Monday, October 10, 2016

Fell Through The Skies: A Look At The Complete Version Of Big Star's Third From Omnivore Recordings

And then there were two, for a third. Big Star's Third is, in whatever title you choose, one of the most important works of art in the post-Beatles era. To say that is not to get all pretentious about what is, really, a bunch of Southern guys-slash-musical geniuses goofing around in the studio to see what will stick to the tape but, instead, a way to remind you that this is music that has spoken to so many already that to not have any working knowledge of it is to be illiterate in some sense as the record is that important to an understanding of contemporary music. That the "album" was never exactly finished, and the running order never quite finalized, has only made the packaged scraps from the fun times of these cats -- Alex Chilton and Jody Stehens and assorted producers and engineers and girlfriends -- the sort of release that allows for hours of investigation; if there was ever an album to get lost in, Third has been it. If Big Star was our Beatles on these shores, and the first 2 records like With The Beatles and Help!, then Third is The White Album. Big Star had gone from being a four-piece group to being simply Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens and the sound from everything that American power-pop was and would be, based on the template of the first 2 Big Star albums, to something closer to fractured chamber pop on Third.

Now many, many of you know this album. I mean you know it precisely like you know those Beatles records but maybe you've never heard it like you're gonna hear it on this one. Complete Third is an impressive compilation of the entire genesis of this album, from demos to rough mixes to finished tracks, and the 3-CD set is out Friday from Omnivore Recordings. And after listening to this lengthy collection in order I can say 2 things with utmost certainty: the first truth is that these cuts, especially the album versions, have never sounded this good before. Massive praise must be heaped on Cheryl Pawelski, Adam Hill, and Michael Graves for wrangling this material into sequence and restoring it in such as a way that listening to this set feels like you're hearing so much for the first time.

The other truth I can share with you today kids is that the fun is back. Complete Third has made hearing this stuff such a joyous experience. For an album so fraught with added, near-mythical levels of accrued drama over the years, this version feels so light and effortlessly enjoyable. There's a palpable sense of discovery throughout this set and unlike the Beatles on any version of Let It Be, where the end is apparent at every turn, the sound here is of what remained of Big Star turning into something new. Was it to be a new band called Sister Lovers? Was it a Big Star record with a new line-up of the band, an Alex Chilton solo album, or an Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens release? We'll never entirely know but what's here, on Complete Third, is some of the most essential music you're likely to hear.

Of course it wasn't just those 2 guys up there as Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens were joined by so many people on these recordings: producer Jim Dickinson, engineer John Fry, Lesa Aldridge, and others. And Complete Third offers testament to those contributions, both in the tracks here and in the copious liner notes. The structure of this set shows the progression from seemingly-sloppy demo sessions to what became rough mixes to what became an album (even if the track sequence is still a tiny bit up in the air, according to most).

Among the surprises on Disc 1 are the cluttered "Pre-Downs" which shows the germ of what would become "Downs", a carefree take on T.Rex's "Baby Strange", and a drum-heavy rough take on "Thank You Friends" built around Alex's guide vocal. And, yeah, it would've been nice to have the stab at "Don't Worry Baby" on the album itself as a nice counterpoint to stuff like "Take Care", since its inclusion here reminds a listener of what Chilton was attempting, his own compositions being skewed, Southern runs at the Southern California sort of chamber pop Brian Wilson had already mastered.

And it's worth noting that "Like St. Joan (Kanga Roo)" reveals that the song was always a bit fucked up from the start, the fucked-up-ed-ness not, one hears now, just the result of studio wizardry by Dickinson. As Chilton's sitar-like guitar runs get underway, we can hear a slightly more direct version of a song that would be an instant standard, and even more of one when This Mortal Coil would cover it in the Eighties.

