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August 1, 2013

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New issues offer sonic adventures, classic revisits

Bitchin Bajas

Bitchitronics

(Drag City)

In some ways, the new album from the deceptively cheekily named Chicago trio Bitchin Bajas, Bitchitronics, is like a window to sonic adventures from precisely 40 years ago, offering stunningly gorgeous instrumental excursions. The first track “Transcendence” brings to mind in the best of ways the 40-year-old album No Pussyfooting from Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and might even be a direct tip of the hat to the original, unused title of that 1973 album’s first side, “The Transcendental Music Corporation.” Eschewing modern recording studio techniques, Bitchin Bajas synthesized its music with meticulously created tape loops accompanied by live instrumentation, with methods similar in spirit to those used by Fripp and Eno with that duo’s tape loop system and Fripp-esque striking electric guitar melodies on the opener; while soothing like ambient music, the milky yet fuzzy lead-guitar jaunts are hard to ignore or simply let fall into the background.

For its first half, the glistening and nourishing 12-minute “Inclusion” offers keyboard strata, with Cooper Crain on organ and the distinctively sounding prog-rock staple, the tape-loop keyboard Mellotron, and Daniel Quinlivan on the vintage Crumar DS-2 synth. Its second half ascends to heaven, somewhat recalling the work of free jazz goddess Alice Coltrane, in particular because of the harp-run flourishes, with Rob Frye’s echoing, pastoral flute fluttering adding a nice touch. The lengthy “Turiya” is like an Indian raga for future generations, with a gingerly-pulsating drone acting as the anchor throughout the aural wanderings.

While it gracefully bears its influences, Bitchitronics does not feel like a pastiche, although some previous offerings, for example, demonstrated an affinity for Kraftwerk. Fans of ambient and German Kosmische music will likely enjoy this, but it tries hard to not be moored in time, drifting patiently and gently combing the universe as a concentrated, morphing, complicated, organic mass, rather than some unchanging time capsule. 

Big Star

Nothing Can Hurt Me

(Omnivore Recordings)

The question is not if one should be acquainted with the ’70s output of Big Star, the absolutely essential and legendary Memphis proto-power-pop band featuring Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, but rather, the question is how. The 2003 collection The Big Star Story is a bit of a jumble of studio and live tracks, and the 4-CD boxed set from 2009, Keep an Eye on the Sky, offers alternate versions of the first three albums with rarities and an entire live set. However, the standard homework assigned to Big Star newcomers was to simply go in chronological order with the group’s studio albums, checking out 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City and then the diverging, yet still utterly classic Third/Sister Lovers, recorded in 1974 and released in 1978.

However, with the arrival of the collection Nothing Can Hurt Me, which accompanies the new, acclaimed documentary film about the band, we have a new contender as a proper introduction, particularly for those neophytes who think that they could become obsessive completists. The reason behind this is because Nothing Can Hurt Me entirely consists of previously unissued versions of songs—demos, rough mixes, alternate mixes, and “movie mixes” created for the film. For the most part, the changes are subtle, like with Andy Hummel’s double-tracked vocals on “Way Out West” or maybe an extra drum fill here or there. Fans who have listened to these albums dozens or hundreds of times may enjoy picking out the differences, while there are only a few true revelations, including the charming pedal steel licks on “Try Again,” credited to the pre-Big Star group Rock City. 

Fans might quibble about the song selection, but the majority of the highlights are here, from the rousing, twisty “O My Soul,” the irresistible jangle of “September Gurls,” and the soul-crushing, utterly bleak “Holocaust.” If anything, these new mixes show how these songs were undoubtedly sweated over; as completed songs, they sound effortlessly vibrant, but it took work and inspiration to get there.

Mise en Scenesters will present a screening of  "Nothing Can Hurt Me" at Barking Legs Theater on August 10

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August 1, 2013

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