Between 1987 and 1992, Boston-based indie rock band Big Dipper earned a lot of critical praise, if not stratospheric album sales. In particular, their 1987 Heavens was rated by some critics as among the best of the era.
One reason the band earned such responses is that their first three albums were on Homestead Records. On one hand, Homestead was a label well known for signing quality groups, but on the other, Homestead was limited in distribution and marketing. In 1990, Big Dipper tried to take the next step by moving up to Epic Records. But Big Dipper’s fourth full album, Slam, was such a disappointment that Epic never put their huge machine behind the band. Two years later, Big Dipper called it a day.
But Heavens had left such an impression on its fans that in 2008, Merge Records not only reissued all the original Homestead records, but a full album’s worth of unreleased material all together on a three-disc retrospective, Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology. This, in turn, inspired three members of the original band to come together to record a full album of 12 new songs. Crashes on the Platinum Planet is the happy result.
Then and now, Big Dipper includes guitarist/vocalist Bill Goffrier, drummer/vocalist Jeff Oliphant, and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/producer Gary Waleik. Joining these three songwriters is Tom Brewitt, who replaces Steve Michener on bass. Now with families and day gigs, the group set about working on new material with a leisurely pace in Waleik’s home studio. Working on only one or two songs at a time, the reinvigorated Big Dipper spent four years to produce Crashes on the Platinum Planet, and the attention to detail, polish, and depth shows from start to finish.
Still, nailing down a handy label for what the current Big Dipper is doing is a slippery prospect. Because of the guitar interplay between Goffrier and Waleik, it’s easy to see why they’ve been branded “jangle pop.” But in an interview with this reviewer, Waleik rejected the notion. For him, “jangle” bands do little else but jangle, and pop bands do pop, but Big Dipper doesn’t fit either of these molds. In his view, Big Dipper offers a wider vista of musical and lyrical styles. He has a point.
One reason for this variety is the fact that three different songwriters and three members share lead vocals, which means the starting points for their songs can come from very different places. For example, the album’s opener, Goffrier’s catchy “Lord Scrumptious,” seems to be a quirky commentary on a remote God who munches on clouds and chews up parts of the world. However, Waleik wonders if the title was inspired by a character in the film version of Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang named Truly Scrumptious. Goffrier himself isn’t sure. The point is, seeking simple interpretations is going to be elusive when the band members aren’t always clear what all the verses written by their comrades mean either.
In other cases, the topics seem fairly easy to spot. In “Market Scare” by Oliphant and Goffrier, the lyrics say the market may fall but will rise again so don’t worry so much. But Goffrier’s elliptical and haunting “Happy New Year” is about a man praying in a church, the only member of the congregation. Who is a “thousand miles away” in the last line—someone he loves? God? Listening to the, well, jangley lines of “Princess Warrior,” the one co-composition by Oliphant, Goffrier, and Waleik, a listener isn’t likely going to catch the serious theme first time around. However, the song turns out to be a statement about the courage of a cancer survivor.
Waleik contributes a few multi-layered nuggets like an ode to “Robert Pollard,” an apparent inside joke regarding the gent who provided the cover art for the album and was a collaborator with Waleik in a band called Mars Classroom. Big Dipper played with Pollard’s Boston Spaceships in 2008. But Waleik’s digs at the recent work of Paul McCartney help demonstrate the point of the song is to compare/contrast creative styles, in specific the difference between intellectual honesty and commercial laziness.
The album’s closer, appropriately, is Waleik’s “Guitar Named Desire: The Animated Sequel.” Thirty years ago, he penned the melody as an instrumental which the band played on stage. For Crashes on the Platinum Planet, he thought it high time he write some lyrics. So one verse was inspired by one of his favorite guitars, another verse a guitar of Goffrier’s. One had a hollow body, the other solid, and both respond to male fingers.
Along the way, we get a “Joke Outfit,” an unforgettable chef, and the answer to “what do you get the man who has everything?” You get him a “New Machine,” a song laced with actual recordings of Commander Frank Borman and command module pilot Jim Lovell of the Apollo 8 mission. In short, there’s not a verse, chorus, or hook on Crashes on the Platinum Planet that’s predictable or obvious.
So while Waleik might not like the jangle label, it is very clear the poppy musicality of the dual guitar licks and shared vocals helps draw listeners into very literary realms that English teachers like to use in the classroom. There’s double-meanings and metaphors galore—even the disc’s title intentionally used ambiguous terms like “crash” and “platinum.” Now, don’t turn your nose up like that! Intelligence can be fun! In fact, it can rock and kick-ass and improve with age.
Crashes on the Platinum Planet is for indie pop lovers, yes, jangle pop fans, and those who like engaging melodies supporting vocals that are entertaining as well as challenging. Can we get some more, please?