Keep an Eye on the Sky (Ardent/Rhino)
For a band that barely released three albums, it seems odd that it would be the beneficiary of a four-CD box set. But then again, this is Big Star we’re talking about, an act not unlike New York City brethren the Velvet Underground, who have also been the subject of intense devotion from rock critics and a cult fanbase. But whereas VU was adept at trafficking in nihilism and touching on the seedy underside of urban living, Big Star masterfully embraced the British Invasion innocence of The Beatles, Who and Kinks while putting it through a sieve of southern pop and soul. With the entirety of the classic debut #1 Record, follow-up Radio City and brilliantly disjointed third project 3rd/Sister Lovers included here, the richness of this material induces plenty of head-shaking over how the group’s fortunes were doomed by distribution snafus and crap promotion. Of course one listen to gems like the glammy swagger of “Feel,” the heart-on-sleeve vulnerability of “My Life is Light” or the twangy Eastern religion vibe of “The India Song” makes you wonder if tone-deaf numbers-crunchers were in charge of getting the word out back then.
While the one-two punch of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided a certain Lennon/McCartney balance during the group’s early going, Big Star’s sound got a harder edge following Bell’s departure spurred by how badly the first record flopped. It’s evidenced not only by more recognizable fare like the Byrdsian jangle of “Back of a Car” and funky shuffle “O My Soul,” but 3rd/Sister Lovers obscurities like the Neil Young-ish Christmas song “Jesus Christ” and the slightly atonal ambiance of “Kanga Roo.” And while alternate versions of songs as well as cuts by pre-Big Star projects Icewater, Rock City and a solo Bell are welcome inclusions, it’s the fourth disc—a live 1973 performance recorded at Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis—that puts this set through the roof. Despite performing before an indifferent crowd there to see headliner Archie Bell & the Drells, the three-piece pounds out a ramshackle yet heartfelt set that includes originals and covers of the aforementioned Kinks, T. Rex, Todd Rundgren and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Keep an Eye on the Sky serves both the Big Star fanatic and pop music day tripper while ably showing why seemingly every person who bought their music went out and started a band.