on 14 September 2006
Big Stars' previous record Radio City was the one packed with all the hits, "September Girls", "Back Of A Car" etc. Only there weren't any hits. In fact the record didn't sell very well at all. On paper it was the perfect collection of FM friendly anthems which should've catapulted songwriter Alex Chilton into the big league, but due to record label indifference and other circumstances Big Stars' name remained a footnote.
It was against this backdrop of hostility and doubt that that Big Star entered the studio to record their haunting, final (not counting 2005's lacklustre "In Space") effort.
Due to contractual wrangles and the eventual break-up of Big Star the album was never given an official release and so it is unclear as to the track-listing Chilton originally intended. As such the CD release is schizophrenic, which may or may not add to its appeal depending on ones' tastes. It probably features outtakes which were not intended for inclusion.
This dichotomy however is not entirely due to the posthumous nature in which this collection was compiled. Chilton throughout his messy, sporadic career has released rampantly uncommercial and wilfully self-destructive music and this record seems to be where the seeds of this deconstruction were sown.
Book ended against pleasant cuts such as "Kizza Me" and "Thank You Friends" which would've fitted nicely on either of their previous releases sit unrelentingly bleak tracks such as "Holocaust". This spooky, unsettled, funereal mood returns again and again as the record progresses creating an overall sense of extreme discomfort. Bravely "Third/SisterLovers" disregards the accessibility which could've made Big Star popular in favour of something far more challenging and unproven. This is Chilton's masterpiece, the last thing he ever did which is worth listening to. It's flawed in places and probably self-indulgent too but that doesn't detract from the many fascinating highlights that are scattered throughout it.
Tucked towards the end there is a song called "Dream Lover" which is so delicate and fragile in its spectral construction that at any given moment it seems to be teetering on the brink of imminent self-collapse. It has no discernible beat, the lyrics don't say very much and at times the musicians appear to be playing different tunes at different times and yet, for reasons I can't fathom, this curious and indefinable piece of music may be one of the most beguiling and beautiful things I've ever heard.
on 11 September 2000
So you think you're Alex Chilton, but you might not be sure what that means any more.
Once upon a time your baby just wrote you a letter (when your baby was Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham) and you were the blue-eyed-soul singer of teen pop sensation The Box Tops (The Letter, Cry Like A Baby, Soul Deep). That wasn't good enough for you: you're being told what to do far too much, your manager won't get off your back and you only get to record your own songs for album fillers and b-sides to singles.
So you quit The Box Tops, and hang out in New York trying to get a solo career going (where you meet one of your heroes Roger McGuinn, but don't really know what to say to him). Then you head back to your home town of Memphis with your songs, which you record but no-one releases (until 1997: the brilliantly-titled '1970'). You meet an old friend Chris Bell who has a band called IceWater. You join, rehearse, write and record. you change the name to Big Star. You come up with 'No.1 Record': the critics call it a brilliant debut but the Ardent Records' distribution arrangements are so bad, nobody can buy it. You split up, and then reunite for a critic's convention one-off. It goes so well you get back together again, and record another album 'Radio City', during which Chris Bell quits (thinking you've nicked all the credit). Once again, the critics rave. Once again, nobody can get hold of a copy. You do some gigs as a three-piece (see 'Big Star Live' and 'Nobody Can Dance'), but these don't help.
You also start drinking heavily and taking a lot of drugs. You are not-a-little pissed off about things.
So you go back into the studio with local hero Jim Dickinson as producer. All that really remains of Big Star is you and drummer Jody Stephens, and others come in to help pretty much ad hoc.
The sessions are a sprawling mess. The songs are a good reflection of your anger, despair and contempt. This is uneasy listening: it is basically the soundtrack to a person on the brink of cracking up (totally different from Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' musically, but really close emotionally).
The songs have a fragile intensity to which words can't really do justice. They range from the stately, stoned contempt of 'Holocaust' to the bouncy, libertine teasing of 'You Can't Have Me' and then manic, almost contemptuous sprint through the Killer's 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On'. And you find time to go back to the part-inspiration for the Big Star sound (British Invasion) with a canter through The Kinks' 'All Day And All Of The Night'. The playing is superb when it wants to be and beautifully sloppy when it doesn't care. The production does the whole thing justice.
This album is probably more full of pain and anger than beauty (on the first Big Star albums, these elements are more closely balanced). It's often described as Alex Chilton's first solo album, but it's still recognisably related to the other Big Star records.
Proving true to form, the record company didn't release it for three years.
This isn't a flawed masterpiece. It's a messy masterpiece. You should start with the first two albums (now available on one CD), but then if you like them you should definitely get this to find out how the story ends.
