Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Big Star's #1 Record and Radio City, Chris Bell's I Am the School

Starting the 'B's with trepidation, tackling an elephantine presence from the get-go.

When I first started writing at ___ magazine, the Big Star/Posies thing had just released the Columbia live album, and a huge flowchart of the Big Star history, tracing through their latter disciples (often 25 years after the fact), graced the walls. This chart weaved around every important band of the past thirty years, broad enough to capture underwhelming 70s bands and overblown 80s juggernauts, each hinging on the theory that a few arpeggio chords could cross the gamut.

And it really did: Big Star's cult status (what with a lack of real commercial success, even to this day) is of massive proportions. Those jangling arpeggios generated some of the most perfect power pop in history. Aside from Emitt Rhodes, it's difficult for me to really think of any other American entity that really perfected the post-McCartney/Lennon power-pop in the 70s (I await someone to challenge me with Cheap Trick).

I received #1 and Radio City as a Christmas gift (thanks James!), both contained on the same CD. For whatever reason, I've always listened to #1 a bit more, and remember it quite a bit more clearly than Radio City. Once one reaches "The Ballad of El Goodo," hears Alex Chilton sing "I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds," the harmonies coming in shortly after, one gets hooked. The opening half of #1 is immediate and drawing, addictive. Bell and Chilton alternate between classic rock riffs, and sweet, almost naive ballads (Chilton has the cockiness of an adolescent when he sings "tell your dad what we said about the Rolling Stones" on "Thirteen"), with "India Song" being the only real dud (it's perhaps telling that it's one of the songs on the album that the Chilton/Bell team didn't pen). #1's got all the hallmarks of an amazing debut: broad, almost a little too ambitious.

Radio City, then is the excellent follow-up. With Bell having departed from the band due to depression or what not, Radio City is all Chilton, and it certainly helps that Chilton's one of the more intriguing personalties in rock and roll history. Radio City's more biting, the songs more ascerbic. Even when Chilton's heavily in love, it can still sound like he's sheerly bewildered at such an accomplishment. Radio City lacks the innocence of #1, making it perhaps a more mature album in theme, and probably a bit more cohesive, though Chilton's just conflicted enough to still capture the schizophrenic beauty of #1.

It's not overly surprising, then, to find that Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos is a sweeter, nicer affair. Though Bell might be the Lennon of the duo in regards to sound (maybe Harrison is more accurate), he's more the McCartney in terms of theme and lyric. If Chilton's the realist, Bell's the dreamer; if Chilton is conflicted with you, Bell is conflicted with himself. Though released post-humously (Bell died in a car crash in '78), I Am the Cosmos still sounds fully realized. It's a bit less 'American' (I suppose living in Memphis will do that) than Chilton tends to be, a bit more clearly evolved from latter Beatles, and thus perhaps a little less immediate in terms of huge guitar riffs and what not. It's still just as beautiful, though, and it's a shame that this will be Bell's only testament.

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