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Big Star
In Space
Rykodisc Records
www.bigstarband.com


OK, let's recap on 2005's Reunions You Thought Would Never Happen Until Hell Freezes Over. The original Gang Of Four decided that being quite possibly the best band ever trumped their personal differences and toured the world to adoring hordes, the House Of Love overcame rampant egotism and alleged mental illness to record an album that stomped all over their lacklustre swansong Audience With The Mind, and the beloved Bats got off their arses after a ten year break to deliver another batch of jangle-folk-pop to die for in At The National Grid.

But to top that, how about The Band That Invented Power Pop getting back together after 30 FRICKIN' YEARS ? Yes, pop pickers, that's how long it is since Big Star went into a studio and recorded a new batch of songs. Memphis maverick Alex Chilton's increasing eccentricity and dissatisfaction with the deaf ears of the music business, plus co-leader Chris Bell's tragic suicide, put paid to Big Star's largely unnoticed trajectory in the mid 70s, but together with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens the band left an unsurpassed legacy of three albums (#1 Record, Radio City and Third / Sister Lovers) that have influenced generations of groups. Try the Bangles' beautiful cover of "September Gurls" or Teenage Fanclub's "December", from Bandwagonesque (a TFC original that could nonetheless have fit right onto Radio City) for starters.

2005's Big Star isn't exactly the same group, having replaced Bell and Hummel with Posies mainstays Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. The two new guys aren't exactly my ideal replacements - I find a lot of the Posies' work (with the huge exception of the soaring Solar Sister), and especially Stringfellow's subsequent solo work, annoyingly sweet. Still, they proved that they're members of the rare breed that can work sympathetically with Chilton on the 1993 live Big Star reunion Columbia, and they do a fine job on this record, too - you can sense that Chilton is finally enjoying being part of a band again, as opposed to just churning out the old greats for money.

In Space is such a rare, unexpected treat that it's worth going over each song:

"Dony" - lurches into existence like some old Stones song and then hits an ecstatic groove. It's unfortunately denied godlike status by some unnecessary, honking sax halfway through - leave those to the jazz musicians, guys !
"Lady Sweet" - Stringfellow / Auer song and thus a little bit too, um, sweet for my tastes, but some crunchy guitars and soaring harmonies pretty much rescue it.
"Best Chance" - an unremarkable Chilton number that sounds like it came off one of his lesser 80s solo albums.
"Turn My Back on the Sun" - "ba ba ba" backing vocals to match the Beach Boys-ish title, another Stringfellow / Auer song. Very likeable.
"Love Revolution" - this sticks out like a sore thumb - a horrible, horrible disco number with inane lyrics to match. What the heck were they thinking ?
"February's Quiet" - not just a relief after "Revolution", this is a great minor chord Chilton pop song with suitably daffy words: "She likes sugar in her tea, I just like her company".
"Mine Exclusively" - high energy rave-up that brings the Hamburg-era Beatles to mind (actually a cover of 1966 tune by The Olympics)
"A Whole New Thing" - OK, generic Chuck Berry-ish riff but engaging tune and some good tub thumping from Stephens.
"Aria, Largo" - pointless guitar meandering on a classical theme. I'd have singled this one out for a critical drubbing if it wasn't for the horror that is "Love Revolution".
"Hung Up With Summer" - another nice, shambolic pop number from Chilton.
"Do You Wanna Make It" - more early Beatles-style raving with some exciting guitar (Chilton's playing is a joy throughout the whole album).
"Makeover" - this final song has more high-octane guitar and weird stream of consciousness lyrics, but is let down by the reappearance of the tuneless sax.

Overall, In Space is a fine album that is certainly better than anything its individual contributors have made for many a year, but left me feeling a little wistful for what it could have been. Still, if the other guys can drag Chilton back into a studio again soon, there's no limit to what they might be able to come up with.

-Gareth Bowles

Track list:
1. Dony
2. Lady Sweet
3. Best Chance
4. Turn My Back on the Sun
5. Love Revolution
6. February's Quiet
7. Mine Exclusively
8. A Whole New Thing
9. Aria, Largo
10. Hung Up With Summer
11. Do You Wanna Make It
12. Makeover


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Mike Doughty



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