Reviewed on this page:
Tim Buckley - Goodbye And Hello -
Live At The Troubador - Lorca - Starsailor -
Greetings From L.A. - Look At The Fool
Tim Buckley was a legendary, but half-forgotten L.A. folk singer who died in 1975 of an accidental heroin overdose. Although he was never a national commercial sucess and only rarely ventured forth from the local club scene, he cut a series of artistically varied albums that have become cult favorites. What makes them worth hearing is the combination of Buckley's extreme avant garde sensibility and his phenomenal vocals, which oscillate between a rich baritone and an astoundingly effeminate counter-tenor. It might not be your cup of tea, but there's hardly anything else like him on record.
Buckley was signed to Elektra in 1966, just as that label was making a major move into the rock market by recruiting local L.A. bands like Love and the Doors. Apparently thinking they had a folk-rock poster boy on their hands, they treated him to some extremely elaborate production values on his first couple of albums.
But with no commercial breakthrough forthcoming, Buckley ended up making bargain-basement LPs that featured his own small club combo (led by guitarist Lee Underwood) and lacked either elaborate overdubs or studio gimmickry. With Buckley in total control on those records, they're actually more individualistic and experimental than his earliest ones, if not as tuneful.
In his last couple of years Buckley veered into contemporary pop and R & B music; those records are much more carefully produced, but just not as original.
In any case, it's certainly tragic that Buckley didn't live long enough to complete his artistic development.
Another sidelight in the Buckley tragedy is the career of his son Jeff Buckley, who died in a swimming accident while recording his second solo LP, released as a double CD in 1998. I haven't heard either of Jeff Buckley's albums - 1994's Grace was a major hit - but I'm curious enough to review them sometime. However, one should keep in mind that the younger Buckley never really knew his father and intentionally avoided imitating his musical style.
I'm missing an embarassing number of Tim Buckley's original studio albums, but I do have selections from all his major periods and I'm currently digesting several other records I haven't yet had a chance to review - so keep an eye on this space.
There's a decent
Tim Buckley web site with all
the usual trimmings. (JA)
Tim Buckley (1966)
With Buckley barely out of high school, he hadn't yet moved towards the lengthy, jazz-influenced arrangements of his mature period. So here he sticks with two- to
three-minute running times and a folk-rock formula that's sometimes derivative (the Byrds-like blues "Understand Your Man").
He works with Elektra/Doors production regulars Paul Rothchild, Jac Holzman, and Bruce Botnick, with Jack Nitzsche arranging the strings, Van Dyke Parks playing keyboards, Frank Zappa associate Billy Mundi on drums, and a few more obscure musicians like Lee Underwood (guitar), who became Buckley's most reliable sideman.
Buckley's already writing tons of catchy and clever tunes ("Song For Janie"), and his amazing vocal abilities are already apparent.
But at this point his delivery is uptight and grandiose, a la Joan
Baez; and the occasional orchestration is interesting, much like Love's
Forever Changes, but dated. The good news
is some startling, moody experimentation ("Song Slowly Song") that points the
way to his later achievements. (JA)
Goodbye And Hello (1967)
I might be wrong, but I'd bet this is Buckley's artistic peak.
It's terribly dated, though, and the fault rests with Lovin' Spoonful refugee Jerry Yester, who's credited as "recording supervisor."
Figuring Buckley for another folk-pop teen idol, he tries to emulate Simon & Garfunkel's artsy, psychedelic production standards, complete with sound effects, Elizabethean motifs, and polite "rock" instrumentation courtesy of L.A. studio cats like Don Randi (keyboards) and Eddie Hoh (drums).
The S & G formula works in a couple places ("Phantasmagoria In Two"), but then Yester goes for broke on the eight-minute, million-part title track, slathering on pretentious orchestral parts like there's no tomorrow - it's basically unlistenable.
Alas, the rest of the record is good to great.
There's some gorgeous, romantic pop music ("Knight-Errant"; "Morning Glory"), an effective Protest Song ("No Man Can Find The War"), a decent country-western tune ("Once I Was"), a dotty 3/4 tribute to the circus ("Carnival Song"), and a six-minute rave up with Buckley's amazing vocal piercing through a mass of wild, off-time instrumentation ("I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain").
"Pleasant Street," the closest thing to a mainstream rock song, sports one of the most devastating lead vocals of the decade.
A record so flailingly experimental it simply could not have been recorded after the 60s, it's a tour de force presentation of Buckley's truly unique talents.
Larry Beckett wrote about half the lyrics; Buckley's band members Carter C.C. Collins (congas) and Lee Underwood (lead guitar) are among the players. (JA)
Dream Letter - Live In London, 1968 (rec. 1968, rel. 1989)
Recorded in July 1968, this two-set CD presents the entire tape in sequence. I have this one and I think it's reasonably solid. British folk-rock legend Danny Thompson (bassist of the Pentangle) guested on this particular date. (JA)
Live At The Troubador (rec. 1969, rel. 1994)
A relatively judicious selection of cuts recorded on consecutive nights in September, 1969.
Because Buckley's contemporary studio albums veer between disorganized experimentation and wild overproduction, it's a fairly painless way to get acquainted with his late-60s style.
His usual band appears: Underwood (electric piano and guitar), the mostly inaudible John Balkin (bass) and Art Trip (drums), and the frequently spastic Collins (congas).
Despite their lack of rhythmic focus or virtuoso technique, they do create a rebelliously anarchic beatnik mood (the brief, Spirit-like instrumental "Venice Mating Call").
Several cuts meander badly ("I Don't Need It To Rain"; the quarter-hour hippy freakout groove "Gypsy Woman," salvaged neither by Underwood's hyperactive noodling nor by Buckley's frenetic wailing), and Buckley's ominous, slow-paced folk stylings are sometimes just too diffuse ("Chase The Blues Away").
