Monday, February 19, 2018

Chris Hillman: “The Asylum Years” (2018) CD Review

Known as a member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Hillman started a solo career in 1976, with the release of Slippin’ Away, which featured mostly original material. He followed that the next year with Clear Sailin’, which also included a lot of original material, much of it co-written by Peter Knobler. Now both those albums have been re-issued on a single CD, The Asylum Years. There is no bonus material, but there are new liner notes by Scott Schinder, with snippets from an interview with Chris Hillman.

Slippin’ Away

For his first solo album, Chris Hillman gathered together an excellent group of musicians, many of whom he had worked with before, including Bernie Leadon, Rick Roberts and Al Perkins from The Flying Burrito Brothers. Paul Harris and Joe Lala, who both played with Hillman in the band Manassas, play on most tracks. Also joining this group of players is Steve Cropper on lead guitar for several tracks, along with fellow Booker T & The MGs member Donald “Duck” Dunn on one track. So, yes, a whole lot of talent went into this album. Most of the songs were written by Chris Hillman, with one track by Stephen Stills, a song they both performed in Manassas, and one track by Danny Douma.

This album opens with “Step On Out,” a song that was later covered by the Oak Ridge Boys. It is an easy-going, relaxed, joyful, folk-pop tune, with such a happy sound. “Seems like she’s seen it all before/And what she hasn’t seen, she’s heard of/So keep your secrets hidden/I’ve got my heart out on my sleeve and an eye on the door.” George Terry plays lead guitar on this track, and Steve Cropper is actually on rhythm guitar. That’s followed by “Slippin’ Away,” the album’s title track, with some great laid-back 1970s vibes, reminding me at times of some of Paul Simon’s work from the same period. “And something inside says I’m a fool to stay/The one that you love is slipping away.” Steve Cropper plays lead guitar on this one, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles provide some backing vocals.

“Falling Again” has a sweet country flavor, with Al Perkins on pedal steel. What comes as a surprise and changes up that sound a good deal is Albhy Galuten’s work on synthesizer in the second half of the song. “’Cause I’m falling again, falling again/I was blind to the truth/Lost and alone/Searching for someone/Won’t you tell her to please come home.” Then “Take It On The Run” has more of a rock sound, and a silly bit of banter at the beginning. Donnie Dacus plays slide guitar on this track. That’s followed by “Blue Morning,” a mellow and moving tune that features Al Perkins on pedal steel and Donald Dunn on bass. “Down by the river/In a cold, damp room/Watching your life go by/Maybe just a little too soon.”

“Witching Hour” is the track written by Stephen Stills, the song that Hillman and Stills played in their group Manassas in the early seventies. In the liner notes, Hillman indicates that Manassas never recorded it. However, in 2009 a compilation of previously unreleased Manassas tracks titled Pieces was released, and includes a recording of “Witching Hour.” Fellow Manassas members Paul Harris and Joe Lala play on this track, which has more of an edge than most of the other material here. It’s followed by “Down In The Churchyard,” a song that was first recorded by The Flying Burrito Brothers and included on their 1970 LP Burrito Deluxe. This version by Chris Hillman has a different vibe, with more of a reggae feel to the rhythm. My favorite track of this album is its closing track, “(Take Me In Your) Lifeboat,” a wonderful, fun bluegrass tune featuring some excellent vocals. This track features Herb Pedersen on banjo, Byron Berline on fiddle, Bernie Leadon on guitar, Lee Sklar on bass, and Joe Lala on percussion. Chris Hillman plays mandolin on this track.

Clear Sailin’

Clear Sailin’ has a different sound and feel, and features mostly different musicians from the first album. It gets off to a lively, joyful start with “Nothing Gets Through.” And right away the different sound is apparent, with the presence of saxophone. That’s Alan Garth on sax. This track also features some nice work on keys by Skip Edwards. “I’m as reckless as a favorite son/And subtle as a smoking gun/Nothing ventured and nothing won/And nothing lost.” “Nothing Gets Through” was written by Chris Hillman and Peter Knobler, as was the following track, “Fallen Favorite.” I love this line: “They say that people live and learn, but baby you’re just living.” This album has a lot of excellent lyrics. One line that really stands out for me is “You rejected advances that I wasn’t making” from “Lucky In Love.” I’ve been in that position. I once had a girl call me to break up with me, a girl whom I had never asked out. (I later performed an entire stand-up routine about that one woman.) This song is a lot of fun, and features more good work on saxophone. “I’m lucky in love and I’ve left myself open/For romance with a vengeance.” “Lucky In Love” was written by Chris Hillman and Peter Knobler, and is one of my favorite tracks.

The first cover of the album is “Quits,” written by Danny O’Keefe, and originally included on his 1975 record So Long Harry Truman. I love the violin in this Chris Hillman version. This song, too, has some damn good lines, such as “Tell ‘em dreams are flowers and our garden’s bare” and its main line, “Call it what you want/I’ll just call it quits.” Chris Hillman also delivers a really good rendition of “Heartbreaker,” written by David Wolfert and Carole Bayer Sager. This version predates Dolly Parton’s version, which was released the following year. This version is nearly two minutes longer than Dolly’s, with a nice jam at the end. “I truly thought that we were lovers/But now I see you’re just like all the others.” The final cover on this album is “Ain’t That Peculiar,” written by Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore, Marv Tarplin and Robert Rogers, and originally recorded by Marvin Gaye. This version is quite a bit different from the Marvin Gaye version, right from the start. It’s a bit funky, and features saxophone.

The album concludes with its title track, “Clear Sailin’,” which was written by Chris Hillman and Rick Roberts. It features a good, passionate vocal performance. “I feel my life changing with the tide/And the tide changing with the breeze/I hear everybody’s explanation/And nothing that I believe.”

CD Track List
  1. Step On Out
  2. Slippin’ Away
  3. Falling Again
  4. Take It On The Run
  5. Blue Morning
  6. Witching Hour
  7. Down In The Churchyard
  8. Love Is The Sweetest Amnesty
  9. Midnight Again
  10. (Take Me In Your) Lifeboat
  11. Nothing Gets Through
  12. Fallen Favorite
  13. Quits
  14. Hot Dusty Roads
  15. Heartbreaker
  16. Playing The Fool
  17. Lucky In Love
  18. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
  19. Ain’t That Peculiar
  20. Clear Sailin’
The Asylum Years was released on February 9, 2018 through Omnivore Recordings.

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