Jody Stephens seems pretty grounded for the musical history that follows him. He was the drummer for Big Star, the early-70s power pop group that arguably laid a foundation — jangly guitar, killer hooks, the no-frills pop stance of Britain’s beat groups — for what later became alternative rock. Currently in his 60s and still based in Memphis, where he and Big Star confreres Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel (all since deceased) first came together, Stephens has upped his profile of late, for instance drumming with indie-rock all-stars End of Love. Now he’s out front for Those Pretty Wrongs, taking the vocals in a folk-rock songwriting project with L.A. music veteran Luther Russell. The duo don’t reinvent the wheel, but as new single “Never Goodbye” demonstrates, Those Pretty Wrongs make effortlessly classy music that draws on the tastiest influences you might expect from their Memphis-Los Angeles summit.
About that Big Star legacy: at times, Those Pretty Wrongs’ debut album feels like the ghosts of that revered group being welcomed back into the world. That’s no accident; in fact, the duo recorded in Ardent Studios (Big Star’s HQ and Stephens’ current employer), where they pulled out the band’s old gear. The remarkable personal journey Stephens must have taken to create this album is suggested by the lead track “Ordinary.” Hearing the strum from Chris Bell’s 12-string guitar, I think immediately of beloved Big Star ballads like “Thirteen” and “Try Again”. As Jody’s vocal begins, I smile at how he well he’s captured Alex Chilton’s gentle, innocent phrasing. At the minute mark, the signature Big Star background vocals appear, those sublime aaaahs that nod to the Beach Boys and early Bee Gees, and suddenly the hair on the back of my neck stands up. By the time the mellotron appears, forget it — I am a weeping mess. And this happens again several times on the album!
Thank God this album is rather varied in its influences; encountering these ghosts might be too intense for Big Star diehards. Beneath its easy-on-the-ears surface, the drama of Jody Stephens coming to term with his musical past makes Those Pretty Wrongs’ album one of the most remarkable debuts of the year.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.