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“Chris Bell-“I Am the Cosmos” (2 disc deluxe limited edition)
Reviewer:
Wayne Klein
Studio: Rhino Handmade (available at www.rhinohandmade.com/)
Genre:
Music
Release Date:
10/09
Musicans & Producers:

Chris Bell- Lead vocals, lead guitars, steel guitar, bass, keyboards/Richard Rosebourgh- drums, percussion/Alex Hummel-bass guitar/Jody Stephens-vocals, drums, percussion/Alex Chilton-backing vocals, guitars/Kevin Woodley-bass/John Gaston-bass/Engineered by Chris Bell, Claude Harper, Peter Henderson, Geoff Emerick, Warren Wagner and John Fry/Produced by Chris Bell, Stephen Rea, Tom Eubanks-reissue produced and re-sequenced by Alex Palao/Remastered by John Fry, Kevin Nix and Larry Nix/Project Supervision: Andrew Sandoval

Review:

Big Star is the most influential band you’ve never heard of. Even more than, say, The Velvet Underground, Big Star influenced several generations of musicians even with one of the most poorly distributed debut and follow up albums of all time. ***

In the 70’s Bell founded Big Star with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel eventually adding long time friend Alex Chilton best known for his tenure leading The Box Tops during the late 1960’s and having one huge hit “The Letter”. Bell who used to say that he was born in the wrong country at the wrong time (he felt he should have been born in England and been one of The Beatles his favorite band) helped to give birth to the power-pop genre with his heartfelt, riff heavy songs. Collaborating with Chilton who had blossomed into a major talent after leaving The Box Tops, Bell and Chilton wrote either solo or together an album of material that helped redefine rock ‘n’ roll refocusing on melody, strong riffs and song structure something completely out of step with the southern world they were both raised in and out of step with their southern contemporaries (The Allman Brothers Band, Lynrd Skynrd among others). ***

Big Star was signed to Ardent which was owned by Stax. Unfortunately, Stax never really knew how to promote the band and their distribution deal with Columbia Records went through a very difficult patch which meant that “#1 Record” the band’s first release received spotty distribution even though it was critically acclaimed at the time. ***

After increasingly erratic behavior related to disappointment over the sales of the album and with conflicts between Bell and Chilton growing over their live performances/direction, Chris Bell left the band he had founded. Drifting into drugs, Bell eventually left the country with his brother David who took him on a trip to Europe to record songs for what would eventually become Chris’ only single released during his lifetime. David probably saved his brother’s life unfortunately Chris suffered from sexual confusion, self doubt and dipped back into the drug world. He eventually cleaned up his life taking on management duties for the family’s chain of restaurants and gradually reentering the world of music when he was killed in a late night car crash just after the release of his single on Car Records in 1978. The tragedy is that reportedly Bell had cleaned up his life, found Jesus and had resumed creating in the studio rehearsing a new band the night of his death. ***

In 1992 David Bell took his brother’s recordings and put together an album’s worth of material released by Ryko Records “I Am the Cosmos”. Featuring tracks recorded post-Big Star (some of the material had been written with Big Star in mind—when Bell split from the band he and Chilton split up the songs they had so there are a handful of songs that Bell had involvement with on Big Star’s second album “Radio City”) with members of his old band as well as old friends Bell had played with in the past, “I Am the Cosmos” benefited from Chris Bell’s meticulous production touches. The title track along with “You and Your Sister” was mixed by legendary Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick at Air Studios in the UK while the rest of the album featured mixes that Bell himself had supervised. It was vindication for a major talent who got lost in the wake of Big Star and found himself increasingly estranged from a music business that focused less on talent and more on how a band could be marketed. ***

This 2 disc reissue takes all the tracks (with the exception of one track—the “slow” version of “I Am the Cosmos” which is really the title track without the overdubs)from the previous Ryko release and adds a second disc of pre-Big Star recordings, demos and various songs that Bell was working on. ---

Sound:

The remaster although a bit louder than the Ryko and with some post-production compression applied sounds surprisingly good. In fact one track sounds like it has been remixed (which is a good thing since Bell’s vocal was buried in the original mix). Overall, the sound quality is exceptionally good even and, for the most part, sounds quite good for a modern remaster. ---

Extras:

The booklet features excerpts from an interview with David Bell (eschewing the book that was written by David for the previous edition) and others that knew Chris giving us a thumbnail sketch of Bell’s life prior to during and post Big Star. It’s an excellent booklet that provides a lot of information on Bell’s brief musical life. Kudos to Paleo and John Fry for the good job they did on this remaster. ***

Alex Paleo gives us notes on the various tracks for the album and for the first time we get complete players credits for the tracks (including crediting the members of Big Star for various tracks). ***

The second disc carries over the bonus tracks that were on the original single disc edition and adds a number of previously unreleased mixes/tracks as well as some that have appeared on various compilations. ***

“Looking Forward” and “Sunshine” are previously unreleased tracks from Bells’ “band” Icewater (essentially Bell and whomever he could rope into performing in the studio). “My Life is Right” later showed up on Big Star’s “#1 Record” but was performed by Bell’s previous band Rock City as well and appears here. We get alternate versions of “I Don’t Know”, “You and Your Sister”, “I Am the Cosmos” (extended version), “Speed of Sound”, “Fight at the Table”, “Make a Scene”, “Better Save Yourself”, “Get Away”, “You and Your Sister” (acoustic version) as well as a demo recorded with Nancy Bryan on lead vocals “In My Darkest Hour”, Stay with Me” with Keith Sykes and a previously unknown instrumental “Clacton Rag” which had the makings of a solid song if it had been recorded and finished by a full band.

Final Words:

Tragically Bell didn’t get the acclaim that he deserved during his lifetime. This release along with the reissue of the Big Star boxed set goes a long way to redressing that issue. Kudos must go to Ryko disc because they issued the original album which might not have ever seen the light of day if not for the devotion of David Bell. While Rhino’s reissue improves on the original release that isn’t to imply the first 1992 CD was bad—far from it. This edition though had everything that Bell had come close to finishing before his death (aside from some demos that Bell had recorded with the members of Big Star for the second album which Chris Bell in frustration and anger took out of the studio and it was never seen again). Chris Bell ended his life more at peace and in touch with himself than he was during the recording of many of these tracks and hearing this album along with the first Big Star album reminds us what a major talent Bell was. It was a major loss to his family and to music lovers everywhere. ***

Presented in a digipak with a slipcover (much like the Deluxe Editions that Universal Music Entertainment has been issuing for their artists)and for the first 1000 orders with a bonus replica of the original Car single (in a very nice package that’s probably better than the original edition), this is the ultimate edition of “I Am the Cosmos”. Available in an unnumbered limited edition “I Am the Cosmos” is essential for fans of Big Star but, more importantly, for those who love power pop. This is highly recommended.

 

 
 
 
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