Monday, October 2, 2017

CD Review: Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos (2017)

Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos
Perhaps desiring to make his own music outside of the long shadow of Alex Chilton, Big Star co-founder Chris Bell left the Memphis cult band after the 1972 release of their debut album #1 Record. A classic slab of rock ‘n’ roll wax, the album’s influential, ahead-of-their-time power-pop tunes penned by Bell and Chilton sold poorly at the time and only after years of retrospection has #1 Record earned its legendary status. As co-writer of many of the album’s songs, as well as one of the band’s two singers and guitarists, Bell’s fingerprints are all over #1 Record and he was an integral part of the early Big Star sound.

After his departure from the band, Bell released only two songs before his tragic, accidental death in 1978 at the age of 27 years – “I Am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister” appeared as a single on Chris Stamey’s (The dB’s) Car Records label. Bell had also recorded several songs at the Château D’Hérouville in Paris as well as at Shoe Studios and Ardent Studios in his hometown of Memphis. Some of this material was released by Rykodisc in 1992 as the critically-acclaimed I Am the Cosmos CD; an expanded 2009 reissue nearly doubled the tracklist, adding alternative mixes and a handful of Bell’s pre-Big Star recordings. The Omnivore reissue of I Am the Cosmos offers the definitive version of this pop-rock gem, expanding upon the previous two releases by adding another ten tracks to the two-disc set, eight of them previously-unreleased and the other two only ever released on long out-of-print vinyl.

Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos

Bell’s scattered solo material largely follows the same melodic framework that he helped build with Alex Chilton for Big Star. The album’s title track and Bell’s lone single, “I Am the Cosmos” is a lofty, psych-drenched mid-tempo stunner with gorgeous miasmic guitars and wistful vocals. The B-side, “You and Your Sister,” is a gentle, pastoral, folk-drenched pop song with yearning lyrics and elegant fretwork with minimal backing. There are a lot of similarly mesmerizing moments on I Am the Cosmos, from the haunting beautiful guitar strum and wan vocals of “Speed of Sound” to the ethereal vocals afforded “Look Up,” a spiritual ballad with lovely acoustic guitar and lush instrumentation courtesy of an unnamed Mellotron player.

Bell was than a mere folkie balladeer, though. “Better Save Yourself” is a muscular, mid-tempo rocker with flaring guitars (reminding of Neil Young) and self-confident, hard-hitting drums. “Get Away” offers clattering vocals, piercing fretwork and feedback-tinged cacophony, resembling Big Star on steroids while “I Got Kinda Lost” is a clamorous pop-rock treat with hardy riffs, muffled vox, and cascades of percussion reminiscent of Cheap Trick’s best stuff. “Make A Scene” is the sort of cockeyed inventive and influential pop-rock gem that Big Star delivered with Bell’s scorching guitars accompanied by Ken Woodley’s bass and drummer Richard Rosebrough’s syncopated rhythms while “Fight At the Table” is a Beale Street-flavored, honky tonk-tinged number highlighted by Jim Dickinson’s raucous piano-pounding, former bandmate Andy Hummel’s steady bass line, and Carl Marsh’s raging saxophone.

The bonus disc accompanying I Am the Cosmos offers fans a wealth of alternative takes and various remixes mostly of interest to the Big Star completist. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few treasures to be found in the grooves, though…an extended version of “I Am the Cosmos” sounds like a DJ Screw production with drawled, trippy vocals, guitar solos, and an overall heavy lysergic vibe. Bell teams up with fellow Memphis music legend Keith Sykes on his “Stay With Me,” the innate chemistry of the two artists creating an ambitious mix of country twang and popish rock with angelic vocals; Bell’s guitar solo on the song is short but effective. A song featuring singer Nancy Bryan, “In My Darkest Hour,” is strangely alluring with Bryan’s sonorous vocals accompanied by only Bell’s fleet guitar playing. Bell reunites with Chilton for the studio outtake “Get Away,” a spirited instrumental with scraps of surf guitar, blustery drumbeats, and a fractured six-string solo or two to puncture the chaos.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The Complete Chris Bell
The time is right for a critical reappraisal of Chris Bell’s small but notable body of work, as well as rediscovery of this tragic talent by a new generation of fans. Earlier this year, Omnivore released Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, a 22-track collection that features Bell’s early recordings with Memphis bands like the Wallabys, Rock City, and Icewater. In November 2017, the label will be releasing a massive six-album vinyl LP set that collects everything from Looking Forward and I Am the Cosmos along with a previously-unreleased interview with the artist.

As for Bell’s I Am the Cosmos, the album is a treasure, a masterful melding of melodic pop/rock, folkish sincerity, and rock ‘n’ roll energy that makes one wonder why it took almost 15 years after Bell’s death before these songs would be released on CD. At the end of the ‘70s, a Chris Bell solo album may have faced the same indignities as Big Star’s previous attempts at grabbing the brass ring, but as shown by I Am the Cosmos, the man had some great creative ideas, spinning gold from imagination and leaving behind some timeless, classic rock music. Grade: B+ (Omnivore Recordings, released September 15, 2017)

Buy the CD from Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos

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