The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday

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Part I: The Background

The Byrds’ fourth studio album, the follow up to 1966’s Fifth Dimension, dispenses even further with the group’s folk foundations as they tread further and further into the realm of psychedelia. The album also sees them revisit another Bob Dylan song—this time the anti-protest song “My Back Pages”—despite the majority of the songs being penned by the band themselves (bassist Chris Hillman contributes the largest number of compositions, with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby providing the remainder). Record producer Gary Usher, known for his early collaborations with the Beach Boys (he most notably co-wrote the lyrics to “In My Room”) teamed up with the band and helped them explore new sounds and possibilities in the recording studio. Younger Than Yesterday may not have been as beloved as the band’s previous albums at the time, but along with their next album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, it represents the band at their creative and experimental peak.

 

Part II: The Music

So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star: The album opens with its lead single and the most enduring track on the album. McGuinn provides a jaded critique of the manufactured nature of the music industry—reportedly the song is written in response to the popularity of The Monkees, who at the time hadn’t yet begun writing their own songs or playing their own instruments. The band’s trademark folk harmonies kick in as McGuinn laments the fact that the entertainment business favours image over talent: “And with your hair swung right / And your pants too tight / It’s gonna be all right.” The song features a crowd of screaming fans—the incorporation of sound effects into studio recordings was something of a trend during the psychedelic era. “In a week or two, when you make the charts / The girls will tear you apart,” McGuinn sings—being a rock star is more about the “star” than it is about the “rock”. The song has just as much pop appeal as a Monkees hit; the singsong melodies and traditional strong structure are perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. McGuinn himself, however, claims that the lyrics are meant to be taken at face value; the song is meant to inspire a generation of aspiring rock musicians to chase their dreams. Regardless of the meaning, this tight composition kicks off the album with a whole lot of energy. RATING: 9/10

Have You Seen Her Face: This Chris Hillman composition emulates the popular mid-60s Merseybeat sound. The entire song is sung in harmony; it captures that Lennon-McCartney magic (both melodies are equally compelling on their own) with a sprinkle of the Hollies. The guitar work is chocked full of attitude and much more coherent than the drugged-out haze of “Eight Miles High”. RATING: 9/10

C.T.A.-102: The melody here emulates a radio station jingle, though the song is a little more complex than that; CTA-102 is a quasar, a bright celestial body that happens to be a source of radio waves, that some believed to be evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. Electronic oscillators simulate the sound of extraterrestrial transmissions, and the song concludes with incoherent alien babble as the crew aboard a UFO happens to catch the signal of the song being broadcast. This is one of those songs where the experimental elements (the oscillators and sound effects) are detrimental. C.T.A.-102 isn’t as rewarding a song as it is a sonic experiment. RATING: 6/10

Renaissance Fair: Crosby and McGuinn team up for this psychedelia-tinged folk number; a hazy sketch of the titular renaissance fair (an outdoor gathering recreating the sights and sounds of the Rennaisance era). The constant refrain of “I think that maybe I’m dreaming” blurs the line between re-enactment and reality. The glorification of the Renaissance era with its “cinnamon and spices” and “kaleidoscope of colours” reflects a desire to return to a simpler time—a rejection of the modern era. The arrangement is a bit of a missed opportunity; a bit of Renaissance-era instrumentation could’ve achieved a much more vivid evocation of the period. RATING: 7.5/10

Time Between: A country song, foreshadowing the group’s transition into a country rock at the tail end of the decade (songwriter Chris Hillman was one of the key figures in the rise of the genre). Despite this being Hillman’s first attempt at song writing, the bouncy tune boasts single-worthy melodies. RATING: 7.5/10

Everybody’s Been Burned: Solemn, sensitive David Crosby at his finest. The rising chromatic guitar picking creates a sombre atmosphere that breaks through the dreary haze and morphs into a thing of beauty halfway through the song. It’s one of Crosby’s earliest compositions, dating back to 1962, and was originally envisioned as a torch song (a mournful lament of lost love). RATING: 8.5/10

Thoughts and Words: This song is a melodic precursor to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The chorus presents a sudden shift to more of a rock and roll aesthetic—a similar effect can be heard on The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”. A backmasked sitar interlude serves as the song’s climax. RATING: 9/10

Mind Gardens: One of Crosby’s weaker offerings. This droning acoustic piece fails to establish a melody, relying instead on backmasking and psychedelic imagery for depth. Crosby reportedly fought to have the composition included on the album, believing it to be a work of art. He would continue to butt heads with the rest of the band, resulting in his eventual departure. RATING: 4/10

My Back Pages: I want to say this is an unnecessary cover. Dylan’s version is perfectly melodic—unlike some of The Byrds’ earlier Dylan covers, they don’t really have much interpretive work to do here. But it’s still one of Dylan’s best, and thus the resulting cover is a pleasure to listen to. The album gets its title from the song’s core sentiment that disassociating oneself with the protest scene represents a return to the carefree days of youth. RATING: 7/10

