It's been 30 years since the last Big Star album, the almost undistributed Third/Sister Lover
, and even longer since the groundbreaking #1 Record
and Radio City
. That's a lifetime in musical terms -- indeed, more than a lifetime for one of the principals -- and with In Space
, the band doesn't exactly return to the page it left open on the desk all those years ago. That combination of hard guitars and soft vocals, architectural construction and live energy, is best represented on the album's first half, in dreamy pop songs like "Lady Sweet" and "February's Quiet". There's also a strong soul undercurrent here, reflecting the band's Memphis roots in tracks like "Mine Exclusively" and "Do You Wanna Make It?" Finally, there's some silliness on hand in enjoyable but goofy cuts like the disco-esque "Love Revolution" and the garage-soul advertorial "Makeover". This isn't really one of those cases where bands like Wire or Mission of Burma or Vashti Bunyan come back years later with stuff that ranks among their best, but it isn't bad, either -- not bad at all.
The current iteration of Big Star includes founders Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus longtime touring members (and Posies) John Auer and Ken Stringfellow. It's tempting, obviously, to look for the new guys' influence, to label certain tracks as Posies-esque, but it's probably fruitless; The Posies were so influenced by Big Star that the songs that sound most like them also sound most like Big Star. It's a fine line, a distinction without a difference and not worth worrying about -- especially not when half of the tracks don't sound too much like either band, and instead reference the Memphis soul environment in which Chilton, Bell and Stephens came of age.
Still, In Space starts in clearly defined historical territory with "Dony", an ur-Big Star cut with pillowy harmonies held aloft by ragged guitar chords. The subject, as always, is love -- that euphoric beginning phase when a glimpse is enough to set palms sweating and voices trembling, when "the sun in your hair... seems to stop time." "Lady Sweet" ups the ante with its wonderful, bittersweet but triumphant "might as well be losing sleep" chorus, that absurd mix of happy and sad that only infatuation can bring. There's muscle behind it in the massive backbeat and the percolating bass that saves the song from sounding saccharine, giving it that calibrated balance of pop and rock that made Big Star a cult obsession. This is the cut that comes closest to the reason that Big Star is legendary, and it can stand against all but the strongest songs from the band's catalog. "Best Chance", which follows, is also strong, though its opening guitar lick sounds just like the one in the Stones' "Happy". The familiarity continues in "Turn My Back on the Sun", which borrows liberally from the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice", then heads into its own tightly harmonized melody. "Love Revolution" is the first of the gimmick tracks, skillfully executed but flimsy in its evocation of disco wah-wah twitch. The lovely "February's Quiet" -- mostly written by Stephens -- gets In Space back on the power pop track with its jangly melody and season-by-season description of enduring love.
At this point, Big Star turns, oddly enough, into a wholly different animal, more like The Forty-Fives than the founders of power pop. This isn't always a negative; "Mine Exclusively" is excellent, built on a Booker T and the MGs bassline, twitching and grooving and shaking the walls. "A Whole New Thing" nods to Chuck Berry and "Do You Wanna Make It?" to James Brown. There's nothing wrong with dipping into soul -- the band is from Memphis, after all -- but switching from Beach Boys harmonies to R&B-leaning garage, as in the transition from "February's Quiet" to "Mine Exclusively", is disorienting. There's also an odd but really quite enjoyable semi-classical instrumental called "Aria Largo", slipped into the album's strange, discontinuous second half.
Closer "Makeover", an extended soul-fueled plug for some sort of innuendo-laced "body sculpting", should be a joke. It probably is a joke. You can almost hear the band laughing during its calls and responses. But if it's a joke, it's a joke on fire, with soul guitar, rapid fire drumming and twitchy guitars lifted straight out of Isaac Hayes's toolbox.
A dozen listens into In Space, it's still hard to draw many conclusions about it. It's a mess -- disorganized, heterogenous, studded with goofy, almost parodic tracks -- but even the weakest of these is tightly, joyfully executed, and the best are truly excellent. Is it a not-great album with a couple of great songs? Maybe. Or could it be a concept album whose central concept is intelligible only to Chilton himself? Possible. Either way, it's well worth checking out, for both the "Big Star" cuts and the oddities interspersed among them.