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New Box Tops, Big Star

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In addition to sharing a lead singer in Alex Chilton and being the signature Memphis rock bands of their respective decades, the ’60s-era Box Tops and circa ’70s Big Star have something else in common: limited discographies.

For non-completists, all the Box Tops/Big Star you really need could — can, really — fit neatly onto three discs.

For the Box Tops, record collectors and super-fans could search out the band’s handful of late-’60s studio albums, but all most listeners needed was on the one-disc 1996 compilation Soul Deep: The Best of the Box Tops, an 18-song collection that featured all of the band’s hits and several worthwhile obscurities.
The new Playlist: The Very Best of the Box Tops is useless to anyone who already owns the out-of-print Soul Deep, cutting four songs from the previous collection’s track list without adding anything new. But for fans making their first Box Tops purchase, this is now the most likely option, and a perfectly fine one, with none of the four lost songs truly essential.

Most casual listeners know the Box Tops for their three big hits: the mammoth “The Letter,” the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham-penned “Cry Like a Baby,” and “Soul Deep,” which was also recorded by R&B artist Clarence Carter. But the band’s blue-eyed-soul penchant also yielded other fruits, most notably both sides of the 1968 single “I Met Her in Church”/“People Gonna Talk,” both also written by Penn and Oldham.

But the band wasn’t always in soul mode, edging into psychedelic rock with mixed results. The minor hit “Neon Rainbow” hasn’t aged well, but the deeply weird “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March” — a whimsical, Beatlesque riff on prostitution — is time-capsule-worthy. And the poppy “Turn on a Dream” unites the band’s two sides effectively enough to sound something like a minor lost classic now.

For Big Star, the band’s first two albums — 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City — have long fit neatly onto one CD, while the band’s third album — Third/Sister Lovers — is self-contained with some worthwhile bonus tracks on another. And, with apologies to a useful 1993 live comeback album, a less useful 2005 reunion album, and a 2009 box set that buries good discoveries beneath duplication and collector arcana, that’s all the Big Star most listeners really need.

So what to make of the soundtrack to Big Star Nothing Can Hurt Me, a fine new documentary film that debuted locally at last fall’s Indie Memphis Film Festival and gets a Memphis theatrical release on July 12th?

On one level, it’s pure collectorama. The 21-song disc is purportedly all “previously unissued” but contains only three songs — the downbeat Chilton ballad “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” and versions of two of the best Chris Bell solo songs, “I Am the Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself” — not on those three studio albums, with most of these “alternate” and “movie” mixes not too dissimilar from music you already own if you have the original albums. But there is some stuff that stands out: A pre-Big Star Rock City version of Bell’s “Try Again” that has more of a country tinge. A bit of circa-1972 studio banter. An unused backward intro to the beautiful Third highlight “Stroke It Noel.”

Nothing Can Hurt Me is a great listen on its own terms and a pretty good de facto introduction/overview that might give a fuller one-disc portrait of the band than you can get anywhere else. There’s an argument to be made that this would be a good place to start for Big Star novices. But I can’t bring myself to make it. Ultimately, you need those three-albums-on-two-discs. And once you have them, you don’t really need this unless your band devotion is particularly intense.

Grades: Box Tops — B+; Big Star — A-

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