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Big Dipper - Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology

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Artist: Big Dipper

Album: Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology

Label: Merge

Review date: Apr. 25, 2008

Those of you just a little bit older than me might remember Big Dipper as the Boston supergroup (thanks, Tom Scharpling, I’ll take your cue here from the liner notes) of Embarrassment guitarist Bill Goffrier, former Volcano Suns members Gary Waleik and Steve Michener, and drummer Jon Oliphant. My experience puts them in as the band whose releases choked the used bins and cutout racks at my local record stores, slapped together with terrifyingly gauche layouts where bendy, wavering text met oversaturated postcard hues. Moreover, one more Big Dipper record meant room for one less Birthday Party, Big Black or Butthole Surfers album in the Bs. You can understand the resentment, perhaps.

But Big Dipper also released records on Homestead, a label to which I had expectations. Gerard Cosloy had already moved on to Matador by the time I got involved in what has turned into a lifelong discussion of music, and I think Ken Katkin was already out as well. Dutch East India had for whatever reason sent me a catalog in the mail, presumably for retailers to order from, and I took note of the Homestead titles that had lapsed out of print. Like SST, Homestead released a pretty massive quantity of music in a very short time, and a lot of it was worth visiting at least once, but the barrier of entry was in many cases a physical purchase of the artifact. There were so many heavy hitters in there – and so many bands that made up the moment of independent music in the ‘80s – that I would have felt remiss to not investigate Peter Stampfel, Nice Strong Arm or Honor Role if I had already gotten through Sonic Youth and Naked Raygun. Surely this mark, if it did not always hit dead on, was going to provide me with some ballpark estimate of rock music I might like. Big Dipper, for me, were down, but never out.

It’s almost two decades later, and Merge has released Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology , a three-disc resurrection including the smashing EP Boo-Boo, two follow-up albums (Heavens and Craps), and a slew of unreleased bonus tracks and demos entitled Very Loud Array. (Missing is 1990’s Slam. Its liberal, unappealing use of strings and synthesizers cakes some perfectly good songs with whatever pre-alt rock maje labe producers used to hamstring acts like the Dipper, who had no problem writing great songs).

Coming to all of this material at once is a tough one, but start at the beginning: Boo-Boo sets the pace and preps you for not only the rest of their career, but a good peek at what the next 10 years would show for pop music’s fortune. The guitars are loud but the production is clean and expansive; riffs snap to attention, melodies dance all around. The remnants of the Embarrassment’s sound ended up in these six songs, still coming at punk from any other side but the front – no Sid in this, no Clash either, more like guys jerkin’ back and forth with pent-up passion which sometimes revealed an animosity for normal life. “Wrong in the Charts” bounds along with the sort of inebriated, awkward mindset befitting of the band’s clean-cut image – Friday night’s on them. “Loch Ness Monster” offers even more: descendant art-rock melodies that transmuted from Pere Ubu to the Pixies, evocative lyrics loaded with double-meaning, and a sizeable, open sound that would be exploited to the fullest in the years to follow.

And what works here coasts gently on Heavens and Craps, which are perfectly fine, even exemplary records that display a significantly refined songwriting process, as well as a further reach back to ’60s folk-rock, a la the Byrds, but which do not necessarily paint the band as much more than excellent, smart-guy authors who mastered self-editing. A few years after the fact, shoegaze outfits like Ride and Swervedriver would coast on songs not unlike “Stardom Because,” or Smiths-like ballads in line with “Semjase,” loaded down with feedback and harmonic undertones. But they’d neglect to take along cutesy-boo lyrics like on “She’s Fetching,” leaving the delicates for indie popsters to rescue – or in some cases augment in secretive, in-joke ways, as on “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” written for the Embarrassment’s bassist and resident party-hound. As for Big Dipper, they kept going at their own pace, until Slam pulled the rug out from under them.

Very Loud Array, the pre-breakup demos, continues in the streak of informing songwriters in the years to follow. Again, refinements are the order of the day; while most of the material builds on subtleties forged in the Homestead days, listen to “Dead River” and “Winsor Dam,” and see if you’re not instantly reminded of safeties like Blues Traveler or the Gin Blossoms.

Handled correctly, the hits could have flowed forth for this lot. But at the time, there was no way for this to happen in a manner relevant to how music, as a business, operates today. Talk about pre-Internet bands getting lost to the massive crush of information presented to us at all times; these guys missed not only those erstwhile days, but the very explosion of a viable alternative rock landscape in which they could exist. Bone-dry as 1990 was, Big Dipper deserved somewhat more for the time and effort they put in, and if that’s all that Supercluster offers, then that’s fine. As it is, we have these memories, and some reunion gigs, which is as kind a fate as can be bestowed on a band like Big Dipper, perhaps a little too smart and too perfect to appeal to the commoner, and probably not wanting such a fate anyway. History ended up cannibalizing what they left behind to often-stunning effect.

By Doug Mosurock

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