Keep an Eye on the Sky
As the object of intense devotion for so many fans, it's fitting that Big Star receive a box set designed for the intensely devoted: four discs containing every song the band cut in the '70s, often present in slightly alternate mixes or versions in addition to the originals, a clutch of solo songs from both Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, as well as a handful of pre-Big Star cuts by Icewater and Rock City, all topped off with a live disc culled from a three-set stint at Memphis' Lafayette's Music Room in January of 1973, not long after Bell left the band. Excepting subsequent reunions in the '90s and 2000s, no corner of the band's career remains untouched on Keep an Eye on the Sky and rarities are abundant, with 55 of its 98 tracks previously unreleased. This is a staggering statistic but it's also misleading, for 20 of those cuts are from the live disc and the rest are either alternate mixes, alternate versions, or demos -- there are no unheard songs, aside from an excerpt of Rock City's "The Preacher." Of these, only a handful are markedly different either in their lyrics or attack, with all finding the songs and even arrangements essentially intact, even in their demo form. Consequently, Keep an Eye on the Sky contains fewer revelations than it initially appears, which isn't to say it lacks any: the earliest demos for 3rd are by and large lighter in tone than the album (although there's no way "Holocaust" ever could seem cheery), a testament to how much a song can change during the recording process.
In a way, all of Big Star's career is a testament to the recording process. They were a creature of the studio, not stage, having free rein at Ardent Studios, where they stayed up into the next morning tinkering at the same set of songs. This resulted in the crisp, sterling sound of #1 Record and the deliberately looser Radio City, as well as the sliding, sprawling mess of 3rd, but it didn't result in outtakes -- it resulted in alternate mixes and instrumental scraps, the stuff that enthralls fetishists, sometimes justifiably so. Those are the listeners who will find Keep an Eye on the Sky most rewarding, but anybody who has loved the band will find something to cherish here, whether it's the crackerjack live show -- which provides roaring covers of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Hot Burrito #2," T. Rex's "Baby Strange," and Todd Rundgren's "Slut" (later revived 20 years later on their reunion concert), as well as a startlingly effective take on "The India Song" -- or merely the context of the set, which tells the story of America's greatest cult band this side of the Velvet Underground in a complete and affecting fashion.