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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers


1) Kizza Me; 2) Thank You Friends; 3) Big Black Car; 4) Jesus Christ; 5) Femme Fatale; 6) O, Dana; 7) Holocaust; 8) Kangaroo; 9) Stroke It Noel; 10) For You; 11) You Can't Have Me; 12) Nighttime; 13) Blue Moon; 14) Take Care; 15*) Nature Boy; 16*) Till The End Of The Day; 17*) Dream Lover; 18*) Downs; 19*) Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.

Lord knows I am far from the world's biggest Big Star fan, and I am even farther away from be­ing the biggest fan of their third and strangest attempt at world domination, but man oh man is ʽHolocaustʼ a terrific song — one of the most unique and greatest ever recorded. There have been many different ways tried out in the history of pop music to make musical pictures of «human wrecks», and there have been tons of experts on human wreckage, from Ray Davies to John Len­non to Bob Dylan to Pete Townshend etc., but none of them ever scaled such odd depths of, well, let's call it «darkly haunting romanticism», as Alex Chilton on this particular song.

I do not know if this was the first ever usage of the word ʽholocaustʼ in a pop tune, let alone a metaphorical usage: Chilton himself prudently saves it for the last line of the song, as if every­thing that came before was just an atmospheric buildup to the culmination — "you're a wasted face / you're a sad-eyed lie / you're a holocaust" (and thank God the song never became a huge hit, or he would have imminently been forced to eat shit from idiots who would accuse him of calling the Holocaust a sad-eyed lie). Anyway, if it was, it is a well-deserved first, a daring move that is perfectly adequate for such a musically daring composition. The piano/guitar duo alone would be worth any musical prize, as the faraway slide licks, cooing, weeping, or wailing like small packs of seagulls, are upheld by the romantic piano — then there is the grim cello part, hanging over it all like a dark cloud, occasionally spilling some ice-cold rain — then there are the vocals: bitter­sweet, detached, caring and tender on the surface, but emotionally dead deep inside.

When it all begins — "your eyes are almost dead / can't get out of bed / and you can't sleep..." — that is exactly the message that we are getting. Unlike Syd Barrett, Chilton did not drive himself to genuine madness or any drug-induced cerebral coma, but he sings the song as if he were frozen in space, locked forever in a state of semi-functional dismantlement. Was he justified in this? Did the clumsy flop of his previous two albums, in which he had invested so many hopes, really trig­ger this state, or was it an artistic put-on? As usual, it does not matter — what does matter is that his personal troubles unexpectedly uncovered and enhanced his greatest talent, that of creating haunting moods out of incoherent, sometimes downright chaotic musical fragments.

If Big Star's first album opened in «sexually frustrated teenager» mode, and the second album in «idealistically exuberant adult» mode, with both ʽFeelʼ and ʽO My Soulʼ setting much of the tone for whatever would follow, then Third opens in dangerously disturbed maniac mode. Chilton's relationship with Lesa Aldridge, who is the ʽLesaʼ of the song and to whom it is obviously dedi­cated, was said to have been stormy, and it shows: dating a guy who sings "I want to feel you deep inside" with all the passion of a Buffalo Bill from Silence Of The Lambs is not a very wise thing to do. ʽKizza Meʼs schizophrenic piano part is like a bunch of brain cells set in some random Brownian motion, and what does "I want to white OUT!" even mean? In a way, this might really be one of the scariest love confessions ever recorded.

In between ʽKizza Meʼ and ʽHolocaustʼ, opening and closing the first side of Third/Sister Lo­vers as «properly» reconstructed by producer Jim Dickinson when the album was finally released on CD in 1992, lies a small world of weirdness and unpredictability. The recordings themselves were made in 1974, almost immediately after the flub of Radio City, but already after the depar­ture of Andy Hummel; in fact, Chilton did not even think about them as «Big Star» material, which allowed him to break away from the «power pop» formula. But since he did record it with Jody Stephens on drums (and a host of session musicians on bass, extra guitars and keyboards), and since Jody contributed at least one song (ʽFor Youʼ), the name «Big Star» was retained after all — now doubly ironic, since both #1 Record and Radio City at least had some actual «big star potential», whereas Third had no commercial prospective from the very start. Which is exactly what the record executives decided: upon hearing the freshly pressed promotional copy in 1975, they immediately shelved it for posteriority. The album was not released until 1978, on the PVC label, in a differently running track order. Whether it sold more than ten copies, I have no idea.

