Big Star – Third / Sister Lovers

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I’ve been asked multiple times why I haven’t reviewed Third / Sister Lovers yet and the answer is that I’m scared. It’s hard to take a personal favorite album and speak about it without overselling it and putting you (the reader) off, and ironically at the same time, saying nothing about what the album signifies. It’s the worst feeling, I think, that the writer faces—when he or she can’t convey what exactly they felt when they stepped outside on a brisk evening and threw on “Thirteen” (Big Star) while smoking a cigarette after a heartbreak, what exactly they felt when they danced down a hill like a damn fool listening to “Shine a Light” (The Rolling Stones) while hallucinating from drugs, what exactly they felt when they listened to “Stroke It Noel” (Big Star) after coming down from a mixture of alcohol and cocaine. These are some of the strongest memories I have—made better because of the music, because that’s what music is supposed to do, right? And obviously, you won’t have the same fondness for those songs, but you might have a different fondness (hopefully, anyway) for them (and make no mistake, despite the fact that each of those memories of music are connected with drugs (I guess nicotine counts), you don’t need drugs to experienceThird / Sister Lovers. It sounds fantastic sober). For the record, I’ve tried reviewing this before—and the reason why the original review has been deleted was because it was a great pile of bullshit. This is my new attempt for a review, and while it’ll probably be better, it’s still unlikely to convince you of the album’s greatness. It’s also going to be long, and probably not worth reading. You’ve been warned. You can skip over it if you’d like and just listen to the album.

Oh, and that’s an important note: the definitive version of the album as far as I’m concerned, is the Third / Sister Lovers‘s reissue of 1992. True, bonus tracks are often bonus tracks for a reason. You’ve likely no use for another “Nature Boy” (the theme song to Moulin Rouge, for people in my generation) and Kinks-cover “Till the End of the Day” does absolutely nothing to improve on the original (though neither arebad at all). But for my money, “Dream Lover” (a Big Star original) should’ve found its way onto the album proper. Listen to those opening vocals, the way the opening word, “Your,” is a capella, the way the next word, “Dream,” is held and layered, the way “Lover” is sung over a contained explosion. It also comes with the most drugged out guitar solo (heralded by Chilton’s equally gone, “Play it for me, guitarist,” spoken as if he were too stoned to play it himself); I’ve still never heard anything quite like it. Meanwhile, you’ve likely heard much about critics fawning over the album’s shambolic quality, and it’s never better captured than on “Downs,” which is, as far as I can tell, the only track where Alex Chilton’s self-sabotage shows. Apparently, after someone at Ardent made a passing remark that the demo had single potential, Alex Chilton completely rewrote the track to the experimental mess it is now, basketball-as-percussion and everything (Jim Dickingson, the album’s producer, offers this in the album’s liner notes, “I think that Alex’s reason, subconsciously, was that he had been exploited so much. The money from his success had gone to somebody else, so he was determined that if things were going to be fucked up, he’s going to be the one who fucked them up”). True, it’s easily my least favorite Big Star track (as of this point in time, because I’ve no intention of finding out what a Big Star from 2005 sounds like), but it’s at least interesting to listen to.

Alex Chilton doesn’t have the sheer sexuality (or booming vocals) of Jerry Lee Lewis to pull off “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” but the good thing is that Chilton is obviously aware of that fact. So he updates it—while Jerry Lee Lewis’s version sounded like he was on-stage by himself in a bar, starring at an (underaged) (sorry, had to) girl, Big Star’s version makes use of a whole band, saxophone, girl backing vocals, some intermittent handclaps and whooping noises that makes it sound like it was recorded in a bar. It sounds like they’re having fun, really, and that ought to be enough. If I were to nitpick though, the vocals at the 1:06 mark, where Alex Chilton sounds like he’s singing the words through a saxophone always annoy me, but that’s two seconds of a 3-minute song and I think we’ll live. But the inclusion of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” does another thing—it ends one of the most depressing albums of all time on a remarkably upbeat note, and the cool piano links cyclically to opener “Kizza Me.” Which means that Third / Sister Lovers is one of those few albums with bonus tracks that still retain the structural integrity found in the best of albums, as opposed to—y’know—an album with bonus tracks. The only problem I have with the new tracklisting is that “Big Black Car” goes into the carnival-esque intro to “Jesus Christ” with little rhyme or reason. As for tracklisting of the original album, I question the integrity of opening the album with “Stroke It Noel,” though the kiss off “Thank You Friends” was a great choice of a closer. But having “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust” back-to-back might have been overkill.

