Album reviews: Big Star, Sun Ra and NRBQ

Album reviews: Big Star, Sun Ra and NRBQ

Big Star

Complete Third (Omnivore)

A legendary band’s most legendary turn. After Big Star’s brilliant 1972 debut, #1 Record, stiffed, co-leader Chris Bell quit, leaving Alex Chilton as the band’s main mover for its 1974 follow-up, the sparkling Radio City—which also stiffed. Both albums are power-pop classics, routinely included in best-ever lists, but for many Big Star fanatics, Third is The One, although it’s not even clear the shambolic studio happenings were meant to constitute an album, even when PVC released a collection called 3rd in 1978.

When Rykodisc reissued the songs as Third/Sister Lovers in 1992, I was 22 and heartsick—primed for despairing, achingly beautiful songs like “Big Black Car,” “For You” and “Blue Moon,” which seemed to fall from heavy clouds. I sneered along with “Thank You Friends” and “Take Care,” and shuddered in wonder at “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust.” It’s still a shattering album—to say the songs have aged well is wrong—they haven’t aged at all. Omnivore’s three-CD set collects all extant recordings from the sessions, including outtakes and Jim Dickinson’s never-released mixes. Big Star completists will rejoice to the skies.

Sun Ra

Singles: The Definitive Collection (Strut)

There is no better introduction to Sun Ra than the headings of his Wikipedia biography: “1.1 Early life… 1.2 Early professional career and college… 1.3 Trip to Saturn.” Despite Ra’s cosmic assertions and otherworldly use of synthesizers, most of his output—though insanely prodigious and diverse—is well-rooted in traditional jazz/blues idioms from the home planet: big band, hard bop, R&B, even doo-wop. And yes, he released dozens of singles, mostly for sale at gigs, the better to pay the bills—a double-disc collection came out in 1996, and now comes this “definitive” 65-song package from Strut. “Definitive” has to be in quotes for someone whose discography is as unwieldy as Ra’s, but for anyone looking for inroads to the oeuvre, this might be the best one-stop shop yet. The scope of Ra’s Arkestra is on full display, as are fan favorites like the burbling “Love In Outer Space” and the infectious “Somebody’s In Love” (covered by Yo La Tengo on its latest). The liner notes are bounteous and fascinating; the performances throughout are transporting and vital. Life-affirming stuff.


High Noon: A 50-Year Retrospective (Omnivore)

NRBQ is one of American music’s most beloved cult bands, a secret handshake for devoted fans as well as artists like Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt and, uh, Homer Simpson. The acronym stands for “New Rhythm & Blues Quartet,” a narrow moniker for a group that internalized country and avant-garde jazz (High Noon includes Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk covers) on top of every flavor of trad rock ’n’ roll. And it’s not “rock”; it’s definitely “rock ’n’ roll.” Through numerous lineup changes, NRBQ has eschewed the nasty and brutish in favor of the sweet and carefree—it’s timeless music for dancing, swimming, driving and cooking out. This extensive set is devoid of chaff, and the classic lineup of guitarist Al Anderson, bassist Joey Spampinato, keyboardist Terry Adams and drummer Tom Ardolino is amply represented with nugget after deceptively simple nugget: “Riding in My Car,” “I Want You Bad,” “It Feels Good,” “Me And the Boys,” plus the exquisite, lost holiday classic “Christmas Wish.” An old saw goes that if there’s a bar in heaven, NRBQ is the house band. But hallelujah, we’ve got ’em down here.

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