Tag Archives: Big Star

USE YOUR WEAPONS by Valley Lodge

Valley Lodge Band Use Your WeaponsValley lodge came to my attention last week via podcaster Dave Slusher.  Prior to that, I’d never heard of the band but was quickly impressed with their song “Go.” I looked them up online, and it turns out Valley Lodge has a pretty impressive pedigree. The band formed in 2005 and features members from such diverse acts as Satanicide, Sense Field, Sons of Elvis, Cobra Verde, and Walk Mink.  The Cobra Verde connection really piqued my interested because that’s a band that has ties to Guided By Voices, one of my all-time favorite bands.  So how had they escaped my Sauron-like gaze for so long?  Well Valley Lodge, like most power-poppers today, is more famous in Japan than they are here in the States.

I love a really catchy, stupidly simple song.  For me that’s the essence of power-pop: taking something pretty basic and making it infectious.  Valley Lodge has crafted one heck of an earworm with their song “Go.”  It’s goofy but incredibly catchy and I’ve been unable to go a day without listening to it at least once this past week.  Once I got over the initial sugar rush of “Go,” I decided to check out the rest of the band’s latest album.  Would the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS manage to live up to that first song?  Being a “glass half empty” guy, I was certain the rest of the album would be downhill after such a stellar opening track.

Thankfully I was wrong, USE YOUR WEAPONS is a solid album.  Less syrupy than you’d expect after hearing “Go,” USE YOUR WEAPONS pays tribute to British invasion-era pop but with a dash of snarky-grit.  The band compares favorably to California rockers TSAR, who also inject a whole lotta fun into their hooky, sometimes-dark songs.  Valley Lodge, like all great power-pop bands, owes a lot to Big Star whose influence can be felt throughout the record, especially on “Make Up Your Mind.”

Lead singer Dave Hill is a comedian as well as writer/blogger, so it’s unsurprising that Valley Lodge’s songs are funny, but don’t mistake the mistake of writing the band off as a joke—these songs seriously rock.  Even though USE YOUR WEAPONS is fun, there’s a darkness peaking out from the corners on a few of the albums tracks, especially on “Pretty Thing” and “Waiting in the Rain.”

Not everything on USE YOUR WEAPONS is perfect; I didn’t care for the semi-grating bubblegum of “Gimmie Gimmie” which is a shame because it has some great guitar work.   I also think that the band’s sound feels only partially formed, and that the songs have a disjointed quality, as though they were cobbled together from a couple of different bands rather than one.  That said, I’m really glad I found this band and look forward to exploring their back catalogue.  I’d say if you were intrigued by “Go” you should definitely check out the rest of USE YOUR WEAPONS.

A fun throwback, I’d definitely recommend Valley Lodge’s USE YOUR WEAPONS for fans of Big Star, The Raspberries, and Fountains of Wayne.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

“What You Do To Me”: Potent, Perfect Power Pop!

It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that power pop entered my life*.   Growing up listening to 60’s era British Invasion rock bands I was primed to love love power pop.  The genre with its reverence to that period of rock music struck a major nerve with me.  Essentially a cleaner, modern continuation of British Invasion rock, power pop is a big licks and killer hooks.  Its tons of fun without being sticky bubblegum, loud but lacking a hard edge, power pop is pop music on steroids.
Perfect Power Pop People!

Perfect Power Pop People!

There are plenty of great power pop bands, both of yesteryear and today, but none of them can match Teenage Fanclub for purity.  Many bands skirt the edges of power pop, but Teenage Fanclub are 100% pure, uncut power pop.  Seriously, if you’ve never listened to power pop you’d be wise to start by listening to half a Teenage Fanclub song…or cut it with baby formula.  At the risk of sending potential power poppers into overdoses, I’d recommend you start with “What You Do To Me.”  The world is full of pop songs, but “What You Do To Me” is in a class all by itself.

