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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Big Star: In Space


1) Dony; 2) Lady Sweet; 3) Best Chance; 4) Turn My Back On The Sun; 5) Love Revolution; 6) February's Quiet; 7) Mine Exclusively; 8) A Whole New Thing; 9) Aria, Largo; 10) Hung Up With Summer; 11) Do You Wanna Make It; 12) Makeover.

What a sweetly awful album — well worth hearing, actually, if only to procure oneself a prover­bial example of how everything can go utterly wrong when one thinks way too much about getting everything just right.

When Chilton and Stephens were making Third, they may have been wasted, but one thing they were not trying to consciously make was a «Big Star recipé». The album simply reflected the state of Alex Chilton's head at the time, give or take a few neurons. Fast forward to 2005 now, by which time a revamped, strictly nostalgia-oriented «Big Star», consisting of Chilton, Stephens, and two members of The Posies, a new-school US power pop band with plenty of their own en­tertainment value, had been touring the local circuits for more than a decade, concentrating al­most exclusively on a #1 Record/Radio City setlist. With the Big Star legend riding strong and re-gaining in popularity among the hipster crowds, somebody must have come up with the idea of giving people a little bit more of what they want — and this is how In Space, a collection of 12 bona fide power pop songs co-written by Chilton, Auer, and Stringfellow, was born.

First things first: do not believe those that say «this does not sound like Big Star at all!» (and pay even less attention to those who retort with «well, times change, don't they, why should you ex­pect this to sound like the Big Star of old?»). Because In Space does sound very much like Big Star. The idea was, by all means, to make an album that sounded very much like Big Star, and since it is not tremendously difficult to make an album that sounds like Big Star, unless you are a complete musical moron, there was no way In Space would not end up sounding like Big Star. Pop rhythms; guitars that glitter and jangle; guitars that play colorful distorted pop rhythms; psy­chedelic vocal harmonies; lyrical themes of sun, summer, and sentimentalism; occasional break­throughs into more rocking territory; retro-oriented production values — what have I missed?

The correct criticism to make is not that In Space «does not sound like (classic) Big Star»; the correct criticism is that it tries too hard to sound like classic Big Star, and concentrates so much on the form that it totally forgets about substance. The absolute majority of these songs — nay, all of these songs, without a single exception — are melodically bland, three-times derivative, and completely devoid of any artistic sense. Ballads, pop rockers, hard rockers, whatever, every­thing here is a cliché, pulled out of the dusty storage box full of Beatlisms, Beachboyisms, and, somewhere at the bottom, Marcbolanisms and a few other ism-ism-isms. Sometimes those isms are fully intentional, which does not make them any better: for instance, ʽTurn My Back On The Sunʼ begins with a «deceptive» quotation from ʽWouldn't It Be Niceʼ, which would be acceptable if the song itself were any good, but it isn't, so it wouldn't.

As for original hooks, there simply aren't any. None whatsoever. Which is actually quite amazing: so maybe Chilton's gift for songwriting had gone down the drain as a combined result of too much stress in the 1970s and largely laying off the business in the subsequent decades, but Auer and Stringfellow weren't too bad as main songwriters for the Posies — so I will just have to assume that they inadvertently drove their songwriting instincts into the wall when operating un­der the self-imposed command of «write a Big Star album». For every song that is crafted even a wee bit more exquisitely than the average mass (ʽLady Sweetʼ has a whiff of genuine elegance about it), they compensate with something honestly terrible (ʽLove Revolutionʼ is one of the chee­siest chunks of pop-funk ever put to tape by a non-R&B artist; even if it were intended as a parody, its immediate effect is simply that of a bad song) — but the average mass sim­ply elicits no emotional response whatsoever. Dull, empty shells of songs, which neither the nice guitar tones nor the pretty harmonies can help to save — even though I am fairly sure that it is exactly the nice guitar tones and pretty harmonies that have tricked many a power pop fan into accepting or even admiring In Space, as seen from multiple Web reviews.

Do not waste money on this pathetic cash-in, if it can be helped at all; most likely, the very exis­tence of this album will go down in history as just a minor unfortunate footnote to the legacy of Big Star. My biggest regret is that Chilton did not live long enough to remedy the situation — in 2010, he died of a heart attack, remembered, respected and loved by all those who (I hope) were willing to look past his latest failure, a disgraceful thumbs down if there ever was one. Take a lesson here, kids, and don't ever let nostalgia rule the day when it comes to writing music. Influ­ence — yep, inspiration — for sure, but never nostalgia. It'll only make you look stupid.

Check "In Space" (CD) on Amazon
Check "In Space" (MP3) on Amazon

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