-loved name for new music wholly removed from the band's history. Sitting here today, it's hard to think of one studio "reunion" album of new material that lived up to past glories. And, needless to say, Big Star's In Space is no exception. Thirty years after the last real Big Star studio album was recorded, and even 12 years after the first reunion concert, Chilton/Stephens/Auer/Stringfellow invoke the Big Star legend for a (relatively short) album of new material... and, as predicted, it's somewhat disappointing. Alex Chilton's solo career has been a collection of intermittent pop highlights, all-out dreck, and workmanlike (if irrelevant) covers of soul, r&b, and pop standards. Which kinda sums up In Space. To its credit, about half of this is pretty damn good power pop. Had those songs been packaged as, say, a Posies EP (with special guests Alex Chilton & Jody Stephens!!), it would have been a pretty great purchase. While not quite reaching into Big Star's Radio City territory, there are catchy hooks, chiming and slashing guitars, and pleasant harmonies. "Dony" and "Best Chance We've Ever Had" are some of Chilton's more distinctive tracks in years, and "Lady Sweet" and a few others are decent Posies songs. Unfortunately, the other half of the album is largely forgettable, if not downright embarrassing. "Love Revolution" harkens back to Chilton's flirtations with disco and watered-down Motown; "Mine Exclusively" is basically Wilson Pickett (nothing wrong with that, but it's not Big Star); "Do You Wanna Make It" is as painfully dated and silly as it sounds; and the dull instrumental "Aria Largo" and noisy thrasher "Makeover" leave you scratching your head.

So, yeah, it's hard to justify paying full price for a handful if decent songs, and putting this in the same category as the three real Big Star studio albums is insulting, but somewhere over the course of 5 or 6 songs is a decent Posies/Chilton mini-album.


Post a Comment

<< Home