Wednesday, February 5, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1338: The Byrds

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey where today you will experience a rare and wondrous event – an album older than me!

Disc 1338 is…Turn! Turn! Turn!
Artist: The Byrds

Year of Release: 1965

What’s up with the Cover? In 1965 these haircuts were considered dangerous and edgy. I’m not sure if these outfits were ever fashionable, however – definitely not that Richard III tunic on the left. And just to confirm your suspicions the douchebag with the square sunglasses striking the “true artiste” pose is, of course, Roger McGuinn.

How I Came to Know It: I’ve known the Byrds for a while, but apart from “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” (reviewed back at Disc 1021) they never really caught my attention.

But I recently reviewed Gene Clark’s 1974 masterpiece “No Other” (Disc 1330) and it blew me away. When I found out he was part of the Byrds for their first two albums it renewed my interest, so I gave those two records a closer listen. This is one of them.

How It Stacks Up: I now have two Byrds’ albums, this one and the aforementioned “Sweethearts of the Rodeo”. Of the two, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” comes in second.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

You can hear the echoes of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” down through the history of rock and roll. This is partly because of their incredibly unique sound, and partly because of all those members they’ve fired that went on to do great things.

On the musical influence side, you can hear them clearly in Tom Petty’s songwriting – for which we should be thankful. We can also hear them more generally through much of the jangly indie-pop of the current age as well.

All that influence is a bit ironic given that a lot of what they do here is take other people’s songs and convert them to their own sound. The album starts with the title track, which is a Pete Seeger folk ballad, and it ends with Stephen Foster’s early American classic “Oh, Susannah.” In between they take on Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Is hearing all these covers annoying? Not at all. The Byrds have their own sound, part hippy protest and part traditional folk song, and fueled by the room-filling jangle of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. I’ve got a love-hate relationship with Roger McGuinn through the years, but that guitar sound is pretty damned sublime. It makes “Turn! Turn! Turn!” relaxing, reflective and full of energy all at the same time.

The best of the covers is Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” It has a gentle lilt played quickly, but with feeling. In fact, most of the songs on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” feel like they happen in double-time but the Byrds manage to make it work. As for their vocals, none of them are powerful on their own, but they do a lot of singing in harmony that matches nicely with all that Rickenbacker dropped into the front of the mix.

He Was a Friend of Mine” is a beautiful and heartfelt traditional folk song, which McGuinn decides he should rework it into a song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The pretty arrangement and powerful melody outweigh the at-times awkward rewrite, but I still would have preferred the original lyrics, about the personal loss of a friend.

The hidden power of this record is Gene Clark. Just like Gram Parsons’ made “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” great, Clark is what gives “Turn! Turn! Turn!” its artistry and elevates it above what would otherwise just be a very good album full of covers.

Clark is still early in his career, but his songwriting talent, fully realized later on “No Other,” is already on display. “Set You Free This Time” and “If You’re Gone” are heartfelt compositions ahead of their time and mature beyond Clark’s years. The Byrds were lucky to have both Clark and Parsons in their band at various times, and foolish to lose both so quickly. I’m looking at you again, Roger.

My version of this record is an extended CD, featuring a gratuitous seven bonus tracks. It is great to have Gene Clark’s “She Don’t Care About Time”, (the B-side to the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” single release). Also strong is David Crosby’s drug-fueled instrumental “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which would have made Heinlein proud with its groovy otherworldliness. Of note, the Byrds fired Crosby a couple years later so he could go do that other thing he did.

Other than those two tracks, however, I was mistreated with a bunch of alternate takes and “first versions” of stuff already on the record. I get the value of a live track, but slight variations of outtakes that were ultimately not selected do not interest me. Please make the record shorter and better, and have the bravery to stand by the decisions made when it was first pressed.

Still, it is easy to see why the original “Turn! Turn! Turn!” has remained a classic. It is a record that deserves attention both for its own place in musical history, and as one more reminder that one of the greatest things the Byrds have done over the years is freed up some of their most talented members to go make great solo records.

Best tracks: Turn! Turn! Turn!, Set You Free This Time, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, He Was a Friend of Mine, If You’re Gone

Best bonus tracks: She Don’t Care About Time, Stranger in a Strange Land

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