Saturday, November 1, 2014

Records I like best in an abridged form

Sister Lovers
Big Star

The third Big Star album was never officially released, but it was bootlegged widely throughout the 80's. Rykodisc released a version in the late 90's that claimed to be the closest it came to any official release, but still the main artist (and songwriter), Alex Chilton, had refused to weigh in on it. My opinion of the Ryko release is that it was merely another not-so-well-thought-out collection of the songs recorded for that third album. At least, though, it was a fairly complete record of the sessions.

The track order, according to the liner notes,  was said to be the "closest Sister Lovers will ever get" to being "the proper sequence," but then what the proper sequence was is a very debatable subject. Apparently, Producer Jim Dickinson and Alex agreed on the track order of only 4 songs: Kizza Me, Thank You Friends, and Big Black Car as the first three on side one, and Take Care as the last track on side two. Dickinson is also quoted as saying that the original idea was that Thank You Friends was the album opener and Take Care the closer.

This last point is actually what started me thinking about my own track order preferences. I like that the album would begin and finish with statements of gratitude and concern, especially because what you hear between these bookends is often desperation and depression, both musically and lyrically. As I listened more to these songs, I started picking up on a kind of narrative, and that guided my choices of track order.

I imagined the album as a year (or almost) in the life of a burning-out rock star (or alternately an aspiring rock star). It begins with his thanking everyone for the success he has had, after a long period of career struggling. It very quickly shifts to the other side of success - excess. The loneliness, the fast life, the drugs (to cope), and trying to keep relationships going (with friends, and lovers). There is a lot of looking back at the recent past and wondering if things could have been different, and if it's not too late to fix things that went wrong. The narrative ends with the guy talking to the same friends as in the first song, having survived, and warning them, so to speak, to be careful of the choices they make in life.

The track order that inspired this narrative is as follows:

1. Thank You Friends
2. Big Black Car
3. Dream Lover
4. O Dana
5. Kizza Me
6. Holocaust
7. Kangaroo
8. You Can't Have Me
9. Stroke It Noel
10. For You
11. Nightime
12. Blue Moon
13. Take Care

The Ryko release has Kizza Me first, which, I think, takes one of the few high energy songs on the album and wastes it at the beginning, instead of building toward it. I put it just before two of the four really dark songs on the album, and after the other two, for contrast.

Jesus Christ and Big Star's cover of the Velvet Underground's Femme Fatale, in my opinion, both don't fit the narrative, and additionally, Femme Fatale is a rather lackluster version of that song that does nothing for Sister Lovers musically. The only possible reason it's relevant is that Lesa Aldridge, one of the sisters to which the title of the record refers, sings on it, albeit rather badly.

In place of these two songs, tracks 4 and 5 on the Ryko version, I chose to put Dream Lover, which was only included by Ryko as a bonus track. I feel this is a vital song to have on the album, as it brings the listener further into the depressed world of the narrator, after the sudden emotional drop from Thank You Friends into Big Black Car, and it also supports the concept of the album title, whether or not it's actually about Lesa (and/or Holly Aldredge) or not.

Other than these changes, my choices were geared toward spacing the dynamics of the songs to build a flow from beginning to end. I put You Can't Have Me, the other high energy number besides Kizza Me, after Kangaroo, which, I think, keeps the album from being too much of a downer going into side 2. After that, the tracks play out pretty much as the Ryko release had them. These are the prettier, more gentle tunes, which, far from being depressing, take the album's flow into a kind of somber hopefulness, and lead directly to the closing song, Take Care.

The sides of the album seem to have distinct seasonal vibes. Side one "feels" very hot, like summer, whereas the second side is wintery, especially with the help of lyrics like Nightime, in which Chilton sings about the chilling air, and also For You, with it's refrain of "And when I come home so cold at night, you'll have the fireplace burning bright." Side one has Big Black Car, which seems to even sound oppressively "humid," and also O Dana, a song about young friends hanging out, getting into trouble. Side two features "cool" vocals, like the high leads and harmonies in Blue Moon. Side one has the engaged passion of Kizza Me, and side two the detached rejection of You Can't Have Me.

I have listened to my version of Sister Lovers dozens of times, enough that I fool myself sometimes into believing this was how it was released. I'm sure at the time Big Star would have released their third record (if they had done so), that it would not have been received too well, whether this version or not. It is much too experimental, and the band was not established enough to afford them such freedom (an example of a successful experimental record by an established artist is David Bowie's Heroes). In retrospect, though, I find Sister Lovers to be a compelling, engaging album that blends some beautifully composed songs with other, wildly creative experiments in sonic environments. Discovering this interesting narrative track order feels to me like I have an exclusive pass to one of the great overlooked albums in rock and roll history, but perhaps I'm the only person who values it.

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