Notorious Byrd Brothers
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde
The Ballad of Easy Rider
By the time these albums were released in 1968 and '69, the Byrds had already decisively changed the face of popular music, revising a sound that would be rerevised by the Beatles, Dylan, and the Beach Boys--who had heretofore inspired them. They also had emerged as the preeminent L.A.-based band of the era, redefining the entire folk-rock movement and opening the doors for Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and whoever else was alert to lay claim to the '70s. Peter Buck probably slept with these albums, as Jim/Roger McGuinn's jangly guitars can be found proxied all over R.E.M.'s early discs, and McGuinn/David Crosby/Gene Clark's harmonies have since been appropriated by any group with a modicum of taste.
The downside was The Byrds had pretty much shot their wad in terms of topping the charts and crafting hit singles; they had also become a spectacularly fractious unit, defined mainly by defections and firings and plenty of good ol' in-house bickering.
But damned if you can sense any of that in their recordings of the time. These albums represent a sense of artistic growth and experimentation, a daring to transcend genre, that would not be matched until Neil Young started artfully farting around in the early '80s. When one Byrd left, the remaining players, particularly McGuinn, stepped up their game, or brought in musicians equal to the task (such as guitarist Clarence White, whose work elevates the otherwise pedestrian Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde and The Ballad of Easy Rider). Although the sound seems a bit dated now, Notorious Byrd Brothers was generally accepted as the quintessential American Pop Art album of its day (David Crosby, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke were all scratched from the roster around the time of its release; Pop Art apparently taking its toll).
But it's Sweetheart of the Rodeo that must be considered essential to any album collection. Country rock in those days was just shy of unthinkable, so this was a revolutionary act, and it also introduced the world to a blazing Icarus of raw talent named Gram Parsons. There's not a bit of dust gathered on this album nearly 30 years later--it sounds just as fresh as the day it hit stores.
Had McGuinn been able to rein in Parsons' wanderlust, the Byrds might have soared indefinitely. Alas, Parsons had flown the coop before the album was even released, and a sense of artistic searching informed the follow-ups, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (the title itself wryly commenting on the band's identity crises) and The Ballad of Easy Rider (the title track, written for the germinal '60s youth flick starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, was initiated and abandoned by Bob Dylan; Fonda also grabbed the band's version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Wasn't Born to Follow" from Notorious for the movie). And even these albums stand up, if not always to the test of time, then at least to a huge bulk of allegedly cutting-edge contemporary releases.
So Columbia, the band's label, has seen fit to reremaster the tracks and add some outtakes (some of which deserve to have been on the original albums) and oddities (including fairly silly radio spots advertising the albums) for another shot at fattening the fans' AmEx bills. Which would be reason for hard-core fans to rejoice, except that the label has done this already with The Byrds, a terrific 1990 boxed set, on which many of these remastered tunes and outtakes had been already released (Rolling Stone's David Fricke even recycles and amends his original boxed-set liner notes in these new packages). So now you have to pay mainly to get stuff which, apparently, wasn't good enough to include in the previous repackagings. Some tracks are hidden in that annoyingly gimmicky fashion, which forces you to sit through a minute or two of silence to get to the material (on one CD, a track listed at 3:30 is actually 10 minutes longer with all its bonus minutiae).
Hence, a dilemma: If you're an interested party who hasn't collected these nuggets, should you go for these individual rereleases or the boxed set, and if you have the boxed set, should you bother with this additional material? (Eleven of the 19 tracks of Sweetheart are also on The Byrds). Well, are you a geek?
If so, you'll go gaga over this interesting little nonmusical outtake appended to the very end of Notorious Byrd Brothers, a telling bit of in-studio bickering: One soon-to-be-ex-Byrd, after a number of false starts, gripes: "I don't even like this song."
Another rejoins: "What are you in the group for?"
The pragmatic reply: "The money." (Take that, '60s Idealism!)
The even more pragmatic rebuttal: "You're not helping us make any right now." Twenty-nine years later, he is.
Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos
Anyone expecting a Pat Boone laff-riot should look elsewhere. The four youthful cellists that compose Apocalyptica--all students of Helsinki's Sibelius Academy--have nothing but respect for Metallica's originals, and perform them with the dignity they would a J.S. Bach suite. By leaving Metallica's dynamic intact--and Metallica is nothing if not about dynamics--Apocalyptica grounds these songs with completely affecting melancholy, and that sparse, autumnal creak that these Finns create as they saw away makes this project seem less a stunt than an enjoyable experiment. Plus, the unshowy performances compel you to listen, rather than grin.
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Unsurprisingly, it's the songs from early in Metallica's career that hold up best. Those from 1991's more commercial (coughselloutcough) self-titled album are too simple and straightforward for convincing arrangement. (However, "The Unforgiven" actually holds up better here as a cello minuet than its original dank power-chord lament.)
It's the minor-key Phrygian scales in which Metallica's James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich wrote that enables this music to fit in so well with the milieu of this quartet: When Apocalyptica performs the delicate, "quiet" interlude of "Master of Puppets"--in which the sinewy lines snake and dive around each other--you're struck with the sensation you've heard it in your head before just like this. The early Metallica at first cribbed from English bands such as Black Sabbath and Diamond Head--both practitioners of a music as dramatic and emotional as it was heavy--but soon infused it with a sense of suburban ennui that was wholly American; even as both Sabbath and Metallica shared tolling church bells, there wasn't the reliance on madrigal cadences in the Californians' songs. But there was genuine sadness there: "Harvester of Sorrow," written after the road accident that killed bassist Cliff Burton, showed these young artists making the only music they could in the tragedy's wake. In Apocalyptica's bows, its somber melody bleeds the confusion the band masterfully formed into song at the time.
One could quibble with the sharp-sounding tenor that mimics Hetfield's vocal melodies here--a miking error?--but this is mostly a dignified turn on some highly unlikely fare. If you see hair-farmers in a scuffle over rare Terzi Antivariuses in a new wing of Guitar Center, you'll know who to blame.