Thursday, November 20, 2014

David Crosby, Croz (2014)

“I have a dream, a great man said/another man came and shot him in the head”: such is what passes for wisdom in the lyrics of a decaying man-child. I blame this album for singlehandedly derailing my effort to get this blog back off the ground, many a month ago; I checked it out from the library, renewed it, renewed it again, and just could not bring myself to play the damn thing. Finally I uploaded it to my iPod, returned it, and forgot about the whole affair until, months later, trapped on a crowded bus crawling east across Los Angeles from Westwood to downtown at rush hour the other week, I figured life couldn’t get much worse and it was thus the perfect time to pull the trigger.

Well, Croz is not worse than it promised. It might even be the perfect soundtrack for a slow-motion death-march through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. I’m not sure DC himself knows what decade it is, mentioning “static and hiss” on “Radio” as if he hadn’t heard about that durn digital thing. Or maybe he does know the score, but just really needed to find that challenging rhyme for the previous line’s “this.” It’s not all monosyllabic simpleton lyrics, though, as he strives for the highfalutin platitudes that have marked his work since it first began defacing Byrds tracklists; “fear is the antithesis of peace,” the Croz decrees on “Time I Have.” Man also has cranky things to say about city life. Truly, it is all mind-numbingly abysmal, dragged along by aimless guitar noodling, silly two-finger solos occasionally bending a string over plodding chord-strums (Mark Knopfler guests, but with the vim and vigor of Ghostface obliging Inspectah Deck with a guest verse, clearly saving the A-game for his own work), half-awake pseudo-jazz drumming, and bored-session-player bass (probably the most solid part). There’s an almost-okay song in the subdued acoustic wistfulness of “Holding on to Nothing,” during which DC nearly bothers to construct a melody, but otherwise everything here is bloated, pointless, stupid, and grating. At least Stephen freaking Stills has the decency to just live in the perpetual past.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Demos (2009)

Greg Demos is a god of rock. Dude is old, wears tight leather pants, wipes out on the Letterman show like it ain't no thang, and throttles his bass like someone living the dream, not going through the motions (ahem, Messrs. CS&N).

In my fantasy version of this album, Demos joins the three crusty old fogeys and shakes something loose, something vital and vibrant and raunchy, like the opposite of Rick Rubin ossifying geezers into statesmen, and they all bash out a bunch of garage jams like the Byrds were secretly just the Troggs with some jangle all along.

Alas, this is not my fantasy LP. It is all too literal demos. So we get these songs stripped down, back in ye olden times, shorn not only of full arrangements but even of the harmonies that were the only thing ever making CSN conceivably worthwhile. Thus we see the songwriting sinews of “Almost Cut My Hair” and “Marrakesh Express,” but anyone listening to those songs for the songwriting has a vastly different, and incomprehensibly sadder, understanding of music from me.

“Love the One You’re With” had a different melody originally, that’s almost interesting to note. Otherwise, a total wash. Fewer demos, more Demos.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Roger McGuinn, Back from Rio (1991)

After some time off here, a comeback album seems about right. And to give credit where credit due, while McGuinn has always seemed clueless, whichever A&R dude came up with this knew what he was doing—as far as I can tell, the basic logic was, “McGuinn can’t write a song to save his life, but he can still make a guitar jangle, so let’s just bury him in purchased talent and pray he follows their leads.”

He does. When the guitar on the second track momentarily seems to launch into “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star,” it might be a knowing wink, or it might signify the creative dead end McGuinn had been stalled at for twenty years, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter: it’s sharp and punchy, and it doesn't pause to think. In many ways this is second-tier major-label rock at its finest.

Okay, not always lyrically. “Car Phone” comes about ten years late (wasn’t McGuinn himself already carrying a mobile phone on the cover of The City ten years ago? Maybe it was a walkie-talkie, but whatever—this is get-off-my-lawn music); “The Trees Are All Gone” is nearly trite enough to be a Graham Nash eco-ballad; “Your Love is a Gold Mine” takes a deeply unpromising structuring conceit, and excavates every ounce of forced metaphor it can. When Elvis Costello shows up to write some snarling music-biz swipes at a sell-out on “You Bowed Down,” it’s positively not 4th street, but maybe somewhere in the vicinity. Yet it seems a little rich being sung by the guy who’s been the Platonic embodiment of bland corporate rock since at least the early 70s.

