November 12, 2006

November's Record You Should Own

November's Record You Should Own is the answer to the following question:
Your name is Alex Chilton. You had a phenomenal amount of success as a teen with the Box Tops. As part of another group, Big Star, your first two records - transcendent pop in a post-acid rock world - fail miserably. You and your studio are running out of money, and you're not happy. What do you do?
Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers (recorded around 1973, released in bootleg and pirated editions around 1977, and finally formally released by Rykodisc in the early 90s) is a fragile, shattered masterpiece. If you are looking for polish, this album has little - false stops/starts, studio chatter, songs degenerating (one song ends with an improbably drum solo). But hidden in the cracks is an album that reflects the artist's state of mind, and for those who get a little moody this time of year, is the best soundtrack music.

Ryko's edition starts with "Thank You Friends", a slightly Broadway-esque number that turns sarcastic in the chorus ("All the ladies and gentlemen/that made this all so...probable.) and ends with Chilton asking, "Have I done something wrong?" [Just try playing it before Thanksgiving dinner, and watch the familial fireworks begin!]"Big Black Car" puts it all on the table with Chilton declaring "Nothing can hurt me....nothing can touch me." Even the joyful proclamation of "Jesus Christ" (a Christmas song like no other) turns sour, when before the end, Chilton declares, "We're gonna get born now." By the time Chilton sings the closing lines of "Holocaust", the listener is unsure whether Chilton is singing to someone in particular...or into a mirror.

Gradually, the titles bear our Chilton's mindset - "You Can't Have Me", "Night Time" (which ends "get me out of here/I hate it here/get me out of here", and with the "official" finish of "Take Care", the listener feels less sure, as if Chilton is suggesting moving on without him.

Ryko's disc is the one to get - yes, there are other CD versions, but Ryko smartly places the extra tracks towards the end. Starting with a mournful cover of "Til the End of the Day" by the Kinks, it moves into "Dream Lover" (a Chilton composition), a cover of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" (in which Chilton sings the final verse with a tone of near disbelief) and ends with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". The closing song jars somewhat, but in the end, shows that music is about transcending mood, of the redemptive power that comes when one artist expresses his soul.

This is not an easy listen - it's not the kind of disc you casually break out. However, as winter's chill moves over autumn, it's the kind of emotional starkness that is refreshing, especially in these more manufactured musical times. But believe me, you'll be all the better for it.

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