Big Star – Third/Sister Lovers

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

This is the Big Star album I find the most enjoyable, even though:  a) it is not actually Big Star; b) it’s not really an album; and c) most people find it to be a very difficult listen. Whatever. By the time of recording, Chris Bell was long gone and bassist Andy Hummell had quit to resume his college studies, and there is some debate about what Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens’s intentions were. Studio documents variously credit the recordings to either Chilton or the Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were dating a pair of sisters at the time), and the eventual release was issued years after the band crumbled without any input from either band member. As for the recording, it’s mostly Chilton with a bunch of studio musicians . . . though without a definitive track listing or song credits, it’s difficult to even tell what Stephens did (there are two other drummers credited, for example). Also relevant is that, according to producer Jim Dickinson, one of the sisters being loved – Lesa Aldridge – played a large role in the album but Chilton went back and erased her contributions. So, this is but it also isn’t Big Star. As for the album, the project was a sprawling mess, and never properly finished, and also, was never properly titled (Beale St. Green supposedly is another alternate title). Dickinson claims he and Chilton only agreed on the running order for four songs, and its debatable what was supposed to be included on the album. This reissue, made with the input of Dickinson, is supposed to be the closest thing to the intended album. But who can really say? As for the final point, this is easily the most impressive Big Star album, and I would trade the other two for it in a heartbeat. Sure, it’s a little sloppy and doesn’t really cohere, and there are some desperate lyrics paired with despairing music, and sometime Chilton sounds drugged out and exhausted, but it’s also pretty melodic, full of delicate string arrangements, and makes some daring artistic choices that render it more groundbreaking than #1 Record and Radio City put together. Dickinson went on to produce for the Replacements, Toots and the Maytals, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (he also played the piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses”).

What I Think of This Album

As sequenced this time, this is basically an album in three parts. The first is more or less straightforward, with one fairly traditional rocker; two gentle, uplifting numbers; a throwaway cover; and one downer. Then comes the difficult section, with “Holocaust” and “Kangaroo” back to back after the weird “O, Dana,” and then the lengthy orchestral part of the album winds things down. “Kizza Me” is sloppy rock, neither here nor there but not bad at all.

According to producer Jim Dickinson, “Thank You Friends” was supposed to be the first track, so why the fuck is it second here? This makes me not trust this entire reissue. Anyway, it’s a surprisingly sweet and sincere song, with some nice harmonies and strange synthesized sounds; it is possible to give it a sardonic reading, but that assuming that when it was written and recorded, Chilton knew he was making a mess of an album – unlikely. Things get dark on “Big Black Car,” relishing in numbness and nihilism (“Why should I care;” “I can’t feel a thing;” “It ain’t gonna last”), but it still sounds pretty good on a framework of piano and drums. “Jesus Christ” is much like “Thank You” in that you can take it at face value or not; the intro is delightfully odd, and anyway, the guitars jangle a little and it’s got a nice melody. The cover of “Femme Fatale” is worth mentioning only because Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs plays guitar on it.

“O, Dana” has an excellent melody, but the tempo and arrangement shift wildly during this number, perhaps on purpose, and then it just ends, sort of suddenly, as if everyone gave up on it. Even so, I think it’s a fun listen. “Holocaust” is admittedly disturbing (“You’re a wasted face / You’re a sad-eyed lie / You’re a holocaust”), with Chilton  – essentially crawling naked in the darkness – barely able to work up the strength to sing. The spooky backing of haunting slide and tinkling piano serves the song well. The gloomy dirge is certainly not something to play at a party, but it’s still a stunning piece of work. “Kangaroo” is sonically of a piece with “Holocaust,” with striking atmospherics of feedback, Mellotron, and strings. I think this song is cool as shit.

The title of “Stroke It, Noel” is a double-entendre, as the violinist on this song is Chilton’s family friend Noel Gilbert, who does indeed stroke a little solo during this otherwise very pretty piece (though the “Do you wanna dance” seems a bit out of place). Stephens wrote and sang on “For You,” another perfectly enjoyable string-laden song. A harmonica and bizarre synthesized bass introduce “You Can’t Have Me,” a defiant cry by Chilton, which also features a honking saxophone and very busy drum part. Innovative and illuminating. “Nighttime” is beautiful, again reliant on strings to drive home its melodic points, making the “Get me out of here / I hate it here” all the more powerful. “Blue Moon” is a straightforward, uplifting love song of devotion and care, and anyone who writes off Third/Sister Lovers as nothing more than the harrowing sound of Chilton falling apart isn’t paying attention. It’s easy to see why “Take Care” was chosen to end the album as agreed to by Chilton and Dickinson, especially if “Thank You” was supposed to be the opener, and gives lie a bit to the idea that Chilton intended to sabotage every song on the album, though the lyrics are admittedly a little ambiguous.

This reissue adds five bonus tracks, but only “Downs” and “Dream Lover” deserve mentioning. The former has a truly bizarre arrangement (supposedly a basketball served as the “snare drum”), and probably would be a good song if played conventionally. The latter would fit comfortably after “Kangaroo.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Kangaroo” is Big Star’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.”

Release Date

March, 1978 (originally); 1993 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Fail. I don’t know why the image is repeated with a different tone in a medium sized box. I never liked the blue tinge of the Rykodisc jewel cases – it fucks up the appearance of the art. The text is messy (I don’t know why the “R” has a tail). None of this makes much sense.

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