It wasn’t polite to point out last summer when this tour was generating good vibrations, but the shows’ best lead vocals weren’t the many provided by Mike Love and Brian Wilson but the few provided by Al Jardine, the backing-band members Darian Sahanaja and Jeffrey Foskett, and the late, pre-recorded Carl and Dennis Wilson. Live, the multi-sensual ambience covered a multitude of age-related lead-vocal shortcomings. This audio document, however, emphasizes them. Worse: Sahanaja and Foskett have been consigned to the cutting-room floor.
Just as calling Bruce Cockburn “Canada’s Best Kept Secret” got old fast, so has referring to this well-preserved, AARP-eligible Georgia native as “beneath the radar” ever since he revived in the late ’90s the solo, soulfully roots-rocking singer-songwriter career he abandoned right after America’s bicentennial. The fault, dear listener, lies in the radar. How else to explain the failure of his approach—sandpaper vocals probing the unpredictability of sanctity (John the Baptist’s included) amid juke-joint rhythms and blues—to capture the popular imagination?
The voice of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s only child makes up in sheer loveliness what it lacks in instant recognizability, and on this album she honors both her mother and her father by embracing 13 of their greatest solo and duet hits with exquisite sensitivity. Four of them feature male duet partners, each of whom does the memory of her late father proud. And to hear her bring a daughter’s perspective to “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” is to savor the salt in the wound.
This latest installment in the M. Ward-Zooey Deschanel musical marriage made in heaven kicks off with “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” an exuberant homage to Phil Spector’s girl-group Wall of Sound circa the Ronettes’ “I Can Hear Music.” Sure, Ward and Deschanel are retro. But no more so than this wonderful album’s three cover songs—Ellie Greenwich’s “Baby” (Track Three), Karen Chandler’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” (Track Nine), and Blondie’s “Sunday Girl” (Track 11), all of which have long been overdue for refurbishing.
If 2009’s 98-track anthology Keep an Eye on the Sky was too much of a great thing, this 21-track soundtrack to a documentary that may or may not do for Big Star what Searching for Sugarman has done for Sixto Rodriguez might be too little. Regardless, the excavators and compilers of these alternate mixes deserve credit for giving these inexplicably underappreciated power-pop pioneers one more chance to shine.
Whether it’s the nine selections from #1 Record (1972), the four from Radio City (1974), the three-and-a-half from Third/Sister Lovers (1975), the two from post–Big Star Chris Bell (one of which touts Jesus), or the one from pre–Big Star Alex Chilton (1970), to hear these Memphis visionaries singing and playing as if they really believed big stardom was within their reach is to love them—and to miss them more than ever now that both Bell and Chilton are gone.