The song dwells innocently enough on the band’s third album, BANDWAGONESQUE, which was released in 1991.  A bare bones, almost ludicrously simple love song, “What You Do To Me” is two minutes and one second of bliss.  The song has a great, crunchy guitar riff and a lyrically hook that comprises 98% of the song. It’s the kind of song you listen to and say “I could write this stuff!” because Teenage Fanclub makes it look that easy.  But it’s not that easy, or everyone would be doing it, right?  I think that effortlessness is what separates the  great from truly amazing. And Teenage Fanclub are truly amazing.

Teenage Fanclub

The song is basic its brevity manages to keeps it from being overly repetitive, achieving a miraculously high level of infectiousness while managing to avoid being tiresome.  With “What You Do To Me,” Teenage Fanclub captures the soaring wonder of love with none icky, complicated stuff like heartbreak.  Even though it’s from 1991, the song sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.  And yet, I don’t think it would sound out of place on The Beatles first album, MEET THE BEATLES.

All of BANDWAGONESQUE is amazing, potent power pop, but the album’s crowning glory is “What You Do To Me.”  One listen, and you’ll have it in your head all day.

*Yes, I’m going to keep referencing Jellyfish until you give up and give them a listen. 
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME

Big Star is one of those bands that prove that life isn’t fair.  We like to tell ourselves, especially here in the United States, that the cream always rises to the top.  The deck may not always be stacked in our favor, but with a little hard work and talent you’ll always succeed. Wrong.  Sometimes the best and brightest, the most talented people on the planet are ignored.  When this happens we search for a reason, a why that fits with our grand vision of an inherently fair universe.  English rockers XTC are a good example.  They didn’t get famous because their lead singer developed crippling stage anxiety, right?  Well that didn’t stop Brian Wilson, who stuck to the studio and still managed to find success. The truth is not everyone with big talent winds up a big star.

I happened upon Big Star the way most people do: by reading album reviews.  Once I got into indie bands, I started reading reviews in which critics compared bands to The Beatles and Big Star, always it seemed it was those two bands.  The first band I knew pretty well and so I was able to make the connection the critical shorthand was conveying.  But what the heck was Big Star?  Bands that I thought sounded a bit like Cheap Trick were often said to be “Big Star-ish.”  At a certain point, I got tired of being out of the loop and I ordered a copy of #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY.  That this disc was actually a bastardization of two albums was something I only learned later.  By fusing the band’s first two albums together, Big Star’s current corporate owners created the single greatest dollar-per-song ratio of any album I’ve ever purchased.  For video game fans, #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY is the musical equivalent of Valve’s Orange Box.  The damn thing is basically a Greatest Hits record.

Except, there were no hits.   I didn’t understand what happened, or why, until I sat down and watched Drew DeNicola’s documentary NOTHING CAN HURT ME.  The answers aren’t as simple as the band didn’t sell albums because “X” happened.  The band formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970’s and got hooked up with the floundering STAX records.  Known more for soul/R&B music, STAX and its demise are a large part of the reason Big Star remained unknown for so very long.  But just blaming a label is an oversimplification.  The truth, which NOTHING CAN HURT ME explores, is more complex.

big_star_nothing_can_hurt_me

Lead singer Alex Chilton and singer/guitarist Chris Bell formed a fragile, Lennon-McCartney relationship that produced the confidently-titled #1 RECORD. The album failed to connect with rock fans despite a frustratingly large amount of critical acclaim.  Dejected, Bell left the band and sort of lost his mind.  This is where Big Star started to fall apart.  A second album RADIO CITY, was produced, and was met with even greater critical acclaim and even less commercial success. Part of the album’s failure certainly had to do with the aforementioned STAX going belly-up after years of mis-management.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME follows Chilton and Bell as they spend the rest of their post RADIO CITY-lives in a stunned dazed wondering how had something so good gone unrecognized?  Bell winds up working at a fast food restaurant where fans eventually find him and track him down.  Chilton, who stayed in the public eye by remaining in music, became the target of ire because he chose to step away from the power-pop of Big Star and record avante-garde punk.

