Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet

"Rock and roll is an old man's game now, so I'm staying in it." -Robyn Hitchcock

Rock music comebacks are a tricky business. Too often we get product from an "older but wiser" band that won't bother anybody while standing in line at Starbucks, but pales in comparison to the more passionate creations of youth. Rock and roll is supposed to be a young man's game, and it's rare for a band working in the idiom to release their best work when its members are past the age of forty.

Into this breach step eighties college rock favorites Big Dipper with their first new album in 22 years, Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet. I am happy to report that it's a brave and delightful effort that can stand proudly alongside the band's previous work.

For those who have forgotten (or never knew in the first place), Big Dipper made some noise back in the late 80s with two terrific albums, Heavens and Craps, on the legendary Homestead Records label. Heavy touring and substantial college radio airplay earned them a solid following and resulted in a major label bidding war. They signed to Epic records and released Slam in 1990. While Slam had its moments, it could probably serve as a case study for all the things that can go wrong when an indie band signs to a major label. The label never provided the promised support, Slam tanked, and Epic quickly dropped the band. The band soldiered on briefly but, aside from a brilliant retrospective box set released by Merge a few years back, not much has been heard from Boston’s favorite sons since...until now.

I won't mince words: I love this album! I love it so much I've been struggling for months to find the right words to tell you that I think it's worthy of your attention. It's just as good, if not better than, the music Big Dipper made when they were the next big thing.

What really strikes me about Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet, the thing that I keep coming back to, the thing that really knocks me out, is the fact that songwriters Bill Goffrier, Gary Waleik and Jeff Oliphant are uncommonly willing to take artistic risks. Of course risk always involves the possibility of failure. But Big Dipper has experienced failure before, which is perhaps why they are willing to face it so fearlessly on their new album.

The album starts with Goffrier's deliciously weird "Lord Scrumptious." Lurking beneath the catchy melody is what sounds a serious rumination on the fact that we seem to be in the midst of a new Gilded Age where the rich play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. But the song is no boring treatise on class inequality, it’s full of weird, Dante-esque imagery, and like any proper Big Dipper song it has a fantastic hook.

Gary Waleik's "Robert Pollard," comes next, and perhaps best exemplifies the reformed Dipper's willingness to take big artistic risks and fearlessly court failure. Ostensibly a tribute to the Guided By Voices frontman, the track could easily come off as an insular indie rock joke. But In Waleik's capable hands it becomes more than just an insider's mash note to a fellow traveller. It's a deep and passionate reflection on the creative process. Waleik makes the brave (some might say foolish) risk of placing his own songwriting struggles in a dialectical relationship with those of Pollard and Paul McCartney. You'd be forgiven if your first reaction to the previous sentence is "that's some cheek!" It is a tribute to the meticulous craftsmanship that characterizes the entire album that the song succeeds so brilliantly. You don't have to know, or even care, who Robert Pollard is to understand the song, you only have to have ever struggled to create something to get it. Or you could just sing along, because it's got one heck of a catchy chorus.

Drummer Jeff Oliphant's "Princess Warrior" is up next, and he too takes some major songwriting risks. Calling a song "Princess Warrior" in tribute to a spouse who survived breast cancer could easily turn into a maudlin mess or worse. But the song feels honest and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sappiness. I can't help but admire Oliphant's willingness to court artistic disaster almost as much as his wife's bravery facing cancer. And the chorus is so ridiculously catchy that I find myself helplessly singing along to lyrics about facing a life threatening disease.

It's not just that Big Dipper seems more willing to take artistic risks than ever before, the melodies (always the band's secret strength) sound even sharper than in the past. The band has hinted at why this might be in recent interviews. Crashes On The Platimum Planet was recorded and mixed at the band's lesiure in Gary Waleik's home studio.

I've lost track of how many opinion pieces I've read about how Pro-Tools, and computer based audio in general, is ruining music. But I rarely see anyone admit that smart musicians can actually benefit from these new technologies. Big Dipper's 80s indie albums were recorded in tiny studios on even smaller budgets. While the sound quality never stands in the way of the music, the albums do occasionally sound rushed and incomplete. By contrast, their major label debut was recorded in a big, expensive studio with a huge budget. But the sound of Slam is too slick, and it sounds forced and uneasy with Big Dipper's type of music, like someone else's aesthetic has been overlaid over their own. Crashes On The Platinum Planet presents something like a happy medium. The band has obviously taken advantage of the extra time available to them to make the album sound just the way they want, but without the huge expense or pressure of working in a big studio. More importantly, without the expectations of creating radio-friendly "hit" music, the band can attend to the details on their own terms without outside interference.

The album closes with a reworking of an old Big Dipper song, "Guitar Named Desire (The Animated Sequel)," a song that originally appeared as an instrumental bonus track on the cassette version of their debut EP, Boo-Boo. I was initially surprised they would choose to end the album with a reprise of an earlier song considering what a compelling case the band had made for their continued artistic viability without appeal to nostalgia. But when the newly added lyrics begin at about a minute and fifteen seconds into the song, I began to understand that they were taking one final artistic risk.

It's a risk, like all the others on the album, that pays off brilliantly. Waleik's lyrics initially fool you into thinking he's describing as series of former lovers ("You were born in '63, but you're well preserved/A natural blonde epiphany with several shapely curves"). But he's really singing about his beloved guitars, and in the process explains why Big Dipper is back, why they had no choice but to come back. The need to make music among the group is too strong to stay away. It's a desire, like lust, that starts in the body and controls the mind. It's a beautiful way to end an extraordinary album.

It's rare that I would recommend a comeback album as the place to start an appreciation of a band's music, but there is no better place to start enjoying the glory of Big Dipper than Crashes On The Platinum Planet. After that, if you haven't already, pick up Merge's wonderful Supercluster box that contains their indie albums along with a few odds and ends. Finally, if you can find it, grab a copy of their major label debut (and swansong) Slam. It should cost you about a penny at Amazon's Marketplace, but it's better than its reputation suggests.

Welcome back Big Dipper, and please accept my apologies for making you wait over three months for this review…you made me wait 22 years for a new album, so it only seems fair.

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