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Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Byrds: Byrdmaniax

THE BYRDS: BYRDMANIAX (1971)

1) Glory, Glory; 2) Pale Blue; 3) I Trust; 4) Tunnel Of Love; 5) Citizen Kane; 6) I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician; 7) Absolute Happiness; 8) Green Apple Quick Step; 9) My Destiny; 10) Kathleen's Song; 11) Jamaica Say You Will.

Approximate critical consensus says thus: The Roger McGuinn Experience fell flat on its face with Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, miraculously recovered with Ballad Of Easy Rider, miraculously climaxed with Untitled, then just as immediately fell flat on its face again with Byrdmaniax, in a series of rise-and-tumbles that are all too strange to understand considering that (a) the band, at this point, never went through major lineup changes, (b) pursued more or less the same sty­listic course, and (c) hardly aspired to getting back in the major league by adapting to the times (e. g. shifting over to hard rock or glam).

I cannot really subscribe to this point of view. Yes, some of the 1969-72 records may certainly be a little worse or a little better than others, depending on how many unfunny novelty numbers are included or on whether McGuinn wants to inject some symbolism in his song structures or not. But on the whole, this period is even — no major marvels or disasters, and I find myself shrug­ging my shoulders both at the loving appraisal of Untitled and at the exaggerated disgust for Byrdmaniax, the ill-fated follow-up.

Supposedly, the Achilles' heel of Byrdmaniax is an increased degree of Kim Fowley's involve­ment in the life of the Byrds — this time, the man has a whoppin' three co-credits with Skip Bat­tin, and two of them sound as far away from what we expect of the Byrds as anything: ʻTunnel Of Loveʼ is a useless five-minute recreation of Fats Domino's ʻBlueberry Hillʼ groove accompanying a rather macabre, Alice Cooper-worthy, lyrical fantasy; and ʻCitizen Kaneʼ is two minutes of vaudeville nostalgizing about pre-war Hollywood values (actually, despite being so very un-Byrd­sey, it's actually somewhat funny, and quite harmless with its 2:37 running time). ʻAbsolute Happinessʼ takes a more serious tone, but hardly registers as an actual song — it is so quiet and so lacking in melodic presence that you can never properly remember what is so absolute about it.

However, Fowley's presence alone is hardly sufficient to make the album a complete disaster. For one thing, it's got a really strong opener — the energetic cover of the ʻGlory, Gloryʼ spiritual, with what might be one of McGuinn's strongest ever vocal performances for the band; those high notes on "I wanna thank you Jesus" and on the hallelujahs, combined with Roger's timbre, sting all the right emotional centers, and although the arrangement has been criticized for the fast-moving piano part, I think it totally belongs in the song. For another thing, ʻPale Blueʼ and ʻKathleen's Songʼ, even if they are not masterpieces, are at least as good as any ballad on Untit­led, and I also do not think that Melcher's orchestration spoils either of them as long as it does not drown out the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals (and it does not).

There's also ʻI Trustʼ, Roger's experiment in crossing R&B/gospel aesthetics with country-rock arrangements that is neither too inspiring nor too disappointing, but again, his singing on the track is to be heavily commended; decent covers of Helen Carter's ʻMy Destinyʼ (not that worse than anything on Sweetheart) and Jackson Browne's ʻJamaica Say You Willʼ; and Roger's own take on the vaudeville genre, ʻI Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politicianʼ, which is even more trivial than the Fowley song but is also even shorter. Finally, ʻGreen Apple Quick Stepʼ is basically ʻNashville West Vol. 2ʼ, arguably done in a more down-to-earth, rustic style than its predecessor, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Also, now that the album has been properly reissued on CD, you can also take the liberty of replacing any of its worst numbers with a nice cover of ʻJust Like A Womanʼ that was recorded during the sessions but not used for some reason. Okay, that would be a cheap cop-out, but the general assessment stands: Byrdmaniax is a problematic record that suffers from some erroneous decisions (including, most definitely, the decision to place a set of the band members' death masks on the front cover! what were they thinking?), but it is by no means an artistic embarrass­ment compared to its immediate predecessors. Same mix of nice, boring, and throwaway pieces as usual — most likely, it is primarily its total lack of ambitiousness that earned it its negative points in 1971, when not being ambitious counted as being worse than nothing.

2 comments:

  1. Byrdmaniax almost comes off as The Notorious Byrd Brothers turned inside out. While the reckless experimentation of 1967 at least afforded the original Byrds a splendid sendoff, the bizarre melange of choral and orchestral effects pasted on to what sound like half-hearted rehearsal takes gives the impression of the 1971 band being laid out in their caskets (silver death masks, indeed!) while random New Orleans Dixieland funeral party music plays in the background.

    There are some highlights. Citizen Kane is a wry send up, My Destiny has a delightfully earnest vocal from Clarence, and Pale Blue is a nice bit of lovelorn Irish whimsy. The rest of the material gives one the odd sensation of sitting down to a meal that's been simultaneously overcooked and underdone. A wretched meal, and such little portions!

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  2. I like the album myself, although I agree with pretty much everyone that there are some serious flaws:

    1) the running order seems odd. In a short stretch you get three songs by Battin, interrupted only by a short throwaway song from McGuinn, while both of Clarence's songs are tucked away at the end. The album comes across as a bunch of solo songs.

    2) as much as I love Battin and will (nearly) always defend him, Tunnel of Love stinks.

    3) Where's Gene Parsons on this album? Where's a Gunga Din or Yesterday's Train?

    4) I don't mind a lot of Melcher's orchestration, but some of it is heavy-handed - My Destiny sounds too slick, Jamaica Say You Will is smothered, Green Apple Quick Step sounds cluttered.

    5) To a certain extent I have this problem with the last bunch of albums, but the live half of (Untitled) showed the band not just as a country-rock band, but at times simply a rock band. The material here doesn't let the band stretch out at all.

    Anyway, as a fan of the album I'd recommend hunting down the quad mix too - a lot of it makes more sense: Jamaica Say You Will is prettier, Politician has some jangly-Byrds 12 string, My Destiny has a bit more oomph etc etc.

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