Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/13/08.
In the early 1970s when power-pop acts like Badfinger and the Raspberries brought a unique blend of upbeat rock with melodic pop sensibilities that created the genre. While both bands manage to score hits with singles during their hey-day, neither of them had the acclaim or prestige of Big Star. Consisting of former Box Tops vocalist/guitarist Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens, all of whom sang. 1972's #1 Record was widely acclaimed yet sold poorly as Chris Bell left the band for a solo career. In 1974, Big Star released their sophomore release Radio City to bigger acclaim but again, the band remained in obscurity that led to Andy Hummel's departure. During that time, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens went into the studio to make an album with legendary producer Jim Dickinson.
During that time, Chilton and Stephens were creating an album with an array of friends and musicians in Memphis where tension rose between the two. After the completion of the recordings, Big Star officially disbanded in 1974. Four years later, the album Chilton and Stephens created with Dickinson entitled Third was released to little fanfare. Yet over the year, Big Star would attract a devoted cult following from bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements who named a song after Chilton. In 1992, Rykodisc Records decided to reissue the entire album of those sessions in the tracklisting order that Chilton wanted which resulted in one of the greatest treasures in rock n' roll entitled Third/Sister Lovers.
Produced by Jim Dickinson, Third/Sister Lovers is an album that takes Alex Chilton's love for pop music into darker territory. With themes about death, sadness, and alienation, the album explores the power-pop's love of melancholia to much deeper heights. Less pop-driven than their previous albums, Third/Sister Lovers can be described as an album that's messy yet Chilton's fragile persona along with contributions from drummer Jody Stephens who writes a song of his own. With musical styles ranging from soul, gospel, love songs, and experimental music with the use of synthesizers and mellotron. The result isn't just one of the most overlooked albums in rock n' roll history but also pop music history as it comes from one of music's most unsung heroes.
The album begins with the rambling rocker Kizza Me with crashing guitars and power-pummeling drums by Jody Stephens, Alex Chilton sings with his smooth, wailing vocal style as he sings with a lot of angst as he's accompanied by a thumping rhythm and piano. With Chilton singing a song of desperation, he belts out a lot of rocking guitars washes that is playing with flourishing piano melodies. Thank You Friends is a mid-tempo song with Chilton playing swanky guitar washes with vibrant rhythms from Stephens' drums and a group of female back-up vocalists. Chilton sings in his amazing, high-pitch, tenor vocal style as he sings poignant lyrics of comfort. With Dickinson's amazing production, the song is wonderfully mixed thanks in large part to the background vocalists that adds a sense of pop flavor that plays along to Chilton's guitar solo.
Big Black Car is a haunting, dream-like ballad with soft, hollow drums by Stephens and Chilton's reverb guitar track as he sings in a dark, crooning vocal style to emphasize the song's melancholic tone that is led by its guitar and piano. The song's lyrics are filled with dark description of heartbreak and sorrow that presents of what is to come from the rest of the album.
Jesus Christ opens with a circus-like intro that then turns into an uplifting rocker with washy, jangly guitars and bopping, mid-tempo rhythms that is spurred by Jim Dickinson’s crisp production. With Chilton singing in his high-pitch tenor, it's definitely a great song with a memorable chorus where he's accompanied by a group of background vocalists and a timpani. When the song reaches its second chorus, it' followed by a wailing a saxophone solo that's in the spirit of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. A country-flavored cover of the Velvet Underground classic Femme Fatale emerges with swooning, country-laden guitar melodies and soft, acoustic presentation and Stephens' tapping rhythm. Chilton sings Lou Reed's haunting lyrics where once it reaches the chorus, a female vocalist sings the words "She's a femme fatale" softly. Big Star's reinterpretation of the Velvets classic shows one cult band's ode to another famed cult band.
O, Dana is a heart-wrenching ballad that features a violin in the background and Stephens' haunting drum snare hits as Chilton sings with an acoustic guitar into this powerful but mid-tempo ballad. Chilton sings his heartbreaking lyrics as he belts out rambling guitar melodies while being accompanied by a piano in this wonderful yet sad song. Holocaust is one of the album's finest and most eerie highlights as the dark, hollow piano ballad reveals Chilton's dark side. With siren-like guitar slides to accompany the song, it's Chilton's vocals that are the song's highlight as presents a fragile side that plays well with the song's descriptive, eerie lyrics that deals with death.
