Saturday, November 28, 2009

456- Third Sister Lovers- Sorry, what?


Album: Third/Sister Lovers.

Artist: Big Star.

Year: 1974

Genre: Pop.

Tracks.


  1. Stroke It Noel
  2. For You
  3. Kizza Me
  4. You Can't Have Me
  5. Nightime
  6. Blue Moon
  7. Take Care
  8. Jesus Christ
  9. Femme Fatale
  10. O, Dana
  11. Big Black Car
  12. Holocaust
  13. Kanga Roo
  14. Thank You Friends

This is without a doubt the strangest damn thing that has passed onto my MP3 player in a long time. I thought this album was strange when I first encountered it, stranger when I listened to it and stranger still when I read about it. I naively assumed before I went into this blogging project that there wasn’t much that could surprise me. I thought every release (with the exception of some rap and hip hop) would be by an artist that I was at least familiar with. I might not own the album but I’d know a song or two and at the very least have heard of the artist. Imagine my surprise when Big Star came along- a musical act who were completely off my radar. An album that has been around almost as long as I have, by a band that’s been on the planet for longer than I’ve lived, but I was completely unaware of. It was a novel experience putting in my earphones in order to hear a release with no preconceptions, a completely fresh listen.

Third Sister Lovers is as weird as its title would suggest. It’s just a massive big bucket of odd with trappings of strange and a healthy dose of bizarre just to keep things interesting. But not in a Trout Mask Replica kind of way more in a “lets-not-adhere-to-any-rules” sort of way. I started to get a handle on the album a few tracks in when I finally recognised a song. It was a cover of Femme Fatale by the Velvet Underground and suddenly it all made a lot more sense. This is the sort of music that fans of Cale, Reed and Nico make when they’ve got recording contracts and melodies in their heads. Listening to this album you can formulate an image of the musicians as bohemian beatnicks who grew up in a freak community and found the Velvet Underground as their musical saviour. They started life performing 30 minute versions of Sister Ray and bemoaning commercial radio and pop music in general. Except that’s not the case. Lead singer and Prime Mover Alex Chilton was actually a member of the Blue-eyed Memphis soul/pop group The Box Tops who were clean cut young lads performing songs with titles like Choo Choo Train and I Met Her in Church. Chilton moved from those squeaky clean early days to take residence somewhere out in left field. He released two albums with his new band Big Star which didn’t sell well and then finally this record which was regarded as so uncommercial it sat unreleased for four years.

While Chilton may have embraced some of the musical directions of the Velvets he certainly hasn’t adopted their lyrical obsession with drugs and sadomasochism. Lou Reed penned a song called Jesus which you won’t find being adopted by mainstream churches anytime soon. But Jesus Christ by Big Star is an honest-to-god Christmas song. “Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born” is sung without a hint of irony and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Christmas music compilation (It's probably on one somewhere). The rest of the album seems to be obsessed with sad themes and despair and the occasional moment of bafflement. What does Kizza Me actually mean?

Musically Third Sister Lovers roams merrily around genres without ever settling on one in particular or seeming to care. At times Chilton’s voice sounds eerily like a George Harrison impersonator searching for a tune. The guitars sound positively supernatural, ranging from ghostly to possessed, the strings drone and at times the backing vocalists sound like talented amateurs while at other times they just sound amateur.

There are melodies but nobody seems to know what they are.

You get the sense that the strings were arranged based on a visual aesthetic more than an aural one: “I’ve arranged the strings, all the violas are sitting in a straight line while the cellos have adopted a V formation”.

There are horns/woodwinds but they’re not played as much as engaged in combat, at one stage a clarinet player is physically attacked by his instrument which he clearly enraged at some point during the session.

The percussion wanders around with a sense of randomness not often found in mainstream drumming. At the end of Kangaroo there is a sudden burst of cowbell which is mixed in at a higher volume than anything else. It doesn’t sound like the deliberate act of a musician as much as the sudden entrance of a passing madman with a cowbell, or possibly even an actual cow.

All of this might make you believe I don’t like this album. In fact nothing is further from the truth. I should hate it but I don’t. Something about it sort of works, not in a “greater than the sum of its parts” way more in a “defying the impossible odds” way. A bit like the world’s must beautiful car crash, or a massive industrial accident that somehow resembles Michelle Pfieffer, it shouldn’t work but it does.

Either way I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is the greatest album with a Christmas song and Nico cover ever recorded by an ex-boy band member and then left unreleased for almost five years.

Highlight: You can’t have me. Some truly great drumming moments and worth searching out.

Lowlight: I thought it was Kangaroo but according to everyone else it’s the best song.

Influenced by: disillusionment with a record label.

Influenced: Primal Scream and Radiohead.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “It behooves us to examine the hit songs released in 1974, and see where rock and roll could have gone without this album and the intelligent fan base of aficionados and critics which have sustained its legendary status until the consciousness of the world could catch up. Here then is a list of top radio hits from 1974; it is not a pretty picture: "Smokin' In The Boys Room" - Brownsville Station, "Waterloo" - ABBA, "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" - Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, "Already Gone" and "Best Of My Love" - The Eagles, "Kung Fu Fighting" - Carl Douglas, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" - Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "Can't Get Enough" - Bad Company, "Shang-A-Lang" - Bay City Rollers, "Midnight At The Oasis" - Maria Muldaur, "I Honestly Love You" - Olivia Newton-John, and of course, the most horrific cloying noise that vaguely resemble music ever recorded..."(You're) Having My Baby" by Paul Anka & Odia Coates.”

-You have to love anyone who introduces research with the word “behooves.” Good for you.

So are you a third sister lover lover or do big star just kizza you off? Let me know below.

2 comments:

  1. Hmmm...I agree in many ways. Yes, what the hell is Kizza Me about and Kangaroo just never really grabbed me. It's a Cd that I usually skip quite a few of the songs that don't agree with me. I defy anyone to actually 'like' all of the songs on this- it simply covers too much ground. Highlight for me is Stroke it Noel.

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  2. Hey I like a lot of those other songs from 1974. What does that say about me?

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