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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky

BIG STAR: KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY (2009)

[Track listing limited to titles that do not appear on regular Big Star albums.]
CD I: 1) Psychedelic Stuff [Chris Bell]; 2) All I See Is You [Icewater]; 3) Every Day As We Grow Closer [Alex Chilton]; 4) Try Again [Rock City]; 7) In The Street (alt. mix); 8) Thirteen (alt. mix); 10) The India Song (alt. mix); 11) When My Baby's Beside Me (alt. mix); 12) My Life Is Right (alt. mix); 13) Give Me Another Chance (alt. mix); 15) Gone With The Light; 16) Watch The Sunrise (single version); 17) ST 100/6 (alt. mix); 18) The Preacher (Rock City); 19) In The Street (alt. single mix); 20) Feel (alt. mix); 21) The Ballad Of El Goodo (alt. lyrics); 22) The India Song (alt. version); 23) Country Morn; 24) I Got Kinda Lost (demo); 25) Back Of A Car (demo); 26) Motel Blues (demo).
CD II: 1) There Was A Light (demo); 2) Life Is White (demo); 3) What's Going Ahn (demo); 9) Mod Lang (alt. mix); 10) Back Of A Car (alt. mix); 14) Morpha Too (alt. mix); 16) O My Soul (alt. version); 17) She's A Mover (alt. ver­sion); 18) Daisy Glaze (rehearsal version); 19) I Am The Cosmos (Chris Bell); 20) You And Your Sister (Chris Bell); 21) Blue Moon (demo); 22) Femme Fatale (demo); 23) Thank You Friends (demo); 24) Nightime (demo); 25) Take Care (demo); 26) You Get What You Deserve (demo).
CD III: 1) Lovely Day (demo); 2) Downs (demo); 3) Jesus Christ (demo); 4) Holocaust (demo); 5) Big Black Car (alt. demo); 6) Mañana; 25) Till The End Of The Day (alt. mix); 26) Nature Boy (alt. mix).
CD IV: 1) When My Baby's Beside Me; 2) My Life Is Right; 3) She's A Mover; 4) Way Out West; 5) The Ballad Of El Goodo; 6) In The Street; 7) Back Of A Car; 8) Thirteen; 9) The India Song; 10) Try Again; 11) Watch The Sun­rise; 12) Don't Lie To Me; 13) Hot Burrito #2; 14) I Got Kinda Lost; 15) Baby Strange; 16) Slut; 17) There Was A Light; 18) ST 100/6; 19) Come On Now; 20) O My Soul.

A short-lived band like Big Star is an ideal proposition for a comprehensive boxset — 3 or 4 CDs can easily digest everything that it has released officially, as well as offer an exhaustive tour through the vaults of demos, alternate versions, outtakes, and even samples of «band-related» work that was not officially credited to it upon release. Keep An Eye On The Sky, released just a year before Chilton's death (nice to know he was able to take one last look at his collected le­gacy before finally heading out to his Big Star), proclaims to be doing just that. The perfect box, right? «Drop everything and run», right?

Well, not quite. First and foremost, if you think that buying this boxset eliminates the need to buy the albums, pay closer attention. It does include all of the completed recordings for all three clas­sic Big Star records (and completely ignores the embarrassment of In Space, which is a plus as far as I'm concerned), but at least a third part of them comes in «alternate mixes», which some­times include a few extra seconds of studio talk or noise before the song comes in (not necessa­rily a good idea) and do, indeed, mix the tracks slightly differently. Whether the old mixes or the new mixes sound better is a debatable issue which you could easily debate without my participation (I am definitely no «Mr. Mix Guy»), but the fact is, if you are a dedicated fan, this means you will have to have the boxset and the separate albums as well. In fact, I am fairly sure that the «alter­nate mixes» were little other than an intentional bait to raise interest on the part of fans who, na­turally, already owned all the CDs.

Suppose, though, that you are a newcomer to Big Star, and that you do not own any of their al­bums — would it make sense, then, to go straight for the box? I do not think it would, no. All three albums put together are cheaper, and the bonuses... well, this is where the interesting part begins, though, frankly speaking, it is not that interesting.