This is the excellent 1992 Rykodisc reissue of the classic cult album from 1975 that has to rank as one of the darkest albums in rock'n'roll history.
Alex Chilton and what remained of Big Star from #1 Record/Radio City (their first brilliant releases)- Jody Stephens and producer Jim Dickinson crafted this bleak masterpiece. It opens with Kizza Me, which feels like a thousand come downs and is a manic song between Don't Lie to Me & David Bowie's Aladdin Sane (the sinister piano particularly). Thank You Friends is as great as any prime sleaze period Stones (Let it Bleed to Exile on Main St), also quite close to the ragged Neil Young of Tonight's the Night/Time Fades Away&On the Beach...Big Black Car is where the maudlin balladeering kicks in, a valium fade of a song. Jesus Christ is a classic song, as many hooks as earlier songs like In the Street & September Gurls. The subject feels very odd & you're reminded that lots of people commit suicide at Christmas...
Next is a cover of The Velvet Underground's Femme Fatale, which is quite out there when you realise the Velvets were as cult as Big Star are at this point in time (similarly Bowie & Roxy Music were influenced by Lou & co). The backing vocals by Lesa Aldredge are lovely...O, Dana is a mid paced pop song, with strange Peter Hook-styled bass. Just as you think the album isn't as dark as its reputation suggests, there comes Holocaust.
I have known this song since the early 1990's when I heard This Mortal Coil's version from It'll End in Tears (sung by the brilliant Howard Devoto), the lyrics are probably as bad as it gets. This is the sound of mental torture. It makes me think of suicidal actresses like Jean Seberg & Anna Karina, oh so bleak. I think the chorus sums up the joke of human existence, still Chilton continued and survived- which I think is the point. The final line is probably the best line in a song ever: "you're a holocaust"- rather than flirting with the final solution, Chilton alludes to the absolute horror and the kind of destruction that there are no words for as a metaphor for the low's detailed here. The sparse feel of the song is a fitting mood for the great Kangaroo (also covered by This Mortal Coil & later by Jeff Buckley), which conversely has one of the greatest opening lines ever- "I first saw you/you had on blue jeans"- which feels as great as the prose of Denis Johnson or a film like Last Tango in Paris...
...Stroke it Noel lets the light back in, gorgeous falling strings whose influence is more than apparent on REM albums like Automatic for the People. Jody Stephens offers the brilliant For You, which is a great pop song and could easily sit on earlier BS albums (though I think it has a White Album feel). You Can't Have Me returns to the sound of the first two songs, with experimental synth reminiscent of Baba O'Riley-Who. This is a relative of songs like The Smiths' Paint a Vulgar Picture & Nirvana's Rape Me...The sublime acoustic Nightime is up next and opens almost a mini-suite of resigned transcendent songs (think Nick Drake, think Mark Eitzel, think Will Oldham)- with Blue Moon (too great for words) and the closing Take Care- there is an idea of hope. Somewhere...
This edition comes with not only a great cover (and shouts of appreciation to This Mortal Coil, The Posies & Teenage Fanclub amongst others) but five bonus tracks. Dream Lover is odd stuff, not far from Dennis Wilson's Fallin' in Love in feel, while Downs is a song that Chilton is rumoured to have sabotaged for any commercial possibilities it may have had (not very apprent here). Then there are three covers- Nature Boy, 'Till the End of the Day & Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On- which feel like Chilton trying to go back to that place where The Box Tops came from (and not being able). The Jerry Lee Lewis cover sounds like a very black joke.
Third/Sister Lovers is a brilliant album, this edition the definitive version thus far- though if it's reissued again, can we have a lyric sheet please?
on 10 December 2007
Hitting the mark somewhere between 'Plastic Ono Band' and Brian Wilson's abandoned 'Smile' sessions, Alex Chilton proves to his audience that he doesn't need the chart topping success of the aformentioned to reach the conclusive end of his artistic peak, such as Lennon and Wilson had reached theirs' in the midst of the groups inner struggles, incohesiveness, substance abuse, and the overall line straddling between inspiration and frustration.
In fact, Chilton's career, which really can be seen as spanning a mere three records, is almost the polar opposite of those of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Yet, ironically, the artistic commitment is very much the same nonetheless, thus spawning some of the most groundbreaking music of its era. Third/Sister Lovers is the perfect marriage of the isolated angst of Lennon's solo output coupled with the rich, romantic ambience of Pet Sounds.
