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4CD, Box Set
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Audio CD, Box set, November 24, 2014
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is a 4-CD, 98-song career retrospective box set from American rock group Big Star, released in 2009. It features 52 unreleased tracks: demos, alternate takes and live performances. As well as material from founder member Chris Bell's earlier bands Rock City and Icewater, it includes all titles (in many cases as alternate mixes or demos) from Big Star's first three studio albums.
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It begins with early cuts by Chris Bell and one solo cut by Alex Chilton after leaving the Box Tops. Then we go straight to #1 Record, Chris Bell's towering achievement. It's interesting to hear the alternate mixes of these; engineer John Fry brings out something different with many of these alternate mixes. Sometimes the mixes are quite different from the released versions, but in a few cases it's difficult to find any difference.
The second disc is made up of Big Star's greatest (for me, anyway) achievement Radio City. This album comes on a little rougher than its predecessor, more rocking, but still filled with gorgeous harmonies and snappy guitar work. The end of disc two is where the box set rates five stars for me. Track 19 and 20 are the A and B side of Chris Bell's solo single after leaving Big Star. The music is heartbreaking and wonderful, especially if you've never had the chance to hear it. The final six tracks are solo Chilton demos for Third/Sister Lovers. These demos are nothing short of a revelation. Where even big Big Star fans may not appreciate the weirdness of Third, these solo demos are transcendent.
The third disc continues with more Third demos and then features nearly the entire Third/Sister Lovers album in its entirety. I never was a big fan of this, but the demos certainly give it a different sheen. Chilton was apparently working through some difficult emotions in song and the music is appropriately difficult to listen to at times.
The fourth disc is a live recording at a bar in Memphis circa January 1973, after the release of #1 Record. The band plays fabulously; the only thing that isn't on the live recording are some of the backing harmonies, but Chilton and the rest of the band sound terrific, proving they could prove it all night on the stage as well as in the studio. Ironically the sound is great on this recording because the audience was indifferent; the notes indicate a crowd mike was used, and the crowd was impatiently waiting for Archie Bell and the Drells.
Topping it all off is the usual Rhino extravagance: a huge 100 page book packed with photos and a bio on the original cult rock band. The packaging mimics a large 45 sleeve and the CDs are housed in a sturdy fold out case/sleeve that pictures each band member. The book alone is worth quite a chunk of change, but when you add the live disc along with the Third/Sister Lovers demos and the other unreleased tracks, this is a gold mine for Big Star fans or fans of intelligent rock music. It might not be the best way to get acquainted with the band, but if you choose to go this route, you'll keep coming back to this set. Highly recommended.
I have always been conflicted about this band. Had they broken through (especially with Chris Bell), would they eventually suffer the same fate as most bands - either ruined by success, drugs, etc., the quality of music diminishing, and ending up on the outs with each other? Part of me thinks that their rapid descent into oblivion only makes the treasure they left us more precious. Still it is poignant to read about Chris Bell's love for the record they made, and his heartbreak over it's utter commercial failure. Never could that be more understandable. It is reassuring to know that after the repeat non-success of Alex Chilton's masterpiece follow-up 'Radio City', he was savvy enough about the record biz to survive relatively unscathed. All's well that ends well I guess. So yes, get this box-set. It captures a brief period all those years ago, when four (then three) young men made music that mattered. Big Star - Long may they shine!
PS. Get Big Star 'In Space' also. Support the members, plus it's good on it's own merit.