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Clubland: After a 22-year hiatus, Big Dipper is back with CD, Northampton gig at the Iron Horse

  • PHOTO BY TIM BUGBEE<br/>Big Dipper will perform Jan. 31 at the Iron Horse in Northampton
  • Big Dipper's new album cover was designed by Robert Pollard.

I stared at the new Big Dipper CD as if in a dream, or having just crawled out from under a rock, uncomprehending. The witty and literate Boston-based band of the late-’80s was back together? With a new album?

Yes, and it’s a good one, too: “Big Dipper Crashes On the Platinum Planet.” The reunited band takes the stage at the Iron Horse in Northampton next Thursday at 7 p.m. Fountains of Wayne frontman Chris Collingwood opens the show.

It’s been 22 years since Big Dipper’s last full-length record, and though long absences don’t always bode well for bands who were once sharp and sprightly, the quartet (featuring three of its original members, Bill Goffrier, Jeff Oliphant and Gary Waleik) has come back strong; its wit and off-kilter sensibility still sparkles brightly.

The most immediately dazzling song on the new album is “Robert Pollard,” which grandly sings the praises of that modern legend of hyper-prolific and mega-catchy songwriting — “The minor stars are growing dim / and they fall around him / they’ve sputtered and they’ve faltered / none burn like Robert Pollard” — while telling everyone else (including Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Jagger/Richards and the writer/singer of the song, Gary Waleik) that they’d do well to follow Pollard’s inspirational lead and write some more great pop tunes, too.

It’s a meta-song with an emotional core, marrying clever, self-referential, self-depreciating lyrics (“Gary Waleik / you’ve written a song / but you hate the lyrics / the chords are all wrong”) with a triumphant-sounding tune as catchy and timeless as Pollard’s best (it even has a Pollard-esque repetitious guitar riff that runs through all the chord changes). It hits every heartstring.

And there’s lots more excellence on Big Dipper’s latest. Vocalist/guitarist Bill Goffrier contributes winning pop songs one after another, each with a memorable, hooky chorus — “Lord Scrumptious” (“He’s chewing on part of the world / he can’t fix the hole in his heart”), “Joke Outfit” (“And when you can’t find anything bad to feel / she’ll come to mind”) and “Hurricane Bill,” which gets tons of mileage out of its extended metaphor and a circular riff that builds and builds: “Now I’m spinning faster and I feel alive / probably a category 4 or 5 / head for the hills!”

Drummer/vocalist Oliphant’s songs deal with mature themes, like a friend who left “much too early”(“Forget the Chef”) and a loved one who’s a cancer survivor (“Princess Warrior”). Hard to believe that such a serious topic could ever appear in a song with a groovy beat and happy jangly guitars, but the lyrics are full of honest, homey and strong images, a clear picture of a loving husband and wife dealing with cancer.

“When that fatigue set in / we’d lay around and spoon for days,” Oliphant sings, and the chorus ends with “Me and Princess Warrior can handle your proceej.” That’s the couple’s slangy nickname for “procedure”; that one detail sums up their strength, love and hard-fought battle, the heart of a catchy pop tune.

In fact, the new songs are so strong that if Big Dipper were a brand-new band and only performed these latest tunes at the show, it’d make for a great night. But of course the band has a back catalog of college rock staples from its original run (which the wonderful Merge label collected in 2008 on the box set “Supercluster”).

There’s the chiming “All Going Out Together,” a hip-shaking apocalyptic pop song with a sing-along chorus and a moody heart. And “Faith Healer,” an urgent, bouncy rocker full of battling guitars that hearkens back to Goffrier’s time in The Embarrassment (one of my favorite bands of all time). And “She’s Fetching” and “Impossible Things” ... the list could go on.

They’re all shoulda-been-hits, and when you add in the stellar new songs, Big Dipper’s possible set list for the show sounds unbeatable. It’s a don’t-miss, very recommended show.

Hopefully it won’t be another 22 years before the band’s next album and tour.

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