Album Reviews: Big Star's Complete Third and More

By , Contributor
It happens with surprising frequency: an artist crafts something auspicious or even brilliant, and the record companies say “no thanks.” Decca got a shot at the fledgling Beatles and took a pass. Columbia decided that Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions—which contains his classic “Hallelujah”—wasn’t good enough to release. And then there’s the case of the ironically named Big Star, which featured guitarist/vocalist/pianist Alex Chilton (who’d scored late-sixties hits such as “The Letter” with the Box Tops), vocalist/guitarist Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens, and vocalist/bassist Andy Hummel. The group did manage to release a debut album and a follow-up, #1 Record and Radio City, that garnered deservedly strong reviews. But #1 Record didn’t climb anywhere near #1—it didn’t even crack the top 200—and neither did the second LP. By 1974, the band’s name seemed like some sort of joke.

Still, they persevered, recording a superb untitled third album that multiple labels rejected and that sat on a shelf for four years before finally being released. In the decades since, that LP has been reissued several times with a variety of covers, titles, and track lists and sequences and has slowly garnered a strong cult following. And now, more than 40 years after it was recorded, comes the The Complete Third, a definitive three-CD, 69-track collection that couples the original album to every known rough mix, alternate take, and demo, including 29 previously unreleased tracks. Also here is a well-illustrated booklet that features essays from journalist Bud Scoppa and such Big Star fans as the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs and Debbi Peterson, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills.

Quite simply, this is a masterpiece. Big Star have sometimes been pigeonholed as power-pop progenitors. That they were, but, they were also as dark and out of the mainstream as Velvet Underground, as delicate as Nick Drake, and as tuneful as the Beatles. And they reached their peak on Third. Imagine John Lennon with a joint and an acoustic guitar, channeling Lou Reed at 4 in the morning and you’ll get some sense of the mood here.

The remastered original album is only part of what makes this one of 2016’s best archival releases. On many reissues, bonus tracks do little but shed light on the recording process: they may be interesting, but you can tell why they weren’t included on the original LP. Here, though, the bulk of the added content is often little short of breathtaking. There are fantastic stripped-down versions of songs that appeared on Third; and there also magnificent readings of songs by artists who clearly rank as Big Star influences. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a cover to rival the original Beach Boys recordings of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” one of that group’s best tracks, but Big Star’s achingly beautiful harmonies and jangly guitars do the trick. Ditto this collection’s three terrific renditions of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” and covers of the Velvets’ “After Hours,” the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” and the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.”

Unfortunately, we won’t be hearing any more from the original Big Star, which has lost three of its four members: Chris Bell joined the long list of artists who died at age 27 when a car crash killed him in 1978; and Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel died only three months apart in 2010, both at age 59, from a heart attack and cancer, respectively. The good news is the catalog they left behind, and especially The Complete Third, which assures that they’ll never be forgotten.

BRIEFLY NOTED

Tami Neilson, Don’t Be Afraid. Canadian singer Tami Neilson and her band hit all the right notes on this live-in-the-studio latest effort, which draws on 1950s country, gospel, rock, and soul. Neilson seems to have patterned herself after the great pop and country singers of that era—Peggy Lee and Patsy Cline come to mind—and she frequently proves to be their equal. There are some up-tempo rave-ups here, such as “Holy Moses” and “Loco Mama,” but Neilson shines best on moody ballads like “Heavy Heart” and “Lonely,” which offer showcases for her sublime and captivating vocals. Pervading the record is the influence of her father, veteran musician Ron Neilson, who died unexpectedly while she was writing material for it—including “Bury My Body,” the last song he ever heard. The liner notes include an emotional dedication to Ron, who passed away before he could finish composing this CD’s title track. Tami and her brother Jay finished it, and they also wrote “The First Man,” which concerns a daughter’s love for her father.

Chandler Travis Philharmonic, Waving Kissyhead Vol. 2 & 1. The fact that Vol. 2 precedes Vol. 1 in the album title should give you a hint that the Massachusetts-based Chandler Travis Philharmonic tend to, as Apple used to say, “think different.” The CD, due out in February, incorporates everything from rock to Dixieland and suggests that the 20-year-old group is one of the most difficult-to-classify outfits this side of NRBQ. (A press release takes a stab at labels, noting that the band’s work has been called “alternative Dixieland,” “omnipop,” “gospel music for adults,” and “un-pop.”) There are misses as well as hits in this well-produced collection but  the latter are home runs. Among them: the power-pop, Beatles-influenced “By the Way”; the mid-tempo “Sure Gonna Miss You”; and “Air Running Backwards,” which sounds like an outtake from the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile.

Reverend Freakchild, Preachin’ Blues. Reverend Freakchild—who calls his work “a philosophical psychedelic (soul manifesting) investigation into the blues and other forms of spiritual music”— is at least as unusual as his stage name. Witness this latest CD, a solo acoustic set that he recorded live, mostly in the studios of a Portland, Oregon radio station. The quirky program mixes country blues and folk classics like the traditional “In My Time of Dyin’” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (whose last name is incorrectly listed in the credits) with Prince’s “Kiss” and Freakchild originals like “All I Got Is Now.” Between tracks, the artist dispenses his inexplicably endearing philosophy, which sounds like a product of Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties. (Sample: “You just gotta keep on truckin’ on, man. There’s a lotta beautiful things happening in this world and you gotta just hang in there and be tough, you know what I’m saying?”) You’ll find more such pronouncements—and a lot more quirkiness—in a PDF included on the disk, which delivers a 43-page academic-style paper by Freakchild called “Transcendence through Music: Buddha and the Blues.” It’s frequently entertaining, and so is this music, which includes excellent blues guitar work and personality-packed vocals.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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