Big Star – Keep an Eye on the Sky

October 4, 2009

bigstarboxGenerally, you could say, I really don’t approve of re-releases or box sets. For starters, I resent the idea of having to buy the same record twice, just for the sake of getting one or two “previously unreleased” tracks that were previously unreleased, often, for very good reason. And a lot of times I just don’t like the changes that get made. Like when “Rubber Soul” came out on cd without “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” on it. Some might say, well, that’s how it should be because the original UK release was that way. But that really changes the record, I think, and it’s not the same. So then you have to go out and buy “Help” too, and use iTunes or something to recreate the familiar experience.

Big Star, however, present an unusual case. For one thing, their original catalog never has gotten the treatment it really deserves (no pun intended). There’s that odd two-for-one cd with both “#1 Record” and “Radio City” on it. I guess that’s ok, and I have to admit that yes the consumer does win for once with that one, but still that’s not the lps in their original format. Then there’s “Third/Sister Lovers,” which has been difficult if not impossible to find at various points in time since it was first recorded and seems to change around every time it does get re-released.

Then there’s the more important fact that this new 4-cd box set “Keep an Eye on the Sky” is put together so wonderfully. Disk 1 starts out with a few early recordings by Chris Bell and Alex Chilton that presage what would happen next with Big Star, great for historical reasons and to understand where the band is coming from, then goes on to present all of the tracks from “#1 Record,” many of which are listed as “Alternate Mixes” that, to me, actually do sound better than the ones on the two-for-one cd. A special highlight there, for me, is a version of “The Ballad of El Goodo” with different and even more powerful lyrics.

Disk 2 includes all of “Radio City,” some interesting demo versions including a great one of “What’s Going Ahn,” plus two of the best tracks from Chris Bell’s album “I Am the Cosmos.” “September Gurls” is presented in its original format; but even that is as it should be, because that song is absolute perfection and who can improve on perfection?

Disk 3 moves into “Third/Sister Lovers,” with all of its emotion and despair. Listening to those songs again today, it’s easy to hear how their influence lives on, to cite just one prominent example, in some of Deerhunter/Atlas Sound’s more melancholic work.

Finally, disk 4 presents tracks recorded live in Memphis in January 1973, following the release of “#1 Record” and after Bell had left the band. There are two amazing things about those live tracks. One is that the sound is terrific; these are absolutely superb live recordings. The other is that the audience remains almost entirely indifferent throughout. There’s almost total silence during “The Ballad of El Goodo,” when I would have been up in front of the stage singing along at the top of my lungs about how “ain’t no one goin’ to turn me around.” But then, later, you can hear audience members talking during “Thirteen.” Talking during a performance of one of the greatest poems set to music of the 20th century!

But that just proves the point. This box set really does tell the “Big Star Story” in a complete, effective, and moving way. Very, very nice.

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