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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn!

THE BYRDS: TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965)

1) Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season); 2) It Won't Be Wrong; 3) Set You Free This Time; 4) Lay Down Your Weary Tune; 5) He Was A Friend Of Mine; 6) The World Turns All Around Her; 7) Satisfied Mind; 8) If You're Gone; 9) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 10) Wait And See; 11) Oh! Susannah.

The Byrds' second album is a classic example of «the sophomore slump» — rushing somewhat prematurely back into the comforts of the recording studio to capitalize upon the success of Mr. Tambourine Man, they had not the time, strength, or will to think about «where do we go from here?», and ended up with what is essentially a weaker twin brother of the debut. More Dylan; more covers; older songs from the bottom of the barrel; no creative advances whatsoever — if this band were of a slightly lesser caliber, the album would have been a resounding suckjob. For­tunately, even a subpar Byrds album circa 1965 was still a Byrds album.

If there is one single defining difference, it is that this record is far more objectively «folk-rock» than its predecessor. There are only two Dylan covers this time (another one, ʽIt's All Over Now Baby Blueʼ, was also recorded, but ultimately rejected), and all the included covers are, one way or another, «traditional» (in fact, I almost forgot initially that ʽLay Down Your Weary Tuneʼ was also a Dylan song — considering how it was directly influenced by some Scottish ballad). This is not necessarily a good thing — it means that, for a while at least, The Byrds were only too happy to fit in the image created for them by the musical press, and conform to stereotypes where their major idol, Mr. Zimmerman, would be only too happy to break them. Then again, it is easy to forget that even Mr. Zimmerman had to play his cards with care in the early years, and that his post-breakthrough album (The Times They Are A-Changin') was even more stereotypical than Turn! Turn! Turn!; so who could blame these lads? It takes some financial and public image stability to grow some clout.

Anyway, the real problem is not that this is «too much folk rock», but that there are no obvious standouts — the album flows smoothly and steadily, consistently pretty and engaging to a degree, but hardly cathartic or mind-blowing. The title track is the only one that has endured as a radio classic, due to its high ambitiousness — a folk-rock anthem for peace with connections to Pete Seeger and Ecclesiastes is, after all, no laughing matter, and it became the band's second and last #1 hit on the charts, not to mention King Solomon's greatest moment of glory. But I have never liked it as much as ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ — the Byrds instinctively understood the seduction powers of the latter, and used their harmonic gift to bring them out in full, whereas ʽTurn! Turn! Turn!ʼ is a sermon that lacks intimacy, and though the verse melody ("a time to be born, a time to die...") is harmonious and formally beautiful, it does not connect on that deepest of deepest pos­sible levels. It's also overlong. Four minutes? Why wasn't ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ four minutes? They could have included a whole other verse!

It is, however, observable that Gene Clark is maturing as a songwriter. Not deviating from the folk rock formula, he contributes three tunes that all go a step or two beyond the still relatively simplistic pop numbers on Mr. Tambourine Man. ʽThe World Turns All Around Herʼ is melo­dically and lyrically more complex than ʽI'll Feel A Whole Lot Betterʼ, to which it could be con­sidered a logical and ironic sequel (as the protagonist finds that, curious as it is, he is not feeling a whole lot better when she's gone). ʽSet You Free This Timeʼ seems simple and repetitive, but oh that vocal part — out of nowhere, you have this bittersweet, quivering-but-struggling vocal that has to be sustained through the long winding verse melody, and makes the song seem like the first truly serious «breakup song» of the young rock band era. My favorite is ʽIf You're Goneʼ, with another stunning vocal and... how the hell do they have that weird hum going on while Gene is singing? Sounds like vocal harmonies recorded from the bottom of a well or something. Do they have deep wells in Columbia Studios? In any case, I'm pretty damn sure that these effects on backing vocals had never been used previously, not by any major artist, at least.

(Two more Clark songs did not make it onto the LP, but are available as bonus tracks on the re­gular CD edition — ʽShe Don't Care About Timeʼ is another romantic classic, but ʽThe Day Walk (Never Before)ʼ seems largely to get by on the strength of copping the ʽSatisfactionʼ riff, and is noticeably inferior to the rest of Gene's songs, which is probably why it was left off; no need to suspect envy or sabotage on this particular occasion).

