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View Full Version : When one of the greatest songwriters ever fills his album with covers...


Snapcase
25-01-2002, 13:27:28
...you really should be expecting trouble.

After hunting for it for about a year by now, I finally got hold of a copy of Big Star's Sister Lovers/Third a few days ago. Now, I treasure my copy of #1 Record and Radio City, they being two of the greatest albums ever written and some of my fav pieces of deep-litsening material if I ever feel like just sitting down and intentely concentrating on an album, so I naturally expected great stuff from Third.

I must say I'm greatly dissapointed- it's a very average album. Sure, the production is interesting (in parts; it's famously patchy), it's commendably experimental when it comes to structure and instrumentation, it's not a shite album as such. But where it really, really counts it's not experimental at all. I'm talking about what must be considered the greatest strenght of the first two albums: the great songwriting- it seems to have been the first thing Alex Chilton lost. This album is filled with utterly predictable hooks, chord sequences, even singing style- the great originality and surprise that made Radio City such a great success is gone. Simply gone. Almost all of the tracks, with an exception of one or two, are so predictable that you can actually hum along without knowing the melody beforehand, surely the greatest failure a songwriter can have. Couple this with the patchy production and you get utter duds like "Kanga Roo", surely the worst song Chilton has ever written.

And of top of this there are covers- Covers? By Alex Chilton? Why? And they're dreary- either utterly uncoverable material turned into spectacular failure (Femme Fatale) or averagely done shoe-in classic covers (Nature Boy- even the Moulin Rouge soundtrack has an acceptable cover of it for gossakes).

It's not a bad album. But it's nowhere near what Chilton could have achieved.

Lazarus and the Gimp
26-01-2002, 14:53:32
An alternative view, for the sake of balance, and because I'm seeing an album I consider to be truly incredible getting slated.

"Sister Lovers" in it's "original" form (or as close to original as you can get on an album that was never released) had 14 tracks, and only one ("Femme Fatale") was a cover. Filled with covers? Are you mad?

On it's CD re-release by Rykodisc, 5 "bonus tracks" were added, of which three were covers ("Nature boy", "Till the end of the day" and "Whole lotta shakin' goin' on"). Note the use of "bonus tracks" there. So, all in all, of 19 tracks there are 4 covers. Filled with covers? What the hell version have you got there?

Next- you're missing the point of the album. It was a deliberate act of career suicide by a deeply bitter Alex Chilton. He vandalised the mixes, trying to make them difficult to associate with the accessible and radio-friendly "#1 Record" and "Radio City". That's why there is feedback all over "Kanga Roo", and why "Downs" (intended to be a single) is sung as if Chilton was lobotomised and a basketball used as a "drum".

Thirdly- you say it's not experimental. What, exactly, was experimental about the radio-friendly sing-songs on the first two albums? Compared to them "Sister Lovers" sounds like Stockhausen. What, at the time, sounded anything like "Downs" or "Kanga Roo"?

Next- the songwriting. This isn't Chilton on sunny sunset fun-in-the-sun mood, as he was on the other albums. He was murderously depressed. That's why there's no "Thirteen" or "Ballad of El Goodo" or "September Gurls" on it. Instead you get the poisonously cynical "Thank you, friends". Then you get "Holocaust" which isn't just a depressing song- it's harrowing. It's a glimpse into the heart of darkness. To suggest that it's not the work of raw songwriting genius strikes me as totally unhinged.

"Kanga Roo"? I'm going to assume that the track listing on your CD is incorrect, because I think it's great. Not in spite of it's vandalised state, but because of the way the damage wreaked on this achingly pretty song leaves it much more powerful. It's like seeing a splash of blood and brains across the Venus De Milo.

Production? They were broke, and they wanted to make something damaged and difficult. That was the point. It wasn't error or sloth that caused it.

No-one said this is an easy album. It isn't- and to anyone coming in off of "Radio City" it's a shock. That's the point. It's meant to do that- and it works.

