The first thought I had putting on disc one in the new six LP set -- called The Complete Chris Bell from Omnivore Recordings -- compiling pretty much all the known recordings by Big Star co-founder Chris Bell: this is the way this music was meant to be heard...
Don't get me wrong. I reviewed and enjoyed the deluxe edition two CD set of Bell's now-classic posthumous release, I Am The Cosmos, issued earlier this year. But I held off on tackling the CD release of Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star until I got my hands on the six LP super deluxe box set LP edition which breaks out this material into unique album experiences. I'm glad I did. The LP version is a better way to hear this music and here's why: sequencing, pacing and in some instances, fidelity...
The version of Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star included in The Complete Chris Bell boxed set boasts a different track running order than the CD. For some reason on the CD they juggled the music -- which was recorded at different sessions over varying time periods -- perhaps to put songs which the producer felt were strongest at the start of the disc. This is understandable, that is a common CD convention. However, when I played the corresponding music on the LP in the boxed set (again, called Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star) it all made much more sense, grouping the earliest tracks by Chris Bell's first "bands" -- assemblages dubbed Icewater and The Wallabys -- together. Most importantly, the songs sound more of an entity as early raw productions; this was the time period when Chris Bell was learning his recording studio craft.
The more polished 1971 tracks credited to Rock City are here collected on their own LP within The Complete Chris Bell boxed set called See Seven States. Again, this music just flows better together than the more jarring playlist on the CD. In this presentation, these recordings feel like a real album, much in the way that I Am The Cosmos feels like a real album (even though it too was compiled posthumously).
There are two separate discs for all the outtakes and such found on the bonus discs of the two CD set for I Am The Cosmos as well as a 1975 interview disc exclusive to this set. You also get a nice LP sized booklet with copious liner notes including interviews with musicians who performed on the recordings back in the day. There are also included download code cards for each LP to satisfy your mobile listening needs.
Reviewing The Complete Chris Bell gave me an opportunity to do a little (decidedly non-scientific) comparison / contrast between the included standard weight black vinyl LP version of I Am The Cosmos -- the centerpiece of this new set and arguably Chris Bell's master work -- and the clear vinyl version which came out earlier this year. Both sound quite good. However, this is one of those instances where the black vinyl version actually does sound better than the clear vinyl version I bought. Colored vinyl is bit of a nit for many an audiophile who feel that these novel pressings are compromised and always noisier than black vinyl. I've never completely bought into that concept because so much depends on the pressing plant where the discs are made, quality controls and even the quality of the vinyl used. I own some fantastic sounding colored vinyl records (and at least one picture disc that sounds great!). That said, there was a noticeable difference in the sound between the clear and black vinyl versions of I Am The Cosmos, with the black version getting the nod for its warmer overall feel and lower noise-floor.
That is not to say that all the black vinyl in this set was perfect -- the Rock City See Seven States album came on a somewhat blotchy looking disc that was a bit on the noisy side. Also, Side Two of the disc is a bit off center which only raised its ugly head for me toward the end of the album on those long held breaks on "Shine On Me." Thankfully, the off center issue didn't impact the other tracks, especially the previously unreleased early version of "Try Again," a gorgeous acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar prayer closing out the disc, which ultimately ended up on the first Big Star album, #1 Record in a revised form. Fortunately, none of this was a huge deal breaker for me but since this is a critical review, I have to acknowledge that there were some issues -- your experience may well vary! Otherwise, all in all the music sounds pretty amazing on this disc with lots of big guitar tones, big drums (courtesy of future Big Star drummer Jody Stephens), lush vocals and rich harmonies.
For some additional perspective, I cued up some of these tracks from the streaming version of the Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star collection, available via the Tidal subscription music service, and they sound pretty solid in all their CD-quality splendor.
Now, some of you are probably wondering where you can get this set. Well, it is designed to be a Record Store Day exclusive item so you will need to get up out of your person cave to walk, run, crawl, drive, bike, skate or fly to your favorite physical, brick and mortar, music store to find this limited edition gem. After Black Friday it will be available by mail order on the Omnivore Records website.
The Complete Chris Bell is a well made, loving collection. If you are a fan of Big Star, you'll want to grab this for sure.