Chris Bell (RIP)


Band members                             Related acts

- Chris Bell (RIP 1978) -- vocals, guitar

 

  backing musicians:

- Alex Chilton - vocals

- Jim Dickinson -- piano

- Richard Rosebrough -- drums

- Jody Stephens -- drums

- Ken Woodley -- bass, organ

 

 

Big Star

- Icewater

- The Jynx

- Rock City

 

 

 


 

Genre: pop

Rating: 4 stars ****

Title:  I Am the Cosmos

Company: 4 Men with Beards

Catalog: 4M142
Year:
 2007

Country/State: Memphis, Tennessee

Grade (cover/record): NM/NM

Comments: sealed copy

Available: 1

Catalog ID: 269

Price: $50.00

 

Best time to play:  In the presence of an optimistic friend, or when you're in a happy mood - playing this when you're depressed might simply push you over the edge

 

I clearly remember taking an extended lunch break in order to buy "I Am the Cosmos" when it came out on Rykodisc CD back in 1992 (showing my age here).  I'd been a big Alex Chilton fan for years (I'm old enough to remember hearing 'The Letter' on the radio), and had previously discovered Big Star.  The connection between Bell and Big Star made this a natural purchase for me.  Unlike everyone else in the universe, I wasn't bowled over by the results.  I remember giving the CD a couple of spins and that was basically the end of the story.  I guess having expected to hear more Big Star, these tracks simply didn't sink in with me. The CD has sat in a box for the last twenty-plus years.

 

Anyhow, last year I was at a community yard sale and stumbled across a copy of the 4 Men with Beards vinyl release.  The price was right and since I'd never seen the vinyl issue before, I grabbed it wondering if my initial thoughts and impressions would have mellowed over the ensuing years.

 

I'm a Big Star fan, but no expert on the band's tortured history, or Chris Bell's life.  I think the songs that ended up on the posthumous "I Am the Cosmos" were largely demos recorded in France where he spent some time after leaving Big Star and with friends and former band mates during the 1973-78 timeframe that marked the time between his departure from Big Star and his death in a car accident.  (Only 27, Bell died driving home from his father's restaurant, when he crashed his TR-7 sports car into a light pole).  I'm no psychologist and certainly don't have any great people skills (my wife will tell you I have the empathy of a brick), but I'm sensitive enough to recognize most people have to face trials in the lives and Bell was no exception to the rule.  Apparently prone to bouts of depression, by the time he was recording these songs Bell was trying to deal with professional and personal set backs.  The failure of the first Big Star album to sell was apparently a devastating event.  He was also dealing with a nasty heroin habit, while trying to reconcile his alternative lifestyle with his religious beliefs.  (I suspect being gay in '70s Memphis, Tennessee was probably not a particularly enjoyable experience.)  Yeap, it must have made for one big personal mess and those demons seemingly show on stark and despairing numbers like the title track, 'Speed of Sound' and 'Though I Know She Lies'.   At the same time, Bell's life long love of a good pop hook and rock song came roaring through many of these tracks (check out 'Get Away' and 'Make a Scene').  The album was certainly diverse and occasionally troubling (you had to feel for Bell's internal issues), but ultimately rewarding to the listener.  You also had to wonder what this collection could have sounded like had Bell been given the resources to turn out a true album rather than what was essentially a compilation of miscellaneous material.

 

- Even though it always sounded unfinished to my ears (Bell's quivery vocals sounded very much like a demo), there was no denying 'I am the Cosmos' was a top notch pop song with one of those lost-in-love lyrics that everyone has experienced at one time or another.   With a Big Star/Badfinger pop feel, the song had one of those melodies that crept into your head and wouldn't leave.  It also sported a fantastic guitar solo.  The song was actually released on Chris Stamey's short-lived New York-based Car label as a single shortly before Bell's death:  

 

  

 

- 1978's 'I am the Cosmos' b/w 'You and Your Sister' (Car catalog number CRR6)  rating: **** stars

