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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Byrds – (Untitled)

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11

Best Song: LOVER OF THE BAYOU (both versions)

I don't think anyone would have thought that in 1970, what the music world needed was a double album from the Byrds(!) with one live disc and one studio disc(!!). I'm almost surprised the immediate press reaction wasn't, "Who do they think they are? Cream?!", and for the media to leave it at that. Yeah, I guess it was clear to them as it is to me that the Byrds released this album with fairly clever timing: their commercial reputation was improving after the success of "Ballad of Easy Rider" thanks to the Easy Rider film it appeared on, and with Skip Battin on bass – a far more talented bass player than John York, as exemplified on the record – and Clarence White on lead guitar, they finally had an ensemble that could make the case of the Byrds being a pretty good rocking live band. And 1970 being a good year for live albums in general (what with both the Who's Live at Leeds and the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!), this couldn't be bad even if they tried. The studio material is a bit spottier; the story behind it is that Roger enlisted Jacques Levy (future Bob Dylan collaborator) to help write a roots music/Americana adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt as Gene Tryp (an anagram that seems like it has a non-coincidental resemblance to drummer Gene Parsons, or ex-member Gene Clark) for a Broadway show, but with that project falling through, only a handful of survivals from the project would appear on this record and the next one, with some more to rot away in the vaults.

Actually, scratch that last part. With the CD era came the opportunity for the double LP to become a double CD – under the new punny title (Untitled)/(Unissued) to mock the band's inability to decide on a title in a timely fashion one step further – giving us a taster of some outtakes from the Gene Tryp project (and presumably at least one from when the album shifted from the idea, given the lack of McGuinn/Levy credit), but also more live tracks, some of which are better than those that appeared on the 1970 release, but that more importantly create a cool book ending feeling by starting disc one and ending disc two on live notes. So, while I normally avoid discussing bonus tracks in my reviews until the end, I think it's perfectly justified to bring them up for this album.

Starting with the two live portions, I don't think the selections could have been better. There are 16 performances selected from a couple of late February 1970 shows in New York, and here they perform five classics from 1965-1967, six "classics" (with quotation marks because only one was a commercial success like the mid-'60s material) from the post-Notorious Byrd Brothers (sadly nothing from that LP), i.e. country, part of their career, and five new songs, amongst them one performance of a Gene Tryp outtake (the only original of the "new song" category) and one performance of a track with a studio equivalent on the album proper. The former two categories are decent enough, and they're pretty much what you'd expect. Perhaps sometimes the vocals are sloppier than necessary ("So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?", "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages"), but a few songs are reenergized in the vocal department ("Mr. Spaceman", where Roger seems to be jumping for joy singing this one; "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", where the vocals are more authentically country-esque), the musical department ("Nashville West", where the juiced up guitars really emphasize the "rock" in country-rock and the frenetic, almost jazzy drumming goes well with the goofy basslines, becoming a decent track rather than a lowlight), or both ("Ballad of Easy Rider", which remains beautiful as an "electric" ballad; "Jesus Is Just Alright", where the chaotic vocals add to the churchy goodness and the fuzzy instrumentation makes for some fine gospel-rock, again with emphasis on the latter half of the genre; "This Wheel's On Fire", which drops a lot of the psychedelia in the studio version but becomes a fine slice of jamming rock with some of White's best guitar work and a really solid vocal snarl from Roger).

The only one that doesn't seem improved in any way is the rendition of "Old Blue". I didn't dislike it per se on Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, and it's still a pleasant, down-home ode to one's pup, but it's interchangeable with the original either way. The rendition of a Byrds classic with the most potential for controversy, however, is the 16-minute sidelong jam built around "Eight Miles High". Now, logic would most likely dictate that a 16-minute jam as played by the Byrds could only be an unmitigated disaster, but considering the song's origins as a jazz-influenced psych-rock piece, it's far more attractive than you'd think. Indeed, for over 12 minutes, the band acts as if the vocal parts of the song do not exist, as Clarence White weaves his blistering hard rock guitars around Roger McGuinn's amped-up, 12-string-played John Coltrane imitations (which only early in the jam and at the end of it do they play any of the short memorable phrases and jazzy bursts of the studio rendition), and even the rhythm section gets a chance to shine as Skip Battin lays out some fat basslines around some funky, improvisatory drumming somewhere in the middle, occasionally interrupted by more guitar outbursts, and as the vocal parts finally do come in, the audience erupts into cheers. I do too, silently in my mind, because the jamming that precedes the tight rendition of the song proper is like the plane or LSD trip taking off until that eighth mile, and there's nothing more exciting than getting to one's destination. You may not be able to focus on every note of the jam, but the power and intent behind it certainly has its effect.

