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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Big Star: Radio City

BIG STAR: RADIO CITY (1974)

1) O My Soul; 2) Life Is White; 3) Way Out West; 4) What's Goin' Ahn; 5) You Get What You Deserve; 6) Mod Lang; 7) Back Of A Car; 8) Daisy Glaze; 9) She's A Mover; 10) September Gurls; 11) Morpha Too; 12) I'm In Love With A Girl.

By the time Big Star got around to recording its second album, it had already gone through the loss of a founding member (Bell), the return of a founding member (Bell), another loss of a foun­ding member (Bell again), disbandment, and reunion. All of which means: if, somehow, ʽO My Soulʼ happens to sound to you like a rusty, creaky, patched-and-mended old engine ready to fall to pieces at any second, but still puffing away and doing its job — well, this is no coincidence. Chilton, Hummel, and Stephens are learning to play as a trio, and it shows.

The absence of Bell logically leaves Chilton as the primary songwriter (Hummel wrote ʽWay Out Westʼ and gets songwriting co-credits on a number of other songs; also, Bell's input has been ack­nowledged for two of the album's best songs — ʽO My Soulʼ and ʽBack Of A Carʼ, even though he has not been officially credited), and opinions on that turn of events happen to differ. Personal­ly, I lament it: Alex may have been a talented, sincere, and «visionary» songwriter and performer, but he lacked the self-discipline and patience necessary to shape all those ideas in a proper musi­cal form. At the same time, his mental health was certainly stable enough so as not to make him eligible for the «mad genius» category where we put people like Syd Barrett and Skip Spence; neither Radio City nor its even more bizarre follow-up really qualify as «schizophrenic» albums. Radio City, in particular, shows a fairly conventional understanding of melodicity, and its lyrics and basic emotions are not all that different from the ones of #1 Record. Essentially, these are all simple pop songs, and their uniqueness stems as much from «personal untidyness» as it does from one-of-a-kind artistry.

This explains why, no matter how much I listen to Radio City, there are probably only three or four songs that stay with me when the music's over. Take something like ʽMod Langʼ, for in­stance — there may be some potential here for an impressive glam-rocker, but neither its distor­ted blues-rock riff nor its vocal melody ever manage to come together in a proper hook. These chords really sound like something a Pete Townshend could have stumbled upon in one of his 15-minute long live improv pieces, fussed around with for a few seconds, then dropped in favor of some other ideas — and here we have Chilton trying to build an entire song around it, but he can­not find anything better than a repetitive snap of "how long... can this go on?" for the chorus hook. Stuff like that is, at best, okay for some bonus demo outtake.

It does not necessarily get better on the moody sentimental stuff: a song like ʽWhat's Going Ahnʼ may have plenty of sad autumnal atmosphere, but its guitar lines and harmonies seem dis­con­nected and under­worked, while its lead vocals seem artistic, but simply telling a sad story rather than drawing the listener in with the same tricks of inflection and modulation as, say, ʽGive Me Another Chanceʼ or ʽTry Againʼ. Worst of all, every once in a while Alex comes across as a pa­thetic, annoying whiner rather than a noble broken heart — so maybe there is something to be said about extra spontaneity and «honesty», but then this is supposed to be art, not life, doggone it, and I'd rather hear «heartbreaking polish» than «irritating rawness». (That is not to say that raw­ness cannot be heartbreaking, or that polish may not be irritating, of course — it's just the way it seems to work with Big Star in particular).

Naturally, these complaints should not be extrapolated to the high points of the album. ʽO My Soulʼ, in particular, be it by accident or not, sounds like nothing else ever written — the funkiest power pop song ever made, or was that the poppiest power funk song?... whatever, the interaction between Hummel's «surf-style» twangy bass swoops, Chilton's merger of jingle-jangle with chicken-scratch, and Stephens' exuberant «look-at-me I'm-so-power-trio gonna-be-Keith-Moon- for-a-while» assault on his drumset creates a completely unique sound. Probably accidental — they never did anything even remotely close to this one ever again. No proper vocal hook, which is one of several reasons why the single flopped commercially, but it could just as well be an instrumental number — the vocals are the least interesting aspect of this maniacal celebration of the wonders of life.

It is less interesting to rave on about ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ, as that song has long since left the lower stratosphere where it could be affected by criticism — «hating it» would be telling more about the hater than the song, and «praising it» would bring no new stimulus to this world. Clearly, its legend is all about that guitar tone — candy-sweet compression with an aggressive punch, jangle and power all in one, «Roger McGuinn meets Pete Townshend», the sound that launched a thou­sand bands. Everything else is secondary: the lyrics do not match the mood (the protagonist may have been "crying all the time", but it hardly shows), the Byrdsey solo, as usual, is as crudely thought out as they come, and the line "I was your butch and you were touched" really only makes sense now when the Bangles sing it, but who cares? That song is immortalized by its first twelve seconds, and everyone knows that the first twelve seconds are always the most important ones in any song, unless it's a sidelong or something. Or, if not everyone, then at least the Beatles knew that, and weren't Big Star trying to... well, you know?..

I mean, they obviously were on ʽBack Of A Carʼ, whose title resembles a then-recent McCartney song from Ram but whose overall mood is certainly closer to the fumes of Rubber Soul, except that it sounds more like the unruly, shirt-out, pants-down, heavily ungroomed younger brother of ʽNowhere Manʼ and ʽIf I Needed Someoneʼ than a disciplined copy-cat effort — which, I will admit that, may be an essential part of its charm: if you are going to rob your idol's apartment, at least do not forget to rip up the bedsheets and piss in the closet for extra spice.

Altogether, this ramble-tamble certainly deserves a thumbs up, if only for being such a great candidate for the title of «messiest power-pop album ever released». Many people actually love this mix of fabulous guitar tones with green-banana pop hooks, forming the liberal «Radio City Party» in opposition to the similarly influential conservative «#1 Record Party» (and the much less popular, somewhat extremist «Sister Lovers Party») — since both albums are usually sold on the same CD these days, it makes no sense to formally recommend one over the other, but my own opinion is on record: Chilton is good enough, but Chilton/Bell is better, and if we are talking influence, well, the Chilton/Bell example of how to add good form to your pop instincts should have been much more influential than the solo Chilton example of how to flash your pop instincts while avoiding good form. Unfortunately, it wasn't — and I am pretty sure I would have a much more favorable general opinion of modern indie pop bands if they were taking their clues from #1 Record than from Radio City.

Check "Radio City" (CD) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. this is another terrific review, though i think i'm in camp "radio city," and i wonder why "i'm in love with a girl" and "morpha too" and "life is white" and "you get what you deserve" aren't mentioned here. "mod lang" is weak, and for the reasons you've described... but i think the "slapdash" quality of those other songs is what gives them their power. i mean, "morpha too" does sound kinda improvised, but no one else can improvise with a voice like alex's... something to be said for that. course, i'm definitely an indie kid, so, yeah. anyway, thanks for another good review: your description of "o my soul" is the best i've ever read... i never understood people who called it a bad opener; it's my favorite big star song!

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