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Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009

Big Star

Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino)

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Their name couldn’t have been more optimistic or revealing. Big Star wasn’t conceived as an art project or an alternative to anything, but as a band following the pop-rock line first drawn by the Beatles and other great ‘60s groups. But the star they were born under in the early ‘70s was not a sign of success, at least when measured in sales and airplay. As noted in one of several perceptive essays in the booklet accompanying the four-CD career retrospective, Keep an Eye on the Sky, the Memphis band suffered from a series of fatal snafus involving labels and distribution.

Their records never found their way to the mainstream, or even into many record stores, but into the hands of musicians and collectors. During the ‘80s they became a posthumous influence on everyone from REM and Cheap Trick to the dBs and the Replacements. Their failure in the marketplace became a badge of integrity and the rarity of their recordings only enhanced their importance in High-Fidelity circles where obscurity was cool.

After psychedelia, rock reached a fork in the road. Where many bands went down the heavier path toward metal, Big Star followed the pop direction of Badfinger and the Raspberries. The Beatles were certainly an inspiration, but Big Star’s songs also echoed the Byrds and sometimes had a country-rock guitar accent. A track from their 1971 debut album, “The India Song,” heard on Keep an Eye in two alternate versions, sounds closer to Traffic with its acoustic guitar-mellotron mix. Big Star could rock, but some of their softer songs would not have sounded out of place on AM radio alongside America and Bread. However, the Top-40 was nowhere in reach for Big Star, who recorded three albums before disappearing into an unanticipated, subterranean level of cult success. They became one of the great paradoxes of ‘70s rock, the unpopular pop band.

Aside from tracks and alternate mixes from Big Star’s trio of LPs, Keep an Eye on the Sky collects sketchy early demos, Chris Bell’s post-Star and a full disc of live recordings. Anyone who ever cared about the band (and their number has grown through the years) will want this lavishly produced set.