Yet the live performances of all new tracks are what really demand your attention, as they're consistently great. There are two completely different Bob Dylan covers from his peak period (1965-1966). The more surprising of the two is a jangle-rock rendition of his non-album single "Positively 4th Street", where Roger manages to make his rarely used vocal sneer work on one of their few successful performances of non-happy or thoughtful Dylan material, yet the super concise (clocking in at 2:49!) rendition of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" is even better; forget about my comments on McGuinn's sneer on the Dylan track from the original double LP, it manages to be greater here (although maybe he was more willing to channel Dylan's anger at this juncture of his career than his sarcastic side), and the moody country-blues arrangement of minimalistic guitar chords and counter-melodic harmonica playing is killer too. The hidden bonus track, a rendition of traditional number "Amazing Grace" (one of the few covers intended for Gene Tryp) is also quite nice, with funereal farewell harmonies in a cappella (where Gene Parsons' vocals thankfully stick out, as his voice best suits this music) that make for the perfect conclusion to a performance (even if it wasn't necessarily the way the shows originally ended).

My two favourites are the ones that also appear in studio form on either (Untitled) or (Unissued). The live performance of Lead Belly's ode to cocaine, "Take a Whiff on Me", is a real hoot; while I may enjoy a great number of country ballads, it's probably comical country romps that I enjoy best, and this one is no exception. What else could you expect from a cover where goofy harmonies repeat "take a whiff, take a whiff, take a whiff on me" incessantly, Clarence White takes the lead vocals with a suitably nasal whine (as it does talk about the nasally consumed drug), the guitars twang about giddily and someone in the band plays a razor thin harmonica blasts as if the very sound of coke sniffing!

The opening rendition of "Lover of the Bayou", which was written with the intent of being a centerpiece of sorts in the Gene Tryp concept, is my favourite of the live tracks, and is tied for best song on the album (and I'll go into detail about the other one later). In the context of that cancelled concept of songs, this one was supposed to be set in particular during the Civil War, something that's made especially evident – not by the lyrics, which describe the bayou and other such imagery as the title suggests, but by the music. Indeed, with Parsons' thundering drum parts, Battin's basslines that pop out of the mix like miniature explosions, McGuinn's roaring crunchy guitar chords, and White's pulsing country-rock licks during the vocal parts and stinging solos elsewhere, it's certainly as violent as a war, although obviously far more ear-catching. It also contains the best McGuinn vocal of all of the live tracks: there's no perverting his past originals that originally had calmer sounds, so all of the intensity in his hoarse growling as if he were some outlaw bootlegger seems far more authentic than the shouting in other parts of the live portion where he just seems to be trying to hear himself over the music.

As I wrote earlier, the studio recording is inferior, which makes me glad the record company ignored McGuinn's plea to have the studio disc first (even if the execs had the stupid logic of doing so in order to have some well-known hits on the first disc; they're not the Beach Boys, dammit!). As an individual LP, the studio disc wouldn't get more than a 10/15 (so, as you can deduce, the full collection of the reissue's live tracks would get around 12), which is hardly catastrophic, but it does make it the Byrds' second weakest album (after Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde). Part of the problem would be that there are only nine tracks (seven originals and two covers), so if there's even one bad one, that could significantly harm the album because it's not filtered out by enough good ones. Before I go into the negatives into too much detail, I'll start with the positives. The most important is McGuinn's return as a semi-prominent songwriter, with three collaborations with Jacques Levy and another with Skip Battin and his songwriting partner Kim Fowley (yep, the producer and writer who would eventually "create" the Runaways), making up a little under half of the material. While the last time he wrote this much material led to their most disastrous album, there's a definite return to form here, with two major highlights and two minor highlights among them.