Without this record, #1 Record and Radio City would be clearly dismissed as the works of a great rock band with an exceptionally gifted songwriter alone. It the knowledge of the mythic status (which only grows each year) of this record that propells the previous Big Star albums into more of a 'bigger picture' motif, much like a Dali painting or a Kubrik film; slow and cerebral, yet spontaneous and violent at the same time; ultimately, creating quite a hellish experience in the end. Such as the effect of Pet Sounds and the White Album, Third stands as a timeless work of art that ensures the status of a small Memphis trio who were much more than your average power pop rockers.
on 17 January 2009
There are bleak albums and then there is "Third". There is nothing quite so unhinged in the whole rock canon (there is not even an agreed track listing for the album), so swaying back and forth between manic lows and forced cheery highs as "Third".
"Thank You Friends" is probably the best Big Star song there is, tainted with a compelling dash of bitterness. "Jesus Christ" is the best Christmas song you'll never, ever hear on FM radio. And "Holocaust" is one of those rare songs that instantly bring down a weight of foreboding on any listener. And when Alex Chilton sings "I'd rather shoot a woman than a man" it's simply unblievable that he could consider anyone but himself.
Quite simply, "Third" is the sound of depressives being forced to write happy songs -at gunpoint.
on 6 February 2011
In 1974 Alex Chilton's head was not in a good place, as even the most superficial listen to Sister Lovers will show. Commercial failure on top of "personal problems" led Chilton to push away even further from the mainstream than Radio City had (for all it's supposed power pop influence Radio City was only pop in some alternate universe). As he was still the golden boy of that weird Memphis scene centred around Ardent Studio he had pretty well carte blanche to do what he wanted. Obviously what he wanted to do was to further sever his links to his hit-making past and make a record that sounded like little else before. Although such wacko's as Syd Barrett and Skip Spence are often brought up as comparisons, Chilton had little in common with them. Despite all the rumours about drink and drugs it is quite clear that Chilton was no madman here, for all it's oddness this record is the sound of a skilled musical brain aiming for something, even if at times it is not clear exactly what that is. In fact the most apt comparison is Lou Reed's Berlin, the sound of which is echoed throughout this record. Indeed the sound here is full of spaces, some of which may be intentional and some of which may be due to simply being unfinished. The lyrics, such as they can be interpreted, are fragmentary hints at a deep malaise. Most of the tracks here have something to recommend them. O Dana, Nightime and Kangaroo are baffling songs full of beauty; Take Care, Stroke It Noel and Blue Moon are twisted baroque pop that look back to The Left Banke. The highlight for me always used to be the crepuscular reading of Femme Fatale with lovely guitar from Steve Cropper, with it's eventual appearance on disc (it was not on either of the two vinyl versions I own) it's place has been taken by Dream Lover, a tired but infinitely wonderful, archetypally Memphis song mixing Chilton's Anglophile tendency with subdued soul. Not everything is great, most of the rockers are simply sloppy (and not in a good way) and the much praised Holocaust crosses the line from depressed insight into juvenile angst. Overall though this is a totally unique record. It sounded like nothing else when it was recorded or when it was released in various forms in the late 70's. It still sounds unique today.
Chilton would never come close to making anything near as good as this again. Given the obvious cost to him involved in making this it would have been selfish to even hope for that.
on 5 June 2007
After their previous two albums had failed to sell, mainly because of poor distribution and promotion by their label Stax, a label famous for R&B, this was supposed to be Big Star's last stab at success. By this time bassist Andy Hummel had left disillusioned by the bands failure to make a commercial breakthrough, so only Alex Chilton and drummer Jodie Stephens remained. Unfortunately the initial optimism at the outset of the project soon turned to despair and many of the songs here are the sound of a young man, Chilton, suffering a breakdown. However,suffering so often produces great art, and songs such as Nightime,Kangaroo and particularly the desolate beauty of Take Care are wonderfully unique and beautiful creations of popular music. But in truth this album is not without its flaws and if you haven't heard this album before prepare yourself for moments of perplexity.
on 23 April 2016
If, like me, you're a bit cynical about most 'lost classic' albums, I invite you to lower that raised eyebrow for this one. For a start, it properly does sound like nothing else before or since: "The Byrds recording their answer to Lou Reed's 'Berlin' LP in a deserted Tennessee mansion" is about the closest I can get to a comparison. And despite its rep as a bleak, harrowing album it's a stunning feat of inspired (however painfully) songwriting perfectly framed by eerily exquisite, darkly beautiful arrangements and production. It's hard to think of a band who suffered a bigger discrepancy between artistic excellence and commercial success than Big Star... all the more reason to consider this an essential purchase.
on 15 December 2004
You may need a spot of counselling after tangling with this. Traumatic and beautiful.
on 5 August 2015
One of the best