After hearing, and enjoying, so many power pop artists over the years — Cheap Trick, Raspberries, Shoes, Dwight Twilley Band to name just a few — I finally relented to the hype of Big Star and obtained a copy of the group’s first two albums #1 Record and Radio City. While sympathetic to the members’ run of bad luck and aware of the influence on so many for so long, it nonetheless did little to impress me. It was far from a life-changing moment. Now, I arrive at the four-disc box set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, and hear everything that had been missing from that listening experience. The inclusion of three dozen unreleased demos, unused mixes, alternate versions plus highlights from an unreleased 1973 Memphis show should make this of interest to longtime devotees as well as your generic everyday music-obsessed geek. Not everything here is an unearthed shining gem but their worth comes not only by the insight it gives the listener to the creative process but a damn good reason to put together a box set – rarities rather than selections fans already own.
It’s not just the approach that’s worthwhile, but the clarity on these 96 tracks that emphasize what’s missing from that 1992 CD compiling albums one and two. Keep An Eye On The Sky offers a progression from pre-Big Star work by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell through the material that made up the band’s three albums and even a nod to Bell, post-Star. There is the occasional doubling up, i.e. “The Ballad of El Goodo” is represented by the original mix and another with alternative lyrics and a stronger emphasis on the background vocals. The cleaner sound allows the inherent ramshackle qualities of select tracks to come through. That doesn’t mean that Chilton, Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel are sloppy players. Far from it. Tear apart each element contained in “O My Soul” and you receive one small example of complexity overshadowed by pure pop pleasures. Overall, the current edition emphasizes the creamy harmonies, sharp musicianship and intricate but never over-handled arrangements to shine. But, the space between notes is precariously holding each song together. It’s understandable to find a young musician inspired by the offhanded perfection of it all. You can hear the line of influence running straight from “Try Again” and “Thirteen” to any number of the Replacements’ achingly beautiful ballads (“Sadly Beautiful,” “Here Comes a Regular,” “Skyway”). Numbers such as “In the Street” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” here become beacons to the much under-appreciated Teenage Fanclub and future tracks from that band (“About You,” “World’ll Be Ok, The”).
Although Bell left before the recording of Radio City the trio moved forward in a natural manner while holding on to a musical foundation from the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, Badfinger, soul and garage rock. An alternate version of “O My Soul” finds Hendrix style riffing coupled with pedal steel before a muscular take on the song erupts. Bell’s single, “I Am the Cosmos” reflects his psychedelic musical past while its b-side, “You and Your Sister,” falls comfortably with what his former bandmates were doing. By the time of 3rd/Sister Lovers, Chilton veers wildly from the melodic and instrumental stamp of the past two albums and develops a set of tunes that are as interesting for their ambition as they are for their characteristics of an ongoing musical trainwreck. Lyrically and musically, it seems as if Chilton is coming apart, but the results are mighty interesting. With the Velvet Underground on his mind, “Femme Fatale” gets covered while “Kizza Me” would have fit comfortably during a set at CBGB. And either version of “Jesus Christ” deserves to be more than a footnote in rock ‘n’ roll but a holiday classic.
On Live at Lafayette’s Music Room, the band members, minus Bell, plow through a set that touches upon the debut release, songs for their upcoming second effort and telling covers from the Kinks, Todd Rundgren, T. Rex and even the Flying Burrito Brothers in front of a mostly indifferent crowd. Despite this not being a soundboard recording, the fidelity is quite good and more than matched by the trio’s performance.
After going through all four discs, I gave the first two albums another chance. The 1992 release still doesn’t work as well as this set. There’s a deeper appreciation but it doesn’t compare to the pleasures here. A recent re-issue of the compilation CD may have upgraded the music in a way that equals the ones on the box set, but this still makes a stronger case for Big Star’s lofty presence.
John Patrick Gatta is a Senior Writer at Jambands.com.