For those of us who yawn at the prospect of listening to new versions of Beatles albums we've all heard too many times already, there couldn't be a more fitting diversion than the new Big Star box set, “Keep an Eye on the Sky” (Rhino).
The seminal 1970s power pop group from Memphis, Tenn., has had arguably more influence on indie rock and smart pop than any other artist or band. The list of acts who have admired Big Star and mimicked its sound is endless, including R.E.M., the dB's and other '80s college-radio, jangle-rock groups, Teenage Fanclub, the Posies, Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene.
Big Star was both anachronistic and ground-breaking. It borrowed the ringing guitars, mod grooves and sun-kissed harmonies of the mid-'60s Kinks, Byrds and Beatles, and infused that sound and style with a raw edginess and some thick 1970s malaise. Its songs are sometimes pretty, sometimes rocking, often haunting, but always tuneful.
The group's 1972 debut, “#1 Record,” saw co-songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton trading off lush, yearning ballads and chunky rockers. Bell was gone by the time of 1974's “Radio City,” but Chilton proved more than able to be the lone frontman; the often-covered “September Gurls” is just one of several slices of sparkling, timeless power pop on what is the finest Big Star album. The alternately titled “3rd/Sister Lovers,” released in 1978 but recorded years earlier, had Chilton exorcising his many personal demons in the recording studio, his troubled mind and bitter heart joining forces with his immense musical gift to work up disturbed but gorgeous tracks that go to a deep place.
So what about this set? It's a given that anyone interested in power pop or indie rock, and who hasn't been introduced to the bittersweet wonder of Big Star, needs it. But what about those of us who have long since worn out our copies of the three proper Big Star records? The 100-page booklet, rich with dozens of band photos, two excellent essays and detailed track notes, covers much of the not-cheap cost. The 20-song live show from 1973, on which the band plays raucously perfect versions of songs from its first two albums, as well as unique takes on songs by the likes of the Kinks, the Flying Burrito Brothers and T. Rex, adds even more value. The handful of tracks by various pre-Big Star formations are as strong as, in a few cases stronger than, the material on its debut album. There's also a smattering of interesting outtakes done at the time of the three albums. Oh, and every song from the group's three albums is included, sometimes in an alternate mix and sometimes as a completely different version than what we've always heard on the albums.
Um, yeah, it's worth it.