Big Star – Keep An Eye on the Sky – Box Set Reissue (ALBUM REVIEW)


bigstaralbumReconfigured into a more compact design from its original issue in 2009, the 2014 edition of Big Star’s all-encompassing box set Keep An Eye on the Sky retains all the content in the original package including pre-formation demos as well as a live CD from a quasi-reunion of the band. Almost as much as its striking rock and roll, the demand for reissue of the originally limited edition title, reaffirms the Memphis-based band’s continually expanding impact on its fans as well as its influence on subsequent generations of like-minded rock and roll bands such as R.E.M. , The Replacements (whose own vaunted frontman Paul Westerberg actually composed a song title “Alex Chilton) and the  Posies (two of whose members, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, were part of Big Star’s later lineup).

The passion of the group’s followers seems to grow infinitesimally but incrementally larger and devoted over time, because it’s only been five years since Keep An Eye on the Sky was first released, then as now on Rhino Records, in a larger hardcover package. The four CDs and one hundred and two page booklet (including evenhanded essays that reflect the music’s progressively-growing depth) now appear in a smaller a slipcase that may not stand the test of time and durability as well as the music within it.

When guitarist/composer Alex Chilton, who had previously tasted success in the late Sixties in the Box Tops with their hit “The Letter” joined the existing band Icewater, Big Star redefined the genre referred to as power-pop from its earliest and slightly dismissive appellation as ear candy. His chemistry with that aforementioned band’s leader Chris Bell was the flashpoint of chemistry for the lineup: not only did the quartet inject an earthy emotionalism into the performances–”September Gurls” is, for instance, far removed from the lightweight likes of the Raspberries– the self-awareness and intellect at work in the compositions found full flower in the recordings, whether seriously introspective (“My Soul”) or tongue-in cheek (“Ballad of El Goodo”).

The musicianship is as refined as the material too and that’s true of the live performance included here from 1973. Even without Bell, who passed in an auto accident in 1978 after leaving the band, this twenty-song set is a tribute to Big Star as originally aligned, proof positive of Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens’ proud passion for their music and their legacy. The vigor in the playing and singing, as palpable as the sonic presence of the guitars, bass and drums, reaffirms how that devotion is the source of the fans deep, abiding loyalty. Rock may not have known a more equally devoted mutual admiration

The studio recordings within Keep An Eye on the Sky, mostly produced in their hometown studio Ardent (some by Memphis musical guru Jim Dickinson, father of Luther and Cody of North Mississippi Allstars, and collaborator with the Rolling Stones and Replacements at various junctures of his own lengthy estimable career), fully represent the first two Big Star albums #1 Record and Radio City in their entirety. However, in versions alternate to the official takes, this plethora of unreleased material within the ninety-eight cuts, fifty-two in all (counting “Thirteen” as enhanced computer accessible content on the live CD), reinforce the underlying impact of the records, creatively if not commercially, as they were first sequenced and released. They are the distillation of the material within this collection, which in itself constitutes a re-discovery of the band as valid for those there at the beginning of Big Star as for those to whom this set is the starting point.

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