Big Star: Keep An Eye on the Sky box set review (Reax)

(5 out of 5)

Many years ago, in the days when file-sharing didn’t offer the cornucopia of instant, deep-catalog gratification that it does now, I bought a bootleg CD. I did this more frequently than perhaps I should have, but the thrill of getting my ears around some unreleased studio cuts or memorable concert performances far outweighed any ethical concerns I may have had. Still, as I handed over some cash to the dorky, slightly greasy, and somewhat sketchy gentleman at the record show, I felt more like a cat with a canary in its mouth than ever before.

Tucked in the box of “clearance” discs was a compilation of outtakes, rehearsal takes and demo versions of songs by Big Star, a band I have long held a deep and abiding love for, but also a band whose official material had been hard to track down. The CD was purchased at the onset of the band’s early ’90s revival in popularity (thanks, Teenage Fanclub!), which had come after an early ’80s excavation (thanks, Mitch Easter!) and a mid-’80s rediscovery (thanks, This Mortal Coil!) and finding a set of unreleased material – on sale, even – was a godsend.

To someone who had worn down his weirdly-sequenced vinyl import of 3rd, this bootleg was an absolute revelation, as it presented substantially different versions – many of which were glimmeringly beautiful Alex Chilton solo numbers – of songs that seemed for so many years just beautiful accidents. This bootleg revealed that instead of some fully-formed bit of cosmic perfection, Big Star’s proto-power-pop sound was honed over laborious songwriting sessions, rewrites, re-arrangements and complete overhauls.

But if that bootleg CD, in all its limited fidelity, was a revelation, then Keep an Eye on the Sky is an absolute dream. Beyond the ace packaging and incredibly informative (and informed) liner notes, the music on these four CDs – about 35% released material from the band’s now-classic albums and some early projects, 40% outtakes and 25% humiliating live show –  is an absolute dream.

Like that bootleg CD, the highlight here is that set of achingly gorgeous Chilton solo acoustic demos; the singer’s legendary irascibility is nowhere in sight, his voice is in near-perfect form and his guitar-playing is richly textured, resulting in eleven cuts that would likely have found far more commercial success than if they would have been released before getting reworked for 3rd. There are other gems, too. An alternate version of Big Star’s best ballad, “Thirteen” is perhaps more emotionally affective than the tear-jerking album version, an early take on “O My Soul” is a swirl of crunchy guitars, psychedelic swoon and soulful strut, and … hell, any of the other alternate takes, mixes or unreleased songs here will provide a completely new outlook on a band that, for more than 30 years, was represented by three albums’ worth of material that their acolytes know inside and out. The live show on disc four? Awesome, if only to hear Chilton’s barely contained disdain for the chatty club crowd who’s obviously there to see Archie Bell & the Drells.

At my house, that sale-priced bootleg became as much a part of the band’s canon as their official studio albums. With Keep an Eye on the Sky, that canon gets a much-deserved overhaul. While Big Star’s legacy still seems like a poorly-kept secret among music fans, this set gives them the respect and recognition they deserve. Nobody will probably get rich from this release, but it doesn’t matter; such a well-rounded and complete perspective on this music is a long-overdue public service.

First appeared at reaxmusic.com on Oct. 12, 2009.

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