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Mike Bennett writesipod/MP3 Friday Shuffle — In Memory of Alex Chilton Edition

I first read about Big Star in Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau’s first Consumer Guide collection. But reading about Big Star and finding their records was a tricky proposition in 1981. Then one day, I found a copy of Radio City in a cutout rack at Rose Records. It was a great introduction — I was fixated for months on “O My Soul”, which took so many familiar ’60s rock elements, but rearranged them in new and exciting ways. Eventually, I came to love the other songs on the album. And that was all I heard by them for years, since Big Star didn’t have anything in print. Even when Radio City and #1 Record came out in CD, it was import only. But eventually I had all the albums, which are so distinctive, and have become part of the power pop canon. Big Star ran the gamut, from the teenage ecstasy of “In The Street” to the tender defiance of “Thirteen” to the blissful longing of “September Gurls” to the desperation that permeates the Third/Sister Lovers project, this was pop music that had strong emotional resonance.

Alas, things weren’t so easy for main man Alex Chilton. A teenage star with The Box Tops, his preternaturally mature soulful voice keyed hits like “The Letter”. But the band was controlled by the record company and producers. And he never made much money from the Tops. He began to explore his own sound, captured on Chilton’s 1970 album, which eventually came out in the ’90s. Finally, with the talented Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and reliable drummer Jody Stephens, Big Star was born. The name wasn’t intended to be ironic (thought that’s how it turned out) — they took it from a local supermarket chain.

Signed to the local label Ardent (an affiliate of Stax), there was no promotional muscle for the band’s music, and perhaps they weren’t quite as mainstream as, for example, The Raspberries. So the records didn’t sell. This took it’s toll. It took years for the cult to expand, and Chilton and Big Star were championed by artists like R.E.M.s Peter Buck, Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, and, most famously, The Replacements, in the classic song, “Alex Chilton”. From these ripples, more and more bands have shown the influence of Big Star.

Chilton’s death just two days ago, at age 59, is such a shame. I wonder if he’d realize just how many people he touched, as illustrated by scads of Facebook updates and tweets in his honor.

I only saw Chilton once, when Big Star (featuring Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, with Stephens on drums) played Metro. It was an amazing night, as I saw the great local band Frisbie for the first time, and they raised the roof. Fortunately, Big Star was up to the task of following that set. And I started following Frisbie, which led to friendships and contacts that are why I’m now at CHIRP. So Chilton’s music has touched me on many levels.

The first song played on CHIRP, just two months before Chilton’s death, was Big Star’s “Thank You Friends”. It was the perfect song to kick CHIRP off, and typical of Chilton’s ability to capture feelings, both lyrically and melodically. We’ll all miss him, but we’ll always have him around.

In Chilton’s honor, please grab your iPod/MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 songs that come up.

  1. Parasites — You’re Gonna Miss Me (Retro Pop Remasters): I must have read a review of a Parasites album, which led me to picking up the band’s album Pair. Despite the ugly name, the Parasites are a sugar rush of punk-pop. Unlike bands of the Blink 182 stripe, Parasites are grounded more in classic pop with stronger vocals. They really get the balance right, with punky energy and strong swoony melodies. Maybe this would be better described at power X 2 pop.
  2. Blur — Colin Zeal (Modern Life Is Rubbish): On Blur’s second album, they were in the process of honing their Brit pop approach, with a character study of a middle class twit, in the tradition of Ray Davies and Andy Partridge. The verses in this song are static, but they set up the big hook. At the time, this sounded so good, but there were even better things to come.
  3. Radio Birdman — Murder City Nights (Radios Appear): Radio Birdman was strongly influenced by Detroit proto-punk (The MC5 and The Stooges) and surf rock, and came up with a sound that really defined Australian punk rock. There were some garage and R & B undercurrents, with fantastic guitar parts. Deniz Tek has a typically slashing guitar solo here. I was so happy to see them on their reunion tour, as Tek was a monster and the whole band ripped. One of my favorite songs on the band’s classic debut.
  4. Aimee Mann — Choice In The Matter (I’m With Stupid): Nick Hornby has wondered how Mann can marry such downbeat lyrics with such upbeat melodies. I don’t know, but it’s her greatest talent. On her second solo record, it sounds like she was reaching for a warm sound akin to Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album. Her later records got a bit prettier, but all the ingredients that led her to greater prominence as a solo act were all on this disc.
  5. Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra — Caravan (Highlights from the Centennial Edition): The music fits the title, as the band chugs along in rhythmic fashion, setting up a wonderful clarinet solo. The interplay between the drums and the piano is splendid, with a bass guitar also playing along. Then a violin solo gives an Eastern feel to the song. This just sounds so cool.
  6. M.I.A. — Galang (Arular): The song that really broke M.I.A. in the U.K. Her tracks almost always have bright and insistent rhythm tracks. There is so much going on and the rhythms are catchy unto themselves. M.I.A. isn’t really much of a rapper, but she has a ton of personality and her Sri Lankan/Brit accent adds to the third world meets first world sensibility that is the essence of her recordings. Both her official albums are essential.
  7. New Model Army — Ballad of Bodmin Pill (Thunder And Consolation): Musically, are punk in attitude, with hard guitars mixed with post-punky bass lines and music that sometimes is Clash-y and sometimes folk-y. Lead singer Justin Sullivan is articulate and passionate, railing against the injustices of the world. Like Midnight Oil, the band makes it go down easier with anthemic choruses. This is vital, as otherwise this would just be monochromatic hectoring. Instead, New Model Army provides a platform to channel anger. This is from my favorite album of theirs. It positively seethes.
  8. The Four Tops — Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got)(The Singles + More): A ’70s hit for the Tops. This has more of a Philly soul vibe. It’s a great song, but it doesn’t sound much like a Four Tops song until they finally let Levi Stubbs take the lead. And even then, it’s not typical. Good, but not typical.
  9. The Undertones — Listening In (The Undertones): The first two Undertones are about as good as punky pop has ever been. The songs are so tight and well constructed, with a combo of hooks in the chorus and the lead guitar figures. On top of that, Feargal Sharkey’s warble is quintessentially teenage and the rhythm guitar tone is simply awesome. Not one of their best known songs, but it’s still great.
  10. The Grip Weeds — Every Minute (The Sound In You): This New York power pop group mixes it’s love for groups like The Who and The Move and big guitars with an affinity for folkier rock in the vein of The Byrds. So the drums pound and the melodies soar, while guitarist Kristen Pinell comes up with some amazing solos. This band makes good records, but really must be seen live — they are explosive.

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Categorized: Friday MP3 Shuffle

Topics: ipod

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