Review: Big Star Box Set, Keep an Eye on the Sky

Does this new box, Keep an Eye on the Sky, add any value? I’d say it does if you have worn out your three Big Star studio albums. Consider that besides the album versions of most of the songs, you get alternate versions (demos, different vocals or mixes) of many of these, a handful of non-album songs make their debut here, and there's a mid-fidelity audience recording of a 20-song live show performed just after co-leader Chris Bell left the band. I would prefer the radio-studio CD Big Star Live except this one has lots of odd songs not included on that one. Chilton handles all of the guitar parts with supernatural cool and Jody Stephens gets in his trademark licks across the drums. The audience is clearly disinterested. I wonder how many of them would kill to go back in time and re-experience this show now? Well, this disc is as close as anyone is going to get at this point. There is also a fat book that traces the short arc of the band through the voices and eyes of various raconteurs and photographers.

The box is clearly a labor of love for original Big Star engineer John Fry and his cohorts at Ardent Records, the Memphis imprint that was home to this band. It may be the last word in vintage Big Star and if so, it would make a fitting coda to their legendary original run.


between 1968 and 1975

Between 1968 and 1975, Big Star was America’s answer to the demise of the Beatles. Sadly, no one noticed this at the time. It was not entirely Big Star's fault. They wrote the right songs and performed them with edgy soul. All the right ingredients collided in one of those musical miracles that seems impossible today, yet they were commercially squashed by an equal and opposite reaction within the scummy confines of the music business (note: this was before Vinyl Fever). I’m not saying it was malicious. Big Star just didn't get the break they so clearly deserved because business concerns were – perhaps necessarily – considered more important than the art. They screamed into the void and the sound was vacuumed into near-oblivion. And to be fair, despite their obvious talents, maybe they were also just a bit too raw for the average radio listener of the time.

So many years later and thanks to endless kudos piled on by every alt-rocker you've ever heard of, anyone interested has already heard their first and most accessible albums, #1 Record and Radio City. These two are so jammed full of masterful emo-pop that you may not wish to dig any further. But for the inquisitive, the band had one more dispatch, the ramshackle-yet-riveting Third, also known as Sister Lovers. This album was halfheartedly released once, then several more times in various configurations. It is a dark trip into the broken heart of Alex Chilton, the surviving songwriter at the time. It actually hurts to listen to it; I don’t care who you are or why you hurt.

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