Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star

Big Star is one of those bands that never achieved the success it should have but has acquired an aura in succeeding years that has it almost breaking through the boundaries of the cult status its had since former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, guitarist/singer Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel came together in 1971.

The Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me documentary that came out earlier this year received praise and brought the Memphis, Tenn.-formed group to the attention of music fans who may have read that it influenced R.E.M. and The Replacements but had never heard the three albums recorded from 1971 to 1974 that brilliantly melded melody and crunch and embodied what became known as power pop. Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star, which comes out on Nov. 26 through Columbia/Legacy, is meant for those folks.

This 14-track compilation includes one song from the #1 Record debut, two from the Radio City follow-up and two from Third/Sister Lovers, which wasn't issued until four years after it was recorded. It also includes a rehearsal take of Radio City's luscious "September Gurls" that was previously released on the 1999 official bootleg, Nobody Can Dance.

Bell and Hummel left the group in the midst of Big Star's initial three-year run, and Bell was killed in a 1978 car accident. But interest in Big Star inexplicably increased long after its dissolution, and Chilton and Stephens reformed the group with Posies members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for an April 25, 1993 show at the University of Missouri that was recorded and released that September.

Half of Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star comes from that concert album, including some of the group's most memorable songs: "Don't Lie To Me," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Back of a Car," "Thank You Friends" and "In the Street," which many will recognize as the theme for That '70s Show. It also features a rendition f the Bell solo cut, "I Am The Cosmos."

The album concludes with "A Whole New Thing," which is probably the best song from 2005's In Space album that was recorded by the new lineup which had continued to perform sporadically.

I was supposed to see one of those shows at the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas in 2010, but Chilton passed away from a heart attack on March 17 -- three days before the concert was supposed to take place. It instead turned into a moving tribute to Chilton featuring a number of artists touched and influenced by him, including: Hummel, Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Chris Stamey (The dB's), M.Ward, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), John Doe (X), Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet, Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Amy Speace, Susan Cowsill and The Watson Twins.

I attended another Big Star tribute at SXSW in 2012 featuring Stephens, Stringfellow, Auer and guests including Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Doe, Cotton Mather and Star & Micey. Big Star's shadow still obviously looms large with many musicians.

You're not likely going to please everyone when assembling a best-of compilation -- especially with a group like Big Star where you can't just cherry-pick its highest charting singles since it didn't have any hits. So while I think that "When My Baby's Beside Me," "Way Out West," "Jesus Christ," "You Get What You Deserve" and "Thirteen" could have easily been included and kept Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star to one compact disc, I shouldn't quibble.

If this album introduces even a few people to Big Star and prompts them to delve into the band's catalogue and seek out other standout power pop proponents, then it's both a worthwhile and praise-worthy exercise.

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