Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chris Bell - "I Am the Cosmos" (LP Review)

Being huge fanboys, Johan, Lee, and I have had numerous discussions about Big Star, who rank with The Velvet Underground with respects to significant influence in the musical community without the corresponding commercial success (Johan even features Big Star in his technical presentations to illustrate the difference between importance and popularity).

The two main creative forces behind Big Star were Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, who were roughly comparable in their roles to McCartney & Lennon, respectively. And while the three Big Star LPs generally receive nearly perfect marks by most critics, I have to break with Lee, Johan, and other critics and confess I enjoy Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" more than any of the Big Star LPs.

That is not to say that "I Am the Cosmos" is not a flawed LP; it is really just a collection of singles and demos that was posthumously assembled & released by Rykodisc in 1992. Prior to this, the only official solo Chris Bell release was the 1978 7" "I Am the Cosmos" (on the tiny label Car Records), right before Bell's death in an automobile accident. Prior to 1992, the unreleased Chris Bell recordings had acquired a mythic reputation, similar to "Smile", "Chrome Dreams", and other lost LPs.

Because it is a compilation the quality is variable, featuring a mix of artists (including appearances by Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens from Big Star), different studios, etc. The best tracks are sublime & achingly beautiful: the title track "I Am the Cosmos" (two different versions are featured) and its original b-side "You and Your Sister" (three different versions), "Speed of Sound", "Though I Know She Lies"; even spiritual: "Look Up", "There Was A Light". The weaker songs try to emulate Big Star-style, uptempo rockers (e.g., "Make A Scene", "I Got Kinda Lost", "Fight at the Table"), and on these songs the absence of Alex Chilton is noticeable. The slower, more introspective songs work best here. Perhaps the best way to describe them is to say the LP cover art perfectly captures their essence.

Since only bassist Andy Hummel fails to make an appearance, perhaps "I Am the Cosmos" should be considered the fourth Big Star LP. And if so, I would consider it to be the best Big Star LP. I don't understand how these songs could go unreleased for so long, but at least they're available now.

Standout tracks: "I Am the Cosmos", "You and Your Sister", "Speed of Sound", "Though I Know She Lies", "Look Up", "There Was A Light"

Skip 'em tracks: "Get Away", "Make A Scene", "I Got Kinda Lost", "Fight at the Table"

Final score: 9/10.

Bonus Links: YouTube is awash with amateur covers of Chris Bell songs. Here are some of the more well-known versions:

"I Am the Cosmos": This Mortal Coil, The Posies, Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson

"You and Your Sister": This Mortal Coil

P.S. No, I'm not ignoring the role of This Mortal Coil and Big Star / Chris Bell. I'll get to it.

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