Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Byrds - Untitled / Unissued (1970)

The Byrds (10) -  Untitled  plus Unissued (1970)

No album by the Byrds -- at least, among those that weren't originally regarded as well-nigh perfect -- has risen more in some reviewers' estimation in the time since its release than Untitled. True, it always had a following -- and among the later (i.e., post-1968) Byrds albums, it was always the one to own, even if you weren't a huge fan. A double LP issued with two discs for the price of one, Untitled was one of the rare modest commercial successes for the latter-day group, which was understandable, as its 69 minutes of music held a great deal of allure, but the album's sales success was also a result of all of the talent there was in the latter-day group, as well as most of the circumstances surrounding its creation all lining up, for once, in the same direction. The first of the two LPs was a live recording from Queens College's Colden Center, from a February 1970 concert, and it was also somewhat contentious at the time. Some longtime fans -- remembering the fine harmony singing and the carefully articulated playing of the original five-man lineup from the mid-'60s -- didn't care for the approach taken by the 1970-vintage version of the band. It was only in the last decade of the 20th century, many years distant from any version of the band, that some came to accept this recording on its own terms. But then the whole album came into proper focus -- the live rendition of "Eight Miles High," which takes up a full side by itself, is the high point of the whole release, a 15-minute jam that showcases this band's prowess, which extended far beyond Roger McGuinn and Clarence White's playing; the original quintet may have sung better, but could never have done with any part of its repertory what this lineup (McGuinn, White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) did on-stage, as captured here. What's more, the rest of that live set isn't to be slighted -- just when it seemed like one couldn't breathe life into "Mr. Spaceman," "Mr. Tambourine Man," or "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," Clarence White and company do just that, with the added attraction of a first-rate Dylan cover ("Positively 4th Street") plus a new, better than first-rate Roger McGuinn song, "Lover of the Bayou." The latter was a remnant of the musical that McGuinn had been working on with Jacques Levy, a rock adaptation of Peer Gynt to have been entitled Gene Tryp.

Other parts of that busted musical highlight the studio platter on Untitled: "Chestnut Mare," "All the Things," and "Just a Season," all of which were among the finest songs the Byrds ever recorded, and some of their best recordings ever. After a couple of false starts on the two prior albums, this lineup solidified to the point where the influence of new members Gene Parsons and Skip Battin was manifest, along with Clarence White's distinctive guitar playing, and the result was that the familiar timbre of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker is pushed somewhat aside, in favor of a leaner country-rock orientation; this includes a lot more acoustic guitar on the studio sides, as well as mandolin in at least one place. On some of this material (especially the Parsons-Battin "Yesterday's Train" and Battin's "Well Come Back Home"), they sound more like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and on Leadbelly's "Take a Whiff," the mandolin is the lead instrument. Sad to say, amid all of this diversity of sounds -- and lovers of stringed instruments should adore this album -- the only song on the album to get heard was McGuinn's "Chestnut Mare" (which was a Top 20 single), but "Truck Stop Girl," "All the Things," "Take a Whiff," and, especially, "Just a Season" (maybe the prettiest song McGuinn has ever written) also hold up very well. Indeed, listening to this album nearly 40 years later, it now seems as though this is the place where the latter-day version of the group finally justified itself as something more important than just a continuation of the mid-'60s band. There are still some spots that are weaker than others -- Skip Battin's "Hungry Planet," very much an acquired taste, being a case in point -- but between the musicianship and the vast number of peaks achieved among the individual songs, Untitled now seems much more like a pinnacle for the Byrds, and also for the brand of folk-rock and country-rock that they spearheaded.

1-01 Lover Of The Bayou  (Live)
1-02 Positively 4th Street
1-03 Nashville West
1-04 So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star
1-05 Mr. Tambourine Man
1-06 Mr. Spaceman
1-07 Eight Miles High
1-08 Chestnut Mare
1-09 Truck Stop Girl
1-10 All The Things
1-11 Yesterday's Train
1-12 Hungry Planet
1-13 Just A Season
1-14 Take A Whiff On Me
1-15 You All Look Alike
1-16 Welcome Back Home
2-01 All The Things (Alternate Version)
2-02 Yesterday's Train (Alternate Version)
2-03 Lover Of The Bayou (Studio)
2-04 Kathleen's Song (Alternate Version)
2-05 White's Lightning Pt. 2 (Studio)
2-06 Willin' (Studio)
2-07 You Ain't Goin' Nowhere (Live)
2-08 Old Blue (Live)
2-09 It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (Live)
2-10 Ballad Of Easy Rider (Live)
2-11 My Back Pages (Live)
2-12 Take A Whiff On Me (Live)
2-13 Jesus Is Just Alright (Live)
2-14 This Wheels On Fire (Live)

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