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The Byrds - The Preflyte Sessions

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Artist: The Byrds

Album: The Preflyte Sessions

Label: Sundazed

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

Sometimes, a particularly well-thought-out reissue can open a window on music from the past, allowing us to explore old music from a new perspective, one that history may have missed (The recent Miles Davis Complete In A Silent Way Sessions comes to mind). Sundazed record’s lavish, slip-cased 2-CD The Preflyte Sessions is excellent example of this effect. These sessions from just before the Byrd’s epochal signing with Columbia records show the band in the musical workshop, on the verge of finding their perfect blend of vocal harmony, the simultaneous cutting edge modernity and ancient Appalachian-banjo modal drone of Jim (now Roger) McGuinn’s 12 string Rickenbacker guitar.

Of course, the Byrds were essential to the evolution of folk-rock and country-rock: The chime and jangle of their mid-60s work still rings through the world of roots Americana, from early REM, right on through to the Jayhawks and Beachwood Sparks. The prescient pioneering of country-rock with Gram Parsons on the Nashville-recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo, from 1968, is a tree that still bears fruit.

What makes The Preflyte sessions so fascinating is that the soaring sound the Byrds invented is almost, but not quite there yet: In fact, they’re not even called the Byrds - they bounced around for a while with names like The Jet Set and The Beefeaters (In honor of the British invasion, of course). On these recordings the vocal blend that became one of their trademarks has not quite crystallized. But that makes it all the easier to hear David Crosby’s angelic harmonies and Gene Clark’s melancholic and exquisitely aching lead vocals. Indeed, producer Jim Dickson seems to have pegged Clark as the front man in regards to both singing and songwriting. Soon-to-be leader McGuinn’s 12 string is here, driving the band with a slightly more dirty and rocky sound than the glassy treble he was later to perfect at the Columbia sessions.

Many of the songs represented here stayed in the band’s repertoire, and it’s fascinating to hear them in these versions, not necessarily inferior to the classic versions; just different. Lovers of sun-splashed 60s California folk-rock will find much to enjoy here. Just to hear the original version of Gene Clark’s “You Showed Me”, later a top 40 hit for the Turtles, is to bathe in two or so minutes of transcendental LA folk-rock bliss. There are some wonderful oddities here, too: The Mersey-beat mod bossa-nova of “The Airport Song” seems an artifact from a lost world, one where the innocence of flat California sunlight smeared the surfaces of pop music. Above all, the chance to hear so much of the underrated Gene Clark makes this one of the most welcome and valuable reissues in a long time.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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