The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXI: Big Star Reissues from Craft Recordings
Normally I do these type of music reviews for my magazine The Occasional, its parent website Part-Time Audiophile, or my blog, which now mainly serves as a redirect page to the first two places. But when Craft Recordings asked if I wanted to review the new reissues of Big Star's first two albums, ON VINYL, I knew there was only one place to tell you about it.
If you go back to the beginning, February 1998, the guy who wrote the first column under the Vinyl Anachronist moniker was a very different guy than the guy who is writing these words right here. That's not a big surprise considering that span of 22 years, but I know one thing for sure--my taste in music has definitely gotten a lot better. The primary reason for that is Perfect Sound Forever. I know, I'm getting all mushy on you.
Jason Gross and his fellow writers introduced me to a lot of new music over the years. Jason alone is responsible for the several interpersonal relationships I have with performers such as Can, Yo La Tengo and, most importantly for its sheer emotional connection, Big Star.
Before I started writing for PSF in '98, I had heard of Big Star. I didn't know any of their music, but I was vaguely aware of an early '70s rock group by that name, a band that followed only Badfinger as the performers who got the shaft from their record labels the worst. It was such a classic story of What Could Have Been, especially when you look at poor Chris Bell. This cautionary tale never captured my interest in quite the same way as Badfinger's--but perhaps that special moment was forged when I was finally compelled to buy--as we did in the old days--all three Big Star CD's. I listened.
What could have been.
The years passed, and I bought a few Alex Chilton albums (including an LP from The Box Tops in great shape) and I bought Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos and I interviewed Jon Auer and talked about his association with Big Star, and when Alex died, I was sad. Same with Andy Hummel. For a while, Jody Stephens and I exchanged a few emails about what would happen in the future. He was kind and generous with his time, and I thought that was the coolest thing.
There was only one problem with this relationship with Big Star. I own absolutely none of the three original albums on vinyl. I've seen some new pressings floating around over the last few years, but nothing special, maybe just pressed off a digital master to capitalize on the growing popularity of vinyl. That's why Craft Recordings' announcement of these reissues on LP was such exciting news to me.
Craft Recordings has been sending me an incredible amount of reissues over the last few months, everything from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! to the 20th anniversary edition of Filter's Title of Record to the 50th anniversary of Soul Explosion! to, just recently, a couple of reissued LP's from Social Distortion. Craft always does an excellent job with these pressings--they're usually dead quiet and ultra-dynamic.
What do you get with the Craft Recordings' reissues of Big Star's first two albums, #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1973)? I can't tell you about an awesome and rare early pressing because, as I've mentioned, I've only owned that funky CD release that combines the two. This is, therefore, the first time I've heard these two albums on vinyl. As far as that goes I can tell you that the Craft Recordings 180g pressing is, once again, silent. Stunningly so.
Compared to my old CD's, however, there's simply no contest. With these new pressings you can really tell that while Ardent's budget was tight, Big Star (and especially Chris Bell) really paid a lot of attention to the overall sound in the studio. Sure, Big Star was influenced by the British Invasion, and those jangly guitars make the band sound more like a great '60's band than a forgotten (but fortunately resurrected) '70's one. I can't imagine the impact this band would have made back in 1972 if #1 Record had gotten the airplay it deserved.
First of all, you can't judge the sound qualities on these two LPs by their first tracks. "Feel" from #1 Record always sounded tinny and harsh, and I think that's just the way it was recorded. "O My Soul" from Radio City has always been an oddity, recorded in mono and sounding like it's been recorded in one storage unit and played back in the next one over. Here you'll notice the same shrunken and lethargic soundstage but with a bit more detail--you might discover, like I did, that this was a really great jam.
I'll tell you when the moment of greatness arrives. It's "Thirteen," a full side into this project, and it's a sonic masterpiece. It sounds so friggin' beautiful, so beautiful that if you played this for someone who had never heard Big Star, they'd be streaming it at home that night and telling you all about it the next day. The sheer delicacy of this track made me hop back on Side 1 to my all-time favorite Big Star song, "The Ballad of El Goodo." This is such an unusual song, a mix of Brit invasions and Old West elegies. I've always loved Jody's drumming in this song, how those toms sound so deep, and it's much stronger and dynamic with the Craft pressing.
The Craft Recording reissues of these two albums allow me to hear the subtle but remarkable difference between them (remember, I've always listened to these two albums in a row, on that double CD, and they will blend after a while). That's rewarding to me since I've always paid much more attention to the debut album because it contains more "favorites." Now I can listen to Radio City and hear that heartbreak, that drinking in the studio, that well-documented feel that the band was just barely keeping it together. Also, you miss Chris Bell's presence even more.
For me, that's the essence of Big Star. There's that rather ordinary observation that it's a damn dirty shame what happened to those boys in the music industry, but it goes much deeper than that. What makes Big Star so special and rare is that we know the story, and when it collides with the actual performances on these two albums we understand that we're hearing greatness, however sloppy and precarious.
Yes, it's easier to hear this on the new Craft reissues. Also, I'm reviewing some very interesting pieces of hardware that allow me to hear these two '70's albums, now adulthood favorites, at a very high level of fidelity to the original tapes. If you're wondering what's the big deal on Big Star, the Craft Recording reissues are the best way to find out.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
Also see our other Big Star articles:
Jody Stephens interview
Andy Hummel interview
Alex Chilton tribute
Chris Bell tribute
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