Friday, February 17, 2017

Chris Bell: I Am The Cosmos

In addition to the cult around Big Star, a similarly rabid one has developed around Chris Bell, who started the band and left it to Alex Chilton when megastardom didn’t come his way. Besides having an inarguable gift for songwriting, he was also fascinated with the recording process, and had the support of his family, who just wanted to see the kid happy.
He spent the years after leaving Big Star continually honing a small handful of songs, even getting to work on them outside of Memphis with the help of engineer Geoff Emerick, best known for his work with the Beatles. He would release exactly one single before fatally crashing his car into a utility pole at the unfortunate age of 27.
But those two songs made a small impact in their own way. “I Am The Cosmos” is a majestic anthem of heartbreak, with a great guitar solo to match, and a killer fade where the repeated couplet goes from “I’d really like to see you again” to “I never want to see you again”. “You And Your Sister” is very much a flipside, but not a B-side; this tender acoustic love song fits right along “Thirteen” from #1 Record, and even has Alex Chilton on harmonies.
These songs would be covered by the likes of the Posies and This Mortal Coil, and when Rykodisc began their Big Star blitz in 1992, to the label’s credit, they simultaneously released a full CD of post-Big Star recordings by Chris Bell. I Am The Cosmos is not a “lost album”, but a collection of several stabs in the studio over a few years nicely arranged into the equivalent of an LP. Some songs appear twice, in different mixes or different recordings (“Get Away” and “I Don’t Know” are basically the same song, and give the yearning “Speed Of Sound” its basic structure, though it’s not as obvious at first) and the three versions of “You And Your Sister”—the single, a solo recording and a “country version”—don’t seem like overkill.
For the most part, these songs are classic ‘70s-era power pop. “Make A Scene” has one of those rhythms that defies tapping along correctly, and the aforementioned “Get Away” and “I Don’t Know” just plain sizzle. “There Was A Light” and “I Got Kinda Lost” were Chilton-Bell songs he took when he left the band, preserved here with Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens in the rhythm section, and “Get Away” even features Alex on guitar and Jody on drums. Part of his mythology entailed his struggles with spirituality, making “Look Up” less vague than the more foreboding “Better Save Yourself”. “Fight At The Table” has a simple structure but a raucous arrangement and burbling synth, while “Though I Know She Lies”, one of his last recordings, is suitably sad.
His material was limited, and his strangled voice can be a bit much, but I Am The Cosmos is a worthy inclusion to the Big Star oeuvre, and certainly deserves to be there as much as Third does. When the rights to the band’s recordings shifted to the Rhino, I Am The Cosmos got the expanded treatment via their Handmade sidearm. This edition slightly rejigged the first 12 songs from the Ryko set on one CD, and packed a second with variations and sundry, such as the “extended alternate version” of the title track that didn’t fade before the killer couplet mentioned above. (Also, “Get Away” on the main disc still has its pyrotechnic drum effects, but also has some reverbed mumbles cluttering up the chorus.) Because they didn’t use up all the early stuff for their box set, this disc begins with some pre-Big Star tunes in their Icewater and Rock City incarnations, ending with an acoustic experiment deflated in the last seconds.
Once the Omnivore label went even deeper (and better) with their Big Star project, this album that never really existed got a second double-disc treatment. They’d already designated the pre-Big Star material to its own compilation, so this set relies mostly on alternate takes and mixes of the original “album that never really existed”, ten of which are previously unreleased. Granted, some of these mixes are modern, to highlight different aspects of the sound scape, but since he was such an incurable studio rat it’s interesting to hear all the elements.

Chris Bell I Am The Cosmos (1992)—3
2009 Rhino Handmade Deluxe Edition: same as 1992, plus 13 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)
2017 Omnivore Deluxe Edition: same as 1992, plus 20 extra tracks

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