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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

THE BYRDS: THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)

1) Artificial Energy; 2) Goin' Back; 3) Natural Harmony; 4) Draft Morning; 5) Wasn't Born To Follow; 6) Get To You; 7) Change Is Now; 8) Old John Robertson; 9) Tribal Gathering; 10) Dolphin's Smile; 11) Space Odyssey.

Although technically marked 1968, since it was released on January 15, the Byrds' fifth album still fully belongs in 1967 — on the whole, it is still far more «psychedelic», «baroque-poppy», and «experimental» than anything from the new back-to-roots era of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and beyond. It is also messy to the extreme, since the complete and irredeemable disintegration of the original Byrds took place right through the sessions — during which Crosby walked out, Michael Clarke walked in, Gene Clark came back, Michael Clarke walked out again, and Gene Clark walked out again, too. Not to mention dozens of sessions musicians walking in and out on a pay-per-hour basis. Or on just a good word.

Despite, or maybe thanks to all the turbulence, The Notorious Byrd Brothers has always fasci­nated the critical mind, and eventually turned into a «cult favorite» — people who think it too ob­vious to list Mr. Tambourine Man or Younger Than Yesterday as their favorite Byrds album often turn to this as an honorably elitist competitor. I am in no rush to join that chorus, though. It is true that this is really the last Byrds album where the band members are still trying to push their imagination to the limits, the last one where three different talents (McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman) compete with each other and feed on each other at the same time, the last one that expli­citly rejects formula in favor of freedom. But it is not true that freedom is always preferable to formula — and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, in my opinion, could certainly benefit from a little more martial discipline than is on display.

It is somewhat telling that when it came to singles, the only track that was deemed qualifiable was a cover, and not even a Dylan cover, but their take on Goffin and King's ʽGoin' Backʼ, pre­viously known mostly in Dusty Springfield's arrangement. It is a classic number, to be sure, but other than replacing the «adult pop» version with keyboards and strings with a janglier and more percussion-heavy pop-rock arrangement, the band does not truly unlock anything here that Dusty had not already unlocked — the nostalgic pull towards the past coupled with gentle optimism for the future, as reflected in the elegant key changes of the melody. Even if we call this the «defini­tive version» of the song (to me, though, that would rather be Carole King's own take on her cre­ation on the Writer album), it is still a cover, and not a magically transformed one.

The band actually does much more with their second Goffin/King cover, ʽWasn't Born To Fol­lowʼ, which they saw as a fast-paced country-rock number (unlike Carole herself, who recorded it in a slow, gospel-tinged version in 1969, while still a member of «The City») — and it still did not prevent them from throwing in a few backward solos and put a heavy phasing effect on the instrumental passage, because, you know, playing straightforward country is kinda dull (an idea that had all but evaporated by the following year). However, even that song never truly goes be­yond «cute» — maybe it's all because of the vocals, so cuddly and fragile and monotonous.

The rest of the album is all left to original material, but next to the songs on Younger Than Yes­terday, these never seem to truly compete in terms of sharp, interesting ideas. Crosby, in parti­cular, is beginning to value social importance over musical integrity. His ʽDraft Morningʼ, an anti-Vietnam rumination on the fate of a nameless soldier, has no discernible musical theme, and although the vocals were completed by McGuinn and Hillman already after he'd been fired, the vocal melody is more enjoyable due to the pure beauty of their silky tones than to the actual lines they're singing — not to mention the totally pro forma, unconvincing and disruptive «war sound effects» in the instrumental part; as far as anti-war songs like these go, give me The Doors' ʽUn­known Soldierʼ over this one any day. ʽTribal Gatheringʼ, inspired by yet another hippie caucasus, is too short and simplistic to justify the «aura of deep mystery» intention of the author, sounding more like hippie lounge muzak than something to actively attune your brain to. And although I distinctly remember that ʽDolphin's Smileʼ sounded fresh and sparkly, a nice tune to wake up to on a bright summer morning when you want to start your life anew, the whole thing was just too hazy and hookless to ever find a proper place in my memory.

Ironically, Crosby's best song at the time was not only considered too risky to put on the album, but, in fact, seriously contributed to his decision to leave the band — and donate the song to Jefferson Airplane. As sung by Grace Slick, the version of ʽTriadʼ is still the definitive one, but the one that The Byrds did, eventually released on CD as a bonus track, holds up fairly well, too. And it isn't merely its controversial subject matter — "going on as three" is a fairly uncomfor­table notion even for 2015, although it is probably the next logical stage after gay rights — that makes it stand out, no; it has an excellent verse structure, with a double resolution of the vocal melody that, well, doubles the intrigue. There's a certain je ne sais quoi in that "...I don't really see why can't we go on as three" conclusion that almost makes you... you know... see the point and all. It's fairly disturbing and provocative on all fronts — no wonder that the nice country lads McGuinn and Hillman felt way too uncomfortable about something like that.

But what did they offer instead? Well, Hillman does write one of the album's best songs, ʽNatural Harmonyʼ, which goes against his country-rock reputation by actually sounding more like some­thing Crosby would write — jazzy, trippy, and featuring heavy use of the Moog synth, still very much a rarity in late 1967; however, his collaboration with McGuinn on ʽChange Is Nowʼ I can appreciate only a formal level. It does this novel trick of putting together folk, drone, psychedelia, and even a fast country-western part, but none of the parts are interesting on their own, and put­ting them together just feels like an empty experiment.

