Friday, February 16, 2018

Byrds 14: Box Sets

Towards the end of the ‘80s, with the likes of Tom Petty and R.E.M. reviving interest in the Rickenbacker, the Byrds began to attract attention from a younger generation. Just in time for their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a new Roger McGuinn solo album, and following successful lawsuits in favor of the band members not named Clark or Clarke came a four-disc box set covering the band’s tenure on Columbia.
Simply titled The Byrds, albeit with individually titled discs, the set begins with (naturally) “Mr. Tambourine Man” and moves all the way through Farther Along. Because the existing CD reissues of the albums were a little spotty, the sound was greatly enhanced, with many of the early songs presented in wide stereo and with extended endings, some of which had been revealed on the independent Never Before compilation from a few years before. That set also boasted some previously unreleased tracks, and many of them (such as “The Day Walk”, “She Has A Way”, and “Psychodrama City”) were included in the box in context.
As with most sets of its type, the earlier material vastly outweighs the later material, with the first five albums covered on the first two discs. A live radio take of “Roll Over Beethoven” sung by David Crosby isn’t much to write home about, but the real enticement was the inclusion of several Sweetheart Of The Rodeo tracks with Gram Parsons’ original vocals, as opposed to the common album tracks redubbed by McGuinn. The remainder of the discs speeds through the Clarence White era, still giving him some overdue recognition, and still sounding very different from the original incarnation of the band.
To bring it all back home, so to speak, the final 20 or so minutes of the set are given over to new recordings featuring the three senior members. Live recordings of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Tambourine Man” with Bob Dylan (from a Roy Orbison tribute, of all things) are a sloppy setup for four studio tracks: a new recording of “He Was A Friend Of Mine”; the obscure Dylan cover “Paths Of Victory”; “From A Distance”, concurrently covered by Bette Midler in a Grammy-winning performance; and “Love That Never Dies", which was basically a teaser for McGuinn’s upcoming Back To Rio album. (Heralded as a comeback at the time, it hasn’t worn well, save two songs contributed by Byrds disciples: Elvis Costello’s “You Bowed Down” and Tom Petty’s “King Of The Hill”.)

Each of the Columbia albums was overhauled in the ‘90s, and most of the rarities in the box were included on their respective expansions, but it was still surprising that a second box set dedicated to the band came out a mere 16 years later. In addition to a DVD of mimed clips from the vintage era, the four discs in There Is A Season go a little wider on the history of the band, starting with six tracks from the Beefeaters and the Jet Set, a.k.a. the Byrds before they were the Byrds. Some of these were already available on various collections dubbed Preflyte, and while they have some of that harmonic charm, the pieces aren’t all there yet. More live material from the Clarence era shows their prowess, and two songs from the 1973 “reunion” move the spotlight back to Gene Clark. Yet for some reason, they choose to close with “Paths Of Victory” from 1990.
Much of the rare stuff was already covered on that first box, and is repeated on There Is A Season. As it pushed the first box into deletion, it’s the only comprehensive set available for physical purchase. There is more emphasis on Gene, but some of the swaps in the way of album tracks are questionable.

The Byrds The Byrds (1990)—4
The Byrds There Is A Season (2006)—4

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