But Back from Rio hardly lives or dies by its words; they’re more like a rhythm section to hang the hooks on, and there, it delivers. McGuinn jangles. The melodies soar and crash into rousing choruses. There’s not a dud track here—and there damn well shouldn’t be, since the suits brought in ex-Byrds (Hillman and Crosby), Costello, Tom Petty and a good chunk of the Heartbreakers, Michael Penn, Dave Stewart, Jules Shear on songwriting duty, and even outlier Stan Ridgeway for a cameo. It might be akin to shooting a dying athlete full of speed for one last game, but McGuinn stays awake all the way through.

Alas—and an “alas” is inevitable with a McGuinn solo LP: the track lengths. Good Christ, they drag. The first few Byrds albums often hovered around two minutes per track, and were perfect for it; here, songs lumber to their death at double that, and needlessly so. “King of the Hill” is a killer duet between McGuinn and Petty, but at 5:27 it’s practically a goddamned Soundgarden tune, running itself painfully into the ground. Did Arista pay so much for the hired help that it insisted on squeezing extra choruses out of them? I have no idea, but it’s a colossal mistake. Every song here is good-to-very-good on the merits; every song here is also too long by a minimum of 30%, and the result is a plodding record that, pared down, could easily stand with the best of the non-Parsons/Clark post-Byrds albums. McGuinn co-wrote “The Time Has Come,” but sadly, did not sufficiently think through its implications.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Byrds, Live at the Fillmore, February 1969 (2000)

No question  about it, I was a skeptic: the damn band put out a live record in 1970, so what’s the point of this beyond cynical label cash-grab?

And probably that was the point, since what else motivates labels? But that doesn’t stop this from asserting its own identity, independent of (Untitled), and capturing the band precisely at a transitional moment. It had only been four years since they broke big, but it seemed careers ago; they’re clearly eager to move beyond the past, cramming “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Eight Miles High” into one oldies-hit-parade medley that they blast through in a ten-minute fury (as opposed to the sprawling side-long “Eight Miles” on the 1970 record). It works—while McGuinn is rarely an impassioned singer (to his frequent detriment), he shouts himself hoarse on a “So You Want To Be a Rock’N’Roll Star” that could nearly pass as a punk band in 1978, all clanging chords and John York swooping through on bass.

But the band wants to play its new material, and while the just-released Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde was hardly a high point, they rock “King Apathy III” as if it were, and almost convince. McGuinn’s vocals on the tracks that Gram Parsons would also claim separately (esp. “Sing Me Back Home” and “Close Up the Honky Tonks”) can’t help suffering in comparison, but he and the rest of the group seethe through a fantastic “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and close things out with more Dylan, a rousing “Chimes of Freedom.” Even the generally lackluster “He Was a Friend of Mine”—always one of my least-favorite Byrds songs, a treacly tread of misplaced nostalgia—comes to life. I still have no idea why both McGuinn and Parsons were so thin-skinned about being dissed by a DJ that they both kept “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” in their sets, but at least it dies before the 2:30 mark. Even David Fricke’s liner notes deliver—the idea of the first Byrds show at the Fillmore, in 1966, occurring alongside a production of LeRoi Jones’ The Dutchman is just kind of astonishing—as is the fact that they were reduced to opening for some Butterfield Blues Band dudes by the point of this recording. Huh? 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Bros, Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969 (2007)

The first impressions of this 2-disc set effectively cancel each other out: Amoeba has outdone itself with lovely packaging, full of great archival photos and two short essays, one a loving recollection of Parsons and the Burrito Bros by Pamela Des Barres, the other a nicely detailed recounting of digging through the Grateful Dead archives (for whom the FBB were opening) for these tapes, and then the desperate quest to secure rights, by Dave Prinz. But then, that title: I’m hardly here to demand a place on the marquee for Michael Clarke, but it simply misrepresents things—as the opening audio itself makes clear—to credit this to Parsons and reduce the FBB to a supporting band. For a release so committed to musical history, that’s an unfortunate concession to (admitted) market realities, and a bit of an insult to (perhaps overly sensitive) listeners.

Well, there’s also music here—though mostly, nothing crucial from the two (April 4 and 6) very-similar live sets that replaces any LP versions. The real treasures are the two demos on disc 1, especially a spare, heartbreaking “Thousand Dollar Wedding.” "Nothing crucial" doesn't mean unworthy of a listen, though--learning the story of the "old boy" line from "Hot Burrito #1" while hearing it is worth a sniffle or two. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Dillard & Clark, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968)

The Byrds all went rustic concurrently in the late 60s, despite being apart. Unsurprisingly, Gene Clark did it best; while the remaining official-Byrds began strip-mining the past for inspiration, Crosby rotted away on a farm with CSNY, and the Burrito Brothers only slowly eased into place, the best songwriting, melodies, and singing were all to be found here—naturally, in the shadows of all those albums, in terms of public profile.