That’s not to say “Stroke It Noel” is a bad track. Actually, it is—hands down—my favorite song of all time. Which is impressive, because I couldn’t tell you with any semblance of certainty what my second favorite song of all time is, and which is also odd, because while I have a Big Star lyric tattooed on my body, it has nothing to do with “Stroke It Noel” (it’s “Be an outlaw for my love” from “Thirteen,” which is still up there. I’ve thought repeatedly about getting “Do you wanna dance” tattooed, and I’ll likely do it at some point, but I don’t want to go through the rigmarole of explaining that it’s a Big Star lyric and not a reference to a Beach Boys cover). There’s just really no semblance of vocal melody that you’d expect from the band if you’ve heard #1 Record or Radio City (though I guess that arguably makes it a good opener for a record that sounds nothing like what the artist did before). The point isn’t in the vocals though—the string arrangement is easily the best thing I’ve ever heard.

Lest we forget, 1978 was a year during the Cold War, and plenty of songs around this time spoke to the general paranoia, “Stroke It Noel” included. But the difference between “Stroke It Noel” and plenty of other Cold War-influenced songs (ie. Pink Floyd’s “Mother” a year later, see the lyric: “Mother, will they drop the bomb.”) is that Big Star offers a solution. In one of my favorite plays ever, Tom Stoppard’sArcadia (spoilers ahead), the main character, Thomasina, a young girl, comes to understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics (in a nutshell, the one that says we’re all going to die because energy is going to run out) years before it is officially recognized. And through jumping between timelines, Tom Stoppard reveals to the audience that Thomasina will die a premature death in a fire, but in a postmodern twist to prevent a play that ought to end in death from being a tragedy, he has Thomasina waltzing with Septimus in the final scene (comedies often ended with a dance, to signify community, communion, sex, and all that good stuff). Because that’s the answer—we’re all going to die eventually—so we might as well make do with life; Thomasina says childishly and poignantly in the beginning of the play, “Phooey to Death.” In the case of “Stroke It Noel,” despite the imminence of mutually assured destruction, Chilton asks, “Keeping an eye / On the sky / Will they come / Oh, the bombs / But do you wanna dance?” Fuck yes, I do.

Back to my note on Big Star’s cover of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” I don’t find Alex Chilton sexual. I do, however, find him romantic. Which is good, because most of these songs are romantic. But unlike most other singers, Chilton is a closet romantic—you get the feeling that all these songs are sung about someone, rather than meant to be sung to someone, if that makes sense. That’s the reason why, while I might laugh at a lyric like “I want to feel you / Deep inside,” I know it’s not meant to be (homo)sexual, even if Alex Chilton doesn’t directly reference Lesa (Aldridge) right after anyway. Now, as opposed to the acoustic numbers like “Thirteen” or “Give Me Another Chance”—which all could have been done by one person by his lonesome—or “I’m In Love With A Girl”—which was done by one person by his lonesome, “Kanga Roo” is the result of a full band, a widescreen experience, if you will, but somehow manages to have a crushing loneliness to it (other examples of such songs include Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” and the entirety of There’s A Riot Goin’ On).

While Big Star might’ve covered the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” on Third / Sister Lovers, the better example of their fondness for the band is on “Kanga Roo,” where they channel a “Heroin”-esque (that’s another good example) noise underneath the melody of riff and Chilton’s vocals (listen especially, to the brief ocean that emerges after the lyric, “I saw you staring out in space,” the perfect aural accompaniment). For my money, “Kanga Roo” also has the best drumming on the album—not because it’s impressive on a technical level (that award would probably go to “You Can’t Have Me”), but rather because it feels like Alex Chilton just gave the order for the drummer to play whatever the fuck he wanted, and the sporadicity makes it sound huge (see especially, the 2:57 mark onwards). But it’snot the shambolic quality of the track (or the album) that makes it worthwhile, it’s the fine balance between that and normalcy. Compare, for example, these two covers. This Mortal Coil makes a great cover of the track by focusing on the melodic aspect and adding strings instead of noise, whereas Jeff Buckley does a pretty self-indulgent cover of the track by focusing on what’s around the melody.

