Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Notorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds

In some ways, this album was the culmination of the experimentation which characterised the Byrds' recordings since 1966, containing as it did traces of folk rock, country, psychedelia and pure pop. That it was recorded during a period when tension within the group was at its height makes its artistic merit and cohersion mildly astounding. It is probably the most enduring and accomplished work of the Byrds' career.

The album opens with the R&B influenced "Artificial Energy", one of the tracks undeniably enhanced by contributions from outside session musicians. Michael Clarke's drumming is also impressive and punchy here.

Next up is the Byrds' sublime rendition of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin standard "Goin Back".  The pedal steel of Red Rhodes lends the track a mournful quality, and is tastefully blended with Roger McGuinn's trademark 12-string guitar, and keyboards. McGuinn and Chris Hillman handle the delicate harmonies beautifully, David Crosby having departed the group. The lyrics of the song perfectly capture the regretful feelings of the group members, as they reached a crossroads in  their careers.

"Natural Harmony" exemplified Chris Hillman's growing confidence as a songwriter, displaying as it did few of his bluegrass and country influences. Studio effects such as phasing were employed here to complement the lyrics and melody.

The following track, "Draft Morning", must count as one of the towering moments in the Byrds' career, and was perhaps Crosby's final great contribution to the cause. Unmistakably a commentary on the evils of war, and particularly the Vietnam War then raging, what is most noticeable is the restrained delivery of both the song and its lyrics. There was no need to get "in the face" of the listener;the lyrics and sound-effects were left to do the talking.

By way of light relief, "Wasn't Born To Follow", another King/Goffin number, presaged the country-tinged direction of the Byrds' future endeavours. Embellished by the glistening guitar-picking of Clarence White, and more phasing effects, the bouncy optimism of this song balanced some of the weightier fare elsewhere on the album.

Roger McGuinn takes the lead vocal on "Get to You", a pleasant if rather bland poppy song, featuring strings and more pedal steel guitar. However, like much of the album it has a tuneful and attractive quality which is hard to dislike, and like the other tracks it blends seamlessly into the whole.

Moving on, "Change is Now" is another "Zeitgeist"-related number, although not having any writing contribution from Crosby. Once again Hillman and McGuinn rise to the occasion with their ethereal vocals, and they are underpinned by a throbbing acid-rock accompaniment, which periodically dissolves into a countrified passage.

"Old John Robertson" is another country/bluegrass flavoured song, with some classical and psychedelic bits superimposed. A whimsical tale, it serves as undemanding preparation for the finale of the LP.

"Gathering of Tribes" is quintessential Crosby, with assistance from Hillman. Unusual time-signatures, with the abrupt tempo changes so redolent of this album., reflect the experimental nature of the track.

The penultimate track on the original album, "Dolphin's Smile", can be seen as emblematic of the nascent ecological movement, a recurring theme indeed throughout this whole work. Featuring some startling sound-effects, and the Byrds' customary blend of chiming guitars and harmonies, this song has an airy feel, and the obligatory middle-eight "freak out" section.

The closing number, "Space Odyssey" is a curious blend of folk and futurism, illustrating McGuinn's preoccupation with science-fiction and the group's willingness to embrace new technology, in this case the Moog synthesizer. It is an appropriately peculiar way to conclude the album.

The CD re-release featured the unreleased and haunting Crosby composition, "Triad".

In summary, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" concludes the first phase of the Byrds' career, not just continuing their exploration of what was often dubbed "Cosmic Cowboy" music, but also etching out its own distinct identity. It was probably less influential than some of their other albums, but as a piece of work it holds together better than anything else in their discography. It stills sound fresh and relevant to twenty-first century ears. A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

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