By the late 60's the Byrds were at a fork in the road, they were no longer as commercially successful as they had been two years earlier and they were being torn apart by internal friction within the band. The folk rock sound that they had so deftly pioneered was no longer in vogue so there was pressure for the band to become relevant again. Out of this turmoil came the brilliant The Notorious Byrd Brothers a somewhat ironic title given the state of the relationships in the band at the time. The album is a sublime escape into psychedelia but at no point does the album resemble a cliche, it's inventive and original, you can also hear the seeds of their growing interest in country music which they would delve into further on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds were deeply influenced by the release of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album and it saw them explore their interests in jazz, country and psychedelia, combing and interweaving into a cohesive musical exploration of a troubled period in America.
Artificial Energy which opens the album is a portent to something darker emanating from the Byrds, it's a somewhat harrowing tale of the drug speed, the song an atypical funky sound, Hillman a musician I really admire lays down a pounding bass line, the horns are phased in and out and then lift to linger over the vocals.
Artificial Energy is racing in my mind
I've got a strange feeling, I'm going to die before my time
I'm coming down from amphetamines
And I'm in jail because I killed the Queen
Goin Back The Goffin/King song is perhaps the last remnants of the original Byrds sound and features original member Gene Clark on backing vocals, it's a wistful look back at an America prior to the horrors of the Vietnam War and political and social upheaval. Natural Harmony is floating jazz number with some nice guitar work from Roger McGuinn and some fine percussive work from legendary session drummer Jim Gordon. It's also another example of the growing confidence of Chris Hillman as a songwriter. Draft Morning definitely has the imprimatur of one David Crosby, it's outspoken but in a very dream like manner, the middle of the song bursts into a collision of gun fire and horns, sounds very influenced by The Beatles.
Take my time this morning, no hurry
To learn to kill and take the will
From unknown faces
I Wasn't Born to Follow, another Goffin King song is the first example of the group's growing interest in country music and features the brilliant pedal steel of Red Rhodes. Get To You was a collaboration between Gene Clark and McGuinn and could be considered baroque pop with it's cascading strings. Change is Now is another great slice of psychedelic country, distorted guitars blended alongside pedal steel and crisp harmonies, it's also a call for change. Old John Robertson is a song based on the fear of outsiders, those who don't conform. Its more uptempo with some nice country picking courtesy of Clarence White and James Burton, the middle of the song has another blast of baroque strings phased in and out.
Old John Robertson he wore a stetson hat
People everywhere would laugh behind his back
No one cared to take any time to find out
What he was all about, fear kept them out
Tribal Gathering a Hillman/Crosby number is another jazz interlude softly lilting, a tribute to the West Coast lifestyle, the middle burst of guitar perhaps a hint of something darker behind the veil of peace love and harmony. Dolphin's Smile and Triad are Crosby's ode to the joys of free love, Triad especially is a direct acknowledgement of his love of pushing social boundaries. Triad also marked the final split between Crosby and the rest of the group, Crosby did not want the Goffin/King song Goin Back on the album and the rest of the band did not want Triad on the record so Crosby was summarily dismissed from the group.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers was a big artistic leap for the Byrds it put them in esteemed company, creating a psychedelic album cliche free that musically ambitious and lyrically relevant to the times, it covered the spirit of L.A, the sense of social freedom, it marked it's opposition to the Vietnam war and promoted a more tolerant view of the differences in society.