Kangaroo is another haunting ballad with eerie, acoustic guitar washes and feedback-laden guitars and Stephens' hollow-sounding drum snares. Chilton's sings in a more, high-pitch vocal to play to the song's ethereal yet harrowing lyrics of heartbreak and desperation. With Dickinson's production, the song sounds like a shamble as if it's falling apart with Chilton's vocals holding it all together as it's reaching its breaking point. Stroke It Noel is a smooth, mid-tempo song that features Chilton an acoustic guitar and Stephens on smooth yet powerful drums as Chilton sings poignant lyrics of innocence with a full-on string orchestra in the background. Yet, it's Chilton's vocals and lyrics that really shine as he asks, "Do you wanna dance?" in this great song.
Next is Jody Stephens' For You as Chilton plays a washy, acoustic guitar to accompany Stephens' smooth, mid-tempo drum as he sings the song's heartbreaking lyrics. Whereas Chilton is often the focal point of the band, Stephens gets his chance to shine in this great song as his more, hollow yet high-pitch vocal style works to the song's lyrics that features a string orchestra accompaniment. You Can't Have Me is a shambling rocker with washy guitars, squealing saxophones, and rumbling drums as Chilton goes into power-pop mode with angry lyrics and growl in his vocals. With Stephens getting the song to be more intense with his drums, the song plays like a shambling, confrontational song with Chilton being its leader.
Nighttime is a wonderful, dreamy, acoustic ballad with a lovely wash of acoustic flourishes and Chilton's descriptive lyrics of the nighttime as he delves into its innocence and melancholia. With a country-guitar slide in the background and later, string arrangements, the song is another standout for its dream-like tone and Chilton's swooning vocal style and lyrics that is mixed its complex moods. Blue Moon is another acoustic-ballad with melodic plucks from Chilton and a flute accompaniment as he sings the song's heartbreaking lyrics with his smooth, high-pitch tenor. Chilton's vocals are the highlight in this heart-wrenching yet fragile song that features a soft string arrangement in the background through Dickinson's superb production. Take Care is a ballad led by its powerful yet flourishing string arrangements and a slow yet harrowing rhythm by Jody Stephens. Chilton's vocals are again haunting yet ethereal as he delves into the song's sad yet poignant lyrics that are filled with melancholia.
The next five tracks are bonus tracks made from sessions of this album back in 1974 but were never released nor made it to the album's original release in 1978. The first is a cover of the Nat King Cole classic Nature Boy where Chilton turns into a harrowing piano ballad led by his eerie vocals as he sings Eden Ahbez's melancholic lyrics. The next cover is the Kinks' Till The End Of The Day by Ray Davies as Chilton and Stephens turn it into the same, rollicking rocker true to the spirit of the Kinks with its fast, washy guitars and Chilton's vocals that plays with Stephens' hard-hitting drums. The next two bonus tracks are two originals penned by Chilton. The first is the haunting ballad Dream Lover that features Chilton's harrowing lyrics as he's accompanied by a piano, guitar, and Stephens' soft drums. With Chilton's fragile vocals, the song is another standout and an amazement into the fact that into why it never made it into the original 1978 release.
Downs is a vibrant, calypso-inspired song with an array of percussions and Chilton singing fragmented lyrics in his cool, vocal presentation as the song is really a fragmented track that is still brilliant for its comical tone. The album closer and final bonus track is a rollicking cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis classic Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On with fast-playing pianos, swift drums, wailing saxophones, and rocking guitars as Chilton, Stephens, and the musicians jam to the rock classic.
When the album was originally released in 1978 through PVC Records and with fourteen track in different sequencing, it failed to get any notice. Yet, after its release that was followed by the death of co-founder Chris Bell in a car crash, the album began to take notice through the underground who had been discovering Big Star where in 1983, 4AD label founder Ivo-Watts Russell decided to reinterpret Holocaust and Kangaroo for the label's project This Mortal Coil in their 1984 debut album It'll End in Tears.
Over the years, bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, Primal Scream, and Fountains of Wayne had acknowledge Big Star's influence. Then in 1992 as the album was remastered and reissued with its five bonus tracks, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens decided to reform the band with the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for a series of tours. With reunions happening occasionally, the band released a new album in 2005 entitled In Space.
Third/Sister Lovers is a harrowing, haunting, yet amazing album from Big Star. With the talents of Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and producer Jim Dickinson, the album is truly one for the ages as it reveals the band's talent that is further away from the power-pop genre. While the album itself is now very hard to find in music stores, thanks in part to the death of Tower Records, the album is still available on the Internet for new people to enjoy. Yet with amazing songs in a lot of styles while channeling themes of heartbreak and death, it's an album that is a lovely mess that proves to be unpredictable and unsentimental as well. In the end, Third/Sister Lovers is Big Star's masterpiece and one that has to be heard for those who love great music.
Big Star Albums: (#1 Record) - (Radio City) - (In Space) - Keep An Eye on the Sky - Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
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