This wonderful, 22-track compilation is just part of the work Chris Bell did before he dug his heels in with Big Star in 1971. Omnivore Recordings has gathered selections from Chris’ earlier bands like Icewater and Rock City; some of these tracks have been heard previously, but now they’re in one collection and newly remixed/remastered by Ardent Studios master Adam Hill and archivist/historian extraordinaire, Alec Palao. This is the first of several releases, celebrating the musical life of the man who founded Big Star.
There’s no need to go into Chris’ life story here; it’s been fairly well-documented and, in fact, is the subject of a forthcoming book, but the oncoming releases will be no less spectacular – a six-album set and an expanded edition of (the now-legendary/beloved) I Am The Cosmos – this will be the year of Chris Bell. And rightly so. His importance cannot be understated. The thing is that this particular CD features six previously unissued tracks; what you hear is a true evolution of an obviously gifted and talented singer/songwriter/guitarist.
Some of my own favorites are on here – two of which are the opening tracks: “Think It’s Time To Say Goodbye”, the Stones-y rocker from Rock City, which has just so much life and energy in it, followed by the gorgeous, Badfinger-esque “All I See Is You” from Icewater. For the sake of history, Icewater was first, followed by Rock City and both songs could easily have been hits – melody, great vocal harmonies and instantly memorable. Even earlier in his budding career, Chris recorded “Psychedelic Stuff”, an almost-obvious nod to The Yardbirds; this version has a cleaner, boosted vocal mix you can hear and it’s interesting to hear how advanced he already was. Two of the better known Big Star tracks, “My Life Is Right” and the heart-rending “Try Again” were originally recorded by Rock City – both are here and you can hear the development of these songs from these slightly-less-layered versions, as opposed to Big Star’s.
Even more surprising are tracks like “Feeling High” by The Wallabys – who were Chris, Steve Rhea and Terry Manning – who were, in fact, Icewater, along with singer-guitarist Alan Palmore and “Looking Forward”, where we hear Chris on lead vocals with an altered line-up of Icewater, which now had Steve Rhea moving to guitar from behind the drums and Jody Stephens takes his place on the drum stool. This is a very Abbey Road-like, hypnotic kind of piece and filled with neat little production nuances. “Sunshine” is also Icewater, but this time, playing bass is Andy Hummel, who, of course, would join Big Star. The acoustic guitar texture is that now-trademark Chris Bell style and the harmonies are incredibly uplifting.
If nothing else, this album fits the recent “educational” releases – such as the recent The Best Of Big Star; it’s a perfect introduction, primer – call it what you will – if you’ve heard the name of Chris Bell or Big Star but never really investigated the music. There’s no better place to start – or to enhance your collection if you’re like me and have to have anything/everything aligned with Big Star or to enlighten someone uninformed (and, of course, to turn on the younger generation who don’t yet know…). Regardless, this is the musical journey of someone who has rightly earned the title of “legend” and though he left us early, at the age of 27 in 1978, he and his music do thankfully live on in those of us who have heard, understand and keep it in our hearts.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – ESSENTIAL LISTENING
Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star will be released on Friday, July 7th, 2017