Monday, August 17, 2009

Music Library: The Flying Burrito Brothers

The Flying Burrito Brothers were one of those bands like Fairport Convention that limped along far past their sell-by date with minimal involvement from original members. What the iconoclastic folk-rock pioneer Richard Thompson was to Fairport, the iconoclastic country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons was to the FBB. After he left, the remaining members put out another halfway decent album and then launched a career of mediocrity. Here's the good and ugly. Assume everything else is bad.

The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969). Here's where alt-country started. When Gram Parsons left The Byrds (after pushing McGuinn & co into country music for Sweetheart of the Rodeo), he formed a partnership with Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. The two of them, both playing guitar, hooked up with Sneaky Pete Kleinow, a pedal steel player who used distortion and flanging effects to psychedelicize his sound, and bassist Chris Ethridge, for the FBB. The songs herein, all originals save two, fall accurately within the genres of country music and psychedelic rock. The two covers are "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," a Dan Penn/Chips Moman track that was a hit for Aretha Franklin, and "The Dark End of the Street," also by Penn/Moman, which was a hit for the R&B singer James Carr. Parsons called these songs, which were country and rock and R&B and even a bit Tex-Mex, "Cosmic American Music." And hell if he wasn't right. Every track on here, other than the dated "My Uncle" and "Hippie Boy," are among the best in popular songwriting since the age of rock music began. My favorites are "Sin City," which warns of the apocalyptic visions of unfettered money-lust and Dominionist Christianity, and "Hot Burrito #1," a heartbreak song of extraordinary sophistication and beauty that Parsons co-wrote with Chris Ethridge.

Burrito Deluxe (1970). Ethridge left before recording this album, so Hillman moved back to bass and the band recruited Bernie Leadon on guitar and another ex-Byrd, Michael Clarke, on drums. The covers on this one are a classic country track by Harlan Howard, a Dylan cover ("If You Gotta Go") that Fairport Convention also covered the prior year, the delightful gospel song "Farther Along," and the first recorded version of a song by Parson's buddy Keith Richards called "Wild Horses." The originals aren't as strong on this one, but "Cody Cody" and "God's Own Singer" are good enough.

The Flying Burrito Brothers (1971). Then Gram Parsons left. It's a bad sign when the guy who wrote most of the songs leaves, right? Yes, that it is. Chris Hillman recruited a guy named Rick Roberts to replace Parsons. They try hard, but there's no magic here. Best tracks: Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever" and Gene Clark's "Tried So Hard." Lame: everything else.

Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Brothers Anthology 1969-1972 (2000). This best-of has all of the studio material from the above albums plus a bunch of outtakes and a couple of live tracks. Most of this material is from the period when Parsons was still in the band, but there's a nice cover of Gene Clark's "Here Tonight" from the Rick Roberts period. The outtakes include covers of "Six Days on the Road," "Close Up The Honky Tonks," "Break My Mind," "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)," two of Merle Haggard's best ("Sing Me Back Home" and "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down"), and, sublimely, the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." Awesome.


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