Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Byrds 13: McGuinn, Clark & Hillman

While nobody really noticed, the influence of the Byrds managed to subtly seep through the music of the ‘70s. Crosby, Stills & Nash carried the torch on the radio and arenas, with Crosby’s old band becoming more of a footnote in his biography. The Eagles certainly picked up some of the harmonic touches, and a band called Firefall, formed from the aftermath of the Flying Burrito Brothers, had some breezy hit singles just this side of yacht rock.
So when Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark decided to collaborate on an album, it less resembled the classic Byrds sound than the open-shirted, mildly discofied trend that was commercially viable in 1979. On paper, it could have been considered as much a Byrds album as anything released under that name after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but both the album and the combo were named after the three members. If you’re looking for the Byrds, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a superstar summit, this is isn’t it either. If you long for the chime of that Rickenbacker 12-string, you’re out of luck.
The first warning sign is on the back cover, listing the Albert brothers as producers, and good ol’ Criteria Studios in Miami—Stephen Stills’ home base and knob twiddlers of choice, for his solo albums as well as the recent CSN reunion. The first sound the listener hears when dropping the needle on side one is a timbale, and sure enough there’s Joe Lala all over the mix, just like on those Stills projects. None of the three guys are credited with playing any instruments, though we can assume each played guitar, on his own songs anyway. None of the songs are credited as collaborations, which is no big deal.
Chris Hillman’s voice came a long way from being stuck in the background, so his spotlights are probably the least excruciating, but again, they sound like Firefall, which was fine for the times, but less so today. “Long Long Time” deserves further evaluation. Who knows what that nightmare intro to “Surrender To Me” is all about, but it’s also the only song none of the guys had a hand in writing. However, he is sorely to blame for “Stopping Traffic” and “Sad Boy”.
Gene Clark was arguably the best songwriter in the band, as displayed on the first two albums, but didn’t have much commercial success on his own. For a guy who was supposedly such a pioneer and harbinger of alt.country, “Little Mama”, “Feelin’ Higher”, “Backstage Pass” and “Release Me Girl” come off as generic, albeit competent adult contemporary. (There should never be a saxophone on anything approaching the Byrds, and fake audiences only ironically.)
Just as with the last get-together, McGuinn isn’t the dominant voice. Though “Don’t You Write Her Off” was the first single, and it’s got a terrific chorus, the verses are only tangentially related to it, and the steel drums are just painful. He’s redeemed by “Bye Bye Baby”, the gentle folk lullaby that ends the album, and easily the truest tribute to the legacy.
McGuinn, Clark & Hillman has its defenders, and we can respect that. Many of the people who bought this album upon release needed something to tide them over while the Eagles took their sweet time on The Long Run. In a perfect world, and in this age of revision, a “less-discofied” version of this album would be a welcome addition to the history. As for the guys themselves, they were soon down to duo without Gene, further albums were dead on arrival, and the ‘80s were virtually Byrd-free.

McGuinn, Clark & Hillman McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)—2

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