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Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013

Big Star

Nothing Can Hurt Me (Omnivore Records)

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Time was you could buy still-sealed Big Star albums in used record shops in Appleton or resale bookstores in Eau Claire. No one wanted this music, it seemed. Yet we were a rabid cult, protective but generous when someone else showed interest. Like pied pipers, the Ed Ackersons and Peder Hedmans of the world handed out home dubbed cassettes, the impact resonating exponentially.

 

Three decades after they released the first of three standalone masterpieces Big Star is the subject of a documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me. To fans who fell asleep wearing headphones while the albums spun, this soundtrack disc offers a wonderful reminder of the pinnacle of white soul music.

 

Was this star crossed quartet of Memphis kids tempting the fates by titling their debut LP #1 Record ? Was poor distribution or a failing record company the culprit? Or were they simply out of time playing Brit-inspired pop music in the days when Zep ruled the airwaves?

 

None of that matters.

 

Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel hit one out of the park their first at bat, blending muscular riffage, jangly guitars, big hooks and vocal harmonies. With Bell as the architect and Chilton the wildcard, the band sounded like no other. The soundtrack offers new perspectives on ”Give  Me Another Chance,” “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” Producer John Fry captures it all in 3D, as if this body of music sprang for fully formed.

 

When the debut sank, Bell moved on and the trio barely regrouped to record the incredible follow-up Radio City.  Without Bell to share the songwriting duties, Chilton allows the darkness creep in. Yet “September Gurls” takes off like an aeroplane and Jody Stephens drums like Keith Moon’s cousin.  “Don’t Lie to Me” and the wiry “O My Soul” sound emblematic of Chilton’s mindset. Also included is Bell’s heartbreakingly majestic “I Am the Cosmos,” which has to be heard to be believed.

 

By the time of 3rd aka Sister Lovers, Chilton has become Orpheus, dragging Hummel along to make a record so daring as to spawn its own cult.  “Kanga Roo,” Big Black Car” and “Holocaust” are songs that look into the mirror and report back without flinching. Chilton once dismissed these songs as the work of a maudlin teenager. When I begged to differ, he simply chuckled.

 

For this project, producers Fry and Milwaukee-native Cheryl Pawelski had a dream project. Every time I hear these songs they sound new again.

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