A large part of Alex Chilton's reputation as a rock & roll cult hero rests on his work with the band Big Star, but many music historians conveniently forget that Chilton was the last man to join that fabled group when they came together in 1971. Prior to that, the band that would become Big Star was the brainchild of Chris Bell, and the demos that Bell cut with his ad hoc groups Icewater and Rock City document a sound and style (and even some songs) that would find full fruition on Big Star's 1972 debut album, #1 Record. Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star brings together 22 tracks that Bell cut prior to the formation of Big Star with Icewater, Rock City, and the Wallabys, and anyone who wants to know just what Bell brought to Big Star need only give this a spin to find the answers. If Chilton delivered the rough energy, fractured guitar heroics, and splendid lead vocals in Big Star, Looking Forward makes it clear Bell was the man responsible for their polished, Anglophilic melodic style, their sense of emotional drama, their rich yet unpretentious production, and guitar playing that revealed canny instincts about when to move from clean to dirty. Bell was working at Ardent Studios in Memphis when this material was cut, and Looking Forward sounds less like a set of demos and more like polished tracks for an album that for some reason never came to be. Many of these tracks resemble early drafts for what became #1 Record, while others reflect a side of Bell's imagination that didn't come out in that band, especially the hard rock moves of "The Answer" and the spiritual undercurrents in "The Preacher" and "Sunday Organ." Much of this material was previously released in 2003 under the title Rock City, but Looking Forward offers better audio and a more satisfying sequence, as well as putting the focus on Bell rather than the notion of Big Star without Chilton. If I Am the Cosmos, the outstanding collection of Bell's post-Big Star music, is the best place to experience his brilliant if tragically overlooked body of work, Looking Forward makes clear that he was already an important talent long before Big Star came together, and this music confirms Chilton, talented as he was, wasn't the only pop visionary in that great band.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming