THE BYRDS: UNTITLED (1970)
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.