CD Review: Big Star - Complete Third

A complete overview of the band's final album from their original run.
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By 1974, Big Star was a shadow of their former self. Co-leader Chris Bell had left after the recording of their first album #1 Record and bassist Andy Hummel left after Radio City, their second. All that remained were singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens. While critically acclaimed, neither of the group's first two albums sold well at all and Chilton, who was not in a good state of mind and who was partying a lot, had entered a tumultuous relationship with Lesa Aldridge, who contributed to the third album's sessions. Suffice to say Big Star was not in a good way when they went in to record what would become Third.

Besides Chilton and Stephens, the album relied upon several Memphis session players, including Steve Cropper, to be completed. Though "done" in 1975, the album never saw an official release (save for some early test pressings) until 1978. It has since been reissued a few times with different tracks and different running orders, a fate somehow fitting for such a disjointed album. Then something happened that no one expected -- it became highly influential. Bands such as R.E.M. and The Bangles often speak of its influence and Rolling Stone named it to its Top 500 Albums Of All Time list.

Now Omnivore has taken all of the known master tapes and compiled them in sequential order. The result is Complete Third and, for Big Star fans, it is a three-disc revelation. Much like what was done with the box for The Beach Boys' SMiLE, fans can hear the entire project from demo to final mixes or piece together their favorite version of the album.

The discs are broken down thematically, with disc one dedicated to demos to sessions to roughs, disc two being roughs to mixes and disc three the final masters. All three discs have their gems on them. Disc one opens with "Like St. Joan (Kanga Roo)", an early version of "Kanga Roo" featuring Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Chilton's voice is haunting and his playing purposeful, with the track recalling earlier brilliance such as "Thirteen." Similarly great is Chilton's demo for "Jesus Christ." Chilton was the rare performer who didn't need more than a guitar and his voice to be moving.

Some cover songs feature on disc one as well. When the vocals kick in on an unfinished "Don't Worry Baby," one immediately wished it would have been, as Chilton creates a one-man Beach Boys on this track. Chilton duets with Aldridge on a version of The Beatles' "I'm So Tired" that may be even wearier than the original version, if that's possible.

Disc two begins with a rough mix of "Big Black Car" that features a Chilton guide vocal. Even in this rough state, the track takes on a dreamy feel, with its woozy backing track and world weary vocal. Two decidedly different mixes of "Holocaust" are included here. Both are striking in their despair and show Chilton's talent, even at his lowest point.

Disc three includes the final masters and leads off with "Stroke It Noel," a country influenced track with strings and an uneven drum pattern. Chilton's voice, both here and throughout, is as compelling as ever and makes even the lesser of these songs worth a listen. Other highlights here include the George Harrison-sounding "For You" and a killer cover of The Kinks' "Till The End Of The Day."

Sadly, pretty much all of Big Star's notoriety came after the fact. While much is (rightly) said about the group's first two releases, Complete Third shows what an immensely talented group they were, even falling apart. While three discs may be a bit much for casual fans, they are a must own for those who want to truly understand this disjointed masterpiece.