A lot of Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star, out today via Omnivore Recordings, is stuff that you'll only play once. A lot of this is purely for the Big Star anoraks out there, those who hang feverishly on every scrap that Bell, Stephens, or Chilton touched. But, and this is significant, a lot of this places the music of early Big Star, especially the contributions of Chris Bell, into a context and that is enormously important.
For a lot of people of my age bracket, coming to Big Star was a sort of rite of passage in the Eighties. R.E.M. name-checked them, and The Replacements, of course, sang about them. And that meant that us kids gorging on the fruits of college rock's fertile years felt an obligation to seek out Big Star stuff. But we were listening to these albums almost in a vacuum. The crucial achievement of the fine Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star compilation is the providing of a sense of place, era, and time. We can hear here, the hard rock aspirations of Chris Bell and the guys in The Wallabys ("Feeling High"), or the psychedlic noodlings of a bunch of kids in Memphis in a band called Icewater who wanted to be the late-period Beatles ("Sunshine").
Of course, the majority of this stuff here on Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star has a Chris Bell connection so there's another angle here and that is a furtherance of the appreciation of the genius of the late Big Star member. An early version of "My Life Is Right" by Chris Bell in a band called Rock City is a good deal removed from what Big Star's version would sound like but it's still very Big Star-like and that is a blast to hear for any music fan. Elsewhere, the elegiac "The Wind Will Cry For Me" doesn't feature Chris Bell but a pre-Big Star Jody Stephens. It is a satisfying bit of chamber rock that places that Memphis act at least somewhere in the neighborhood of The Left Banke or The Cyrkle or other American groups of the same era. Still, it's the impact of Bell that we're looking for here and tracks like "Sunshine" by Icewater and "Shine On Me" by Rock City, while not written by Chris Bell, feel like Chris Bell tunes, and benefit so much from his presence that even a casual fan of Chris Bell -- and how could anyone be a "casual" fan of him, anyway? -- will find an enormous amount to love here, from the harder edges of "Think It's Time To Say Goodbye" by Rock City to the Badfinger-like "I Lost A Love" also by Rock City.
A portrait of a time and place, and a sort of who's who of those lurking around Ardent Studios in Memphis prior to the birth of Big Star, Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star is fascinating and surprisingly listenable. Spin this next to the fairly-recent Big Star compilation from Concord Music and you can almost hear all the non-Chilton bits take shape here in this compilation. Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star is a superbly-realized and compiled collection that adds the final, missing piece to the puzzle of Big Star. Even casual fans should be rejoicing over this one, and those who are already firm fans of Chris Bell will find lots to embrace here. The appreciation of his genius, already considerable, has been furthered by this set.
Looking Forward: The Roots Of Big Star is out today via Omnivore Recordings.
[Photo: Ardent Studios / Omnivore Recordings]