It's not pretty- but it's certainly powerful, and on "Nighttime" and "Blue Moon" it's genuinely beautiful. "Kizza me" sucks, however.

Snapcase
26-01-2002, 16:39:40
The "Which edition is closest to the intended version" issue is highly contentious- I've seen at least five or six different "genuine track listings" for Third. Many argue that the "bonus tracks" on the rykodisc version bring it back to it's original "intended" state.

I personally can't see the fascination in a mental breakdown. I really can't. There is an almost fetischistic following of self-destructive musicians among some parties. To me, mental breakdown (unlike, say, internal tensions in a band) almost always produces awful albums. Berlin. The Idiot. Closer. Any Nick Drake album you'd care to name. All lacking in immediacy, in connection with the feelings of real people, in self-distance, and ultimately in songwriting.

Yes, the songwriting- the layering and intersection of hooks to create a soundscape of some sort. Radio City, even on the umpteenth litsen, never fails to surprise me it it's lack of "normal" structure. An example: suddenly, in the middle of What's Going Ahn (which sounds like a typical shite power ballad in the beginning) Chilton introduces a startling new hook ("And I resigned everyone/Ever since I was young[...]")- one of the finest hooks ever, and so totally different from anything else. It doesn't sound like classic rock, it doesn't sound like sixties pop, it doesn't sound like Badfinger or the Raspberries. This feeling of new ground being broken I get throughout Radio City- Chilton creates a personal vocabulary of hooks and flourishes, not built up over a series of albums like Bowie's or Dylan's, but sudden, unexpected, and startingly different from anything he's done before.

Sister Lovers you contend sounds like nothing else at the time. I think it does- it sounds like Chilton. The hooks, rhythms, etc. are still different from most others' (although the rot of classic rock starts to creep in at an alarming rate), but they all sound as if they've been heard before. The songs, shorn of their "great" (I have issues with that too, but n/m) lyrical content and the patchy but often excellent production, sound infinately more like familiar tunes than Radio City's ever did. Mainly because they sound like Radio City's rejects. It's occasionally the same signatures, the same hooks, but this time they're not fresh at all. Instead of writing another piece like September Gurls's bridge or the pause in the middle of Back of a Car's chorus he's let his melodies go into normality in favour of more "deep" lyrics and more intricate production.

That's almost always the case with self-destructive records. In the fervour of trying to be depressively meaningful, the playfulness is lost.

(And, er, I think Kizza Me is the least bad song on the record. Love the Violin bit. :D)

Lazarus and the Gimp
26-01-2002, 18:37:17
Right, so you've just slated "Sister Lovers", "Berlin", "Closer", "The Idiot" and the entire recorded output of Nick Drake (regardless of the fact that he was suffering no mental illness during the making of "Five Leaves Left"- it only started during "Bryter Layter"). All of which I consider to be works of genius, and all of which are critically lauded.

Well everyone's entitled to their tastes....

By an extension of this theory, are Van Gogh, Dadd, Caravaggio and Goya all bad artists?

Vincent Fandango
26-01-2002, 19:19:37
Van who? You mean Van Morrison, I guess?

Lazarus and the Gimp
26-01-2002, 21:50:31
That's him. Composer of "Astral Sunflowers".

Snapcase
27-01-2002, 14:08:19
All artists are by definition bad, but their art might be good. :D I actually like the artists you mentioned (plus the rest of the manically depressed lot, from Munch to Bacon) so I suppose there is some inconsistency. :clueless:

I just like a more spirited response to adversity, I suppose.

Funkodrom
27-01-2002, 16:58:09
"A spirited response to adversity" would be an unrealistic expression of the situation though, about as relevant as someone saying, "cheer up it's not that bad" If there is hope or positiveness then it's missing the point. I think.

Snapcase
28-01-2002, 13:14:47
How about self-delusion? Self-delusion has always worked for me.

Funkodrom
28-01-2002, 13:29:33
Then you end up with a song about self delusion.

Snapcase
28-01-2002, 13:47:12
Not if the person who writes it is self-deluded at the time.