McGuinn still languishes far behind in comparison as a songwriter (his two originals here are fairly lackluster), but not as a visionary — the decision, for instance, to reinvent ʽHe Was A Friend Of Mineʼ as an obituary to JFK, though clearly naïve in retrospect, is one of those «why folk music still matters today» moves that kept the whole thing alive and vibrant at the time. And ʽOh! Susannahʼ, this time around, closes the album on a joke note, even if McGuinn couldn't really sing in joke mode to save his life, so there's a bizarre desperation to his vocals on the verses, you just want to lend him a helping hand or something.

In a way, it may be so that Turn! Turn! Turn! captures the essence of the early Byrds tighter than Mr. Tambourine Man — by purging away some of the more obvious Beatles influences, and focusing more sternly on the American side of business. But then, of course, you can always make the argument that by purging those influences they tipped the balance a bit too far in the «folk» direction of «folk rock», and this made the songs less memorable and the whole experi­ence less fun. (I know I could certainly have been made more happy with something like ʽIt's No Useʼ on this record). And ultimately, it's one of those mood swing things, I guess. The record clearly deserves a thumbs up and a solid place in the canon, but in the context of the times... well, just remember the distance between Help! and Rubber Soul, or between Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and against that top level background, the Byrds weren't really doing all that great in late '65. Fortunately, they had the intuition to understand it.

8 comments:

  1. Here also begins the string of 11 song, 30 minute long Byrds albums that is broken only twice (Dr. Byrds and Untitled) in the remainder of their catalog.

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  2. "Set You Free This Timeʼ seems simple and repetitive, but oh that vocal part — out of nowhere, you have this bittersweet, quivering-but-struggling vocal" Yes! and especially with that retro slapback echo.

    "ʽIf You're Goneʼ, with another stunning vocal and... how the hell do they have that weird hum going on while Gene is singing? Sounds like vocal harmonies recorded from the bottom of a well or something." They were going for a droning effect, I think they're singing two long notes an octave apart. Yes, very Eastern of young Jim on that one.

    "And ʽOh! Susannahʼ, this time around, closes the album on a joke note, even if McGuinn couldn't really sing in joke mode to save his life" Yeah, he was a real comedian, that one. One of my least favorite of their covers of trad folk/Americana.

    You got it right, it's the little brother of Tambourine, but they would take a step forward with the next one.

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    1. I read somewhere that McGuinn was trying to imitate the sound of a BAGPIPE drone with those harmonies. Which is maybe one of those things that go to show the supposed differences between western and eastern music are largely what you go in expecting to find.

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    2. You're right, I was trying to remember the liner notes which I haven't read in 15 years. Pipes or strings, it's a beautiful touch.

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  3. Then my ears must be made of some other fabric - I hear a noticable improvement over the first album. More memorable originals, more diversity, better choice for covers, etc.

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  4. One of the bonus tracks, Stranger in a Strange Land is a simple repetitive instrumental that is nevertheless so hypnotic I can listen to it forever. There is a slight mystique to the band that elevates everything they do and gives it a subtle charm. The technical perfection of The Byrds I'm sure would be utterly boring and common place if they had formed five years after they did, but somehow they arrived at the perfect time to make everything they did seem fresh.

    This album which many decry as a retread to me seems to brim with ideas not seen on Mr Tambourine Man, though fact by being more inward oriented it's better suited for the Byrds fan than for the casual listener, so I'll admit the first album is better from a purely musical perspective. That is to say, I see less difference between TTT and 5D than between the debut and 5D.

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  5. I also prefer T, T, T, to Mr. TM. The second album has a better #1 hit lead-off, and is slightly more diverse. We get to hear some plain acoustic on 'He was a Friend of Mine' instead of the jingle-jangle, and on this track and 'Satisfied Mind' we hear the first Byrds' country-music impulses. The only song on the original LP that isn't great is their (weird) cover of 'The Times They are A-Changin'", which just doesn't come off. And the sad aspect of that is that it was jealousy of Gene Clark's songwriting royalties that kept "She Don't Care About Time" off the album (it appears on the single's B-side), when it was clearly one of the band's best-ever songs. Had that song been included in favor of that one limp cover, I'd certainly say this is easily The Byrds' best album. Happily, in the CD remaster-era, "She Don't Care About Time" (one of two songs that inspired Harrison's "If I Needed Someone") has been sort-of restored to the T,T,T, album.

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