As far as the first side is concerned, Third fully deserves its cult-legend reputation. Besides the two already mentioned highlights, there is ʽThank You Friendsʼ, which may be one of the finest demonstrations of how important the proper intonation and modulation can be to whatever you are singing — the lyrics per se do not give out a single hint, but just listen to the way Alex sneers at us with his "thank you friends / wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you" and you will almost feel sorry for his so-called «friends». There is ʽJesus Christʼ, where he does pretty much the same thing by sending up the idea of a Christmas carol — although in this case, there are several layers to the song, as if Chilton were truly rejoicing at the beauty of the story of Christ while at the same time satirizing its time-worn clichés and the associated brainless traditionalism. (Nice guitar lines, too ­— the closest they actually get to the good old «power pop» here). There is a faithful, very much à propos cover of the Velvets' ʽFemme Fataleʼ (with pretty backing vocals from Lesa), and an oddly hysterical, near-crying «folk-soul» number (ʽO Danaʼ) with Chilton babbling out non­sense in an utterly heartbroken manner.

Second side of the LP does not hold nearly as many thrills, in my opinion: too often, these termi­nally ill «songs» drift off into pure atmosphere (ʽKangarooʼ), which can still be delightful be­cause of all the odd combinations of different melodic bits played by different instruments (ʽStroke It Noelʼ is like a mix of Vivaldi and acoustic Neil Young), but lack proper hooks and, too often, seem to lack intellectual or even emotional interpretation — as if, at some points during the sessions, Chilton would let his unhappiness, disillusionment, and paranoia completely over­rule his artistic wit and just carry him wherever his subconscious would go, and, despite what we are so often told by music critics, letting your subconscious directly in the pilot seat rarely, if ever, results in solid, long-lasting art. Still, even the worst material on this album, despite sounding like chaotic sketches of bizarrely mixed ideas, is always arranged with taste, and fans of «experi­mental baroque pop», whatever that means, will find everything to their delight.

Rock critics usually love «broken albums» recorded by «broken artists», the madder the better, and consequently tend to overrate Third. Like its predecessor, the album could have benefited from longer sessions, better planning, and more catchiness — none of which would be incom­patible with wallowing in self-pity and reveling in madness. But if you happen to be wallowing in self-pity yourself, and need a trusty companion, Alex Chilton is your man on this happy occasion. Scare away your girlfriend, viciously trash all your friends, insult your religious neighbors, have your mum call for the paramedics — Third does all that and more, and for this psychological help alone deserves a clear-cut thumbs up.

PS. On a further technical note, the CD edition contains five «bonus» tracks, recorded at the same sessions, some of which used to appear before on some of the multiple versions of the album (e.g. ʽDownsʼ and a completely out-of-place cover of ʽWhole Lotta Shakin' Going Onʼ, so very bad that its only function here is that of an oxymoron — find the song that is as far removed, mood-wise, as possible from the overall theme of the album, and throw it in with the rest). Of these, ʽDream Lo­verʼ is of essential value — like a blueprint for about 50% of the total output of trendy indie art-pop bands of the 2000s: twisted, bizarre, moody, pretentious, and if you learn it by heart, you may easily be excused for missing out on the entire career of, say, Deerhunter. Well, yes, I am exaggerating, but you can't really make an efficient point these days without a hyperbole.

Check "Third / Sister Lovers" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Third/Sister Lovers" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. Nothing on Take Care? I've always found it haunting.

  2. Interestingly my favorite side is the 2nd. Nighttime, Take Care, Blue Moon are all hauntingly beautiful, and poignant; the vocal delivery perfectly accentuates these qualities. Stroke it Noel has to be my favorite song of the record; the hook is in it's violins' line. Initially the song had a totally different set of lyrics, but Chilton after hearing the violin parts -at least this is how the story goes- was so enthralled he rewrote the lyrics.
    Third/Sister Lovers is in my top 10 records; its shortcoming is that it's not -for the most part- musically multifaceted.

  3. I've never heard this album, but I notice that on the cover, Hummel (or is it Chilton?) seems to be leaning over a Mk.III Mellotron. Is there, in fact, any Mellotron on the album? Hearing an American "power pop" use such an instrument would be about the only incentive I'd have to give this a listen on Youtube.

    1. For everything regarding mellotrons, Planet Mellotron is your best friend. Therefore, regarding Big Star this is what we have:

  4. I've never liked the CD running order, even in the liner notes to the CD they mention "the record was always supposed to end with Thank You Friends"! I prefer the vinyl track listing that was the standard for 14 years:

    Side A:
    Stroke It Noel
    For You
    Kizza Me
    You Can't Have Me
    Blue Moon
    Take Care
    Side B:
    Jesus Christ
    Femme Fatale
    O, Dana
    Big Black Car
    Kanga Roo
    Thank You Friends

  5. I've mixed this with Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos album. Great counterpoint to No. 1 Record -- interesting how their music ultimately tracked a similar path. And Chilton's backing vocals on Bell's You and Your Sister briefly rekindled that No. 1 Record magic directly.