Tag Archives: Big Star

Big Star • Live on WLIR [CD, LP]

Last time I reviewed something BIG STAR related here, I mentioned that Omnivore Recordings had seemed to have excavated about all there was left to find of the Memphis power pop band’s recorded legacy. (My review of Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos is here.) So far, I haven’t been proved wrong. This “new” release, Live on WLIR, is neither new nor all that necessary – especially if you already own 1992’s Live. That Rykodisc release was the first official issue of a 1973 concert recorded for Long Island, NY radio station WLIR, and though of interest to hardcore Big Star fans, was certainly a lesser part of the group’s canon. This release is a pretty straightforward reissue of that concert. Whether you ought to invest in this version largely depends on three things: 1) How big a fan you are, 2) If you already have that now out-of-print CD, and 3) If you’ve just gotta own that concert on vinyl.

The 14 songs on Live on WLIR (the fifteenth track is an interview with guitarist Alex Chilton) appear to be a pretty representative sample of Big Star’s ’73 set. At this point, after the release of the band’s sophomore, trio-recorded Radio City, the band consisted of Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens and new recruit, bassist John Lightman (who had just replaced the recently departed Andy Hummel). You hear the threesome play songs from both Radio City and #1 Record, and though there’s a pretty rockin’ vibe throughout, the pared down band doesn’t quite pull things off the way the original four-piece with Chris Bell did, let alone the studio arrangements of the Bell-less band. What you do get is a real good idea of Chilton’s guitar playing ability, which is greater than you might expect. His distillation of multiple guitar parts into one, live part is quite remarkable. And that’s why I’m remarking on it right now! Had I the opportunity to review Live when it came out in ’92 I’m not sure I would have picked up on it. But after being submerged in Big Star-mania for a few decades, it’s certainly noticeable to me now.

Live on WLIR’s new artwork is nice but not exactly a game changer. The liner notes here are by the same guy who wrote them back then (Robert Gordon; they’re new notes, though, and augmented by a short interview with bassist Lightman). And the mastering? Again, new but not revelatory; I listened to both versions and there are only minor differences. The ’92 Live, by Dr. Toby Mountain, isn’t as in-your-face, true, but it also doesn’t “feature” the slightly out-of-tune and overly saturated guitar that this year’s Live on WLIR by Michael Graves does. Since a multitrack recording of this concert clearly doesn’t exist, all of the audio quality decisions lie in the mastering. I prefer Mountain’s job on Live myself. But that version of the concert hasn’t been available for some time (and was never issued on vinyl), so this likely may be the only one you come across. I don’t know that having this set on vinyl is all that important, as I can’t imagine something that was recorded live to analog, preserved to digital, and then returned to analog is going to be any better on vinyl than it would be on CD. So, since this isn’t a crucial Big Star release, I’d probably opt for (in this order): 1) The original compact disc on Rykodisc, followed by 2) This Omnivore CD, and finally 3) The 2LP vinyl set, which might just be more appealing to you if you’re absolutely adamant about analog.

2.5/5 (Omnivore OV-321, 2019)

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Chris Bell • I Am the Cosmos [CD, LP]

Big Star’s ascendance to America’s best loved, most under appreciated rock band reaches its zenith with Omnivore’s authoritative reissue of the CHRIS BELL retrospective, I Am the Cosmos. Once again presented as an exhaustive 2CD compilation of the man’s life’s work, this version of Cosmos is a more focused affair than Rhino Handmade’s 2009 version or the original 1992 Rykodisc (single CD) release. I’ll admit: At first I thought it was going to be too much. After all, there are four versions of the title track included, and multiple versions of some of the other tunes. On paper it sounded like more than even this fan would want. I was wrong.

I won’t go into the whole Big Star story here, except to say that Chris Bell left the band after their debut, the critically acclaimed, consumer-ignored #1 Record (1972). After that, only one 45 of his own material (“I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister,” both included) was released in Bell’s lifetime. Yet this ample release shows that – despite the numerous versions of songs – he had a lot more in him. His harder rocking side is represented by “I Got Kinda Lost” and “Make a Scene,” his softer side by “You and Your Sister,” and the spiritual by “Look Up.” Then there are the yearning, burning tracks like “Cosmos” and “Better Save Yourself,” the winning pair that opens all versions of this compilation. Hard edged guitars anchor some tunes while strummed acoustics steal the scene in others; you even get funky Moog synthesizer (I believe) in the rollicking “Fight at the Table.” Bell’s talents were many and they’re all on display here. It’s hard for the Paul McCartney fan in me to not draw a parallel between Macca and Bell’s early ’70s smorgasbord of styles – and that, as you may know, is a high compliment in these quarters.

Omnivore Recordings has been on a Big Star bender for some time now, what with numerous band releases (including Complete Third, the comprehensive look at the band’s final album), Alex Chilton refreshers (I particularly like, but never reviewed, Free Again: The “1970” Sessions) and Chris Bell’s Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star. It’s clear from the liner notes in these various releases that label head Cheryl Pawelski and her crew will not rest until they have covered every angle of the Big Star story, and for that I’m grateful. Many lesser bands’ stories have been examined with an even larger microscope, so there’s definitely room in the world for just about anything Big Star related. Certainly some will think it’s all too much, and that’s okay. The rest of us can happily discover more of what Chris Bell, Alex Chilton and Big Star wrought during their musical careers by letting Omnivore lead the way.

I Am the Cosmos is released 9/15/17 as a 2CD set, as well as a single LP on clear vinyl (initially, and with download code for the rest of the material), and digital download.

4/5 (Omnivore OV-231)

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Alex Chilton • A Man Called Destruction [CD, LP]

Last month Omnivore reissued ALEX CHILTON’s 1995 album, A Man Called Destruction. Aptly titled, Chilton himself described it as “a soulful effort by a fairly primitive mind.” The album is a musical stew of rock ’n’ roll, New Orleans R&B/jazz and more – recorded the way this kind of stuff used to be recorded: live in the studio, one or two takes, minimal overdubs.

Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Destruction’s twelve songs (and this reissue’s bonus tracks) have a wonderful feel because they’re not perfect. Those who only know Chilton via the Big Star records will be thrown for a loop by Destruction. The arrangements aren’t power pop at all – sorry, Radio City fans – this is what Alex sounded like when he led the band all by himself. The songs, too, are primarily Alex’s, though there’s a handful of cool covers, including Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go” and Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired.” The latter track is one Chilton had been doing in his solo shows (when not “reuniting” Big Star with half of Seattle band The Posies). Buoyed by his own soulfully raw guitar sound, the arrangements include a rough but ready horn section and some real primal organ (check out his “Don’t Stop” to hear what I mean).

Omnivore’s reissue adds seven bonus tracks to A Man Called Destruction, including some alternate takes, a couple of originals that didn’t make the final album, and a cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do,” kind of a fitting sentiment about how some of us feel about Alex Chilton. Apparently, those who knew Alex Chilton say the two spheres of sound (power pop and primitive rock) were equally at home in the man’s psyche, a reflection of his own personality. Sometimes affable and agreeable, sometimes contrary and difficult, like it or not that was Chilton. We don’t know why we love him (at least we can’t exactly pinpoint it), but we do.

Available now on download, CD and 2LP vinyl (clear blue for the initial pressing) including all of the bonus tracks.

3/5 (Omnivore OV-227)

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