Disc 2 offers up both Dickinson and Fry rough mixes of "Nightime" and a Dickinson rough mix of "Take Care" that presents the song as a near-shambolic warning, and less a lullaby. The precisely-played Fry mix of "Blue Moon" shines a light on Chilton's knack for singing with exquisite tenderness. Like Lennon before him, Chilton may have been a real smart-ass in real life but he could melt hearts with the best of 'em. The rough mix of Kinks cover "Till The End of the Day" sounds more like Richard Hell and the Voidoids than it does Ray Davies and crew and one can understand now so perfectly why Chilton's music was embraced by the punks some few years later.

What Complete Third does so well is recast that whole idea that this is cluttered, dark music. The lightness in these rough mixes on Disc 2 is apparent and there's a certain directness that most seem to have missed when discussing this album for so many decades. Fry's rough mix of "Thank You Friends" near the end of this disc shows what I mean and I couldn't help but think of the fun bits on the Stones's "Sing This All Together" from their neglected masterpiece Their Satanic Majesties Request. And a take of "For You" with Alex's vocals on it is, of course, a revelation, an alternate universe version of what remains a classic from the album proper as sung by Jody Stephens. But, most importantly, these are the pieces to the puzzle that would be put together on the album itself. For that reason, Disc 2 may be the most interesting for many long-time Big Star fans.

Now, of course, the success of Complete Third really hinges not on how much material the folks at Omnivore Recordings managed to dig up but, instead, by how they made Third sound. The verdict is, quite simply, that you've never heard the album like this before. Whatever Hill and Graves did to clean up these recordings might be the stuff of alchemy 'cause I very nearly ran my car off the road while I got transfixed by how sharp and clear album tracks like "Blue Moon" and "Take Care" now sounded.

Following the track listing on the original white label test pressing used to shop this album to labels in the Seventies, Pawelski and the Omnivore crew have then put the remaining finished studio takes on the end of the third disc. The effect works, preserving the pleasures of so many earlier versions of this classic record while shining a light on the corners of the work that bad mixes had hidden before. The bright pseduo-Christmas anthem of "Jesus Christ" is even brighter, those piano runs bolder, and Stephens' Ringo-isms even more enjoyable. And if "O, Dana" had an odd Dylan lurch, it's got more of one now. Heard here, one could even be so brave as to state that "Nighttime" is the bridge between the late-period chamber pop of the Beatles filtered into something new, something uniquely American that would inform so much of what was to be revered in the Eighties (R.E.M., The Replacements, Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter).

But look, there's no getting around "Kanga Roo" on this one. Breathtakingly beautiful in this new version, I finally find myself loving the original version as much, if not more than, as I love the cover by This Mortal Coil. And recalling the impressionable 19-year-old I was in 1986 whose world was changed by stuff on the 4AD label, those are big words for me to write. Somehow not as much of a downer as "Holocaust", "Kanga Roo" is sublime, the equal always to what one-time Big Star mate Chris Bell would record on "You and Your Sister", Bell the McCartney to Chilton's Lennon, even outside the confines of the group proper. Frankly, this entire set is worth purchasing simply to hear this one for the first time (seemingly).

I gush a lot on this site. I'm prone, obviously, to hyperbole. And the downside of that is that I sometimes worry readers won't take it seriously when I do genuinely rave about something. And yet I hope it comes through how revolutionary this set is. Complete Third offers a way to reassess the legacy of a band who've had more than their share of reassessments. If nothing else, by presenting all the demos and rough mixes that pointed the way to whatever version of Third you already own, Complete Third offers a glimpse into the creation of this art that was so unfairly tagged with the difficult tag for so long. Really, this is remarkably simple and direct rock-and-roll and for all the odd bits on something a tiny bit cryptic like "Kanga Roo", the crystalline genius of Chilton and Stephens is there, ringing clear as a bell through your speakers.

So Complete Third by offering up so much beyond the album itself opened a new window on this act. And the mix of this record on Disc 3 is so fundamentally sharper than any you've heard and loved before that I can say that you should offer up a massive thanks to these folks for attempting this.

It's not very often you can buy something that lets you relive the joy of hearing something special for the first time. Complete Third does. If it's even possible to, you'll probably love Big Star a little bit more after playing this one.

The enormously essential Complete Third by Big Star is out on Friday from Omnivore Recordings.