Truthfully, one may Keep An Eye On The Sky for as long as it plays on, but the sky hardly seems to hold a lot of surprises in store. Arguably the best additions here are Chilton's acoustic demos, particularly of songs recorded for Radio City and Third. Most of them work very well on their own, with solid, inspired playing and singing, although, frankly speaking, only a few of them are actual «demos» — in the case of Third, we generally hear just the basic tracks laid down in preparation for the overdubs. Even so, ʽHolocaustʼ has its own eerie minimalistic charm when it's just Alex and his piano.

As for the small bunch of previously unavailable songs, they are no big deal. Early pre-Big Star tracks from the solo careers of Chilton and Bell are basically the work of inexperienced Beatles apprentices. Thus, ʽAll I See Is Youʼ by Icewater (one of Bell's early bands) is nothing that you won't hear in a much better rendering by Badfinger; actually, the chorus sounds suspiciously close to Lennon's "all I want is you" from ʽDig A Ponyʼ, but since the song was admittedly recorded in 1969, when Let It Be had not yet come out, I have to assume a bizarre coincidence. (On the other hand, ʽGone With The Lightʼ, an outtake from Big Star's early sessions, does rip off ʽGood Nightʼ, which, as I assume, they realized just in time to keep it off the album). Bell's ʽPsy­chedelic Stuffʼ, which opens the chronology, predicts nothing particularly enlightening with its title, and, sure enough, it is psychedelic, but nothing else.

Later outtakes also include ʽMotel Bluesʼ, of whose existence we were already aware through its inclusion on the Live album — this version is neither better nor worse; ʽGot Kinda Lostʼ, a rather grayish pop-rocker in the style of Rubber Soul, but without much passion; and several alternate versions of well-known songs with different sets of lyrics (ʽCountry Mornʼ is really ʽWatch The Sun­riseʼ). Furthermore, there are also two singles from Chris Bell's solo album, I Am The Cos­mos, which, in 2009, acted as a «teaser» for the upcoming re-release on CD — showcasing his own journey into the realm of ambitious art-pop, far more disciplined than the paranoid ramble of Third, but also somewhat less haunting, and making one regret even more that Bell and Chilton only had the space of one LP to work on with each other.

Disc 4 of the package is probably the one that might have the fans salivating: a complete recor­ding of a live show played at Lafayette's Music Room in Memphis in January '73, right after Bell's departure, but with Hummel still in the band. The show is most notable for the setlist — predictable entries from #1 Record and previews of Radio City numbers are then followed by an interesting set of covers, as the boys promote the Kinks (ʽCome On Nowʼ), Todd Rundgren (ʽSlutʼ), T. Rex (ʽBaby Strangeʼ), and even The Flying Burrito Brothers (ʽHot Burrito #2ʼ) — in­structive, since Gram Parsons is probably not the first person one would associate with Big Star's sound, image, and atmosphere, but now that they bring it on themselves, there most certainly has to be an influence. Unfortunately, the downside of the recording is poor quality: audience noise does not interfere for the simple reason that there were probably something like ten or twelve people present altogether, but the equipment must have been piss-poor. And as for those covers, well, you've heard them once for educational reasons, you probably won't feel any need to hear them again. (Unless you simply want to show your admiration for a band that can cover the Kinks, Todd Rundgren, T. Rex, and Gram Parsons in one gig, and I do admit that bands like these are not always easy to localize in one's neighborhood).

All in all, this is simultaneously a great boxset (with particular care given to packaging and liner notes) — and a serious disappointment. If anything, it would have made better sense if the whole shenanigan was just put together as the three original albums, cleaned up and remastered, each CD accompanied by a large set of bonus tracks, plus the Live album with bonus performances of the Kinks / Rundgren / Bolan / Parsons tunes from the Memphis show. In this particular form, Big Star's legacy looks somewhat fussy, chaotic, and «gappy». Then again, who knows? A band as fussy and chaotic as Big Star might actually look more adequate with a fussy and chaotic box­set to go along. It's up to you to decide.

Check "Keep An Eye On The Sky" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Keep An Eye On The Sky" (MP3) on Amazon

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