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Big Star. (Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me)

Big Star.

(Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me)

Two songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week Add to ...

Off World – Primitive Streak (2016)

You may or may not have heard the news from Zelenchukskaya. There, along a tributary of Russia’s Kuban River, a monumental 577-metre observatory recently detected an unusual transmission coming from a star-system called HD164595, 94 light-years away. Astronomers, including experts from the Seti Institute, admit the unlikely possibility that the signal has been broadcast by an alien civilization. Clearly, further research is required. But I feel it’s appropriate to begin planning the welcome committee, gathering the world’s great linguists, diplomats, xenobiologists and synthesizer players.

Why synthesizer players? Because the aliens may not speak English. They may not speak any decipherable language. In fact, they may communicate in only the tenderest shades of sense and feeling, swoon and blarp, like bird-trills without the significance. Clearly we need musicians, and what we need most of all is Off World, a studio project led by Toronto’s Sandro Perri. Across two solo LPs (and several more records as Polmo Polpo), Perri has advanced a sound that’s like folk or easy-listening pushed to its free-est limits, Harry Nilsson via Sun Ra. Off World sees him collaborating with producers and vintage-synth squigglers like Mickey Moonlight and Susumu Mukai on warm, extraterrestrial soundscapes. My favourite of these, Primitive Streak, sounds like a dialogue between droopy, melancholy aliens, or like two sunsets commiserating about atmospheric haze. Here and there you hear what might be footsteps, a breeze through long fur. These instrumentals leave almost limitless room for dreaming, decoding, the pleasurable middle ground between mis- and understanding.

Big Star – September Gurls (1974)

I assume even star-system HD164595 has its version of September. There too, a version of Big Star must be ringing out from stereos. Alex Chilton’s rueful celebration of the season’s gurls (sic) and boys, its breaking hearts, transcends time, space and fashion. We’ve all fallen in love, we’ve all had it bad, we’ve all heard happiness and sadness in the same jangling chord. Every September I listen to September Gurls and every September it feels right. Perhaps this is evidence that life’s a series of cycles, or that summer’s end is the best setting for bittersweet pop. Perhaps it’s a sign that Big Star were timeless and clairvoyant. It’s true you can read too deeply into the strains of a favourite song, especially at a time of year when 18-year-olds seem everywhere, pouring through all the rooms and lawns and bike paths you used to pour through. But it’s worth remembering that all sunlight’s starlight, guitars are machines, and what’s complicated is also pretty simple, at the very same time.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

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