Chris Hillman is surely one of rock's largely unsung heroes. A veteran of groups including The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Desert Rose Band, and supergroup The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, Hillman last year released the acclaimed album Bidin' My Time - only his seventh solo album. Produced by Tom Petty (one of the late superstar's last projects) with one foot in the past and another in the present, the LP reaffirmed the artist's deserved place in the pantheon. Now, Omnivore Recordings has turned the clock back for a reissue of Hillman's very first two albums, Slippin' Away (1976) and Clear Sailin' (1977), on one CD as The Asylum Years (Omnivore OVCD-261). Though these albums failed to turn Hillman into a solo superstar, they're a relaxed snapshot of the Southern California sound worthy of a rediscovery.
The jaunty opener "Step on Out" sets the tone for Slippin' Away, a Laurel Canyon-ized take on country-rock that can sit comfortably alongside better-known records by Eagles, Jackson Browne, and J.D. Souther. In the role of singer-songwriter (he wrote or co-wrote all but two of its ten tracks), Hillman enlisted a "Who's Who" of session pros, including Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, Jim Gordon on drums, and percussionist Joe Lala, plus special guests like Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn, Herb Pedersen, Jim Fielder, Donnie Dacus, Rick Roberts, Albhy Galuten, and Flo and Eddie of The Turtles. Ron Albert and Howard Albert produced and engineered.
Future Eagle Timothy B. Schmit lends his ethereal harmonies to the lightly tropical "Step on Out" (later covered by The Oak Ridge Boys) as well as a couple of other tunes including the languidly grooving title song "Slippin' Away." As lead vocalist, Hillman is confident and affable on the midtempo numbers ("Falling Again"), rock workouts ("Take It on the Run"), and soaring ballads alike ("Blue Morning," graced by Al Perkins' pedal steel and subtle orchestration).
Hillman nodded to a couple of his friends and cohorts. His Manassas bandmate Stephen Stills penned the beguilingly moody "Witching Hour," the band's version of which would appear on 2009's outtakes collection Pieces. Hillman revisited "Down in the Churchyard," which he'd co-written with Gram Parsons for The Flying Burrito Brothers' sophomore album Burrito Deluxe, in a smoother mid-seventies style with hearty harmonies from Hillman, Schmit, and Pedersen, and gentle marimba from Howard Albert. "Midnight Again" channeled the rootsy sound of the Burritos, while the rousing "(Take Me In) Your Lifeboat" returned Hillman to his bluegrass roots with Byron Berline on fiddle, and Bernie Leadon on both acoustic guitar and the baritone part of the three-part harmony. (Hillman sang lead, and Pedersen tenor.)
1977's Clear Sailin' marked a departure from its predecessor, in that the artist used one core band rather than an all-star company. He was joined by guitarist/singer Richard B. Marx, lead guitarist John Brennan, drummer Merel Bregante, bassist/singer Larry Sims, and multi-instrumentalist Skip Edwards. Hillman again wrote the lion's share of the songs - seven of the ten tracks, five with Peter Knobler. Jim Mason (Poco, Firefall) filed the producer's chair. Timothy Schmit and Joe Lala did return, however, to add harmonies and percussion.
The sound is a bit slicker on Clear Sailin', with the rough edges almost completely smoothed out and a saxophone wending throughout the tracks. Nonetheless, Hillman still employs a number of diverse styles. The opening "Nothing Gets Through," Caribbean-flavored country-rocker "Fallen Favorite" and "Lucky in Love" all flirt with the breezy sound of so-called "yacht rock." The blue-eyed soul of "Playing the Fool" comes close to disco rhythms, while "Hot Dusty Roads" is one of the more robust, organic productions. Title track "Clear Sailin'" is an attractively melodic soft-rock ballad.
The songs not written by Hillman nonetheless are of a piece, including Danny O'Keefe's rueful "Quits," David Wolfert and Carole Bayer Sager's crossover country-pop tune "Heartbreaker" (a hit on both charts for Dolly Parton in 1978, and extended by Hillman and co. with a funky instrumental jam), and an unusual yacht-funk arrangement of the Smokey Robinson-penned Motown classic "Ain't That Peculiar."
Omnivore's reissue features new liner notes by Scott Schinder drawing on an interview with the artist, and Michael Romanowski has remastered. Indeed, both albums sound better than they ever have before on compact disc. The Asylum Years shines a well-deserved spotlight on a consummate musician. It's a pleasant sail through the tranquil waters of mid-seventies SoCal rock...clear sailin' all the way.