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Star Light, Star Bright
Various Artists: A Tribute to Big Star (LunaSea)

Big Star were the cult band par excellence. In a short span in the early ’70s, the Memphis group released two LPs of sun-baked, British Invasion-inflected guitar crunch, plus one sprawling, glorious wreck of an album known alternately as Sister Lovers and Third. None, of course, sold in its time. Big Star’s influence was enormous, however, spurring several generations of power- and jangle-pop bands (R.E.M., the dB’s, Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet, the Posies) as well as some less likely folks. The latter included Jeff Buckley, who covered “Kangaroo” live, and the Replacements, whose ode to Big Star’s leader, “Alex Chilton,” contains the memorable line “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

Early on, the band’s synergy arose from its own Lennon-McCartney alliance. Chilton was a volatile pint-sized demon who, as a mere teen, scored a U.S. hit with his gritty vocals on the Box Tops’ “The Letter.” Chris Bell, the ultra-sensitive son of a Memphis restaurateur, had a major jones for the Beatles. By the second album, the emotionally troubled Bell’s involvement was sparse at best; by Sister Lovers, Big Star were solely the vision of Chilton. (Bell was killed in a car crash in the late ’70s.)

A Tribute to Big Star is a solid effort from top to bottom, but a few artists who really swing for the fence deserve mention. Former Whiskeytown guitarist Mike Daly offers a stripped-down, fittingly sweet take on Bell’s “You and Your Sister”; the Red Telephone offer a blazing version of the oft-done “September Gurls” that is matched only by Big Star’s original; Church guitarist Marty
Willson-Piper spreads his chiming, ethereal guitar work all over “Thirteen”; and Longwave’s “Holocaust” spirals into a fierce guitar storm that echoes Bends-era Radiohead. Other highlights include Fooled by April’s euphoric “Oh Dana” and Champale’s gloriously bucolic “Stroke it Noel.”

This album succeeds on several levels. First, LunaSea Records decided to include cuts from the posthumous (and quite good) Chris Bell solo effort, I Am the Cosmos. Secondly, this CD was produced in the proper spirit—that is, a small label on New York’s Lower East Side gathered a flock of fairly unknown indie bands whose love for the songcraft of Big Star shines all over the place. “By honoring Big Star, we honor great bands who never were the superstars of any age,” claim the liner notes, driving the vision home.

—Erik Hage

Antigone Rising
SaY iT! an-TIG-uh-nee
(Gurly)

First comes a rolling drum pattern straight out of a surf-movie soundtrack. Then comes a cat-scratch guitar figure that’s full of raw insinuation. And then come the thick harmony vocals, like the taunting of bad girls zooming down the street with the top down.
Finally, with a snap, it all comes together, and “Pretty Girl” takes shape as an all-out assault that concludes a handful of moments later in a blur of sweat, swagger and sass. Welcome to the sound of Antigone Rising live.

While the New York City band’s new concert disc may at first seem whimsical—the title, SaY iT! an-TIG-uh-nee, is a helpful tip for the phonetically challenged—the album actually is all business, in the best way. Throughout the 16 tracks, which were recorded last year at New York’s the Bitter End, the all-female quintet show off their myriad strengths: They write killer songs, play like they just went down to the crossroads and made a deal with you-know-who, and sing with an alluring blend of grace and stamina.

SaY iT! features a smart assortment of faves from previous discs and previously unreleased tracks, with flavors ranging from balls-out rock to lyrical balladry to scorching midtempo grinding. So in addition to such Antigone standbys as “Pretty Girl,” “Choke” and “Run for Your Life,” the album has a saucy cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” and two tracks written by Chris Trapper, from frequent Antigone stagemates the Pushstars. (One of the Pushstars tracks, “Sofcurrie’s Room,” features Antigone front woman Cassidy’s singing at its most poignant and exposed.) SaY iT! offers a boisterous complement to this fabulous band’s already impressive recorded output.

—Peter Hanson

Cracker
Forever (Virgin)

After a four-year absence, Cracker return with a 13-song set that remains true to their original blueprint. Cracker have never been a particularly ambitious outfit; indeed, they began as a streamlined version of leader David Lowery’s first band, Camper Van Beethoven. But, as Forever proves, workmanlike dependability is not really a flaw. “Shine” is a slowly building anthem that hits all the right hypnotic buttons with as few component parts as possible. “Ain’t That Strange” is another chapter in the band’s country-tinged philosophizing, and there also are a few slices of modernist grooves, “Superfan” and “What You’re Missing,” the latter of which falls flat on its face as it offers up the band’s history in rap form. Even worse, it’s given the closing spot on the album. And, as has been characteristic of Lowery in the past, thematic elements pop up in several songs; this time, it’s monkeys, as in “Guarded by Monkeys” and “Bride of Neptune.”

Lowery has been honing his production chops with a variety of ensembles over the past half-decade, and this time out, he plunged headlong into some nicely layered complexities, as on the soul-infused “Shameless.” On guitars, Lowery and his longtime cohort Johnny Hickman front a solid quintet filled out by drummer Frank Funaro, keyboard player Kenny Margolis and bass player Brandy Wood. Forever has some standout songs, and sounds good throughout—which pretty much describes Cracker’s earlier albums as well.

—David Greenberger


knotworking
Notes Left Out (One Mad Son)

Here, then, is the world of knotworking: lives socked away behind glowing windows, turned inward for winter. Crows settling on a brown field as snowbanks shrink to grit. Memories unraveling themselves mile by mile past faded or collapsing barns as afternoon slopes toward evening.

This is not so much a geographical place as a place of memory, however, where passive reflection gives way to discomforting attempts to piece together the dismembered parts of the past. The scattered images of “Lawn Plastic Santa”—“free lunch tickets,” a boy’s thin coat and shoes, a “lawn plastic Santa waiting quietly in April,” “mother washing sister in the sink”—evoke the ache of poverty, then culminate with a father’s suicide. The chillingly gorgeous “Manuel” occurs in the quiet aftermath of violence, where stars “blink like cowards” and a girl’s “gentle ghost” passes through the door.

With his sophomore effort, Notes Left Out, knotworking front man Ed Gorch pulls together another solemn beauty that occupies a midlands between Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. The effort is spurred to life by a rotating ensemble of local musicians that can swing from warm folkiness (“Blankets”) to haunting cacophony (“Imbecile Smile”) to country waltzing (“Prison Love”); guitarist Michael Hotter particularly shines with his often understated yet note-perfect accents. Mostly though, it’s about the songs, which are built on the bedrock of Gorch’s rustic vocal timbre, acoustic guitar and uncanny poetic sensibilities. Lord knows what haints Gorch wrestles with to find his muse, but his struggle is the listener’s gain.

—E.H.


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