Big Star

In Space

(Rykodisc; 2005)

By David Greenwald | 6 October 2005

You know it’s a bad year to make your big comeback album when some thirty years later The Rolling Stones are still cutting better records than you.

After three glorious, genre-defining albums of guitar pop in the '70s, seminal power-poppers Big Star vanished into obscurity, only to resurface as the go-to reference point for rock scribes and musicians alike (for proof, count the times David Fricke mentions them on a weekly basis in Rolling Stone, and listen to Elliott Smith’s excellent covers of “Thirteen” and “Nighttime”). Now Big Star has returned with In Space, an album that at the very least should increase the band’s exposure enough to turn people on to the classic trio of #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sisters Lovers. Problem is, In Space isn’t a Big Star album. Or particularly good, for that matter.

Frontman Alex Chilton has followed along Paul McCartney’s path in the last few decades, frittering away oodles of talent like it was nothing. As the catalog of most aging rockers has proven, great albums can’t be summoned on command. Even the most ambitious of projects, like Neil Young’s surprisingly moving Greendale, are still shadows of the creations of youth. In Space is unfortunately no exception.

Big Star, or the band passing for them these days, hasn’t recorded a proper album in over thirty years--even the trio-making masterpiece Third/Sisters Lovers was recorded well before its 1978 release date. In the meantime, the band seems to have forgotten what they’re supposed to sound like and try on a full wardrobe of styles. It doesn’t help that membership has rotated a bit; while original drummer Jody Stevens remains, Ken Stringfellow and Jonathan Auer of The Posies fill out the group.

“Love Revolution” is irritating disco-y, especially in its (hopefully) unwitting theft of the chorus melody from Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration.” “A Whole New Thing” is all Chuck Berry riffs and Chilton’s lazy, phoned-in vocal, with the lyrics not going much beyond “Yeah baby, it’s a whole new thing / Yeah baby.” “Turn My Back On The Sun” spends the first few bars parodying The Beach Boy’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but the cleverness of the joke falls flat when the rest of the song sounds more like Supertramp. Nasal “ba ba ba’s” follow in the Beach Boys style, but they end up just contributing to the album’s trend of in-jokes and gimmicky references that fail to get off the ground.

The album’s curious borrowings are friendly enough, done without any sense of venom or irony. Still, why should Big Star – especially Chilton – pay tribute to anyone? Winking pokes at The Beach Boys, for instance, are inoffensive, but serve as reminders that Brian Wilson’s SMiLE is everything this album is not.

On to the offensive: “Lady Sweet” is a sweet song, the kind of track Big Star imitators like The Autumn Defense and Pernice Brothers stake whole albums on. By now, though, Joe Pernice has written a better version of this song a dozen times, and the lyrics are atrocious; ostensibly about a girl, lines like “lady sweet / I know she can’t be beat / I might as well be losing sleep, for all the good it would do me” and “when the fear of failing runs so deep inside / just one more time” start making more sense once you realize they’re cumbersome drug references. It’s one of too many songs that finds the wrong singer on the microphone. We’re paying to hear Chilton, whose voice has held up well over the years despite the Wilson-esque lowering of vocal range, but even when he shows up his old youthful sincerity is generally absent.

So, a three decade lag, two non-original band members, aimless genre explorations, and a (lot of) cheesy song(s) about a girl that actually gets cheesier if it’s really about drugs. I think it’s fair to not include this one in the Big Star catalog. Stevens compositions “February’s Quiet” and “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had” fit into the band’s mold, but there’s one slice of classic Big Star on the album: the opening song “Dony.” Buoyed by a high bass line, Chilton’s instantly recognizable guitar riffs, and some wide-eyed lyrics, it’s the only song he sounds excited about singing. Maybe the band should’ve quit while they were ahead.