Big Star tribute album
Big Star Small World, a long-lost tribute album featuring various artists' recordings of songs by Big Star, was released last week on the Koch label. This album was originally intended to be released in 1998, but its original distributor folded before its release date, and it is now finally seeing the light of day. It was executive-produced by Jody Stephens, Big Star's drummer. Time has not been kind to this collection; four of the participating bands (Gin Blossoms, Afghan Whigs, Whiskeytown, and Idle Wilds) have since broken up, and a few of the other artists (Juliana Hatfield, Teenage Fanclub) have undeservedly faded into indie-label oblivion.
Tribute albums in general tend to be tired exercises that end up making their subjects seem trivial, usually because the participants are less talented than the original artist, and they simply bring the subject's music down to their level. Big Star Small World is fortunately not one of those cases, but it's also no unearthed treasure. None of the song remakes are bad, but none of them are likely to knock your socks off.
Many of the tracks are merely faithful recreations of the originals. The only two songs that differ much from their original versions are Wilco's dreamy take on "Thirteen" (interesting, but not great) and Kelly Willis' country rendition of "When My Baby's Beside Me" (one of the high points of the collection).
Matthew Sweet's faithful remake of "Ballad Of El Goodo" is well done, which was probably a given. (Mike Mills of REM played bass on that song, and Jody Stephens played drums). The Gin Blossoms made an exact replica of "Back Of A Car", albeit with the predictable but likable Gin Blossoms sound. Idle Wilds do an almost exact soundalike of "You Get What You Deserve", even mimicking the original's vocals.
The Afghan Whigs didn't change "Nightime" much, but they put a personal stamp on it just by being themselves. Whiskeytown's version of "Give Me Another Chance" is distinguished by Ryan Adams' sleazy alt-country vocal. Juliana Hatfield flubs her rendition of "Don't Lie To Me", mainly because her baby voice doesn't suit the ferocious song well. (She does have two male back-up singers joining in, but it doesn't help much). I wish Hatfield had chosen a different song; personally, I've always thought her song "For The Birds" was musically similar to Big Star's "For You".
It's no surprise that Teenage Fanclub and the Posies, two very Big Star-like bands by nature, turn in good respective versions of "Jesus Christ" and "What's Goin' Ahn", with the benefit of better sound than the originals.
The CD's final track is a "new" Big Star song called "Hot Thing", recorded by Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. That song was previously released on the 2003 compilation Big Star Story. It's a loose r&b number that bears little resemblance to the power pop of Big Star's '70's albums, but anyone who has heard this lineup's recent studio album In Space probably suspected as much.
Bottom line: Big Star Small World is worthwhile, though not essential, for those who love Big Star's music. For anyone else, it may not hold much interest.
In related news: a new album is coming on July 18th from Golden Smog, a supergroup featuring Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Big Star's Jody Stephens, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and three members of the Jayhawks. Another Fine Day is the first Golden Smog album since...1998. Is this all just a coincidence?