Roughly twelve years since making an unexpected return to the concert stage, the legendary power-pop band Big Star has released a new studio album on the Rykodisc label. Staffers George Henn and Chris M. Junior share their thoughts on the CD.
George Henn: In Space is the long-awaited first album by the latter day Big Star lineup — holdovers Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus the Posies‘ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer — and the change in personnel is quite obvious. Which is to say, it doesn’t sound much like classic Big Star at all. This is not a bad thing, just perhaps a bit unexpected to those who have seen this lineup pull off the old stuff just fine in their sporadic dates since 1993. For instance, “Lady Sweet” is a great track by some elegant harmonies, but with Stringfellow singing lead and he and Auer so prominent on the backing vocals, it sounds like it belongs on a Posies album. Elsewhere, “Turn My Back on the Sun” and “A Whole New Thing” recall the Beach Boys more than anything from the Chilton songbook.
Chris M. Junior: The dreamy “Lady Sweet” is a highlight on this disc, and it would be a nice fit on a Posies album. At the same time, it’s not a Posies track. Auer and Stringfellow seem to have totally absorbed what late Big Star co-founder Chris Bell was all about — and elegant, meticulous harmonies were a strong part of Bell’s game — that “Lady Sweet” comes across as a Bell tribute.
Giving “Lady Sweet” a run for its money are “Best Chance,” a classic power-pop song with great drum fills from Stephens; “Turn My Back on the Sun,” which conjures up thoughts of Badfinger, a onetime Big Star contemporary; and “February’s Quiet,” the melody of which is as good as it gets these days in rock ‘n’ roll.
Now for the downside: There’s enough average material on In Space that the album deserves to be titled Filling Space instead. “Love Revolution” and “Makeover” are two of the worst songs of 2005, and these guys should have realized that and left them on the cutting room floor.
Henn: You are dead-on about “Love Revolution,” which is guaranteed to make any Big Star fan cringe. If they wanted to delve into some shameless grooves, they should have saved themselves the embarrassment of writing that tune and just covered Hot Chocolate‘s “You Sexy Thing” instead. I doubt that could have turned out worse than this.
It’s enough to make you wonder what Chilton’s role was in any of this. To hear Stringfellow tell it, this album only came about when he urged Chilton to expand their live repertoire, and the record was written and recorded quite quickly. The only conclusion to be drawn here is that Chilton was a reluctant participant. Not only does he seem to bring the least to the table among the four band members, but there are not of his signature guitar riffs that defined much of the Big Star sound and made him such a legend in the first place.
At least Chilton sounds like he’s having a good enough time singing lead on the R&B cover “Mine Exclusively,” but sadly that is one of the few tracks that has a pulse on the album’s second half — which, let’s not forget, also includes the non-descript instrumental, “Aria, Largo.” This album sputters to a halt worse than my old station wagon did.
Junior: “Love Revolution” is so bad that it now officially replaces R.E.M.‘s “Radio Song” as the worst white funk song ever. And “Makeover” sure is a bad way to wrap up any album, especially a band’s first studio effort in decades.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the album for a second. Chilton’s bored-sounding vocals befit the lazy feel of “Dony,” the opening track. But his delivery doesn’t vary elsewhere, nor does it necessarily work, either. That really comes as no surprise: Chilton, either by choice, years of smoking or just natural aging, hasn’t been singing in a high register (like on previous Big Star albums) for many years.
Henn: Well, I can’t be too critical of Chilton’s voice. It sounds pretty strong to me, all things considered. And I have to admit, the first time I spun In Space, my first reaction was that it was nice just to hear him on record again. Then the realization set in that “Dony” is the kind of tune Chilton could crank out in his sleep — and maybe actually did. It’s an uninspired opener on an ultimately misguided album.
The sad part is that with Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow in such fine form on the few standout tracks, this album might have been a worthy new chapter in the band’s lore, if the foursome had perhaps devoted more time to coming up with material, and been more discerning about which tracks were included. (I shudder to think of what any tracks that did not make the cut sound like.) Instead, Big Star in this case is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Junior: You’d think that with all of the off-and-on touring these guys have done since 1993 that a few more good tunes would have materialized from sound checks. And therein lies the biggest problem — the Chilton/Stephens/Auer/Stringfellow version of Big Star works in spurts — and so does In Space.