Big Star "In Space"

In Space, the first studio album in 30 years from the early-'70's power pop band Big Star, was released this past Tuesday. Big Star have been called the Velvet Underground of power pop. During their initial existence, Big Star's albums only sold a few thousand copies apiece, but they are now regarded as a major influence on countless bands that followed.

The Memphis-based band was led by former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton. The original quartet was rounded out by singer/guitarist Chris Bell (who died in a 1979 car crash), drummer Jody Stephens, and bassist Andy Hummel. The lineup that recorded In Space consists of Chilton, Stephens, and two members of the Seattle power-pop band called the Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. This is the same Big Star lineup that recorded the 1993 album Live At Missouri University, currently available as Extended Versions.

Big Star played Beatles-and-Byrds style pop at a time when it was out of fashion. Their 1972 debut album #1 Record was a polished album that featured vocal turns by all four members. The 1974 follow-up Radio City was recorded after Bell quit the band. Chilton dominated the album, and it had a more quirky sound than its predecessor. Their third album, known as Third/Sister Lovers, was a strange and haunting work that was virtually a Chilton solo album (Stephens was the only other original member left). Chilton threw pop convention to the winds and played music the way he felt it -- and it was clear that he felt pain.

Strangely enough, In Space seems to follow that same trajectory in the space of one 12-song, 39-minute disc. The first four tracks are reminiscent of #1 Record. They are the most accessible, and offer vocal turns by all four members. The opening track "Dony" is sung by Chilton, "Best Chance" is sung by Stephens, "Lady Sweet" and "Turn My Back On The Sun" are sung by the Posies members. All of them are decent examples of the power pop sound that Big Star are noted for. But the rest of the album is dominated by Chilton. The fifth track, "Love Revolution", seems to begin the Radio City part of the album. Not that the strange r&b number resembles the songs on that album, but Radio City was the album on which Big Star turned into a rougher-edged showcase for Chilton's quirkiness, and the same description applies to most of the remaining tracks on In Space. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the next transition takes place -- perhaps it is during the instrumental "Aria, Largo" -- but by the time the album closes with "Makeover", it has taken on the loose spontaneity of Third/Sister Lovers (though it thankfully doesn't take on that album's downbeat tone).

Was this intentional, or did it just work out that way? It's probably the latter. In any case, In Space is a respectable power pop album, but it doesn't live up to the Big Star reputation. Did we have any right to expect it to? Not realistically. Everyone knows that you can't go home again, and anyone who has heard Alex Chilton's unconventional solo albums knows how far he has strayed from the music he made 30-plus years ago. In fact, Chilton does not hold Big Star in the same high regard that many others do. Chilton once told Goldmine magazine interviewer Cub Koda:

"In the case of Big Star, production is the whole thing. All the songs are mediocre".

Fortunately, the two guys from the Posies do have a reverence for Big Star. They and Stephens provide the necessary backing that keeps In Space from resembling one of Chilton's peculiar solo albums. Still, In Space is not the place to start if you haven't yet discovered Big Star. If anything, it's the place to end, at least among the studio albums. For the true Big Star experience, start with #1 Record/Radio City (which contains the complete first two albums on one disc), followed by Third/Sister Lovers, and then try In Space.