My favourite of the numbers on the studio record are actually the two single sides he and Levy composed, "Chestnut Mare" and "Just a Season", which, like "Ballad of Easy Rider", shows McGuinn combining the Byrds' early jangly folk-pop sound with slower, mellifluous country balladeering. The a-side "Chestnut Mare" was unfortunately not very successful in the US (although it was pretty big hit in the UK), but it damn well should have been. For starters, the opening, British folk-style melody over jangly arpeggios and moody acoustic lead lines is harrowing, as is the quasi-reprise of it in the bridge that substitutes acoustic guitar for swirling pedal steel. Meanwhile, the catchy, strangely uplifting refrain of "I'm going to catch that horse if I can/And when I do I'll give her my bran/And we'll be friends for life/She'll be just like a wife" (despite the oddity of that line) is complemented by some lovely speedy guitar lines which work well with the melody in creating the image of an open field where a horse would run free. And the spoken verses are a very nice touch, which seems like they would suit the Broadway play they were working on without crossing over into the cheesy side of things. It just manages to tell the story in a clever way, that's all.

"Just a Season" might not be as immediately catchy, but thanks to its more folk-pop-oriented sound (rather than the folk-pop and country ballad synthesis of its a-side, only having a pleasant pedal steel solo to represent the band's new line-up's genre preference) and its atmospheric tendencies, it reminds me of the underrated gems Gene Clark wrote for the Turn! Turn! Turn! album. Once again, the intro is a bit slower than the song proper, with a melancholic bit of melody that gradually transforms into the wistfully nostalgic main melody, but the main "hook" (being an atmospheric song, it's not a hook in the traditional sense) is in the beauty of the jangle, quite possibly the band's best use of it since "My Back Pages" in terms of resonance, with just a hint of psychedelia in the way it swirls and echoes. I suppose the strange eight-note sequence of notes that seemingly don't go together (but do) at the end of each utterance of the title constitutes as a hook, though. It's certainly what drew me to the song in the first place.

Of the two minor highlights, the final McGuinn/Levy track to make the original album, "All the Things", also has a bit of jangle, but most of is in the subtle, lead pedal steel line. The main draw of this one is the melody, which weaves around in a strangely jazzy way, complemented by some moody harmonies (with a brief return by Gram Parsons for them, apparently) in the refrain. That combined with the pedal steel's interaction with some delicate piano work makes me think The Notorious Byrd Brothers was a significant influence on this one's composition in its combination of more than just folk and country. "Hungry Planet", the ecological-themed Battin/Fowley/McGuinn offering, also has a bit of a Notorious vibe in that sense: the funky, country rock riffage is a bit of a novelty for them (although Clarence White sure seems to be having fun with it), but the phased drums and vocals add that hint of late '60s psychedelia in a non-psychedelic context just like on their underrated 1968 LP, and even the oh-so late-'60s/early-'70s socially conscious lyricism would fit in nicely.

Much like on Ballad of Easy Rider, the Gene Parsons sung and composed track (actually, co-written with Battin here) is a highlight for me as well. "Yesterday's Train" is solely in country ballad territory, but Gene's deep voice is soothing in a Johnny Cash kind of way, and the pretty, breathy harmonica line with his humming in non-lyrical parts and harmonizing with his vocals in later verses is delightfully charming, as if you were just rolling down the train tracks in some calm field in the South. I'm not even bothered by Skip Battin's lyrics, which seem to deal with reincarnation. With references to recognizing a woman by her eyes and the like, it seems more like a nostalgic love ballad, as emphasized by the bitter-sweet, occasionally harmonic-covered pedal steel guitar playing.

Other than the studio version of "Take a Whiff On Me" (which is a bit weaker than the live version due to the lack of harmonica, but the drunken harmonies and Clarence's goofy lead vocals remain a point of interest and the mandolin playing is enjoyable, or would be if it wasn't so buried in the mix), I'm very sceptical about the rest. A cover of a yet-to-be-released Little Feat song "Truck Stop Girl" – apparently someone in the group knew the country-rock group's soon-to-be-producer and he scored them with a couple of Lowell George compositions for the album – would have been a nice little country ballad to follow up the folk-pop of "Chestnut Mare", but Clarence White's nasal whine seems way too exaggerated here (I guess his voice is better suited for humourous country-based music), which makes the subject matter seem triter than it actually is.