(Oh, I see, you want songs about depression. I don't. Eww.)

Funkodrom
28-01-2002, 13:51:00
If someone wants to write a song about how they feel they should do that, I don't have to listen to it if I don't want.

Snapcase
28-01-2002, 13:57:42
It's a shame, though, that otherwise talented musicians (e.g. Pop, Reed, Chilton as per above, not so much Curtis and Drake) squander their ability onto depressive music. Depression, like excessive drug use, is a tragedy for music when it hits a musician.

Funkodrom
28-01-2002, 14:04:37
They can't write a clever upbeat song if that's how they are feeling. It's not good for them, not good for anyone being depressed, but I think the best art comes out of strong emotion whatever it is. Actually, there is an exception, for me the biggest tragedy is when songwriters fall in love and start writing cheesy cliched bullshit.

Snapcase
28-01-2002, 14:12:47
Except that I don't think Depression is a strong emotion. It's more the tapering off of all emotional response. I'm not talking "oh, my baby's left me, I wanna die" melodrama here, I'm talking "Oh, I'm depressed. Let me write together a bunch of random bitter stuff."

Funkodrom
28-01-2002, 14:16:16
Yeah... that's possibly true. Random is good though.

PosterBoy
28-01-2002, 15:38:16
I got the reissue of #1 Record and Radio City and I have to say I'm finding it hard to get into them, after all I'd heard about Big Star and their influence.

On anther tangent 'Alex Chilton' by The Replacements is a very cool song.

Lazarus and the Gimp
28-01-2002, 18:10:37
It certainly is. The Replacements were brilliant.

jsorense
28-01-2002, 18:39:27
Originally posted by Snapcase
Except that I don't think Depression is a strong emotion. It's more the tapering off of all emotional response. I'm not talking "oh, my baby's left me, I wanna die" melodrama here, I'm talking "Oh, I'm depressed. Let me write together a bunch of random bitter stuff."

Bob Dylan would be a forgotten folk/blues artist if he hadn't written a whole lot of random bitter stuff.
Lots and lots and lots.
j

Lazarus and the Gimp
28-01-2002, 20:01:35
Originally posted by Snapcase
It's a shame, though, that otherwise talented musicians (e.g. Pop, Reed, Chilton as per above, not so much Curtis and Drake) squander their ability onto depressive music. Depression, like excessive drug use, is a tragedy for music when it hits a musician.

Does that quote mean that you don't consider Ian Curtis and Nick Drake talented? Or that you think that in their cases their abilities weren't squandered by depressive music? The second option seems logical with Drake, as much of his output wasn't depressive at all.

In any event, there are many examples of artists who are incredible when making downbeat songs, yet are nowhere near as good when making happy stuff. Notable examples are Mark Eitzel/American Music Club, Mark Kozelek/Red House Painters, Bob Mould and ( a controversial one) Neil Young.

Snapcase
28-01-2002, 20:58:30
I'm not necessarily speaking for the virtues of happy music here. I like outpourings of grief as much as the next guy. And anger, of course. It's the resigned, low-key depression I can't stand.

Vincent Fandango
28-01-2002, 21:12:35
depressun iz gay

PosterBoy
29-01-2002, 13:29:55
Originally posted by Lazarus and the Gimp


Does that quote mean that you don't consider Ian Curtis and Nick Drake talented? Or that you think that in their cases their abilities weren't squandered by depressive music? The second option seems logical with Drake, as much of his output wasn't depressive at all.

In any event, there are many examples of artists who are incredible when making downbeat songs, yet are nowhere near as good when making happy stuff. Notable examples are Mark Eitzel/American Music Club, Mark Kozelek/Red House Painters, Bob Mould and ( a controversial one) Neil Young.

I bought one of Mark Eitzel's albums but it's a bit jazzy for me, Red House Painters Rock ( in a very slow core kind of way).

Lazarus and the Gimp
29-01-2002, 20:24:06
Eitzel's solo stuff is a poor second to American Music Club. Check out "Engine" or "California" for real genius- and no jazz.