In 1973, the original five members of The Byrds reunited for an album. By 1968, only Roger McGuinn was left of the original line-up. He toured and released albums with a mach 2 version of The Byrds to increasingly less success until finally and mercifully ending the band.
The Byrd’s first six albums are all excellent – the first two with the full line-up of McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke MR TAMBORINE MAN and TURN TURN TURN, the next two as a four piece without Clark – FIFTH DIMENSION and YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY (My favorite Byrds album), as a trio minus Clark and Crosby - THE NOTORIOUS BYRDS BROTHERS, and the ground breaking country rock masterpiece SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO which was McGuinn, Hillman, and Gram Parsons.
So a lot was expected of this reunion album and in keeping with the strength of these expectations (and the resulting disappointment), the negative criticisms that were heaped on this record were plentiful and across the board.
As the story goes - 1.)The individual members were saving their songs for their solo albums and so only contributed half-baked secondary material 2.) David Crosby basking in the glow of CSN and CSNY’s success took over as producer and attempted to superimpose that sound on The Byrds 3.) The band was too high on various drugs to produce anything good. All of these have become the popular explanations for this album’s perceived lack of quality.
But the truth is it’s not that bad a record. Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and McGuinn each contribute two songs. There are also three cover versions – two Neil Young songs (“Cowgirl in the Sand” and “See the Sky About to Rain”) and a Joni Mitchell one (“For Free”).
Both Clark songs are excellent with “Full Circle” on my short list of his greatest songs. Clark also sings both Young covers and his vocals are heartfelt and beautiful especially on “Rain” the closing track. He is my favorite single member of the Byrds and I am a huge fan of his solo work too.
Crosby reworks “Laughing” from his first solo album IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER MY NAME. I prefer the version here which is much more naked and stripped of psychedelic studio trickery. I also like Crosby’s flawless vocals on “For Free” as well.
Hillman chips in with a mid-tempo rocker “Things Will Be Better” which puts one in the mood of his four songs on YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY. The only weak tracks here are the two McGuinn songs which are totally faceless, not much character.
This is interesting as McGuinn as gone from the leader of the band to a secondary performer on this record. My biggest criticism here is the lack of McGuinn’s 12 string. Most songs are dominated by acoustic guitar and mandolin. Michael Clarke’s drumming is also downplayed.
However, I reject the criticism of the harmonies. Yes, they are a tad higher and put one in the mind of CSN not the raga drone style of “Eight Miles High” and other earlier songs but they are still pretty and there are plenty of them here which is nice.
The Byrds are my favorite American band of all time and one of the reasons for this is their ability to adapt their music to each scene creating several new musical genres along the way. I see them doing that here as country rock had metamorphosed into singer/songwriter folk rock. All stem from The Byrds original west coast rock. The Byrds reunion record is not a failure but neither is it a masterpiece. It sounds just like five friends jamming at someone’s house on a weekend afternoon and that makes for a relaxed, enjoyable set.