The Girl With No Name: Another country rock number. It’s a fun little tune, but ultimately it lacks a hook and fails to be as memorable as “Time Between”. Probably the weakest song on the album. RATING: 5.5/10

Why: The album closes out with a Crosby song, this one previously released as the B-side to “Eight Miles High”. Impressed by the music of Ravi Shankar, Crosby sought to emulate the Indian raga with this song, though unlike George Harrison, Crosby chose not to implement traditional Indian instrumentation in the recording of the track. Originally, the song was meant to describe Crosby’s mother’s authoritativeness: “Keep saying no to me since I was a baby.” The idea was rejected, and the song was reshaped to be about a young girl restrained by her overbearing mother. The song skilfully weaves rock together with raga. Towards the end of the song, Crosby delivers one of the most powerful lyrics on the album: “Say it’s a dead old world, dull and unforgiving / I don’t know where you live, but you’re not living.” All in all, an excellent album closer. RATING: 8.5/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The album cover isn’t as striking as the cover for Fifth Dimension, though the grainy texture, which obscures the playful photo of the band, does make for an interesting image. Aesthetically, the album is best described as restrained psychedelia; though the production is daring, it never really crosses that line into wild and unhinged. When you consider how the idea of psychedelic inhibition is intrinsically linked with the notion of childhood freedom, the title takes Dylan’s notion of rejecting the seriousness of adulthood while adapting it for the psychedelic era. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: The album only contains a single cover song, and as a Bob Dylan song it isn’t that out of place on a Byrds album anyway. The rest of the songs display an artistic growth on behalf of all members of the group—the album sees the band taking a step forward both in songwriting and in studio experimentation. Didn’t I already say that the album represents the band at their creative peak? SCORE: 5/5

Flow: The album isn’t really mean to be a cohesive work. It’s varied stylistically, with influences ranging from British invasion–style pop rock to country to Indian raga. The songs are concise, and even during its weaker moments the album never truly feel like it’s losing any steam. Younger Than Yesterday is probably the most satisfying Byrds album start to finish. SCORE: 7/10

CLOSING REMARKS: The greatest of albums are the ones that stand the test of time. It speaks volumes that Younger Than Yesterday is widely regarded as one of the band’s strongest efforts nowadays. This is also one of the earliest albums to consider country rock as a musical possibility. The band’s experimentation would continue with their next album, in which they’d explore an even wider range of musical influences, but this album is just as worthy of your attention.

FINAL SCORE: 75

 

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Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

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Part I: The Background

Jefferson Airplane’s second album is a significant departure from their first. The album introduced a brand new line up. Singer Signe Toly Anderson was replaced by Grace Slick from The Great Society. Drummer Skip Spence, who would later join Moby Grape, also left the band, although one of his song writing contributions still wound up on the album. Grace Slick brought with her a new and exciting sound, and thus the band transformed from a folk rock outfit into one of the leading psychedelic acts of the era. There’s a bit of contention as to whether or not Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was involved in the recording of the album (the album cover credits him as “musical and spiritual advisor”), but what does seem to be agreed upon is that the album name was derived from a comment of his, wherein he described the music as “surrealistic as a pillow”. The album reportedly doesn’t quite capture the energy of the band’s live performances, which were even wilder and more out there, and many of the songs were reined in so that they’d fit the traditional 3-minute pop song template. This isn’t necessarily to the album’s detriment. After all, psychedelia is known for its excesses. And while the polished nature of this album flies in the face of all that, it does make for a more consistent listen.

Part II: The Music

She Has Funny Cars: Marty Balin’s the first to take the lead, his vocals reminiscent of The Byrds (after all, the band was still a folk band to an extent). Right from the get-go, it’s evident that this isn’t going to be just another folk album: the grooving drum evokes a tribal dance while a descending guitar riff has a distinct edge to it. After a few bars, the song simmers down as Grace and Marty engage in a call-and-response vocal that gradually crescendos until both voices explode forth in psychedelic harmony: “And I know / Your mind’s guaranteed / It’s all you’ll ever need.” Oh, and in case you’re wondering (I was), a funny car is a drag racing car. But while the title may evoke early 60s hot rod rock, the lyrics are decidedly psychedelic, and the chaotic whir of a guitar solo that concludes the track really drives it home that this is a new band for a new era. RATING: 9/10

Somebody to Love: This song’s technically a cover—emphasis on the technically. It was written by Darby Slick, Grace’s brother-in-law, and she originally recorded it with her former band, The Great Society (don’t bother checking out the original—Grace’s vocal is nowhere near as powerful and the song’s got this lazy, laid-back vibe to it; it just pales in comparison to the better-known version). There’s a daunting edge to Grace’s thunderous vocals here—this is the dark side of psychedelia rearing its head. It’s shocking how fierce this song is—there’s a reason psychedelic rock was one of the precursors to heavy metal. The guitar solo here is more lucid than on the previous track, though the effects and tone evoke a state of delirium. I’d say this is the ultimate psychedelic song, but that’s still to come. RATING: 10/10

