Big Star

Complete Third

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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming

By all rights, the album that came to be known as Big Star's Third should have been a disaster. It was written and recorded in 1975, when Alex Chilton's brilliant but tragically overlooked band had all but broken up. As Chilton pondered his next move, he was drinking and drugging at a furious pace while writing a handful of striking tunes that were often beautiful but also reflected his bitterness and frustration with his career (and the music business in general). Production of the album wasn't completed so much as it simply stopped, and none of the major figures involved ever decided on a proper sequence for the finished songs, or even a title. (The album was also known as Sister Lovers and Beale Street Green at various times.) And yet, Third has won a passionate and richly deserved cult following over the years, drawn in by the emotional roller coaster ride of the songs, informed by equal parts love, loss, rage, fear, hope, and defeat. The chaotic circumstances behind the making of Third is the stuff of legend, and Omnivore Recordings has delivered the definitive aural document on how it came to be with Complete Third, which gathers all the surviving elements from the sessions, from the first monophonic voice-and-guitar recording of "Like St. Joan" (later known as "Kanga Roo") to the 20 final tracks that became the basis of the various versions of the album. The first disc is primarily devoted to demos, and the clarity and focus of Chilton's solo performances are a fascinating contrast with the loopier feel of the later recordings with his session band. As the set makes its way through the recording sessions and rough mixes on disc two, it's clear that Chilton was the guiding light throughout, but he was very well served by his collaborators, especially producer Jim Dickinson, arranger Carl Marsh, and slide guitarist Lee Baker. While the tunes sometimes sound like they're on the verge of collapse on disc two, the final mixes on disc three (remastered and sounding better than ever) are stunning; from the wobbly baroque beauty of "Stroke It Noel" and the sweet nocturnal longing of "Blue Moon" to the bitterly dashed hopes of "Holocaust" and the wounded but impassioned defiance of "You Can't Have Me," the pieces hold together with remarkable strength despite the confusion of their creation. The liner notes from Bud Scoppa and the memories of a wealth of friends, participants, and admirers provide invaluable background on the making of Third and its long road from obscurity to classic status. And while some of the tracks suffer from irreparable anomalies, Adam Hill and Michael Graves have done heroic work with the audio for this set. Complete Third doesn't solve every mystery associated with this album -- that task is all but impossible -- but it's an outstanding, obsessive investigation into a singular work in the rock canon, and it amplifies the achievement of this damaged masterpiece.

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