I first discovered "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" back in 1991. I was in my early 20's, and had no idea what I was buying back then. I knew I loved "Fifth Dimension" and "Younger Than Yesterday". I probably just bought it to fill out my Byrds collection while hoping that it had a good tune or two, like "The Ballad of Easy Rider" or "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde" has. I got much more than I bargained for, because it is one of the greatest efforts I've heard in all of rock-n-roll. It has become more and more special and significant with time. This would be one of my "Desert Island Discs", even if I was only allowed 10 albums, this would make that list, simply because it sounds so timeless and it never gets old.
From a marketing standpoint, it is not that well positioned in the pantheon of Byrds albums and singles. There is no hit single, and the album's cover doesn't really hint at the treasures that lie within. Combined with the album's title, someone who doesn't know any better might think it would sound more like "Sweetheart of the Rodeo", or not know what to think at all. This book cannot be judged by its cover, my friends. The only faults with this album may only be the packaging. However, as a fan, I would not change a thing. I only wish David Crosby had been allowed to finish this record before he was fired by Chris and Roger. Dave makes great contributions to this record, and the last track on the new expanded CD has a shocking glimpse into their studio world, exposing much unrest and friction in the group. Michael Clarke sounds like a royal pain-in-the-butt, and only in the Byrds for the money, and he refuses to play properly like a spoiled brat. Poor Gary Usher, the producer, probably had a hard time babysitting this guy and keeping everyone from killing each other.
Out of all the confusion and animosity, the end result is just pure magic. Was it accidental? Or was it very deliberate? It was everything the Beach Boys' "Smile" was supposed to be. It was America's best response to "Sgt. Peppers", and it more than met the challenge, albeit after several years. (At the time of its original release, the record was a commercial failure and was overlooked and underappreciated.) I wish teenagers and young adults who love rock-n-roll would listen to this record. There is nothing "oldie but goody" about it. I feel it has stood the test of time even better than "Sgt Pepper".
It also may be an accidental concept album. The sessions for this record obviously started on the heels of the psychedelia craze, but was completed and packaged right as the Byrds were leaning towards country music. It also makes for a nice history lesson by being a fine example of how fast things were moving and changing back in '67-'68. To imagine that the Byrds would be playing the Grand Ole Opry a few months later is astonishing! This record really captures the Byrds doing a 180, and reinventing themselves. You hear these changes unfold right in front of you.
This album is so technically beautiful and full of wonderful harmonies, instrumentation, orchestrations, sound effects, and that wonderful chang-a-langing 12-string Rickenbacker. I think of this album as one long song, because each track blends in with the next so smoothly, and dreamlike. It feels like a very intelligent psychedelic journey with occasional hints of country and bluegrass music. It's hard for me to listen to one or two tracks alone, I normally just play the whole thing. The only track I sometimes skip is the first one, "Artificial Energy". It's a good tune, but if any track fits in the least, it's that one. The transition from "Natural Harmony" into "Draft Morning" is wonderful, and the latter is a beautiful tune with many things happening, like a mandolin, thumping bass, classic Byrds harmonies, a smooth political message, and great sound effects of guns in war.
This album also features two amazing Goffin/King tunes done to perfection. The version of "Goin' Back" is lyrically powerful and "Born To Follow" has wonderful phasing effects. "Change is Now" is another song with wonderful harmonies and a hypnotic bass line and beat. It's psychedelic, but not in an "Iron Butterfly" way. There is nothing hokey or dated about this album. It all sounds so fresh and modern to this day, and the last two tracks really close it out on a peaceful note. The whole record is like a journey. It will take you to different places. It clearly is the Byrds at their Best. The Byrds gave it their best effort and were successful. Their early potential is fully realized with this effort. They did it.
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