It is a literal expedition—down to New Orleans, from Memphis to Colorado, crossing into San Bernardino (in the restored outtake “Lyin’ Down the Middle”)—and unlike the space-age flight fixations of Roger McGuinn, Clark still travels the old routes; “Train Leaves Here This Morning” is both song and entire worldview. He drifts from one heartbreak to the next, and if it’s not quite as sorrowful as subsequent solo albums, Dillard’s ace picking and strumming has a lot to do with it. Clark is in righteous form as always, forlorn until he tears it up on a (non-LP) “Don’t Be Cruel” that sounds like an instruction manual for Gram Parsons, who wished he could do this (and whose fellow Burritos pop up, including a mini-Byrd reunion with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke). It’s hard to believe these are nearly all originals—they whisk by in under a half-hour, sounding effortless and timeless. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Byrds, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969)

Clarence White is here, and he ain’t yer Sweetheart: he rings this LP in with some crashing chords that bring “This Wheel’s on Fire” closer to Blue Cheer than Gram Parsons. Later, fellow Byrd-n00b Gene Parsons adds such a cavernous drum sound to “Child of the Universe” that one might mistake it for a guest appearance from John Bonham. This is what happens when you repopulate a rock band in 1969, apparently. 

Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde is an odd, deeply uneven LP, lost in the shadows of 1968’s moment in the sun, and their biggest commercial dud, according to David Fricke’s reissue liner notes (which strive nobly, if futilely, to reclaim it as "the Great Forgotten Byrds Album"--it is one of those things, but not both). I’ve been listening to it every other year or so for a decade, and have only just begun to appreciate it, so I guess it’s what you’d call a grower. Still, it has its moments: “Old Blue” proves you can’t go wrong singing about a favorite dog, and “Bad Night at the Whiskey” is a great title for an anomalous outlier at the rockier end of the Byrds spectrum. There’s some dumb, lazy political commentary in “King Apathy III” and “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” (a McGuinn/Gram Parsons co-write that the latter would also play, and also fail to bring to life), and I’m not sure why White and the new Parsons imported some of their Nashville West jamming, but all the confusing twists and turns do ultimately make for an unpredictable, if muddled, one-off experiment. Clunky as the title is, it captures the schizoid feel of this one. And that title-font, wow. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live 1973 (1982)

Tuesday afternoon in Long Island: Gram Parsons and crew show up at the local radio station, play a live set, then head on to Philly. Probably nobody involved would have ever thought of it again, but a decade later some suit sees green, and presto: posthumous live album. Nothing here supersedes LP versions, though a sparse “Love Hurts” lets the Gram-and-Emmy duet vocals run the show, without the distraction of lead guitarist Jock Bartley, building some cred as a Fallen Angel before shaking it for soft-rock lucre in Firefall (and thus constituting one more node in the dense web of Byrdsian connections of 70s rock). All too often, Bartley drenches songs in what wankers used to call “hot licks,” but the more restrained takes, such as “The New Soft Shoe,” can be lovely. Parsons’s demeanor ranges from diffident to dickish in his banter, and he doesn’t seem particularly enthused to be there; the tired toursong “Six Days on the Road”—which the Parsonsless Burrito Brothers were also playing at the time—might be the truest thing here.

So, hardly revelatory, but no album with Emmylou Harris has ever been less than listenable.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chris Hillman, Like a Hurricane (1998)

As mushy old-man country-rock of the late 90s goes, the closing track here, “Heaven’s Lullaby,” isn’t bad—not quite a melody for the ages, but it would have been a more deserving hit than, say, that crapulent “Butterfly Kisses” song. The rest of the album suffers from the same blandness as most Hillman solo LPs—apparently he really needs a band around him to shake him from his complacency. Still, it’s never less than pleasant, and the old Searchers song “When You Walk in the Room,” which the Byrds picked up from them three decades earlier while gigging together, retains power-pop kick even as midtempo country. Hillman frequently sounds treacly and churlish—“Sooner or Later” opens by chiding a woman for wasting money “buying foolish things,” gah—but the most obnoxious thing here is the title. I know titles can’t be copyrighted, yada yada yada, but come on man, I think you might be familiar with an obscure Canadian recording artist called Neil Young? Not only is your song vastly inferior to his, but the central simile isn’t even developed in any extended way that makes it crucial. Couldn’t you just call it “Like a Tornado” instead? Like a Whipping Wind? This always annoys me, though I suppose it's better than that classic track “Wish You Were Here,” by those gods of hubris, Incubus.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Manassas, Down the Road (1973)

Several months ago, the first Manassas album pulled off the surprising feat of forcing me to say nice things about Prig of Prigs Stephen Stills. So I approached the followup with trepidation: must I set aside my disdain yet again? I prefer to wallow in scorn. 

