#285: Third/Sister Lover, Big Star
I love an album with great lore. Wanna hear some great lore? This is kind of maybe not really a Big Star record, not only because it sounds nothing like Big Star’s debut (#474) and sophomore (#359) efforts, but because the only Big Star members involved were frontman Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens. Plus, the alternate title Sister Lovers is because Chilton and Stephens really were dating sisters at the time. We’re off to a great start.
Chilton is something of a legend (see the Replacements song about him), though he only achieved this legendary status after he died in 2010. Even though everyone, including RS, seems to characterize this record as the portrait of Chilton’s decline, he isn’t the member of the band with the most tragic story. Nope, that’s guitarist Chris Bell, who died in a car accident at age 27 (joining the You-Guessed-It Club).
All that lore, plus the positively wild sound Big Star experimented with, makes this one of the most beloved cult records ever. But their label Columbia straight-up didn’t release it at first because they just hated it. Remember that this was recorded in 1974, nearly 15 years before Ween’s debut would grace the whole world with a new level of weird.
Wikipedia defines this record as “Power Pop.” Power pop?? It’s more like alt-noise-pop-rock, in my opinion. I mean, listen to the sparse percussion of “Kanga Roo,” and bonus-track-slash-gunshot-wound “Downs.” Every so often, you say, EEP! What was that?! Power pop, my foot.
Chilton/Stephens take an eclectic collection of songs and hold them at knifepoint, making even the prettiest melody shiver with terror. “Stroke It Noel” is a heroin love song a la the Meat Puppets’ II, and “Jesus Christ” is a freaking Christmas song.
Their pet topic, though, is self-loathing. The songs about self-loathing are less-than-cheerful. “Holocaust” might be the most miserable song about misery ever recorded. “Big Black Car” is so full of sludge that it may as well be a rag soaked in tar. I think we all have our moments of total darkness, so even though the quaver in Chilton’s voice makes us uncomfortable, we all can recognize it.
There are some genuinely fun songs, too, like opener “Kizza Me,” which makes me want to white hoouuut! and the badass, horny (as in, featuring lots of horns) “You Can’t Have Me.” Bonus track/actual rock song “Till The End Of The Day” got me fired up. We do as we please, yeah/From morning till the end of the day. Hell yeah we do.
Despite the overwhelming sense of anxiety that infects the whole record, Big Star has a beautiful knack for love ballads, from the stringy, wailing “O, Dana” to the simple and sweet “Nightime” and “Blue Moon” (NOT of Kentucky.) I was positively delighted by “For You,” which was written and sung by Stephens, who for some reason sings in a crazy British accent. Sometimes I can’t help but worship you. It does sound better in British, doesn’t it?
My favorite ballad was the penultimate bonus track (at least on the current Spotify iteration of the album — keep in mind there is no definitive track listing for Third) “Dream Lover,” a delicate piano tune that devolves the second Chilton cues the guitar solo. He decides exactly when the song gets taken apart, proving that even though he sounds like he’s “having a nervous breakdown,” he’s actually in complete control.
The covers here are also excellent, especially “Femme Fatale,” which is somehow more contemplative and in-key than the Velvet Underground’s original. “Nature’s Boy” is a cottagecore cover of a song by someone named “eden ahbez” and it’s now my theme song. The greatest thing you’ll ever know/Is to love/And be loved in return.
When the record was finally released in 1978 by PVC, Big Star had already been broken up for three years. They reformed (with a mostly new lineup) many years later, but never reached the transcendental success they somehow achieved in the interim period.
And THAT’S great lore, people.
Least Favorite Song: I love the stately strings of “Take Care,” but I hate the line This sounds a lot like goodbye/In a way it is I guess.