The whole story of Big Star from 1979-1994 seems wrapped around the question, "Why weren't they massive? Their two proper LPs remain the greatest power-pop records ever made, even from that post-Abbey Road era, when power pop had big chops-before the term became associated with new wave groups in suits playing farfisa organs. Somehow, this legendary commercial stuff finally became cult popular when their music finally gained reasonable distribution for the first time in the early 1990s, thanks to the CD boom in retro material. And the reconstituted group has played some fabulous, if only intermittent shows across the country, for a decade, since this first time real interest sparked their reunion (with the two Posies filling in) in 1993. Yet despite their hot "In The Street" becoming the theme song for the hit TV show That 70s Show (if only the producers had used the original recording instead of the two kind of lame new recordings; even Cheap Trick's version lacks Big Star's timeless angst), the multitudes of Americans remain clueless about this post-Beatles, unique group. So this crisp best-of should help a little.
Even for old fans, it plays out as a buried treasure dug up again. The elegiac hooks of Radio City's masterpiece "September Gurls" is the perfect opener, setting the magic tone for the bonanza that follows with a grown up Alex Chilton out of The Box Tops, his voice now half as gruff yet somehow twice as deep as when he was singing the mega-hit "The Letter," his arching, held-vowels wrap around his (and on the #1 Record material) Chris Bell's chiming, ringing, zinging, taangy guitars perfectly. It's that sensational marriage of black soul that befits their Memphis base and the adrenalized British while mid-'60s post-R&B radio pop that still is so enthralling.
And like their influences, their command remains as impressive as it is rare today. For every mighty power pop nugget, like "Back of a Car" or "Mod Lang" (they use the live version here) that just makes you want to grab a six-string and come up with riffs that chunky and vocals that genuinely hopeful and anguished at the same time, there's a "Holocaust" or Bell's "I am The Cosmos" (where's "Kangaroo" though?) that sounds like someone's fallen harrowingly deep into stark depression or the glam heaviness and fun of the strutting "Don't Lie To Me" or the live cover of T-Rex's lusty "Baby Strange" or the lighthearted joy of "Thank You Friends" or their X-mas peon "Jesus Christ." These guys could not only do it all, but with a power-drummer in Jody Stephens with the right touch on the ballads ("Ballad of El Goodo") and a truly under-regarded, nimble bassist in Andy Himmel, they sound even more remarkable now than they did then!
Good thing, then, that this compilation trims a little of the minor fat from their LPs (though where is "Way Out West" and "Life is White?"), but they also include a new studio track written and performed by the new lineup to close this. Damn if "Hot Thing" doesn't slot comfortably with its 17 older predecessors, complete with new wrinkle stax horns, right out of their teen years in the '60s, and a typically classic Chilton desperate lust lyric "I got a crush on you/I wanna know everything about you/C'mon over." Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow totally click with Stephens and Chilton on the groove and vibe. In the end with such a brilliant legacy plucked here, and the tight transition of the new "Hot Thing," the only thing better than hearing the songs once again would be for the new lineup to make an LP themselves of "Hot Things'" caliber. Know anyone at Ryko or any other label who can make this happen? (www.rykodisco.com)