Essentially, this column will look at a different song each week, but unlike, say, Scott Malchus’ incredibly moving Basement Songs, I won’t be dealing with my personal connections to the songs. There will be some of that in there, but, for the most part, I’ll be focusing more on the songwriting aspects, breaking down crucial parts of the music and lyrics to get a better understanding of why, in the words of Craig Finn, certain songs get so scratched into our souls.
Although I have yet to purchase it, the new Big Star box set (thanks in part to Ken Shane’s excellent review) has put that much-celebrated, little-heard band into my head over the past week. But while the first song of the new Infinite Play series is on that set, it’s not by the seminal power pop band, but by founding member Chris Bell. “You and Your Sister” was originally the B-side to “I Am The Cosmos,” the only solo release by Bell in his lifetime.
The song functions as a sort of response to Alex Chilton’s classic “Thirteen,” from Big Star’s debut, #1 Record. Both are gentle acoustic ballads and are even in the same key (Bb, played in G with capos on the third fret). I don’t know if that was intentional on Bell’s part, but it does help in understanding why Chilton and Bell were such a perfect match for each other. Let’s look at the second verse of both songs.
Won’t you tell your dad to get off my back?
Tell him what we said about “Paint It Black”
Rock and roll is here to stay
Come inside now, it’s OK
And I’ll shake you
“You and Your Sister”
Your sister says that I’m no good
I’d reassure her if I could
All I want to do
Is to spend some time with you
So I can hold you, hold you
Both feature family members looking to break up a relationship, that’s really the only lyrical similarity. “Thirteen” is about teenage sex, while “You And Your Sister” is about adult love. And although Chilton’s voice is rougher and more menacing, Bell’s yearns in a way that breaks your heart in the best possible way.
But even though that is Chilton on background vocals, “You And Your Sister” is all Chris Bell. It hasn’t been as covered as often as “Thirteen,” probably because of the gorgeous falsetto in the bridge can be intimidating to most singers. It’s also a beautiful arrangement, with the strings and flutes (real or Mellotron?) lifting that bridge to a place that “Thirteen” can’t touch. And the fingerpicking melody that comes out of the verse isn’t nearly as difficult to play as it sounds, which is something I always love to find out when I’m strumming along with a song.
It’s not enough to say that, in Big Star, Chilton was the grit and Bell was the heart. The beauty of the partnership was that they could play each other’s roles while maintaining their own personalities. Chilton had his share of lovely moments (“Watch the Sunrise”) and Bell could rock out something fierce (“Feel”). But “You and Your Sister,” along with the rest of the I Am The Cosmos CD that was released in 1992, is proof that there was more to Big Star than just Chilton.