Sunday, November 23, 2014

Power Pop To The People

Alex Chilton holds on in Memphis

Let's get a few things out of the way. Like many people, I discovered Big Star retroactively, following the trail of breadcrumbs left by The Replacements. I'd heard of them, of course, often mentioned in the same breath as the Flamin' Groovies, but never heard a note - it wasn't easy to find their stuff for quite some time. When I did hear it, I connected with it immediately. Remembering Alex Chilton's voice on The Letter by The Boxtops, I kept thinking, "This is that guy?" Number One Record and Radio City are both classic albums and Third (Sister Lovers) is pretty fantastic, although fragmented. I also like a lot of I Am The Cosmos, the posthumously released album by Chris Bell, who was Chilton's main foil in the early days of Big Star.

On the other hand, I have often been confounded by Alex Chilton's post-Big Star career. While there are a few good songs (Like Flies On Sherbet, Bangkok), much of it is so shambolic or wrong-headed as to seem not only disrespectful of his fans but of his own talents. He also made a point of disparaging his achievement in Big Star, and the group in general, which bugged me. Nothing he said or played got in the way of my enjoyment, though - Big Star is in the firmament and poisoned arrows from any source can't knock them down.

Although F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, Big Star sure proved him wrong when a one-off concert in Columbia, MO in 1993 kick-started a revival of the band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010. An album of the concert was released that same year and was a delightful surprise. Featuring Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens along with keepers-of-the-flame Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies on guitar and bass, it was a spirited and short set of well-chosen Big Star songs plus two covers. While there are some tentative moments (Stringfellow calls it a "delightfully fragile show"), there are a lot of fine details as well and in no way did it shame the legacy of the group. I listened to it quite a bit at the time and still put it on from time to time. I especially liked that they covered Baby Strange, one of my favorite T. Rex B-sides - it's always good to find a kindred spirit.

Part of the joy of Columbia was the simple thrill of hearing these great songs take shape in front of an audience, after so many years of hearing the studio versions. In 2009, we were afforded an even more spectacular opportunity to do so, with the release of the stunning Keep An Eye On The Sky box set, which included a complete recording of a 1973 concert at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis. This is a trio version of the band, with Chilton and Stephens joined by Andy Hummel on bass. It sounds like there are about 10 people in the audience but the band is on fire, with Chilton ripping off leads, chords and complex figures, while Hummel holds down the anchor and Stephens drives the bus, heavy on the ride cymbal. Chilton is in fine voice, too, able to handle the range from soulful to raucous. They were already performing Baby Strange back then, as well as Todd Rundgren's silly Slut, which reappeared in 1993. They nodded to a third hero by including Hot Burrito #2 off the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

There were also earlier releases of live material from 1974, with Chilton showing all too clearly the ravages of the lifestyle that is well-represented on the third album, but between Columbia and Lafayette you have a nice representation of Big Star on stage. Turns out there was more in the vaults, however, and not just audio but film of a complete show from 1994, now seeing the light of day on Omnivore Recordings under the name Live In Memphis. They played in front of family and friends (including Chris Bell's parents) at the New Daisy in what was apparently a warmly received homecoming. 

I admit to being slightIy skeptical of this whole enterprise and when I read that Chilton's former bodyguard (there's a tale) had shot the footage my doubts increased. It seems I needn't have worried. While I haven't seen the whole film, the clip of The Ballad Of El Goodo is beautifully shot, with multiple cameras, and nicely edited as well. In fact, watching this one song has me pretty convinced that this the ideal way to experience Live In Memphis. Watching Chilton's face, still boyish but a bit more lived in, as he puts his all into the song's imprecations to "hold on" is a window into both where the song came from and what it meant to him that night in Memphis after all he had been through. Based on that one song, I am more than eager to see the full thing, which is after all the only professionally made document of a complete concert by Big Star in any form.

That's not to say that the music on its own is to be avoided. At this point, the Posie-fied version of Big Star had played quite a bit in the wake of the 1993 concert, including shows in Tokyo and London, and had gelled more in the process. The set is longer than a year earlier, and looser, with everyone having a lot of fun, bantering with each other and the audience. The uptempo songs drive harder, with a sense of abandon that is very engaging. Looser also means sloppier, with Chilton up to some of his old tricks, entering verses and choruses off the beat and practically daring Auer and Stringfellow to keep up with his off-kilter guitar. 

