Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Byrds 5: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The band’s fifth album in three years shows the Byrds to be something of a parallel to the Rolling Stones at the time. (Wait just a second and we’ll explain.) Just as Younger Than Yesterday and Between The Buttons came out in that netherland of 1967 before Sgt. Pepper, The Notorious Byrd Brothers documents the down side of the Summer of Love, as did Their Satanic Majesties Request. (See? That wasn’t such a stretch, was it?)
One truly notorious aspect of this album even has its own page on Snopes, the urban legend debunking website. David Crosby was fired from the band before the album was finished, and while he does appear on it, the cover only shows Hillman, McGuinn, Clarke and a horse. Crosby insists the horse was there deliberately to represent him, but we have to agree with McGuinn, who said that if it was really intentional, the other end of the horse would have been depicted.
But even more notorious is that while many pundits have gone out of their way to praise this album as a masterpiece, we’re not going to do that. The album is forced and disjointed, and too many of the songs sound too much alike for them to stand out, with a few exceptions that only underscore the shakiness of the set.
“Artificial Energy” sports acidic horns and a sped-up vocal for a song explicitly about drugs, but the real Byrds-like emerges in “Goin’ Back”, a wistful wish for the simplicity of childhood from the pens of Goffin and King. Chris Hillman’s “Natural Harmony” ends up sounding more like the Crosby songs on the album, which we’ll get to soon. “Draft Morning” is a better contrast to “Goin’ Back”, in its explicit glimpse of a soldier in the trenches; the sound effects are a matter of personal taste. The defiant stance continues in “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, another Goffin/King song and one that would become something of a hippie anthem. After the sound of a slamming door, McGuinn comes in to sing a baroque ode to London in “Get To You”.
Many of the songs on the first side are cross-faded, and that continues on the second. “Change Is Now” is a basic drone around the 12-string, with a double-time detour through a pedal-steel. “Old John Robertson” is included in a different mix than on the single, and it only underscores the exclusion of “Lady Friend”, for no other reason than to spite Crosby. Instead, he’s represented by “Tribal Gathering”, a pale rewrite of “Renaissance Fair”, and “Dolphin’s Smile”, the brevity of which doesn’t hint at the struggles they had recording it. (Seven minutes of an argument among the band members while they were trying to figure out how to play the damn thing are hidden at the end of the expanded CD. They all end up sounding like a-holes, and Mike Clarke’s ambivalence explains why Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon are credited with drums on the album.) And of course, McGuinn had to include another sci-fi song in the form of “Space Odyssey”, which beat out the Kubrick film by about three months, and sported the prominent use of a Moog synthesizer.
Considering how much struggle went into recording the album, it’s a shame there aren’t more interesting outtakes on the expanded CD. Beyond a Moog instrumental and a take of a song Chris Hillman would use in a later collaboration, plus a couple of alternate takes, the biggest revelation is Crosby’s classic “Triad”, which would never make it to one of his own albums until a live recording with his next band. But that’s another story. We still can’t point to The Notorious Byrd Brothers as the Byrds’ best, especially considering what was coming next. It remains a shaky collection of stubborn songs.

The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)—
1997 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 6 extra tracks

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