Big Dipper still stellar after all these years

Indie-rock vets from the ’80s come back without missing a beat

February 18, 2013

Reviewing the debut release by Weezer approximately a million years ago—O.K., it was 1994—I noted the similarities between the cover of the so-called “blue album” and that of Crazy Rhythms by the Feelies. Interesting, to be sure, but more important as far as the music was concerned, “Weezer has more in common with the late, lamented Big Dipper, another group of slacker wise guys that you just had to love,” I concluded.

Who, you may ask? Ah, kiddies, those vaunted indie-rock ’80s were a time of seemingly boundless if chronically underappreciated riches, with countless groups beyond the better-known likes of Dinosaur, Jr. or the Pixies amply worthy of your newfound attention or overdue rediscovery. The Boston quartet Big Dipper places high on the list in that regard, and the group in recent years has offered two valuable points of entry. The first was the impressive, three-disc, 49-track collection Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology, issued by those kindred spirits and clear progeny of the band at Merge Records in 2008.

That prompted the inevitable reunion shows, and now, even more exciting, we have Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet. The reunited band’s first set of new music in 22 years may not be quite as brilliant as its first two Homestead efforts, Heavens in 1987 and Craps in 1988. But it certainly is fresher and a lot more fun than its one and only major-label recording—Slam, released by Epic in 1990—or, for that matter, post-reunion offerings from ’80s Beantown peers Dinosaur, Jr. or the Pixies.

With roots in Boston’s Volcano Suns and the rootsy Lawrence, Kansas, band the Embarrassment, Big Dipper’s driving forces, guitarists-vocalist Gary Waleik and Bill Goffrier, always were impossible to pigeonhole. Punk, power-pop and psychedelia were the dominant strains in their mix, but they  pilfered such deep record collections and had such an all-encompassing love of decades’ worth of rock ’n’ roll effluvia that pegging any genre on the band other than “Big Dipper music” was nearly impossible.

What their best songs shared were melodies that grabbed you by the neck and never let go, despite the sometimes slippery arrangements, and the wiseass worldview noted earlier. That resulted in lyrics referencing everything from the highest high art to the lowest lowbrow crap, all in a barrage of puns, sarcastic in-jokes and goofy inscrutability that evoked Thomas Pynchon writing for The Onion, but which somehow never masked the true emotions of a group of unabashed geeks courageous enough to bare their souls—hence the comparison to Weezer at its best.

The one-two punch of the openers on Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet show that neither Goffrier nor Waleik has lost a step since they last joined forces. An indelible pop gem, Goffrier’s “Lord Scrumptious” is so darn sweet and catchy that you might miss that it’s a bit of class anaylsis more cogent than anything the Occupy movement ever gave us, while Waleik’s seemingly straightforward homage to “Robert Pollard” can’t resist the temptation of comparing the apparently effortless ability of the Guided by Voices auteur to churn out pop gems with a rock-critic-like questioning of how Sir Paul McCartney lost his ability to do the same.

All that and you get a bit of self-deprecation to boot: “Gary Waleik you’ve written a song/But you hate the lyrics/The chords are all wrong.”

Actually, the chords are pretty much all right, with other standouts tracks such as “Princess Warrior,” “Forget the Chef,” “New Machine,” “Market Scare” and “Hurricane Bill” reminding those who knew ’em when why they loved these goobers so, as well as offering the perfect introduction for those who haven’t been so enlightened.

Big Dipper, Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet (Almost Ready Records)

Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.

Big Dipper performs at the Bottom Lounge on March 23.