My Best Friend: The first single off the album delivers on the other extreme: cheery, flowery psychedelia. This is the aforementioned Skip Spence contribution. While it starts out as a bubbly, sentimental pop tune, after the chorus it breaks down into a rocking jam. With its gentle harmonies and strong melody, it’s definitely one of the album’s stand-out tracks. RATING: 9/10

Today: This Balin-Kantner composition treads closer into Byrds territory with its delicate and dreamy acoustic sound. It’s a beautiful song that lingers on the border between folk and psychedelia. The ballad’s display of vulnerability starkly contrasts the aggressive psychedelic anthems, but its every bit as great a song. RATING: 8/10

Comin’ Back to Me: Another dreamy acoustic ballad. The fingerpicked guitar is breathtakingly sombre. According to the liner notes, the song was marijuana-inspired. The singer describes a fleeting vision of his lover returning to him which turns out to be an illusion—“a transparent dream beneath an occasional sigh”. This realization leaves the singer disillusioned as he questions “Whatever happened to wishes wished on a star? / Was it just something that I made up for fun?” It’s a heartbreaking ballad that, along with the song preceding it, is a marked (yet not a jarring) departure from the sound of the rest of the album. RATING: 9/10

3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds: The persistent drum beat and dual-voiced guitar riff bring us back into the realm of psychedelia. This hard-rocking tune denounces the rigidity of society (“Do away with people wasting my precious time”) and embraces a free-spirited lifestyle (“Take me to a circus tent / Where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks can share my care”). It’s the type of song that’s probably more fun live than on an album. RATING: 6/10

D.C.B.A.–25: Well-crafted melodies over a folksy backdrop. Once again, there’s interplay between Marty’s and Grace’s vocals. By the way, the chords are right there in the title in case you want to play along (and if you’re wondering what the “25” is, it’s an LCD reference). Just goes to show you how well-crafted this album is—the song’s unusually strong for an album track. RATING: 7/10

How Do You Feel: A recorder adds a renaissance feel to this acoustic number, sung in harmony. Like most of the album’s compositions, it features two distinct sections in favour of a verse-chorus structure, the second of which has a Lennon-esque melody. RATING: 6/10

Embryonic Journey: Shaking things up again, we get an acoustic instrumental with some nice guitar work. There’s a bit of a looseness to the composition that saves it from feeling too stiff for the rest of the album—it serves as a nice interlude before the album’s centerpiece. RATING: 6.5/10

White Rabbit: A contender for the title of all-time greatest psychedelic song. This Alice In Wonderland–inspired piece captures the aesthetic of psychedelia: it’s childish imagination with the sinister undertone of a bad hallucination. The song starts off quiet and then embarks on a steady crescendo which reaches a thundering climax at the end of the song as Grace shouts: “Feed your head!” The twisted, imaginative nature of the classic tale perfectly lends itself to this psychedelic anthem. The drug references are very thinly veiled, if it all; the times were changing, after all. RATING: 10/10

Plastic Fantastic Lover: Probably the album’s only misstep. Not the song—it’s great. Marty rhythmically rattles off the vocals over a steady, bopping beat. I get a real Simon & Garfunkel vibe from this one. But it’s not as strong an album closer as White Rabbit would have been, is it? RATING: 8/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: I get that the psychedelic era was just beginning, but come on. One of the defining albums of the genre… and that’s the cover? I’m just going to go ahead and say it: the cover is awful. It features a nice black-and-white photo of the band, but this is overlaid with a pink banner featuring a stylized album title—this looks like it was thrown together in two seconds. The back is a little more interesting, featuring torn up images of the band. The title, however, is perfect. Not much to say about the production. This is a late-sixties album; it doesn’t really get any better than this. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: All of the songs are well-crafted with a keen sense of melody. The band pushes the envelope here, helping to pioneer that psychedelic sound. This is, after all, one of the defining albums of the era. SCORE: 5/5

Flow: Am I going to be petty and deduct points because White Rabbit isn’t the album closer? Yeah—I have to keep the scores in check somehow. But this album is a solid listen start to finish. It might’ve been nice for the ballads to be more spread out, but that’s about it as far as my criticism goes. SCORE: 8/10

CLOSING REMARKS: Jefferson Airplane isn’t one of the most iconic bands of the sixties when we look back at them today—if you’re familiar with them, it’s most likely for “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. But the rest of this classic album is just as worthy of your attention; don’t pass it up. Feed your head.

FINAL SCORE: 81