Graham Reid | | 2 min read
While it's true to say the best of the Byrds as a folk-rock act moving into psychedelia came before the albums in this set of somewhat diminishing returns, there's a case to made for these years – from '68 to '71 during which their sound changed markedly -- being the overlooked era of that band.
Certainly the first album in this set, Sweethearts of the Rodeo with Gram Parsons, is bone fide country-rock class and has long been recognised as such.
So that one essential album in this collection.
The follow-up Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde saw yet another line-up change with only Roger McGuinn remaining from the original Byrds, and the title gives a clue to the contents. The country-rock continues and the arrival of session player Clarence White as a member (who'd been on Byrds albums) made for some terrific dual guitar sparring with McGuinn.
Despite its commercial failure at the time, the country rock (the Parsons-White instrumental Nashville West) and slightlydelic songs (a drone'n'jangle Wheels on Fire, Child of the Universe and the dark Bad Night at the Whiskey) have aged rather better than expected, especially in these times when Americana of this kind is now commonplace. Even the poke at redneck culture – very Kinky Friedman – has aged well in the post-Redneck Woman days.
Among the extra tracks are the Bob Johnston-produced version of Dylan's Lay Lady Lay.
Later in '69 they released the album The Ballad of Easy Rider which is an odd fish: named for the lovely orchestrated title track written by McGuinn and Dylan which opens the album, the rest of the music has little to do with the film Easy Rider and is a mix of reworked traditional country songs (Oil in My Lamp, Woody Guthrie's Deportee) and McGuinn in Nashville ballad mode (Tulsa County Blue). Then there's the track about the US space mission to the moon in Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins which is a bare minute long. Among the extra tracks is McGuinn's Fiddler a Dram subtitled “Moog experiment”. Never without interest, but by this time the Byrds – in whatever line-up – were hard to get a bead on.
The set skips the studio and live double album Untitled and jumps to Byrdmaniax (about which time I lost touch with them). One of the poorest sellers of their career, it again mines country-rock but by this time McGuinn's voice was beginning to be wearisome although songs like Pale Blue and Kathleen's Song (McGuinn in Art Garfunkel mode) really deserve revisiting. But songs like I Want to Grow Up to be a Politician and Citizen Kane haven't aged well. Anyone who still had the idea of the Byrds as a guitar-jangle band wouldn't recognise them here, certainly not on the jaunty Green Apple Quick Step bluegrass tune featuring fiddle player Byron Berline.
The final one in this set is a real odd one: Farther Along was an only-occasionally successful attempt to get back to being a rock band, and as such is worth checking out. Again, an album largely derided at the time but which has aged quite well.
So here are five albums, among them one classic, two worth discovering and two which are too patchy to be diverting.
But on that count – and because there are extra tracks on them all – we're happy to say because this five-CD set is just $20 at JB HiFi stores here, that is a Bargain Buy.