ony” opens In Space like it’s 1973 all over again: mildly jangling guitars, sunny harmony vocals, cheerfully pre-feminist lyrics, saxophone solo leading into the final chorus. Uh, wait, sax solo? Which 1973 is this—the Big Star version or the Steely Dan one? It’s a question In Space raises often. Even at its best, like “Hung Up With Summer,” the album calls up memories, but the wrong ones; that song sounds more like 1967 Zombies than classic Big Star, while “Turn My Back on the Sun” pays blatant homage to the Beach Boys, with whom Alex Chilton toured in the 1960s as singer for the Box Tops. He still joins the Tops for frequent oldies reunion tours, and indeed, at times In Space makes one wonder if Chilton forgot which nostalgia horse he was flogging.
That being said, In Space is a fairly enjoyable album as long as one doesn’t saddle it with expectations of being the next Sister Lovers. And after three decades of faltering Chilton solo work (and the turgid bonus track “Hot Thing” on Ryko’s recent and utterly unnecessary Big Star Story) few are likely to do so, which leaves the album cleared for an open-minded reception. As such, In Space taps into a retro Nuggets vibe; more specifically, it often sounds like outtakes from the delightful Shangri-La compilation A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis, 1960-1976, which documented the scene into which Chilton came of age.
It would be a mistake to overemphasize Chilton’s presence on the album, though. Big Star always involved multiple songwriters, from the melancholy Chris Bell to Andy Hummel’s rare but delectable contributions. In Space retains this collaborative air, and the glue holding it together is longtime second-coming Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, best known for their day job as the Posies. Their fingerprints are all over this album, from Stringfellow’s wonderful rolling basslines (actually the most resonant aspect of the whole affair, recalling those of the non-participating Hummel) to Auer’s lead vocals on “Lady Sweet,” which has the Dear 23 sound of which the Posies’ own recent Every Kind of Light could have used. Drummer Jody Stephens also gets in on the action, delivering two of In Space’s more melodic moments on the sweetly lovelorn “February’s Quiet” and “Best Chance,” which recalls World Party at their best. The hootenanny nature of the album (or perhaps its slapdash construction) is reflected in the fact that Chilton’s Box Tops bandmate Bill Cunningham even shows up with a writing co-credit for “Hung Up With Summer.” Finally, there’s “Makeover;” as closing jam sessions go, it’s no “L.A. Blues,” but it sounds like warm tube amps and cold beer as the band shouts out amusing catcalls over an infectious musical mess. The only thing it’s missing is Peter Buck.
Only once does Big Star embarrass itself, on “Love Revolution.” Just imagine a group of white MBA students forming a funk band and trying to cover the Ohio Players “as funkaliciously as the Chili Peppers did.” Imagine their gig at a local frathouse, kicking out their soulless jams. Then imagine the other funk band they beat out for the gig. “Love Revolution” is the sound of that band. Children by the million may sing for Alex Chilton, but not to hear him tell them to shake their funky thangs.
Beyond that sonic atrocity, In Space suffers more from its filler than from the weight of the past. In addition to “Love Revolution” there is the 1960s cover “Mine Exclusively,” the re-arranged classical instrumental “Aria, Largo,” and “Makeover.” That leaves only eight tracks of real substance. None of them aspire to greatness, but they all make for passably garagey rock.
The Big Star of old makes no appearance on In Space. The band that watched the sunrise on #1 Record now turns its back on the sun. The band that once gave voice to the tremors and trepidation of adolescent sexual ambivalence in “Back of Car,” thus inspiring everything from the Replacements’ “Sixteen Blue” to Sloan’s “Underwhelmed,” now leer “Do You Wanna Make It,” sounding more like the Donnas’ sleazy uncles. And needless to say, the harrowing picture of a band disintegrating on Sister Lovers is now a blurry snapshot of a band coasting on reputation but having a good time doing it.
The indie-reunion explosion is well past the point of diminishing marginal returns, and In Space came too late to get much notice. But unlike the more heralded comebacks by Gang of Four, Bauhaus, the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Slint, Big Star is at least attempting to avoid wallowing in narcissistic, self-mythologizing autonostalgia by releasing new material that doesn’t replicate its former sound. It may not be a great compliment to say In Space could find a place in the middle ranks of the Sundazed 1960s reissues catalogue, but neither is that a particularly bad place to be.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2005-11-29