But the long jam on "Nobody Walkin'" is wild, hand-clapping fun; Buckley sounds engaged and authoritative throughout; his voice is superb; and he pulls out all the stops on the romantic ballads - the haunting, edgy "I Had A Talk With My Woman," the sleepy torch song "Blue Melody," and especially his hypnotic vocal showcase "Driftin'."
Blue Afternoon (1970)
By now Buckley had moved to a low-budget jazz-folk formula, pretty but monotonous and spacey.
All five tunes run at least six minutes, and most of them are little more than glacially paced grooves, with elliptical melodies and deathly quiet instrumentation ("Anonymous Proposition"). They sometimes lack coherent choruses and usually just repeat a riff until Buckley has had his fill.
There's plenty of impressive vocalizing on both high and low ends ("Driftin'"), but Buckley endlessly holds his wailed notes, which gets dull after a while. That gives you little to listen to other than Underwood's laid-back lead guitar - on a couple tracks he fumbles around on electric piano instead.
All of it is pleasant, the ghostly 5/4 title track is strikingly weird, and the two faster-paced numbers are fun: the mellow, contemplative love song "I Had A Talk With My Woman," and the slightly funky, blues-based "Nobody Walkin'."
Still, though, all of the key cuts are better-performed on Live At The Troubador.
Beckett wasn't involved here, so Buckley produced and wrote everything. The band is Underwood, Balkin (bass, haunted house pipe organ on "Lorca"), and Collins (congas). (JA)
With a new record company, new production team, and new band - except for Underwood
- this ends up sounding very, very different from Buckley's early records. As
usual he's working frequently with poetically ambitious lyricist Larry Beckett,
and sax player Bunk Gardner was another Zappa associate.
It's not a coincidence that this highly experimental effort has such strong jazz and avant garde elements, and so little of the earlier folk-rock sheen.
Buckley has dumped the Joan Baez vocal routine and ends up with a wailing, yelping, crooning, keening, screeching, quavering, yodelling delivery that makes great use of his range but couldn't be creepier or more melodically bizarre.
It's a lot like Captain Beefheart, but less wild and a heck of a lot more engaging in its sincere insanity - the ultra-creepy title track is one of the most brilliant a capella experiments I've ever heard.
And when Buckley does pull out a pop song or two, it works marvelously (the Francophilic "Moulin Rouge"). (JA)
Greetings From L.A. (1972)
An even more abrupt shift: new producer Jerry Goldstein ups the production ante and brings in a high-powered studio band (Joe Falsia, guitar; Kevin Kelly, keyboards; Chuck Rainey, bass; Ed Green, drums; a horn section; they even get Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, and Lorna Maxine Willard to sing glam rock-style backups).
Buckley is game, mostly agreeing to ditch his inaccessible folk and jazz experimentation - although there
is one long, eerie, minimalistic hippy groove that would have fit in on the last few records ("Hong Kong Bar," complete with handclaps and meandering acoustic guitar).
But the rest is raving, fevered big-band R & B, with Falsia adding some brilliantly creepy string arrangements (the hallucinatory "Sweet Surrender" and gorgeous, soaring, Van Morrison-flavored "Make It Right," which both rank among Buckley's most crafted efforts).
Almost everything works, from amiably chugging Sly-like acid funk ("Night Hawkin'"), to a ballsy boogie woogie escapade that would have fit in on a Mott record save for Buckley's raving vocals ("Move With Me"), to a super-funky groove that would have made War proud ("Get On Top").
Buckley himself is in fine form, writing with uncharacteristic clarity and singing as powerfully and idiosyncratically as ever - just check out his wacky scat singing on "Devil Eyes" (which also recalls War).
With just seven tracks and a lot of jamming and repetition, it's not his best effort overall but does stand in fascinating contrast to his earlier efforts.
Collins guests on a couple tracks, but otherwise the old band is absent. (JA)
Honeyman (rec. 1973, rel. 1995)
Another live double album, recorded in November, 1973, with a band again featuring Joe Falsia instead of the stalwart Lee Underwood. (JA)
Look At The Fool (1974)
By now Buckley was committed to conventional, big-budget R & B and bloated big-band American rock, with guitarist Joe Falsia taking over as producer.
But Buckley just isn't up to the challenge this time.
The lyrics are interesting ("Down In The Street") and his vocals are stellar, with a really strong Al Green influence that allows him to flex his extraordinary upper range (title track, a deliberate Green homage).
But the omnipresent early 70s backing vocal trio of Vanetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews drowns Buckley out over and over again, and the tunes are consistently dull ("Helpless"), hard to tell apart except when the production is derivative: "Tijuana Moon" is like one of Frank Zappa's contemporary, over-arranged joke R & B numbers, and "Who Could Deny You" is a smooth, clever, Stevie Wonder-style ballad, complete with Moog.
Elsewhere he barely catches your attention with a slew of edgy, off-kilter funk-rockers ("Bring It On Up"; "Freeway Blues"; "Ain't It Peculiar"); a thumping, danceable, uncharacteristically riff-based Van Morrison-ish toss-off ("Mexicali Voodoo"); and a goofy, lust-filled rewrite of "Louie Louie" that's so childish and irritating you can't ignore it ("Wanda Loo").
Flawed and frustrating, it's still more accessible than his more spaced-out records.
The band is Mike Melvoin (keyboards), Jim Fielder, Jim Hughart, or Chuck Rainey (bass), Gary Coleman or King Errison (congas), Earl Palmer (drums), and a big horn section; Beckett has some co-writes but doesn't appear. (JA)
Goodbye and hello.