- My pick for the album's stand out performance, 'Better Save Yourself' had it all going ...  great melody, loads of fuzzed up jangle guitar, and a Lennon-esque vocal that was almost as likeable as anything Alex Chilton ever did.  The song's religious-tinged lyric was also interesting.  Killer tune.   rating: ***** stars

- Probably the album's prettiest song (the multi-tracked vocals were mesmerizing), the stark 'Speed of Sound' captured the heartbreak of one sided love better than virtually any song I've ever heard.  The cheesy synthesizer and Caribbean touches were simply icing on the cake.   rating: **** stars

- Anyone who thought Bell was only capable of sensitive singer/songwriter material only needed to check out the blazing 'Get Away'.   Even though it sounded very much like an incomplete demo, the basic song was a fantastic rocker with some of the strangest and most overwhelming drumming you've ever heard.   rating: **** stars

- One of his best known songs, 'You and Your Sisters' was originally released as the 'B' side to his debut single.   A stark, but beguiling ballad, this one was as good as anything he'd written for Big Star (in fact you can hear Alex Chilton on the chorus and backing vocals).  You just had to wonder how it got hidden away on a 'B' side.  rating: **** stars

- Sonically one of the best sound performances, powered by some tasty slashing electric guitar and Bell's weird, treated vocals, 'Make a Scene' was another album highlight - in this case a Badfinger-ish power pop tune that would have made one helluva' a single.   rating: **** stars

- Built on a wonderful acoustic, folky melody, 'Look Up' was one of the album's most commercial tunes.  Bell's lovely multi-tracked voice and hopeful, pseudo-religious lyrics were breath-taking.  A song for non-believers who want to believe and a song I never get tired of hearing.   rating: ***** stars

- A mid-tempo rocker, powered by the album's best guitar solo, 'There was a Light' was one of the tracks that grew on me over time.  Big Star actually recorded an even better version of the song that can be found on the 'Keep An Eye On The Sky' boxed set.  rating: **** stars  (The Big Star version gets five stars) 

- Not sure what the bass effect was (it sounded like it was being played underwater), but it gave 'Fight At the Table' a surprisingly funky, bar-band feel.  rating: *** stars

- The most Big Star-ish song on the collection, 'I Don't Know' was a wonderful pop-pop song with a glistening melody, acres of jangle rock guitars, one of Bell's toughest vocals, and enough energy for a stadium.   It would  have slotted perfectly on to either of the first too Big Star albums.    rating: **** stars

- A pretty and heartbreaking acoustic ballad, 'Though I Know She Lies' was another one of those songs heartbroken folks should probably stay away from ...  Always loved the George Harrison-styled slide guitar at the end of the song (which added an extra star to the rating).  rating: **** stars

 

So what do I think twenty years later ?   Well about all I can say is I was dead wrong the first time around.  How the album's charms initially escaped me is beyond grasp.  Shame I wasted twenty years before discovering what a great LP this is.  Hopefully it won't take you as long to make the same discovery.

 

"I Am the Cosmos" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) I am the Cosmos   (Chris Bell) - 3:46

2.) Better Save Yourself   (Chris Bell) - 4:25

3.) Speed of Sound   (Chris Bell) - 5:11

4.) Get Away   (Chris Bell) - 3:26

5.) You and Your Sister   (Chris Bell) - 3:11

6.) Make a Scene   (Chris Bell) - 4:09

 

(side 2)

1.) Look Up   (Chris Bell) - 3:14

2. I Got Kinda Lost   (Chris Bell) - 2:42

3.) There was a Light   (Chris Bell) - 3:19

4.) Fight At the Table    (Chris Bell) - 3:41

5.) I Don't Know   (Chris Bell) - 3:22

6.) Though I Know She Lies   (Chris Bell) - 3:35

 

 

If you've got the financial resources, in 2009 Rhino Handmade released an extended, remastered, double CD version of the album.  The extended version included an extensive booklet written by David Bell, various alternative takes, additional material and three tracks from Bell's pre-Big Star career.

 

 

 

 

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