Well, hmm: it’s not bad. Down the Road has none of the epic sweep of the debut double-LP, coming in at a concise half-hour. The first side has some strong moments; opener “Isn’t It About Time” comes vaguely close to incisive social commentary, while a rare Chris Hillman composition, “Lies,” approximates rocking. While the second side begins to blur together, Stills is still at his best when drowned out by his large, dexterous band, and there’s an ambitious multiculturalism here, with some lyrics in Spanish (including all of “Pensamiento”). As always, Stills has little to say but a big desire to say it, though the ego sprawl is held in check by a rhythm section that knows how to assert itseslf, and it’s over before it can grate. Dig the cover art, too (though of course Stills poses himself like the lord of the table). 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen, Running Wild (2001)

Louvin Brothers citation notwithstanding, that title wildly overstates the case; Sitting Mild comes closer to the condition of these four gents (longtime friends who first met in 1963, as Geoffrey Himes’s helpful liner notes observe), who sound as if they’re chilling on a porch together having an off-the-cuff hootenanny. I mean that as praise, though—they’re all pros, who have eased into a relaxed warmth that suffuses the whole album. Songs come and go, but the organic vibe stays cohesive, with the one glaring exception of Larry Rice’s cringe-inducing, treacly “The Mystery That Won’t Go Away” (if you’re going to sing a godawful song about JonBenĂ©t Ramsey, maybe try to at least pronounce her name right?). Hillman sings lead on about half the tracks, with the others spread around; there’s not a ton of original songwriting here, with covers ranging from the Beatles to the Louvins to Buck Owens to Hillman’s old bandmate Stephen Stills (a terrible songwriter, but nicely redeemed through performance alone on “4 + 20”), but Hillman’s “San Antone” kicks things off a strong Desert Rose Band note. 

Pretty sure anyone who listens to this knows exactly what they're in for; there's something comforting in that, though at times you almost wish for some random left-field radio-bait cameo from, say, Dave Grohl or Christina Aguilera just to throw a curveball into the mix. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Byrds, Preflyte (1969)

I know their artistic ambitions aspired to ever loftier terrain, but I like the Byrds* as a simple pop band, which is exactly what Preflyte delivers. Recorded in 1964, when they were just five cute, goofy young men posing on the back cover with rifles (Gene Clark, unarmed and pensive, hides behind a scrawny tree, naturally), but leaked only in '69, this delivers eleven songs in 25 minutes, only one topping 2:30, and then by a mere second. Some are dry runs for album tracks, and none are holy grails of lost song, but “You Showed Me” reclaims a McGuinn/Clark composition from its better-known Turtles hit, and Gene Clark has never rocked as unselfconsciously as he does on “You Movin’,” surely the most Beatles-dance-party song he ever wrote. I can imagine the older, wiser, sadder Clark sneering at it, but for two shouted, stomping minutes, it’s the best thing in the world.

* I only just noticed that the only place the Byrds are actually named on this LP is in the liner notes--not on the cover, side, or record itself. So technically it should be credited to Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke--but to hell with that. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Flying Burrito Bros, Last of the Red Hot Burritos (1972)

Nobody’s ever going to mistake Chris Hillman for a charismatic frontman, but with Gram Parsons off en route to an early death and Rick Roberts departed for more of a slow artistic death in Firefall (after a strange alternate/parallel-Burrito-Bros tour, it seems), it fell on Hillman to steer the good ship Burrito. That he did so by charting course for bluegrass instrumentals halfway through side 1 of this live LP probably helped seal the commercial fate of the record, though it does have a loopy integrity (unlike the disingenuous liner notes, which begin with a meaty Parsons interview, his absence from the album be damned).

Nothing here catches fire—lord knows this “Hot Burrito #2” ain’t red hot at all—but Hillman gives “Six Days on the Road” a solid journeyman go, and it’s got that contract-filler brevity that keeps things from overstaying their welcome. Still, a pretty inauspicious way for the last lingering vestiges of the original FBB lineup to say goodbye and clear the decks for the hacks who replaced them.