Articles Tagged: Big Star

Certain Songs #745: The Jayhawks – “Big Star”

Album: The Sound of Lies
Year: 1997

Mark Olson left The Jayhawks after Tomorrow The Green Grass to go work with his wife, Victoria Williams, and — like Peter Holsapple after Chris Stamey left the dBs — Gary Louris decided to carry on with the band under the established brand name.

Working with long-time bassist, Marc Perlman, the songs that Louris came up with for The Sound of Lies are somewhat different than the Americana that dominated their previous records: the guitars are louder, for one thing, and songs like “Sixteen Down” and “Poor Little Fish” have experimental textures to boot.

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Certain Songs #193: Chris Bell – “I Am The Cosmos”

I am the cosmos

Album: I Am The Cosmos.

Year: 1974.

Posthumous releases are a tricky thing. But posthumous releases of an album that was never quite officially finished are even trickier – as we don’t really know what the artist truly wanted – so it was with trepidation that I approached Rkyodisc’s 1992 release of Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos.  For one thing, we don’t even know if he wanted to call it I Am The Cosmos.

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Certain Songs #52: Big Star – “Kangaroo”

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Album: Third.

Year: 1978.

When people talk about the madness and disintegration of Big Star’s Third, they’re really mostly talking about this song and “Holocaust,” twin sisters of desolation and despair, and – at least in the version of this album I originally had – back to back near the end of the record, sealing it in people’s minds for all time as a masterpiece of sadness and weirdness.

And they have a point: “Kangaroo” is a meandering soundscape chalk full of acoustic guitar feedback, ghostly strings, and drums that sound like a distant battlefield getting ever closer.

It’s really more of a mood than a song, and that mood is “Holy mother of god, am I depressed!”  And while it’s arguably not as depressed as the piano-based “Holocaust,” I like it more because it’s less on-the-nose lyrically, and it’s constantly changing – like the cowbells that come in near the end of the song, just for the sheer fuck of it.

Fan-made video for “Kangaroo”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #51: Big Star – “Stroke It Noel”

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Album: Third.

Year: 1978.

While the first two Big Star albums were basically unheard mysteries when I first encountered them, by the time I bought the 1985 PVC reissue of Third, I was well aware of the tales of madness and disintegration that surrounded its recording. So it’s kinda ironic that side one, track one of this record that is supposed to experimental and off-putting is this perfectly composed, meticulously arranged pop nugget.

Not much more than Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and a simple string arrangement, “Stroke It Noel” might be the least raucous song in rock history that features a chorus of “Do you wanna dance?”

Of course, it was a feint: there was plenty of madness and disintegration on Third, so “Stroke It Noel” served as the same kind of palate cleanser / misdirection as “Sunday Morning” did on The Velvet Underground & Nico.  

It was also an indicator of one of the types of songs on the record, which I would roughly classify as Acoustic with Strings (“Stroke it Noel,” “For You” “Nighttime); Big Offbeat Rock ("You Can’t Have Me,” “Thank You Friends,”  "Jesus Christ" and, of course, Madness and Disintegration (“Holocaust,”  "Kangaroo").

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When I saw the Big Star’s Third concert in Los Angeles earlier this year, not only did they have Ken Stringfellow do the lead vocals on “Stroke It Noel,” (which made sense, as it would have fit in on any Posies album)  they had the legendary Van Dyke Parks do the string arrangements.  Like so much of the rest of that evening, it was equal parts sad, joyous and sublime.

Fan-made video for “Stroke It Noel)

My Certain Songs Playlist on Spotify

Every "Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #50: Big Star – “September Gurls”

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Album: Radio City.

Year: 1974.

While my favorite Big Star album has always been #1 Record (just in case you couldn’t tell), I can’t argue against anybody who prefers the raggedness of Radio City to the more pristine predecessor – or the unprecedented follow-up.  And a lot of that rests on the eternal charms of “September Gurls.”

With the 12-string rhythm guitar ringing ringing ringing ringing in one channel like the fucking 1966 Beatles, and Chilton contrasting the hope of summer with the despair of winter while Stephens and Hummel ooh and ahh at strategic points, what can you even say about this 2:47 of bliss that hasn’t been said before?

That its opening riff is not only sacred and profound, but a promise that is kept by the rest of the song?

That Paul Westerberg stole its “Riff-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Solo-Verse-Chorus-Chorus-Coda” structure for some of his greatest songs, including “Alex Chilton?”

That while the three Big Star songs I’ve previously posted were what initially drew me into them way back in ‘84, but it was instant classic familiarity of “September Gurls” that sealed the deal?

That The Bangles version was pretty great, totally inferior to the original, and the best song on Different Light?  And incredibly important because it was probably the first time that millions of people heard the song?

That when I made any kind of Big Star mixtape at all – for me, for a friend, for the fucking universe – the last song was always “September Gurls?”

Fan-made video for “September Gurls”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever