Reviews > Music
Charlie Gillett/Redferns

Big Star rising

Music | Seventies band comes into its own with 2009 re-releases

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

When the Memphis power-pop pioneers Big Star ground to a halt in 1974, it would've been hard to find anyone-least of all the band members themselves-willing to bet that 35 years later their reissued output would rival that of the Beatles for critical acclaim.

But, with the June re-release of #1 Record/Radio City (Stax) and the September releases of the four-disc Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino) and the two-disc "deluxe" edition of founding member Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos (Rhino Handmade), 2009 really may be the year that Big Star finally grows into its name.

The group came together in 1971 when Alex Chilton, the former Box Tops lead singer, joined Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel-Memphis musicians who'd come together at Ardent Studios, united by their love for British Invasion pop. What they went on to achieve-as a quartet, a trio, and a duo, in that order-has been so well documented, both in print and on disc, that, for all its exhaustiveness, Keep an Eye on the Sky is rather short on revelations.

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Although the set contains many demos and alternate versions and mixes, most of them are demos and alternate versions and mixes of songs that ended up sounding only slightly different on the group's official three albums. (A reunited Big Star consisting of Chilton, Stephens, and members of the Posies released a fourth studio album, In Space, in 2005.)

The redundancy factor will be especially noticeable to owners of Rykodisc's 1992 edition of the band's Third/Sister Lovers, the album to which most of Disc 3 is devoted, as they already have 17 of that disc's 26 tracks. Of the 55 previously unreleased tracks trumpeted in ads for the set, 20 occur on the all-live Disc 4 and were recorded in 1973 after Bell left the group.

Bell's reissued I Am the Cosmos, on the other hand, contains quite a few revelations. A compilation of recordings that he made after leaving the group, it wasn't released until 1992, nearly 14 years after he died in an automobile accident at the age of 27, and even now remains little known to all but the most obsessive Big Star fans.

It shouldn't. Although as a perfectionist Bell abandoned some of the songs before finalizing them to his satisfaction, their introspective lyrics and keening hooks capture the blend of Anglophilia and soul that characterized Big Star in general and #1 Record, the only Big Star album on which Bell officially participated, in particular.

And, unlike the "rarities" on the Big Star box, the 15 demos, alternate takes, and other loose ends on I Am the Cosmos' second disc reveal something of Bell's inner struggles, struggles that included not only choosing between drugs and sobriety but also choosing between heaven and hell. "You should've given your love to Jesus," he sang in "Better Save Yourself." "It couldn't do you no harm." He expressed similar convictions on "Look Up."

"He began taking his relationship with Christ very seriously," says Ardent Studios founder John Fry in one of the album's liner essays. "There was a time where he was basically witnessing to me." Eventually, that witness bore fruit: Fry himself became a believer after Bell's death.

"That was the thing that sobered me up enough to say, 'Well, wait a minute-where is he now? Is he dead like a horse, or is he in the presence of God?' And when you ask that question about somebody else, you start to say to yourself, 'Hey, dummy, what about you?'"

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