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Big Star:: In Space (Album Review)

There isn’t much arguing that the three studio albums Alex Chilton cut with Big Star between 1972 and 1975 represent the creative high-water mark of his career, but it doesn’t seem to be a period he looks back upon with much fondness. The man rarely plays songs from the Big Star catalog in his solo shows, and while he assembled a new version of the band in 1993 — with Chilton and original drummer Jody Stephens joined by Jonathan Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies — the group has only played sporadic live dates since then (presumably when someone ponies up the right price for a gig), and it has taken 12 years for Chilton to work up the enthusiasm to make a new Big Star album. And to listen to 2005’s In Space, it’s hard to say if that’s what he really wanted to do; In Space sounds a lot more like one of Chilton’s likeably shambolic solo albums than a work of fractured but inspired pop genius in the manner of #1 Record or Radio City, with New Orleans R&B, garage rock, and even old-school funk taking as prominent a role in the mix as the Brit-informed guitar hooks of Big Star’s glory days. It’s probably no coincidence that the two most “Big Star” sounding songs on the album were contributed by Jody Stephens (the lovely “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had” and “February’s Quiet”), while Auer and Stringfellow conjure up the mood of #1 Record with their compositions, “Lady Sweet” and “Turn My Back on the Sun.” Chilton, however, seems to be on another page altogether, and the amusing irony is this not-very-Big Star-ish album sounds like a better Alex Chilton solo set than the man has made since 1987’s High Priest. His revved-up take on “Mine Exclusively” (a tune the Olympics cut in 1966) is a near-perfect garage rock rave-up, “Hung Up With Summer” is a solid early Beach Boys homage, “A Whole New Thing” and “Do You Wanna Make It” are rough and ready R&B workouts, and even the deliberately sloppy “Love Revolution” (a disco-funk homage complete with mirror balls and platform shoes) and “Makeover” find the man sounding more engaged and enthusiastic than he has on record in quite some time. In Space also finds Chilton accompanied by a band that’s worth his while for a pleasant change; Auer, Stringfellow, and Stephens are a potent rhythm section who do lovely harmonies behind Chilton’s still-exciting guitar lines, and these performances sound tighter and more emphatic than what one might expect from Chilton’s solo work. In Space is an album that should appeal to anyone who digs Alex Chilton; however, anyone expecting a Big Star album is going to be more than a bit puzzled by most of these tunes. (by: Mark Deming)