For all the talk of Third / Sister Lovers as a depressing album, I’d argue it isn’t that depressing. For example, though “Thank You Friends” isobviously sarcastic and sounds like it could’ve been words to a suicide note that never materialized rather than the acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, it makes use of an uplifting gospel choir for backing vocals. But there are enough songs here that match up that don’t try to be sad. “Kizza Me,” for example, uses a fun chorus, “Kizza Me! / Lesa! / Why not?” and it doesn’t dwell on the fact that Lesa doesn’t want to kiss him; it pushes forward anyway, with thorny piano bits that help the track rock harder than most hard rock tracks would ever dare to. Meanwhile, despite my earlier insistence that the transition between “Big Black Car” and “Jesus Christ” is jarring, I’m glad “Jesus Christ” is placed after it, thanks to the optimistic-sounding melody of the chorus (“Jesus Christ was born today”) and the final admission that “We’re gonna get born now.” Meanwhile, I don’t think there’s anything depressing about the cuddle-by-the-fireplace of Jody Stephens’ “For You,” or the way Alex Chilton struts his better-than-thou-ness on “You Can’t Have Me;” lines like “The drummer says you’re not very clean” and “You can’t have me, not for free” are glimpses of much-needed humour that most depressing albums don’t have. And if “O Dana” is ever sad (“I rather shoot a woman than a man, / I worry whether this is my last life” or “But we know, overboard and down / And strung out twice”), it’s hard to recognize because of the wonderful way the piano is jangling under the “O DANA / O DANA / COME ON!” chorus that begs you to sing-along and it’s hard to take too seriously when there’s a lyric like “I’m forevermore fighting with Steven / We do our goo-boo-koos” to be found.

But when the album wants to be depressing, it always hits its mark, mostly because Alex Chilton sings them with a straightforward poignancy that few artists could pull off; for example, “Nighttime”’s closing lyrics, “Get me out of here / Get me out of here / I hate it here / Get me out of here.” The best example though, is “Holocaust,” a slow dirge made of extremely sparse piano and cello, and a guitar that sounds like it could be crying. Because the spaciousness in between the sounds, we’re left with Alex Chilton at the forefront, and every lyric here seems to want to stab you, “Everybody goes, leaving those / Who fall behind / Everybody goes, as far as they can / They don’t just care,” and “Your mother’s dead, you’re on your own.” Listen to the way he sings “Airs,” splitting it in two such that it sounds like he’s singing “They stood on the stairs / Laughing at your errors.” And if you listen closely, you can hear female vocals after that point as the thing turns enters a brief instrumental section that could be the stuff of horror movies.

Closing notes that don’t fit anywhere in the review:

1. I like how Alex Chilton references session musicians and then-girlfriend Lesa Alridge on “Kizza Me” and Noel Gilbert on “Stroke It Noel.” It adds to the personal feel of the album.

2. I like how Alex Chilton sounds more like a girl on “Femme Fatale” than Nico did.

3. I also like how the backing vocals in their cover of “Femme Fatale” are sung in French.

4. I like how there’s a sort of continuity in between all three of Big Star’s original trilogy. Each album has a song that has something to do with  a car. The journey starts with “Steal your car and bring it down / Pick me up, we’ll drive around / Wish we had a joint so bad” from #1 Record’s “In the Street,” has him fooling around on Radio City’s “Back of a Car” and leaving empty on “Daisy Glaze,” and ends in the cocaine low/heroin high of Third / Sister Lovers’’ “Big Black Car.”

5. This is not the best album of all time, but it’s definitely my favorite.

So … how’d I do?

A+

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