Omnivore Recordings has kept the flame for Big Star burning brightly in recent years as the label continues to plumb the depths of the cult band’s story from various angles. Two recent releases shed light on the solo works of Big Star’s late musical heroes Alex Chilton and Chris Bell: an expanded reissue of Chilton’s 1995 solo album A Man Called Destruction; and an updated, expanded version of Bell’s I Am the Cosmos.
The second album since Chilton’s 1993 solo “comeback” Clichés, A Man Called Destruction is a jaunty grab-bag of originals and covers, all rendered in the singular, soulful voice of The Box Tops and Big Star. Recorded in the familiar environs of Memphis’ Ardent Studios and self-produced by the artist, Destruction is somewhat akin to Radio Chilton, playing the real and imagined hits of the early days of rock-and-roll.
Its intentionally dry sound captures, naturally, Chilton and his guitar, as well as a crack rhythm section and horns. Though the sound of the record is loose and freewheeling, the liner notes by journalist Bob Mehr reveal that the sessions were actually quite deliberately planned (with the horn parts even premeditated rather than improvised in Chilton’s usual custom).
The specter of Big Star is nowhere to be found on the originals here. A Man Called Destruction largely trades in that group’s ’60s Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys influences for an earlier R&B/rock-and-roll sound. The ode to a “Devil Girl” is Chilton at his most lyrically quirky and irreverent, and the closing trio of songs (“You’re Lookin’ Good,” the slow-burning blues “Don’t Know Anymore,” and uptempo “Baby, Don’t Stop” – the latter perhaps the closest item here to a Big Star song, with its crunchy guitar licks) is happily ragged and raucous. A pair of instrumental tracks adds further color to the LP. “It’s Your Funeral” is a New Orleans-style dirge, while the rockabilly-meets-jazz original “Boplexity” offers great interplay between Chilton’s guitar and Charles Hodges’ B3 organ.
Chilton sounds at his most relaxed on the selection of cover songs, from the New Orleans staple “Sick and Tired” to Jimmy Reed’s bluesy “You Don’t Have to Go.” Penned by Clichés producer Keith Keller, “Lies” melds a hook-y, garage melody with an R&B groove, female background vocals, and insinuating brass. Danny Pearson’s “What’s Your Sign, Girl” (first recorded by Pearson in 1978 as produced by Barry White!) is given a droll and laconic reading by Chilton, sounding more youthful than he did on the original, gritty Box Tops records two and a half decades earlier. Chilton, who wore his Beach Boys influences on his sleeve for much of his career, takes Jan and Dean’s “New Girl in School” (co-written by Brian Wilson) up a notch. The most offbeat choice on Destruction is Adriano Celentano’s 50s rock-and-roller “l Ribelle,” which Chilton gamely sang in Italian.
A generous complement of seven previously unreleased bonus tracks concludes the album. Among these are three alternates of album tracks and four outtakes, including a trio of Chilton compositions. All of the original songs would have fit comfortably in the album sequence (“Give It to Me Baby,” the goofy rocker “You’re My Favorite,” and “Please Pass Me My Walking Shoes”) as would have another energetic cover in the form of “(I Don’t Know Why I Love You) But I Do.” The latter is clearly unfinished, with Chilton’s vocal dropping out and disappearing, but it’s a nice inclusion nonetheless. Ditto for a charming work-in-progress take on “Why Should I Care/It’s Your Funeral” (the latter of which made the final album cut)
Chris Bell‘s life was curtailed even more tragically when he perished in a car accident in 1978 at the age of 27. Only one solo single was released in his lifetime, but “I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister” was simply too good to languish in obscurity. Once the cult of Big Star cemented Bell’s place in pop history, the time was ripe to explore the odds and ends Bell had left behind outside of his now-famous band. In 1992, Rykodisc assembled I Am the Cosmos, creating the true solo album that eluded Bell in his all-too-short lifetime. That landmark release, with twelve proper songs and three bonus alternate versions, was revisited in 2009 on Rhino Handmade. That edition made the Cosmos even larger, with a total of 27 tracks on two CDs. Now, on the heels of the recent Bell anthology Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, Omnivore has released the third distinctive version of Cosmos, with 35 songs on two discs (eight of which are previously unissued).
It’s clear that Bell was a creature of the studio, despite his all-too-short lifetime. Tracks on Cosmos were recorded at Memphis’ Ardent Studios and Shoe Productions as well as in France at the “Honky Chateau” and in London at AIR Studios with none other than Geoff Emerick at the controls. Musically, these are very “produced’ tracks, showing an artist with a keen interest in exploring the craft of record-making rather than just rolling tape. His session collaborators, including Ken Woodley, Richard Rosebrough, Jack Holder, Jim Dickinson, Bill Cunningham, and a string section all worked to bring his musical visions to life.
The original 12-song album assembly still works beautifully, capturing a pop artist at his most intensely personal. The title song expresses an intimate despair on a grand scale, and indeed, a haunting strain of melancholy runs through compositions like “Speed of Sound,” “Better Save Yourself,” and the pained “There is a Light.” The latter, like the British Invasion-recalling “I Got Kinda Lost,” both feature Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel joining Bell – in other words, Big Star minus Alex Chilton. But Chilton is here, too, singing on the pretty, tender ballad “You and Your Sister,” and adding guitar to the hard-rocking lament of romantic agony, “Get Away.” (A solo acoustic “You and Your Sister,” equally tender but lacking Chilton’s intuitive harmony, is presented among the copious bonus material. Other versions of the track include the “country” mix made at AIR Studios minus most of the final overdubs.) Tracks like the latter and especially “I Don’t Know” channel Bell’s contributions to Big Star. Spirituality infuses the gentle “Look Up” and heavy, dirge-like “Better Save Yourself,” while “Though I Know She Lies” is a gorgeous singer-songwriter lament with slide guitar that can’t help but be redolent of George Harrison.
Most of these songs are presented in various mixes and stages of development on the two CDs. Of the illuminating extras premiering on Omnivore’s edition, an acoustic mix of “I Am the Cosmos” preserves the song’s mystique while making the listener feel even closer to the singer’s primal distress. Another version of the backing track has the added color of a prominent piano (from an unknown player), absent from the final take. “Look Up” trades its baroque mood for that of rawness on its “acoustic movie mix.” The backing track of the alternate “Speed of Sound” puts in focus the tight interplay between Bell, Woodley, and Rosebrough. Backing tracks are also included for “Get Away” and “Better Save Yourself.” The alternate track of “Fight at the Table” exposes the experimentation that went into crafting each track (and particularly shows off the rollicking piano). “Though I Know She Lies” is every bit as shimmering in its sparse “movie mix.”
Both A Man Called Destruction and I Am the Cosmos have been remastered for superior sound quality by Michael Graves, and include fine liner notes by Bob Mehr. Additional notes in Cosmos are provided by Alec Palao. (Both writers have updated and expanded their original essays from the 2009 Rhino Handmade release.) Omnivore will next bring Chris Bell’s story to vinyl with the November vinyl release of The Complete Chris Bell, containing the material on the expanded I Am the Cosmos among its treasures. (The original 12-track album is available now as a standalone release.) Omnivore’s top-notch reissues see that the sounds of Memphis as envisioned by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell continue to reverberate, influence, and inspire.
Both titles are available now at the links below!
Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction: Expanded Edition
Chris Bell, I Am the Cosmos: Expanded Edition