Big Star – #1 Record and Radio City (2014)

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The underappreciated rhythm work of Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel simply leaps out of the speakers, as this twinned remastering of Big Star’s #1 Record and Radio City unfolds. Similarly, the late Hummel’s underdog “India Song” holds a fizzy, melodic charm. Then there’s Chris Bell, the largely forgotten mastermind of #1 Record, architect of its edgier moments, both as a composer, vocalist and studio whiz.

Such is the mythology billowing up around Alex Chilton — a mad genius in his later days, just finding his voice at this point — that these important elements thrum like new revelations today. Textured by Chilton’s laconic desolation, 1972’s #1 Record found Big Star in perfect balance. They clearly meant the album title as a wink, but this new Ardent/Stax redo will have you wondering once more why it didn’t come to pass.

Then there’s Radio City, from two years later. At that point, the late Bell was gone, leaving Chilton, Hummel and Stephens to fashion a new kind of Big Star recording. In some ways, the name was more connective than the music they came to make.

Loose to the point of being almost freeform at times, yet never sloppy, Big Star didn’t seem to be trying to coalesce itself into a rock band, as it had with Bell. Instead, they explored more wide open spaces — tapping into the late Chilton’s ineffably strange and darkening muse. All of it comes together in a lightning-strike moment of Chilton greatness called “September Gurls,” a song which set the next decade’s college-rock template. (It’s fitting, then, that R.E.M.’s Mike Mills wrote the liner notes for this new package.)

Of course, much of that is already known, already defined, already deified. That’s not the selling point of these new versions of #1 Record and Radio City. Instead, in this moment of newfound discovery, pay closer attention to moments like the Hummel-composed, Stephens-sung “Way Out West,” a song that found me again like a favorite sweater from a forgotten corner of the closet. One doesn’t sound nearly as good without being in relative proximity to the other.

See, as brilliant as Chilton no doubt was, there’s more to Big Star. In some cases, much more. This pair of reissues makes that clear all over again.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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