McGuinn does shine on his own on the opener, ʽArtificial Energyʼ, largely due to the powerful, anthemic brass section (famed session musician Richard Hyde on trombone); but his ʽSpace Ody­sseyʼ, concluding the album, is definitely an acquired taste. If the idea of a slow four-minute folk ballad from the highlands, overdubbed with all sorts of «deep space effects», instantaneously appeals to your cosmic cowboy psychology, you'll find it a masterpiece. Personally, I find it boring and tedious, a fairly dubious tribute to a fairly dubious piece of literature — and, for that matter, I also hold the opinion that of all Kubrick's movies, A Space Odyssey is also the one that has dated far more seriously than any other, let alone Arthur Clarke's prose.

All in all, maybe this entire album is very much an acquired taste, and one that I have lost all hope of acquiring. Nothing here is truly bad, with the exception of the last track, but the highs are lower than any previous highs, and other than the Goffin/King covers, there really isn't anything here that would unquestionably make it into my personal «best-of» collection. I still give the record a thumbs up out of respect — with the band in a state of near-collapse, it is amazing that they even had their minds set on experimentation and progress so much of the time — but let it also go on the official record that I continue not to share the hype, and generally like my Byrds when they are more polished and focused than when they are in a state of disarray.

4 comments:

  1. I too once shared the belief that this album was weaker than three of the four that preceded. It was too unfocused, even compared to 5D, although that could be called creativity fired on all cylinders rather than lack of focus. Eventually, though, something clicked. I'm not sure what it was, exactly, but I know whatever it was makes me consider this one of the Byrds' best albums (second only to Mr. Tambourine Man, 5D and Younger Than Yesterday) and possibly the quintessential album of the late '60s; the mix of new sounds with old ones, moments of ethereal beauty interrupted by jarring noise, the promotion of peace whilst the members of the group were facing wars, amongst themselves and possibly internally, it captures all the contradictions of the '60s down into one very short LP.

    And on a musical level, I think (and I always did, even when I wasn't completely sold on the album) the opening four-song stretch is a high point in the Byrds' career. "Artificial Energy" is an excellent, energetic opener, and the title is just, with phased horns blasting through and, for the first time in the group's careers, "ugly" harmonies, possibly because Michael Clarke joins in (he did co-write it, after all). "Goin' Back" is beautifully nostalgic, with everything from the jangle guitars to the glockenspiel to the strings and the vocals perfectly in place (and this might just be the band's best harmonies). We already agree on "Natural Harmony", so nothing to add there, but as for "Draft Morning", it might be my favourite song on the LP. The whole ethereal beauty with chaotic noise dichotomy I brought up earlier is best found here, with a gorgeous, heart-melting melody and pained vocal harmonies, suddenly interrupted by war noises that I can't picture the song without. To me, this is one of the very best songs in the '60s with the word "morning" in the title, up there with the Velvets' "Sunday Morning".

    As for the rest of the album, I do enjoy it quite a bit, except for "Space Odyssey" which is a bit too much for my taste ("Dolphin's Smile" would have made a much better closer, or ideally, "Triad"). But the combination of jazz, folk, country and psychedelia that constantly changes which of the four genres is favoured – not just in each song, but in each portion of a given song – is something to behold. One song I'd like to defend is the only one you didn't mention, the McGuinn/Clark-penned "Get to You". It was already recorded after Gene left (in fact, rumours state he didn't record much, and it's highly probable what he did record wasn't used for the album; he was nothing more than a substitute for David on stage), but I think it's a lovely ballad, with an endearing mock-waltz that's actually in 5/4, and when it's actually in waltz tempo (3/4) it becomes a wave of psychedelic noise with frightening phased vocals. I think the song has something to do with the group's first impression of London; if that's the case, I'm thinking they only witnessed the London underground music scene, which the startling key changes could remind you of.

    It's a shame that this was technically the end of the band; I actually quite like Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in spite of a jarring lack of creativity, but I'll wait till that review to comment. What I'm getting at is, as you stated this is an acquired taste, I say it's one worth acquiring. I doubt there's no hope for you to acquire said taste; if you can handle Trout Mask Replica (which I also rate abnormally highly), you can probably acquire any taste that goes beyond generic (which this album certainly does).

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  2. This is another of those classic albums I don't "get". Though it's not their worst.

    http://everybodysdummy.blogspot.com/2011/10/byrds-5-notorious-byrd-brothers.html

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  3. I've never understood the critical hooplah over this album compared to the previous two -- something about its atmsopherr just feels off to me. With that said, I was surprised that I still found it to be a solid album. 4 out of 5 stars, compared to the previous perfect 5's. Not until "Easy Rider" and "Untitled/Unissued" would they return to such consistency -- first came the Nashville slump, with only a handful of bright spots.

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  4. Listen to the Dolphins Smile argument at the end. What a buncha potty mouth crybabies. Crosby's a maniac, Usher's getting pissed off and poor Mike is being attacked. Better than a soap opera.

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