There are more covers, including 35 seconds of Springsteen's Fire and an ill-advised "playful" take on Girl From Ipanema, which overstays its welcome even at under two minutes. Still, that's really the only cringe-worthy moment. The sound is good enough, although I go back and forth about whether dialing down the drums would be helpful or if their big sound adds to the live feel. Overall, Live In Memphis will be a balm to the ears and especially the eyes of fans of the band and Chilton. Kudos to the team at Omnivore for so lovingly rescuing this material from obscurity. 

Big Star had many descendants in addition to The Replacements, most famously and productively the great Wilco. Jellyfish, the early 90's group helmed by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Jason Falkner (both now strutting their stuff in Beck's astonishing road band), is sometimes included in that cadre. While that power pop sound is definitely in their DNA, they probably take as much from The Monkees, Harry Nilsson, Cheap Trick and Paul McCartney's solo work. Now Omnivore (busy, much?) has prepared reissues of both Jellyfish albums in expanded editions, each featuring a wealth of bonus tracks - demos, live takes, one-offs - to come out on January 20th, 2015.

I never really took to Jellyfish and it's been at least a decade since I listened to Bellybutton. My impression is still basically the same, that here is a group of extremely talented craftsmen with a pretty broad knowledge of music doing exactly what they want to do. It's just not for me. Part of it is the overly brittle sound they chose for their music - I would just like a little more warmth and sense of interaction between the players. But in the end, my opinion doesn't matter much. Jellyfish has their fans and they will be over the moon with Omnivore's typically excellent archival work.

The first disc of the Bellybutton set includes the original album plus ten live cuts from three venues they hit while touring the album. They sound sleek on four songs from the Roxy, charming at the Hard Rock in San Francisco (performing McCartney's Jet, Falkner offers "That's all we know!" as the song ends), and positively storming on the big stage of Wembley arena in London. The second disc is all demos, nine from Bellybutton, one from the second album, five that were never finished, and a cover of Donovan's Season Of The Witch. All of this material will be available as a separate digital download called The Bellybutton Demos. 

For demos, most of these songs are nearly fully realized, with multiple instruments and a modicum of production. These aren't your "bash it out on an acoustic just to get the song on tape" kind of early takes, so they don't provide all that much insight into their writing process, except to point out that working in the studio was an essential part of it. Of the unreleased songs, Queen Of The U.S.A. had serious potential - all they would need to do is hack out the silly sound effects from the bridge and this thing could've been a hit. Always Be My Girl is tuneful and fast-paced - with a different drum approach, it could have been a With The Beatles outtake. Let This Dream Never End is almost pure lite-FM R&B, replete with Greg Phillinganes keyboards and Paul Jackson rhythm guitar. Michael Jackson, Elton John, hell, even Whitney Houston might have found success with it. Season Of The Witch is one of the great groove songs of all time, but Jellyfish never quite seem to find their place in it - completists will be thrilled, as they will be with the rest of this definitive reissue.

Since the demise of Jellyfish, Falkner and Manning have always been busy and in 2000 they teamed up with drummer/composer Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross, Air, numerous soundtracks, including Lost In Translation) to form TV Eyes. They made one album in 2006, which found release in Japan only, played three concerts, and promptly moved on. Looking for something different from what Falkner calls "the macho 'alternative' post-grunge fallout," they took inspiration from Gang Of Four and other post-punk bands, as well as early electronica like Kraftwerk, Japan and Gary Numan's Tubeway Army. The broad swaths of guitar also bring to mind the work of Bill Nelson, especially his Red Noise album, which proved old prog-rockers could get angular, too

Now, thanks once more to Omnivore, this material is no longer for collectors only, and it's worth investigating. While none of the songs equal their influences at their best, each one is fully realized and built-out with all number of layered keyboards, processed drums, disengaged vocals and cool sonic touches. Falkner, Manning and Reitzell are all pros in the studio and it shows, with Reitzell showing his hand in an genuinely haunting re-mix of Time's Up, one of the bonus tracks. What's also clear is that their affection for their sources includes a little well-placed amusement - they know Cars is a funny song as well as a great one - and although they steer clear of parody, they're not afraid of a little pastiche. So check out TV Eyes for some 
expertly assembled machine-tooled post-punk paranoia, especially if you don't mind a dash of fun in the recipe.

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