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Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Byrds: Untitled


1) Lover Of The Bayou; 2) Positively 4th Street; 3) Nashville West; 4) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 5) Mr. Tambourine Man; 6) Mr. Spaceman; 7) Eight Miles High; 8) Chestnut Mare; 9) Truck Stop Girl; 10) All The Things; 11) Yesterday's Train; 12) Hungry Planet; 13) Just A Season; 14) Take A Whiff On Me; 15) You All Look Alike; 16) Well Come Back Home.

This was the most ambitious project of the «McGuinn Experience» — a double album, half live, half studio, presenting a seemingly solidified line-up (now including the far older and more experienced Skip Battin on bass as a replacement for John Yorke) that would bravely take The Byrds into the Seventies as successful survivors, alongside The Stones, The Who, The Kinks... well, no dice, really.

Even though the album was very warmly received by critics, even though its sales were strong, and even though it still enjoys a rather stable general reputation, I would call it a serious step down from the level of Ballad Of Easy Rider, and the true beginning of the end. It is not parti­cularly embarrassing — it is confused, feeble, and it does not seriously stand the gruesome levels of competition that were around circa 1970. (The confusion even extends to the album title — which came about by accident, as Columbia pressed copies before they had time to think of a proper name, using a first-draft album cover that still had (Untitled) indicated on it in the spot where the real album title should have been).

For starters, people like to praise the live half, but I do not really get it. The first side, mixing a few classics with recent material, sounds way too sloppy and rough for my ears — in particular, I find Clarence White's style of weaving in his lead guitar phrasing downright irritating: ʻMr. Tam­bourine Manʼ is almost completely destroyed by that stupid lead guitar playing some sort of jiggly country dance around McGuinn's vocals on the verse melody, and that's not even mentio­ning that the vocal harmonies on the chorus sound like a cat choir next to the gorgeousness of the original. Neither are the guitars well in sync on ʻMr. Spacemanʼ or on ʻPositively 4th Streetʼ, and since the Byrds are not truly a «rock and roll» band, it is hard to bring up the argument that they are compensating for the sloppiness with kick-ass energy and overdrive (not because they should not do that, but because they do not do that). Only ʻNashville Westʼ stands competition with the studio version, but it is not clear why they must go ahead and try to make everything else sound like ʻNashville Westʼ — except for the darker and harsher ʻLover Of The Bayouʼ, where they go for a voodooistic swamp-rock attitude (a little hilarious how Roger makes his voice sound so deep and hoarse), not something they'd ever tried before and therefore feeling a little artificial, though definitely not bad.

The key point here is whether or not you will like their 16-minute improvisation around ʻEight Miles Highʼ. There's some nifty musicianship displayed, for sure, particularly a cool rhythmic bass solo from Battin, but overall I would say that these guys are no Cream and no Grateful Dead when it comes to, let's say, «visionary jamming». The guitarists seem to stick to more or less the same direction, never trying to take things into a different key and permanently falling back on the same phrasing, so unless you manage to reach the desired state of trance very quickly, after a brief while it just gets ultra-boring. And although I have heard praise for the interplay between White and McGuinn, most of the time I don't even hear the interplay — McGuinn's guitar is quietly buried well below White's, who gets most of the spotlight. And he's good, but he ain't no Clapton. And with the total amount of bands who were doing 16-minute jams in 1970, one would think that the Byrds, of all these people, would have done well to constitute an exception, no?

In short, the live part, to me, is a serious disappointment (although this does not mean that the Byrds could not put up a good show — the Fillmore tapes from 1969 show the band in a much more self-assured shape). Unfortunately, the new studio material is not significantly better. Much of it (including also ʻLover Of The Bayouʼ on the live half) comes from the abandoned Gene Trip, a country-rock musical reimagining the story of Peer Gynt (!), co-written by McGuinn with the lyricist Jacques Levy (who would later work with Dylan on Desire); this means that Roger makes a grand return here as songwriter, which is not a very good omen — and indeed, the songs are rarely among his best.

ʻChestnut Mareʼ has a pretty chorus melody, but suffers from rather boring spoken verses and also from being overlong — basically just five minutes of story-telling, occasionally interrupted by a couple of lovely vocal lines. ʻAll The Thingsʼ sounds pretty until you realize that it is really McGuinn's attempt to write his own ʻMy Back Pagesʼ — note the contrast between the main bulk of the verse and the conclusive refrain with vocal harmonies — and in contrast with that song, ʻAll The Thingsʼ is just pretty, not visionary. ʻJust A Seasonʼ is probably the catchiest and most intimately endearing piece of the lot, but it has to grow on you a bit. None of the other songs, ex­cept for the cute novelty bit of Leadbelly's ʻTake A Whiff On Meʼ, done with humor and passion (and it's always nice to hear a direct reference to cocaine, which, funny enough, must have pro­bably sounded more controversial in 1970 than it was at the time when Leadbelly sang it), any­way, none of the other songs ever made much of an impression on me. Just fluffy, inoffensive, forgettable country-rock.