And the two closing numbers, one by Battin and Fowley and the other solely by Battin, that on their own make up a quarter of the studio record's running length leave a lot to be desired. "You All Look Alike" just has a none-too-memorable melody, with the only memorable part of it being the way McGuinn sings the refrain (he sings all the vocals on it, for some reason), yet in an annoying way rather than pleasant way, and the only recommendable aspect of it is the pleasant fiddle part, although a fiddle part would have been better off on "Take a Whiff On Me". "Welcome Back Home" (spelled out on some editions and sung as "Well Come Back Home"), at nearly 8 minutes, is simply awful. It tries hard to be epic, and with its three-chord progression that's as generic as can be, Skip Battin's irritating goat-like bleating vocals and rather poor vocal hooks and anti-war lyrics (what does he even mean by "If you wanna/Tell someone about it/Tell me", and the poorly drawn out title line anyways?) it would be bad enough, but worst of all is the annoying pseudo-Buddhist chant(!) that makes up a little under half of its running time, where Battin passes himself off for a monk but sounds more like a deranged monkey (what are those god-awful squeals near the end?). Occasionally, this track makes me wonder if McGuinn had a point in switching the studio and live disc order, but then I guess most would be too turned off by this crap to even attempt to try the second disc.

Instead of going the democratic route (i.e. allowing White's vocals or Battin's songwriting that extra prominence in the three weakest tracks), I think McGuinn should have kept some of the outtakes from the sessions. I would have used the lengthier take of "All the Things", for instance, which is a little bit slower, but the more prominent jangle allowed for him to play some nice hypnotic lead lines that complement the occasionally meandering melody. And even the 30-second longer "Yesterday's Train" alternate take would be better, thanks to the lovely plucked acoustic guitar intro and the prominence of the latter in backing the vocals and harmonica. Should the band have felt a Lowell George cover was necessary to thank their good friend for his songwriting offerings, their rendition of "Willin'", as sung by Gene Parsons backed by beautifully intricate fingerpicked guitar work, would be a better substituted, especially since it's more of an enjoyable nostalgia rather than anything seemingly generic like his track that did make it to the album. And while I wouldn't say I'm a fan of the early version of "Kathleen's Song" (whose "official" version would appear on the next album), the stripped down, orchestra-free version presented here is certainly pretty enough, even if it doesn't stop the feeling that the melody doesn't progress as far as it should. The only bonus track that might have been a questionable inclusion on the original LP is the instrumental "White's Lightning, Pt. 2" (I have no clue what the hell happened to the first part), but being a funky country rocker with some fine, fluid soloing it could have at least made for an interesting extended coda to "Hungry Planet".

The best song amidst all the studio material is among the bonus tracks, though, and it's the same song that was best among the live tracks. Yes indeed, the studio version of "Lover of the Bayou" is a fantastic song that was criminally excluded from the original (Untitled), and this track basically guarantees that this expanded version of the album is at least a solid 11 and occasionally makes me consider boosting the album to a 12. There are a few differences with the live performance that manage to make it an equally great alternative: it's marginally slower, so rather than an above mid-tempo pummelling, you have a below mid-tempo creeping; musically, it's more in the swamp rock vein, the best example of it this side of CCR (even if it doesn't sound that much like them), with the tempo certainly helping out, but it's the spluttering, twangy guitar riffage, the echoey, menacing harmonica and the occasional guitar heroics (especially notable in the intro where it harmonizes with the harmonica with just a touch of feedback); and finally, Roger's vocals are just perfect as the narrator, supposedly in the role of a voodoo-witch doctor, with a kind of slow, creepy, gravelly intonation that has just the right touch of mysticism, bluesy feeling... and whiskey (I can't imagine how else a witch doctor during the Civil War would conduct his business).

So, while it's a relatively patchy album, I can certainly understand the Byrds' initial high hopes on this album being a rebirth for them – which kind of makes me wish they went with the title Phoenix (a mythical bird that had it's own rebirth), but not so much the less interesting The Byrds' First Album (which is somewhat on the career-erasing side, which I don't like) rather than the accidental title that did come about – and there's enough good to great material within the live and studio portions for me to consider this an album worth my time. Sadly, from here their reputation would drop right back down, even on their "grand" finale three years later. It's a shame, considering the potential. While I still prefer Ballad of Easy Rider, I could easily picture them improving on aspects of both to make a second career peak sometime in the early '70s.

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