Crosby gets the big-box treatment
December 14, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoFor those who have been nothing but nice all year long …David Crosby, “Voyages”(Atlantic/Rhino)Among rock ‘n’ roll’s larger-than-life figures, David Crosby might be able to claim enormity in the most categories. His life story is huge: the drugs and guns and jail terms; finding the son he never knew he had – and forming a band with him; recovery from near-fatal liver disease. His appetites are legendarily huge, and his body, at times, has matched. He has been called an enormous ass (and likely far worse); the cover of 1968’s “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” features a horse standing in for Crosby, who had played on the album but left the Byrds before its release.Crosby’s music too is huge. There is the sonic range, evident even in his best-known works: the psychedelic “Eight Miles High,” the folky “Guinnevere,” the thrashing “Almost Cut My Hair.” His emotional range is even bigger: Crosby was capable of a political protest like “Long Time Gone,” an expression of pure joy like “Music Is Love,” the romance “Map to Buried Treasure.” Despite the addictions, illnesses and quarrels, Crosby has been prolific, compiling a massive catalog.And with Crosby, the individual songs themselves are big. A simple three-chorder was beyond him; Crosby’s compositions are as ravenous as he is, wrapping together time changes, challenging melodies, and a sense of harmony that makes a Crosby song among the most distinctive in rock. His taste is not always spot-on; some of the music from his years in CPR, a trio of Crosby, guitarist Jeff Pevar, and Crosby’s son, James Raymond, ventures into overproduction. But his imagination is endless.
“Voyages” does only a passable job of getting its arms around Crosby. The three-disc set is maddeningly short on Byrds material – just three songs, and none that spotlight the earliest sound, when Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark were singing to-die-for harmonies. The set is extremely long on work done with Graham Nash, either in CSN, CSN&Y or just C&N – and little wonder; Nash co-produced the anthology. “Voyages” is also heavy with material from 1971’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” a brilliant album credited to Crosby, who wrote the material, but one that featured much of the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y.The shortage of Byrds material provides reason to quibble with the title of the first two discs, “Essential, Vols. 1 and 2.” The third disc, “Buried Treasures,” leaves little room for argument. A collection of demos, live tracks and alternate takes – plus the buoyant, seven-minute “Kids and Dogs,” an outtake from “If I Could Only Remember My Name” that features just Crosby and Jerry Garcia – it is all essential in capturing an immense figure. A booklet, with a long essay by writer Steve Silberman, also gives vital insight.Also available is a reissued version of “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” featuring “Kids and Dogs” as a bonus track, and a DVD that has no actual video footage, but various advanced mixes of the album, and still photos of the players.The Byrds, “There Is a Season”(Columbia/Legacy)For those who fault “Voyages” for its shortage of Byrds-era Crosby, there is very good news. Those gaps are more than filled by “There Is a Season,” an intensely inclusive, superbly packaged Byrds collection that winds through four CDs and a bonus DVD (this one with actual video footage, from ’60s vintage TV appearances, in all their hippie glory).
“There Is a Season” works particularly well not only because the Byrds were a mega-talent, but also because their history divides so neatly into separate eras. The original quintet – Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Crosby – invented folk-rock, stamping their magnificent harmonies onto “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and a plethora of Bob Dylan songs. They then moved into their experimental phase, emblemized by such sounds of the time as “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” That span of just three years also saw the blossoming of Hillman from a backing player to a writer and singer, bringing his country and bluegrass sensibility to the foreground.Hillman’s most significant contribution came when he drafted Gram Parsons into the band, in 1968. With Parsons onboard, the Byrds made a sharp turn into proto-country rock, with the masterful “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album.”There Is a Season” packages all that – and more, including the years following the defection of Parsons and Hillman, when the McGuinn-led Byrds devolved into an undistinguished group, turning out the middling albums “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” and “Byrdmaniax.””There Is a Season” is chock-full of bonus nuggets: songs by the pre-Byrds groups the Jet Set and the Beefeaters, alternate versions, a spectacular, large-format book with contributions from McGuinn, Tom Petty, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. The one downer is that virtually all of the live tracks come from the tail end of the Byrds.Rickie Lee Jones, “Duchess of Coolsville: An Anthology”(Rhino)This three-CD compilation was released last year, but is relevant for two reasons. One, Jones returns to Aspen to play the Wheeler Opera House Dec. 30. Two, Jones’ forthcoming CD, “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” due out Feb. 6, is a cycle of songs inspired by the teachings of Jesus. So fans might want to tighten their grip on past Rickie Lee before moving on with her into this next phase.
Ever the oddity, Jones, who co-produced this compilation, has arranged her catalog in alphabetical order. Perhaps the intention is to put all the songs on equal footing; the old ones count for as much as the new, the well-known have nothing on the obscure. It works because Jones’ sensibility has been notably unwavering: loose and bohemian and elusive, both in sound and spirit, and, of course, cool.”Duchess of Coolsville” largely ignores Jones’ two (both excellent) albums of cover tunes, 1991’s “Pop Pop” and 2000’s “It’s Like This.” Instead, her abilities as an interpreter come from a hodgepodge of outside projects; among the covers included are “Sunshine Superman,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Autumn Leaves”; a duet with Dr. John on “Makin’ Whoopee!” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org