Since their last studio release 30 years ago, power pop group Big Star have seen a rather phenomenal cult following develop: R.E.M. have always cited the Memphis group as one of their major influences, indie legends The Replacements went so far as to name a hit song after Big Star leader Alex Chilton, and Teenage Fanclub named an album after the Big Star ballad Thirteen.
The untimely death of original member Chris Bell in a car crash, the early dissolution of the band, and a pronounced lack of commercial success have all only added to the Big Star mystique.
Facing thirty years of hype, singer/songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens (bassist Andy Hummell has never been a part of reunion gigs for reasons which remain unclear) have reconvened for only the fourth ever Big Star studio album: In Space. The effort is welcome, even if the release falls short of the transcendent albums of the ’70s that produced classics such as September Gurls, Thirteen, and The Ballad of El Goodo.
Rounding out the current version of Big Star, as they have for some forty reunion gigs since 1994, are Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the hyper-talented founding members of Seattle power pop band The Posies. Auer, Stringfellow and Stephens each contributed one song each and all four members take turns singing lead vocals.
In Space is a fine enough album and it has its moments. The album also feels a little too safe, however, a bit like like Big Star-lite. The first Big Star albums were filled with achingly beautiful – and often dark – tunes, as well as some of the most inspired, high-energy pop songs of the ’70s. Chilton (and often Bell) wrote deep songs that exposed not only a lot of beauty but a lot of pain, as well, and that is the real core of the Big Star mystique. Of course, considering that Bell was often depressed and suicidal and Chilton has had his own struggles with substance abuse and a vaguely Brian Wilson-like reclusion, maybe ‘safe’ is maturity.
In any event, Turn My Back On The Sun is excellent and sounds more influenced by The Beach Boys than old Big Star (it opens exactly like a lighter and happier Wouldn’t It Be Nice). It is interesting to hear Stringfellow veer from his more ‘loungey’ solo incarnation into sunshine-pop mode, with requisite “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” background vocals. Mine Exclusively is an excellent throwback, as well, with a Memphis juke joint-meets-pop vibe. A few other songs capture some of the band’s past glory, particularly Stephens’ February’s Quiet. Yet, most of In Space is simply enjoyable, as opposed to being revolutionary or inspiring.
A case in point of the album’s missteps is Love Revolution, a soul/disco manifesto that comes across as a forced effort by Chilton to be unpredictable. Sort of fun, but Chilton singing “boogie down, boogie down, shake your funky thing” just doesn’t work.
In Space did remind me as to how special and unique Big Star was and is. This is a power pop band, but it is also a Memphis rock band, with strong soul and rockabilly influences, too. While the celebrated Delta Blues may be rock’s heart, the hillbillies provided the crucial spark, as well. Few have incorporated the best aspects of the genre into modern rock better than Big Star, and In Space is a welcome history lesson that way, as well.
In Space is a worthy enough purchase for Big Star fans. And if this talented group continues to gel and Chilton can rediscover some of that magic within, they may still have some historic stuff ahead of them, too.