Friday, June 20, 2014

Byrds 9: Untitled

By the turn of the decade, the band calling themselves the Byrds had become a tight unit, particularly with the addition of new bass player Skip Battin (a relic at age 35 but not enough of a Manson lookalike to scare producer Terry Melcher). And what better way to show off their prowess than with a live document?
The album called (Untitled) brings together the best of all possibilities, prefacing an album’s worth of new material with two sides recorded live. Side one begins with “Lover Of The Bayou”, a new song from an unrealized McGuinn musical. Roger sounds equally raspy on their cover of “Positively 4th Street”, keeping the Dylan connection going. He steps aside for a decent blow through “Nashville West”, and then it’s a trip to the recent past with “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N Roll Star”, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Mr. Spaceman”—songs barely three years old but already sounding ages away. An experiment that shouldn’t work but does is a side-long jam on “Eight Miles High”, which fades in from somewhere, teases the riff, and explores the cosmos for thirteen minutes before the first verse. If not for the 12-string, this could be easily mistaken for any other jamming band.
The studio portion is a mixed bag, ranging from above-average country-rock to less successful experiments. The forced metaphors in the otherwise classic “Chestnut Mare” don’t improve over time, but the exhilarating chorus cannot be beat, and it remains the last great song in McGuinn’s arsenal. “All The Things” and “Just A Season” come from the same well, and deserve more attention, but “Hungry Planet”, with its distracting Moog effects, is simply not enough of an idea gone on too long.
The other guys are given moments to shine, with varying success. “Truck Stop Girl” proves that Clarence White was a much better guitarist than he was a lead singer; the mumbled delivery doesn’t help the story any. “Take A Whiff On Me” is a countrified update of a Leadbelly song about cocaine, which was likely appreciated by everybody in Laurel Canyon. Gene Parsons’ croon is well-suited for “Yesterday’s Train”, particularly when it find chord changes that don’t bring “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to mind. Skip Battin brought some songs in to fit the morbid mood; “You All Look Alike” is bleated by Roger from the point of view of a hippie with a gunshot wound, while “Well Come Back Home” is one of the first songs to celebrate the Vietnam veteran, though its lengthy ending (complete with Buddhist chant) should have been faded sooner.
Overall, it’s a stronger collection than the last few, and is certainly enjoyable from a playing standpoint. It also managed to escape the stigma of the bloated double album. When its turn came around to be expanded at the turn of the century, the compilers generously added several studio recordings, including superior versions of “All The Things”, “Yesterday’s Train” and “Lover Of The Bayou”, plus a take of “Willin’” (written by Lowell George, as was “Truck Stop Girl”) a full year before it appeared on the first Little Feat album. Rounding out the (Unissued) disc are more live recordings, two of which post-date the album proper, including a truncated arrangement of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Hidden at the very end is an a cappella arrangement of “Amazing Grace”; even this far along, they were all about harmonies.

The Byrds (Untitled) (1970)—3
2000 (Untitled)/(Unissued) remaster: same as 1970, plus 14 extra tracks

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