Big Star – Nothing Can Hurt Me (review)

Big Star – Nothing Can Hurt Me (Omnivore Recordings) review

I Never Travel Far –  Without a Little Big Star

Despite their name, and a glutton of radio-ready songs, Big Star achieved neither fame nor fortune during their brief history.  Their stupefying lack of success and subsequent critical acclaim is the subject of a new documentary coming later in the summer.  In the meantime, Nothing Can Hurt Me is so much more than just the accompanying soundtrack.  In fact, it stands as a very important addition to the band’s small catalog, managing to act both as their first-ever career retrospective, and a treasure trove rarities’ collection for devoted fans.  As a result, it makes this disc quite indispensable.

The collection opens with the voice of producer Jim Dickinson, assuring that “it’s only a demo folks,” before the band launches into a raw run through of “O My Soul,” off their second album, Radio City.  The producer was obviously trying to calm the nerves of the band members, who were trying to pick up the pieces after the public had inexplicably ignored their debut album, causing founding member Chris Bell to exit the group.

The disc then follows a chronological order, skipping back to their first album, #1 Record, for the next nine tracks, beginning with a control room mix of the acoustic “Give Me Another Chance.”  “In the Street,” probably the band’s most famous song (it was used as the theme for That 70’s Show, performed by Cheap Trick), is featured in a completely different version, including different guitar parts.  And, that’s one of the joys of this collection – all 21 tracks are featured in some sort of alternate form.  Yet, just about everything here stands up to the previously-released ones.

Many of these cuts are earlier mixes that bring out some of the instruments in a different way.  Take, for example “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” which begins with Alex Chilton’s voice panned hard left – probably a mistake originally, but interesting nonetheless.  “My Life is Right” has a cool acoustic guitar intro not present on the original album.  “The Ballad of El Goodo” has Andy Hummel’s bass cranked way up in the mix and Chilton’s vocals buried.

“Feel” is quite different, missing the double-tracked Chris Bell lead vocal, and the saxophone overdubs in the middle.  “Don’t Lie to Me” is just the opposite, with Bell’s singing spread out in the mix, and missing the white noise at the close of the song.

One of the standouts is the alternate of “Try Again” featuring a pedal steel guitar, and credited to Rock City.

By track 11, Bell had quit the band after their debut flopped, reducing Big Star to a trio.  Hummel picked up the slack, becoming Chilton’s primary collaborator, and contributing the very nice “Way Out West,” here featuring Beach-Boy inspired harmonies.  “Thirteen” features a dry Chilton vocal, but the 12-string acoustic solo is sadly absent.  “You Get What You Deserve” is meatier and has some extra Chilton vocals at the end.

After their second album met with the same commercial indifference, the band split, sending a disillusioned Chilton back into the studio for one of the most famous fractured albums of all-time, Third/Sister Lovers.  It’s Big Star completely gutted, and turned inside out.  Slow, sad, and spacey, it’s a painful listen for sure.  The three songs from the album featured here aren’t necessarily the best, but they certainly play up the pain the band was feeling from their failure.

Chris Bell resurfaced in the late Seventies with a promising solo single: the version of his “I Am the Cosmos” here is greatly improved (the original was rife with tape dropouts). Unfortunately, he passed away from a car accident in 1978. There’s also the rather appropriate Chilton solo song “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain,” which originally appeared on the collection Free Again (read our review), and actually predates Big Star’s formation.

The disc closes with the band’s shoulda-been-a-massive hit “September Gurls,” which still jumps out of the speakers 40 years later.

The set includes just about every essential Big Star song.  One could quibble with a handful of those left off, especially “Back of a Car” and “She’s a Mover.”  But, Nothing Can Hurt Me does an excellent job of distilling the under-appreciated band into a single disc.  Plus, with every song being in a previously-unreleased state, even those fans who own everything will want to pick this up.  –Tony Peters