Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Deluxe Edition of Chris Bell's 'I Am the Cosmos'


In the mid-seventies, Chris Bell was messing with hard drugs and Jesus and exploring his own music apart from Big Star. Like Third/Sister Lovers, Bell’s new music was troubled, sometimes preachy, sometimes a sheer mess, and almost always lovely. Although he was working with Geoff Emerick, who’d engineered so many of Bell’s beloved Beatles records, the production rarely reflected the Fabs’ polish—“Get Away” being a particularly defiant mass of echo-chamber noise. However, the melodies were consistently enchanting even as the songs were as eclectic as the jumbled production approach. Bell whipped up some bleary psychedelia (“I Am the Cosmos”), spare intimacy (“You and Your Sister”), crashing Rock & Roll (“I Got Kinda Lost”), and burbling bluesy funk (“Fight at the Table”). Bell’s recordings amounted to the finest marriage of Rock and religion since George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, another chunk of poppy testifying that even an old atheist like me can love.

Sadly, Bell only got the chance to release a mere single from his clutch of recordings before he died in a late-1978 car crash. The rest would not release until Rykodisc’s 1992 collection I Am the Cosmos. Seventeen years later, Rhino expanded that 15-track disc to a 27-track deluxe edition with tracks by Bell’s pre-Big Star groups Icewater and Rock City and numerous alternate versions and mixes of his solo material. Now Omnivore Recordings is expanding it further (though losing the Icewater and Rock City tracks, which Omnivore recently reissued on a comp called Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star) with a double-disc edition of I Am the Cosmos. The new additions include more alternate mixes, which often strip away most of the electric instrumentation to reveal simpler, cleaner renditions, and a couple of good instrumentals. These extras are nice but not as essential as the missing Icewater and Rock City tracks. Nevertheless, the core album remains an ecstatic listen in any format.
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