Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No. 403: Radio City

Band: Big Star
Album: Radio City
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The logical step from the Byrds and Beatles to R.E.M. is Big Star. The Memphis power pop group took the region's soul and combined it with the hooks and guitar of the 1960s sound to make a fine second record. Slightly darker lyrically (but similarly bright in music), "Radio City" builds off the band's first album.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This isn't the best Big Star record, as the band's debut is better.
Best song: "September Gurls" is fantastic, as is "I'm in Love With a Girl."
Worst song: "Life is White" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: While it's not "#1 Record," it is a great piece of rock and roll.

To add one more note to the "Times the author was ignorant about music" file: I had not heard of Big Star until I got to college. As I'm sure is evident, I thought I was king shit of fuck mountain going into college. I was the only person in my senior class who had both Superchunk and Pavement records (despite the fact that both had been gleaned from Mark, a man a year my senior and way more knowledged in music than I), so I figured I knew everything about rock and roll.

Um, no.

Anyway, Big Star and my college radio station are forever connected thanks to KCOU's reuniting the band in 1993 for our annual free spring concert. You can imagine my surprise in having never heard of this band on my entrance to college in the fall of 1999. Needless to say, I was schooled quickly.

As a fan of R.E.M., I liked Big Star upon first hearing them. Power pop isn't necessarily my bag -- it is often way too twee for my taste -- but Big Star has enough great songs for me to enjoy them.

"Radio City" isn't the band's best work, though. "#1 Record" is a better overall album, but "Radio City" has its moments. "Way Out West" has the classic jangle chords that define the band and Chris Bell's, um, odd vocals. "Back of a Car" is a classic love song that ably describes the teenage experience as well as being a great love song. "Daisy Glaze" is gorgeous, based around Alex Chilton's precious voice. "I'm in Love with a Girl" is similarly pretty, though in a much smaller way.

The highlight of the album, though, is "September Gurls." As Allmusic calls it the "quintessential power pop classic," and I'm not sure that's an incorrect statement. As I've mentioned before, some songs transcend artists and even the covers of "September Gurls" (specifically the Bangles or Matthew Sweet versions) are great songs. The song's R.E.M.-like juxtaposition of venomous lyric combined with jangle-pop guitars is so incredibly catchy and pretty.

Is "Radio City" perfect? By no means. A lot of the songs run together and many of the tracks are just plain bad. Still, a fine, underrated band and a fine, underrated record.


kellydwyer said...

Bought all three albums on Memorial Day weekend, 1997. The same day Chicago's own Eddie Johnson (as a Rocket) hit a game-winning shot in the playoffs against the Jazz.

Would not have been able to go the final year-plus of high school without stabbing someone if it weren't for those three albums.

kellydwyer said...

I also remember coming to Mizzou in August of 1998 for the first time, and expecting anyone who made me a pizza or rolled me a burrito to know all about the reunion.

No such luck, I wasn't in the radio group, and it wasn't happening. That said, I did still buy Chris Bell's solo album at some store during my second day on campus.

toppop100 said...

Nah, 'September Gurls' is one of the most overrated songs in pop history. It's not particularly memorable. I've heard it dozens of times but I'd be hard pressed to remember a single line of it, and the melody soon goes fuzzy on me if I try to sing it to myself. It's really a pretty average song and by no means even an example of 'power pop'. It's got no power. It's a mid-tempo kinda rocked-up folk song.

the next Prescott Niles said...

Don't know if you'll ever see this, but: that's actually Andy Hummel (RIP) singing "Way Out West"; Chris Bell (RIP) quit the band after #1 Record.

(Also: Of course Radio City is awesome—it's one of the ten best rock records ever made by Americans. Christ.)