It should be noted that ʻHungry Planetʼ and ʻYou All Look Alikeʼ mark the first appearance of the great rock'n'roll swindler, Kim Fowley, on a Byrds album — although for the moment, they are not particularly embarrassing, and Skip Battin, who was the one to bring Fowley along, pro­bably was responsible for the music anyway. The lyrics to ʻHungry Planetʼ are banal, but not stupid — it is far more problematic that the song tries to kick up some sort of syncopated funky groove, but the music just limps along (a few tasty acoustic licks on the solo, but nothing to hold your interest for more than three seconds in a row). Much worse: what's up with the drunk quasi-yodelling during the extended coda to ʻWell Come Back Homeʼ? Now that's just plain stupid. If they wanted a ʻHey Judeʼ vibe, they should have brought in Paul McCartney instead.

Consequently, I seem to belong to the minority that does not think much at all of this record, be it live or studio. Of course, formally, it is the band's bulkiest project — so bulky, in fact, that in the program of remastering and reissuing the original albums Untitled became the only one to get a 2-CD release, «renamed» to (Untitled)/(Unreleased). Predictably, the second disc is not better than the first one — some alternate takes, some unmemorable outtakes, a studio version of ʻLo­ver Of The Bayouʼ that hardly bests the live variant, and more live performances that are just as sloppy as the old ones: okay at best, inferior at worst (ʻThis Wheel's On Fireʼ meanders aimlessly without recapturing the heavy apocalyptic vibe of the Dr. Byrds version). On the whole, both the original and the new version fall in the «not too good, not too bad» category, and clearly demon­strate that The Byrds had turned into thoroughly second-rate players.


  1. Your opinion on this one has seriously changed. Didn't you give it a higher grade than Ballad? Anyways, I like this one, maybe not more than its predecessor like you used to, but the live sides and the better studio cuts make it overall as good, even if as individual songs they won't reach the heights of the previous year.

  2. I get the impression that George's opinion of the Byrds in general has declined in the years since the original site. The general tone of these new reviews suggest an engagement with a 3-star band, not a 4-star. George seems especially hard on Untitled, which is puzzling since I think it clearly represents Byrds Mark II at their peak. The musicianship on the live cuts is miles ahead of what the original lineup could have achieved (you just need to adjust your expectations to something closer to the Allman Bros. than the original "pretty" Byrds) and the best of the new studio cuts are wonderfully beautiful, understated, faintly melancholic country-pop. And then of course there is "Lover of the Bayou," which is the best song CCR never wrote. For once, McGuinn manages a Dylan-esque growl that is fairly convincing. I would agree that the psychedelic pretenses of tracks like "Hungry Planet" and "Well Come Back Home" have not aged well, but they all meet a minimum standard of catchiness and I can't get irritated with them like I can with the worst Crosby excesses, such as "Mind Gardens." I'm assuming that George is by now too familiar with this record to ever change his mind about it, but I would advise curious listeners not to avoid it. Along with Ballad of Easy Rider, Untitled is latter-day Byrds at their best, and a forgotten gem of the greatest period for roots rock.

    1. "The general tone of these new reviews suggest..."

      "Suggests," I mean.

  3. I disagree, this is the Country Byrds' best record. No, the live stuff can't stand up to Live at Leeds, Get Your Ya-Ya's, or Wheels of Fire. And the latter day line up was never configured to play the Golden Era material. Indeed, the classics are the weakest of Disc 1. But taken on their own terms, they actually come up with a decent sound. Part of their charm was their sloppiness, and its works on LOTB, that's the live band's best song. 4th St. is decent, in spite of the flubbed beginning. And actually SYWBARARS is pretty good, the "jazziness" kind of lends itself to their jammy approach. Speaking of jams, 8MH is indeed overlong, and the opening vamps have nothing to do with the song itself, which is actually kind of anti-climactic, but it keeps my attention at least until Skip starts wanking about.

    Of the studio tracks, I actually like the Gene Tryp stuff the most. Chestnut Mare, with probably the most beautiful melody McGuinn ever came up with, overcomes those squirmy lyrics about mounting and riding and bathing a horse, topped off with "She'll be just like a wife?" But then Levy was a bit of a nut. Just A Season is a sweet little biographical song; If I had a TV Show about my life, this would be my theme song (Well, either that or Behind Blue Eyes, but I think one of the CSI's has already taken that one). On the other hand, Truck Stop Girl proves why Clarence never sang, and Well Come Home is okay until Skip starts chanting... But overall it's a great record, it has a wrecked charm all its own.

    1. I have always LOVED Clarence's vocal on "Truck Stop Girl" - different strokes for different folks.

    2. No, surprisingly, the CSIs haven't gotten a hold of that Who song. I think the newest one (CSI Cyber or something) snagged "I Can See for Miles", though

    3. Maybe I was thinking of the Who's 9/11 shows in NYC, in which they dedicated BBE to the NYPD. Always seemed kind of odd, the song is from the POV of a bad guy, I guess they were connecting blue eyes with blue uniforms? I actually dig that all the CSI's use their songs. Here's a few suggestions for future series:
      CSI Washington: Eminence Front
      CSI London: The Real Me
      CSI Detroit: Goin' Mobile (Cause they make cars)
      CSI Seattle: Love Reign O'er Me (Cause it rains a lot)