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Berries and Big Star...Again

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It seems that any article in the past 20/30 years has to have the Berries and Big Star as a married couple...

Underrated Raspberries and Big Star members impress on new releases

By Scott Smith / Times Record / ssmith@swtimes.com
Posted Sep 3, 2017 at 12:01 AM   

Perched at the top of what is referred to as Power Pop Mountain are bands like The Raspberries and Big Star.

They have yet to reach the popularity levels of artists like U2, Beyonce and Jason Isbell, yet the recordings of The Raspberries and Big Star continue to inspire listeners and, at many times, move critics. Like Badfinger, The Raspberries and Big Star excelled at marrying driving electric guitars with melodies and harmonized vocals that were every bit as good as any other group.

Go All the Way

The Raspberries singer-guitarist Eric Carmen would go on to have bigger hit singles as a solo artist like 1975′s “All By Myself” and 1988′s “Make Me Lose Control,” but it was the songs he co-created while in The Raspberries that made the greatest artistic impact, according to the group’s fans. It’s nearly impossible to argue with those fans when one hears The Raspberries’ latest release, Pop Art Live.

Recorded inside Cleveland’s House of Blues during The Raspberries’ 2004 reunion tour, Pop Art Live does a wonderful job of encapsulating the original quartet’s energy and playing skills. “I Wanna Be With You” rushes out of the gate, with lead guitarist Wally Bryson, bassist David Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti sounding just as invigorated as Carmen. Their playing and singing are tight, especially considering that three decades had passed since their final studio recordings.

While the faithful covers of The Beatles (“No Reply,” “Baby’s in Black”) and The Who (“I Can’t Explain”) are worthy of respect, it’s the originals on Pop Art Live that sizzle the hottest. The excellent “Play On” features a glorious half-time tempo at each chorus, while “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” digs a lot deeper than the lyrics found in other run-of-the-mill pop songs.

And who could forget the paint-peeling, Humble Pie-esque rock sound that decorates a healthy portion of The Raspberries’ signature cut, “Go All the Way”? On Pop Art Live, The Raspberries recreate that guitar-forged grit without losing the mellow passages that move the song’s chorus forward. Play on, indeed.

Life After Big Star

Big Star are a lot like The Ramones. They didn’t sell millions of records, but everyone who bought their albums seemingly became a musician or music scholar.

Somewhat ironically, guitarist-singer Chris Bell left Big Star just after the quartet’s first album, 1972′s #1 Record, leaving former band members Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals), Jody Stephens (drums, vocals) and Andy Hummel (bass) to carry on under the Big Star flag. (Bell, sadly, died on Dec. 27, 1978; Bell is one of numerous rock singers and musicians who died at the age of 27.)

Like Big Star albums, Bell’s solo album, I Am the Cosmos, didn’t sell a lot of copies when it was posthumously released in 1992, but it sure influenced many of Big Star’s fans and peers. R.E.M., The Posies, The Flaming Lips and Beck are among those who metaphorically wrestle each other to get in the front of the line to brag about Bell and Big Star.

Omnivore Recordings’ new, expanded CD version of I Am the Cosmos shows that Bell wasn’t heading in an entirely different direction that his former Big Star band mates. The album’s title track is a standout moment, with Bell’s lead vocals and guitar work awash in studio reverb sound. On paper it sounds like a disaster, but the sonic results are powerful.

Also striking are “Look Up,” “Speed of Sound” and “Get Away.” Many of the songs are presented inside a hazy, dream-like production, while an alternate, acoustic-based version of the title track serves crisper sounds. Followers of Bell and Big Star will want to add both this expanded I Am the Cosmos CD and the new Big Star CD and vinyl compilations, The Best of Big Star, to their shopping carts ASAP.

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