When Tim Buckley is discussed today, it’s most often in the context of his son Jeff, and the eerie similarities between the lives of father and son, both of whom died at tragically young ages. So Rhino Handmade’s expanded two-CD remaster of Tim Buckley’s debut (Rhino Handmade RHM2 526087, 2011) isn’t just a celebration of a folk-rock classic, but a stunning reminder of his talent on its own considerable merits.
Tim Buckley’s eponymous debut remains a haunting work by a haunted man. Yet like many great talents, Buckley was – for a while, at least – able to channel his demons into lasting art. Hailing from bucolic Orange County, California, the teenaged Buckley had to drive north on the newly-finished 405 freeway to be “where the action is” on the Sunset Strip. It was at The Trip that Buckley’s band, The Bohemians (consisting of singer/guitarist Buckley, bassist Jim Fielder, drummer Larry Beckett and guitarist Brian Hartzler), encountered Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The Mothers were playing the Trip, and the Bohemians had a connection. The Mothers’ drummer Jimmy Carl Black, who played on the titanic 1966 Freak Out!, was a friend of Fielder’s, having worked with him at an Anaheim music store. (Fielder would have a brief, tumultuous stint in The Mothers between the releases of Freak Out! and its follow-up, Absolutely Free, and then go on to become a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears.) Black took a liking to The Bohemians and introduced them to The Mothers’ then-manager, Herb Cohen. It was Buckley alone, however, who captivated Cohen. He took the young singer under his wing, both personally and professionally. As he had negotiated Zappa’s debut on Verve Records, he engineered a deal for Buckley at Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records.
For Tim Buckley, Elektra only wanted the best. Holzman himself helmed the singer/songwriter’s debut album with the label’s house producer Paul Rothchild, a name now familiar to fans of The Doors and Janis Joplin. Rothchild was aided by his frequent associate, engineer Bruce Botnick. Fielder remained on bass, joined by Lee Underwood on lead guitar (beginning a fruitful relationship with Buckley) and Billy Mundi of The Mothers on drums. Mundi, later a founding member of Rhinoceros, enjoyed a longer association with Zappa’s unit than Fielder, playing on a number of Zappa’s albums including We’re Only In It for the Money and Uncle Meat. Tim Buckley was a luxury project by any account. Van Dyke Parks had just been in the throes of creating Smile with Brian Wilson when he was enlisted to overdub keyboards, and seasoned pro Jack Nitzsche brought his usual majestic touch as composer of the album’s string arrangements.
How does Rhino’s remastered and expanded Tim Buckley stack up? Hit the jump to find out!
While Tim Buckley may be the singer’s most accessible album, it’s still filled with idiosyncrasies. Buckley co-wrote all but four tracks with Beckett, contributing those last four himself. “I Can’t See You,” the opening track, offers imagery of princesses and maidens, hardly the stuff of your typical Los Angeles rock offering of 1966. The sound was classic Elektra, though: folk-rock with emphasis on the rock (not pop). The listener is immediately grabbed by that resonant voice, passionate and distinct, over the song’s dissonant and vaguely ominous backing. Nitzsche’s strings in the mournful “Wings” (a Buckley solo composition) emphasize one of Buckley’s best melodies, and indeed, the album has a strong current of sadness throughout. “Song of the Magician” remains a spellbinding, haunting track, while “Valentine Melody” has a gentle fragility to it that characterizes the LP.
Not that Tim Buckley didn’t show off a number of sides to the singer. (In his new liner notes essay, Larry Beckett lists a number of the singer’s influences, among them Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Odetta and the Jaynetts!) “Aren’t You the Girl,” another track written by Buckley solo, would have been a prime candidate for a pop single, with Van Dyke Parks’ shimmering harpsichord, although it’s still unconventional as the song just comes to an abrupt stop. “It Happens Every Time” is a commercial, rock-oriented track enhanced by Parks’ and Nitzsche’s contributions. Both Parks and Nitzsche, however, must have known how special their artist here was, as neither overpowers Buckley, ever, despite their own singular styles. The lengthy “Song Slowly Song” (a translation of an anonymous poem from The Greek Anthology) features a spare, eerily beautiful arrangement that is integral to its multiple parts, but it never takes over the song. Buckley’s measured use of his vibrato adds to the unique sound of his vocal instrument. The album’s final track, the tough, rocking “Understand Your Man” brings to light both Buckley’s tenderness and angst; these qualities aren’t necessarily contradictory. Rhino’s deluxe edition offers both the stereo and mono mixes of Tim Buckley on Disc One. While the stereo mix is more exciting to these ears (the better to hear each instrument crisply), the echo of the vocals and the full, if unobtrusive, arrangements have a certain “you are there” radio feeling in mono.
Disc Two offers 22 previously unreleased tracks, all “lo-fi” demos, which represent a goldmine to Buckley fans. The first portion of the disc consists of the demo recordings of The Bohemians, made in November 1965. It’s safe to say that despite the many stylistic routes taken by Buckley in his all-too-short career, he never rocked as hard as when he was a high school student recording in Anaheim with these three friends. A vibrant energy is present. In “Put You Down,” that unmistakable voice cuts through the Dylan-influenced rocker. “Let Me Love You” is a garage rock-style track that hints Buckley could have easily gone in another, more commercial direction. Most interesting to some fans will undoubtedly be the early versions of the album’s “She Is” and “It Happens Every Time,” and neither disappoint. Parks and Nitzsche’s contributions are most missed on “It Happens Every Time” but Buckley’s demo establishes the song’s strength, and his vocal style is almost fully-formed, just a bit raw around the edges. “No More” is a particularly fine ballad that would have been welcome on Tim Buckley, while the uninhibited scream of “Won’t You Please Be My Woman” shows another side of the artist. These are very much band tracks, however, with the group’s joyfully noisy clang of “You Today” standing out.
The second part of Disc Two is dedicated to the acoustic demos recorded in the summer of 1966 by Buckley and Beckett, sans Bohemians. There’s a third version here of “She Is” here (Buckley and Beckett knew when to hold onto something great!) making for fun listening comparisons across both discs. Two tracks are time-capsule curiosities, Beckett reciting poetry over acoustic strumming on “Found at the Scene of a Rendezvous That Failed” and “Birth Day.” The spontaneity of these tracks is evident, and adds to their appeal. Buckley’s laughing during the recording of “My Love is for You” doesn’t detract from the attractive melody. The tracks on Disc Two are in far from pristine condition, but their historical significance makes them a worthwhile inclusion even if the sound quality can’t compare to that of the first disc.
As is expected (but not taken for granted!) from Rhino Handmade, the package is a unique one. It’s larger than standard CD size, 6.5″ x 6″, and is presented in a heavy cardboard digipak opening via string clasp. Inside are two individual CD envelopes, one of the original album and one “bootleg-style,” with the back replicating an original tape box. There’s also a large 18-page booklet enclosed, with essays by both Larry Beckett and Thane Tierney. There’s also technical and discographical information. Original engineer Bruce Botnick has beautifully mastered both discs for Rhino under the supervision of producer Mason Williams.
Tim Buckley would go on to push the envelope even further, with explorations into jazz, the avant-garde, soul and even funk territory before his death in 1975, aged 28. But never was his voice more pure and never was the feeling of “anything’s possible” as palpable as on 1966’s Tim Buckley. Rhino Handmade’s 2011 edition does this Los Angeles nugget proud.