Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Track Attack- "You and Your Sister (Acoustic Version)" (Chris Bell)

If I was handed a guitar and told I could play one song to win over the woman I loved, I already know what I'd pick. In fact, I've known for several years now. From the first time I heard the carefully plucked guitar of Chris Bell's "You and Your Sister (Acoustic Version)" I knew full well it was a love-song that I could never turn my back on. The kind I could never shake, no matter what. A track often capable of communicating my own feelings better than I could. There have been times that I’ve stammered when I’ve tried to articulate my sweeping feelings of love and affection. I'll go off course and repeat a point I've already made. Or worse yet, I will forget a point entirely. The last is by far and away the worst because it readily translates to regret. If the exchange goes poorly, you can blame your failure on the omission for as long as you'd like.

"You and Your Sister (Acoustic Version)" has no regrets. It's a romantic ballad worthy of being called "economically-precise." Bell keeps the track under three minutes and only allows for acoustic guitar. Within the first 20 seconds of the song, he's reassuring an unnamed subject just how real the incredibly abstract idea of love is for him. The central conceit comes out immediately after the assurance: "all I want to do is to spend some time with you." There's no subtext or ulterior motives. No decoding needs to be done. The wish is as "simple" as Bell's facile whine. And when you boil down your "big speech" to a single declaration, regret and disappointment begin to dissipate.

Granted, regret and disappointment were never far from Bell's real life. His "big-break" came as an invaluable member of Memphis power-pop quartet Big Star. Still in the throes of Beatlemania, Bell formed the group in 1971 with Alex Chilton and fellow Icewater members Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. Less than a year later, the group's debut release #1 Record was out through the influential southern-Soul label Stax. Almost immediately it was hailed in critical circles as a classic, where every song could "be a single" as Billboard decreed. 

Critical praise doesn't always translate to commercial success though and that is bitterly true of#1 Record. The album sold less than 10,000 copies in its initial run, a small-showing largely attributable to the soul-oriented Stax not knowing how to handle the pop-minded band. From all accounts, Bell put more effort into the LP's overall sound than anyone else in Big Star and when #1 Record tanked, he was particularly devastated. Worsening drug and alcohol problems, coupled with lifelong depression and a rumored jealousy of Chilton (whose "Thirteen" is the effort most closely associated with the album) hastened Bell's speedy exit from the group he'd formed.

On his own, Bell quickly began recording demos at Memphis' Ardent Studios without much materializing. The initial version of "You and Your Sister", which served as a B-side to Bell's deeply spiritual "I Am the Cosmos", reunited Bell with Chilton in a "duet" over lithe orchestral strings and sonorous bass. However, the instrumental flourishes aren't all that separates the original from its acoustic counterpart. In the original, Bell and Chilton mordantly croon together "plans fail every day," knowing full-well their own record dreams offer proof. Those failures lead to dark fears which dot "You and Your Sister"'s otherwise pristine landscape. The song's lyrical failures became more literal when Bell issued the single through the small Car Records imprint in 1978 and it failed to land. By this time, Bell was working at his father Vernon's restaurant and wandering through a valley of depression; the single's non-showing was just the latest disappointment.

Not long after, Bell's doubts, disappointments, and regrets left for good when he was involved in a fatal car accident on December 27, 1978 at the age of 27. All he could lay claim to was about a dozen songs he'd managed to cobble together throughout the 70s. None would see official release until 1992 as I Am the Cosmos. There "You and Your Sister (Acoustic Version)" first appeared; serving as a poignant epilogue to Bell's fitful career. Far more than the original, the alternate offering portrays Bell in his best and frankly most honest light. He's not concerned about failed plans or false starts. Worrying is the furthest thing from his mind. Freed from the bass and strings, with only that crystalline acoustic to guide him, Bell’s fully able to articulate his point. All he wants is "a little time." Time to show how ceaselessly he loves, how much he cares. Time to convince a skeptical sister. Time to waste a day lost in the embrace of another. Time he never got in his all-too-brief life.

If you have suggestions for songs you want to see featured in future editions of Track Attack, feel free to leave them in the comment section.

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