Big Star, #1 Record/Radio City
The Rosetta Stone of power pop
Somewhere, armchair critics and befuddled Yankees are quibbling, neatly filing the first two records of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell away under "power pop." Yet, like Elvis and obvious Chilton precursor Jerry Lee Lewis, what else is Big Star's music really, released as it was on Memphis' own Ardent label (distributed through Stax, home of Otis Redding), recorded at the city's Ardent Studios by Dixie Fried auteur Jim Dickinson and named for a local supermarket chain? 'Spose if they'd been named "Piggly Wiggly" or "Winn-Dixie," there'd be less palaver. Of course, the long unsung quartet ascended to Rock Snob Encyclopedia fame mostly from laurels tossed their way over the past two decades by fellow Southern modernists R.E.M., who spearheaded the renaissance of Big Star-philia, Brits with Americana-envy and Midwesterners like the Replacements and Wilco, but the current Southern rock vanguard is hip, and includes tacit reclamation of Memphis' finest among the twisted skeins of their respective aural missions.
To be sure, Bell's post-band masterpiece I Am the Cosmos more overtly alludes to every suhthuhn boy's primary concern — God — but the lyrical themes, attenuated gospel-derived harmonies and underdog perspective of the mostly gorgeous, magnificent songs throughout both these albums sketch a peculiarly Southern point of view. So what if they openly adored the Beatles? The Allman Brothers were spurred to action by Cream and the San Francisco Sound and no one thought they were Anglophiles or Haight Street hippie wannabes. "Thirteen," that quintessential tale of young love, is like the sonic rendering of a William Eggleston photograph, and "The Ballad of El Goodo" is often like one shot by Eudora Welty. Crossover was king of the late modern epoch and Big Star — Chilton, especially — were masters of the game, wedding their collective Southern gothic demons (and guitar-as-snake in the grass) to girl group-worthy pop on "When My Baby's Beside Me," "In the Street" spiced with sun-kissed SoCal beach-canyonisms, virtual Witchseason folk "The India Song" and the twang riff-happy, mongoloid Cousin of Boogie "O My Soul." Chilton himself remains an idiosyncratic purveyor of hardcore blue-eyed soul at its very best.