CD Review of Keep An Eye on the Sky by Big Star
Big Star: Keep An Eye on the Sky
Recommended if you like
Raspberries, Badfinger, Matthew Sweet
Label
Rhino
Big Star:
Keep An Eye on the Sky

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

F
or a band that issued only two albums throughout their original lifespan, Big Star have generated an extraordinary amount of opinion as to their contributions to modern rock’s progression. Formed in a post-‘60s afterglow, when the trademark sounds of the Beatles, Badfinger, the Kinks and the Who were fresh memories in the minds of the adoring masses, Big Star continue to compete with the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape and the Dead for the distinction of being the most influential outfit America has ever offered.

Indeed, despite the fact they barely made any initial impact whatsoever, Big Star have attained near-legendary status, influencing legions of musicians in the three decades since their tattered demise. Ultimately though, nothing becomes a legend more than resurrection through thorough re-examination. Given this extensive anthology, containing nearly 100 tracks spread over four discs and boasting nearly every song in their repertoire (some given repeated hearings through demos and live renditions), even those with only passing interest have opportunity to fully indulge their curiosity.

In truth, this isn’t the first Big Star revival; a subsequent reformation augmented by members of the Posies, the belated release of the band’s third album (alternately titled Third and Sister Lovers), Chris Bell’s posthumous solo album I Am the Cosmos, and odd offerings of live material and recordings best left in the vaults have tripled the group’s original output. Still, credit Rhino’s usual masterful job of packaging and compiling for making Keep An Eye on the Sky the most complete Big Star compendium to date. Tracing their origins from their earliest incarnation as Icewater and subsequently Rock City (the band eventually settled on the name Big Star after spotting it on a supermarket across the street from Ardent studios), its wealth of early demos – several stripped down to their acoustic rudiments -- sheds a revealing light on how the Big Star sound quickly evolved. Alternate mixes also enhance these offerings, giving songs such as "In The Street," The Ballad of El Goodo," "Back of A Car," "Thirteen" and "The India Song" a number of distinctive variations. The occasional cover song – including smartly tailored versions of "Femme Fatale," "Hot Burrito #2," "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On" and Till The End Of The Day" -- are adroitly adapted to the group’s trademark style, a sunny blend of shimmering guitars, billowing harmonies and effusive enthusiasm that would became Big Star’s stock and trade.

That approach found its apex in the contributions of Big Star’s two principal songwriters, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, opposing forces who created a complementary dynamic akin to Lennon and McCartney -- Chilton purveying the rougher edges while Bell massaged the melodies. It provided the band with a distinct duality, allowing them to mine both intimacy and exuberance, and a sound that was rowdy and yet refined. Their music suggested endless possibility, with adolescent anthems like "September Gurls," "In The Street" and "Back Of A Car" becoming the ideal theme songs for a time when possibility was tempered by pessimism and uncertainty offered the only alternative. Note the tentative crowd response accorded disc four’s live side from Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis; Big Star may have been hometown heroes, but a year and a half after recording their debut -- the ambitiously titled # 1Record -- Big Star still seem to have plenty to prove and indeed the audience response is muted and almost indifferent. With Chris Bell out of the band, the group plows on, managing to maintain a certain magic while watching the tide turn. Had Big Star been conceived in the same decade as their heroes that had inspired them – specifically, those aforementioned Brit Rock invaders and ‘60s stalwarts -- they might have soared to far greater heights. Certainly there would be no doubt as to Big Star’s place in the Pop pantheon. Then, at very least, they would have delivered all their name implied.

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