The film does a good job of charting the band’s rise.  In fact, it does such a good job that when the band’s albums fail to make an impact I found myself a little surprised, even though I knew the band’s history.  I also appreciated the interviews with Bell’s sister near the end, who is both bitter about how the music industry had so deeply hurt her brother and amazed that fans now make pilgrimages to his old home.  There were very few startling revelations in the film, with one notable exception.  As someone that got on the Big Star bandwagon very late (but then again, aren’t we all?) I was shocked to learn that Big Star was really Bell’s band and not Chilton’s.  Listening to Bell’s posthumously released solo album, I AM THE COSMOS (which I hadn’t even known existed), it becomes apparent where the bulk of the Big Star magic originated.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME while worth watching, isn’t perfect.  The documentary doesn’t feature any interviews with either Bell or Chilton because, sadly, they’re both dead.  Bell died tragically at age 27 and Chilton a few years before the 2012 documentary was shot.  Their absence from the film is glaring and the unfortunate result of the band’s delayed fame.  Another glaring omission, in my opinion, is a proper explanation of  Big Star’s legend and how the band’s cult following grew over the years.  This should be the heart of the documentary but instead is glossed over.  I’d have liked for NOTHING CAN HURT ME to show me how this obscure Memphis band appreciated over time until I had no choice but to seek out their albums just so I’d know what everyone was talking about.   Alas, the documentary choses to focus on the sad trajectory of Chris Bell’s life rather than explore how Big Star got so much underground notoriety.

Overall, I enjoyed NOTHING CAN HURT ME, but I still feel like there’s a better Big Star documentary out there somewhere.  Or at least, one that’s a more definitive look at the band’s life and resurrection.  Of course, without Bell and Chilton, that’s probably not true.  I’d recommend the film, but only after you’ve listened to #1 RECORD and RADIO CITY a few times.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME is available now on Netflix’s US instant-streaming service.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

“September Gurls” by Big Star

Awesome song by an awesome band.

Tagged , ,

Your Next Favorite Band: BIG STAR

One of my favorite things to do is turn people onto the things that I love.  To that end, I’m going to use this blog to promote the stuff I like that’s  just as well known as it should be.  For my first installment let me introduce to you Big Star.

That is one big star.

I guarantee that you know at least one Big Star song, even if you’ve never heard of the band before.  Probably most famous for “In the Street,” which was covered by Cheap Trick and used as the theme song for THAT 70’s SHOW, Big Star continues to influence musicians today.  And while “In the Street” is a pretty bitchin’ song, it’s nothing compared to Big Star’s ballads.  Frontman Alex Chilton had this amazing, almost supernatural ability to write simple songs that were not only catchy as hell, but heartbreakingly honest.  I’m talking make-you-cry-it’s-that-beautiful.  The band only put out three albums #1 RECORD, RADIO CITY, and THIRD/SISTER LOVERS (the first two are sold almost exclusively together on one disc) but you know what they say about stars that burn twice as bright…

These men had the balls to call their first record "#1 Record".

As far as 1970’s rock goes, you can’t do much better than Big Star. The band’s production doesn’t sound particularly dated or cheesy, like a lot of 70’s music does (at least to these ears).  If you like The Kinks or REM you owe it to yourself to check out Big Star.

ESSENTIAL LISTENING:

1. “In the Street” off #1 RECORD

2. “The Ballad of El Goodo” off #1 RECORD

3.  “Thirteen” off #1 RECORD

4. “September Gurls” off RADIO CITY

5. “I’m in Love With a Girl” off RADIO CITY

6. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” off #1 RECORD

7. “The India Song” off #1 RECORD

I challenge you to all of those songs and not smile or tap your foot.  If you can do that then you are dead inside.

Tagged , ,