Farther Along is the Byrds’ first completely self-produced LP, and exists as a kind of backlash to Terry Melcher’s elaborate string and choir-laden production of Byrdmaniax. Farther Along was recorded within three months of Byrdmaniax, so eager was the band to make amends. Because of their closeness in time, their programmatic similarity is not surprising, though the sound has been considerably cleaned up. The personalities which are projected here are of the same cloth as those which in part reach back beyond Byrdmaniax to Ballad of Easy Rider, the first album to identify the new Byrds. Clarence White continues to sing his tight-lipped white-gospel laments; Gene Parsons his love-lorn ballads. McGuinn and Skip Battin both do novelty songs, though in their more serious moments Battin’s songs tend to have a spiritual cast, while Roger’s tend to be pastel tributes to women.
Farther Along opens with McGuinn’s “Tiffany Queen,” a “Johnny B. Goode”-based “115th Dream” — a series of surreal nonsequiturs with “a Tiffany lamp overhead” as the refrain. “Get Down Your Line” is Parsons’ “Gunga Din” or “There Must Be Someone” or “Yesterday’s Train” this time around, although the chorus is multi-voiced and up-tempo. “Farther Along,” laced with acoustic guitar and mandolin, is this album’s “Oil In My Lamp” or “My Destiny.” “B.B. Class Road” is dedicated to the road managers of the world, and is, I suppose, a bit of recognition long overdue. It is probably sung by one of the Byrds’ own roadies — either Stuart Dawson or Jimmi Seiter — but is unfortunately postured and strident. “Bugler” perpetuates the tradition of Byrds animal songs like “Old Blue” and “Chestnut Mare,” and like the other two is a childhood idyll. Clarence intones, “Bugler, bugler, bless your hide/Jesus gonna take you for a chariot ride …”
“America’s Great National Pastime” is a Battin-Kim Fowley written enumeration of such, and is sung in Skip’s strangely nasal, elfin voice. “Antique Sandy” is one of Roger’s preternatural creatures; his singing here is gentle and utterly typical. Likewise is “Precious Kate,” Farther Along’s “Kathleen’s Song” or “Pale Blue,” with, as a bonus, the Byrds’ unique guitar texture. “So Fine,” an unnecessary resuscitation of the Fiestas hit, was no doubt more fun to perform than to listen to. Its treatment qualifies it, like “Tunnel of Love” on Byrdmaniax, as another novelty song. “Lazy Waters” posits youth as the time for wisdom in one’s life and pleads for its return. It is this record’s “Absolute Happiness” and on it Battin’s peculiar voice works personally and well. “Bristol Steam Convention Blues,” like “Nashville West” and “Green Apple Quick Step,” is an instrumental. Today, the occasional Byrds breakdown is more likely to be bluegrass than nervous.
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In case you haven’t already noticed, the key to all of this is that McGuinn (not to mention his 12-string and the traditional harmonies) no longer, in effect, dominates the group. If you believe, as I do, that the Byrds, with some exceptions, have been supremely good only insofar as Roger has been in control, this fact can be the source of some chagrin. All of the other band members (their exceptional virtuosity aside) possess strong personalities and don’t hesitate to express them, but they are also severely limited in their range. There is a programmatic certainty to their music at this point which at first glance happily signifies that a first-generation band has successfully remade itself, but, after repeated exposure disappoints one with its inflexibility. And McGuinn, as just one member out of four, seems rather as predictable as the rest.
This is not an outstanding album, either by Byrds or contemporary standards, though, for at least a Byrds fan, it contains several seductive tunes and some exemplary musicianship. But beneath the old Byrds sound, and this new, quartered approach, there is a more fundamental commitment, and that is to survival. The Byrds, I think, are entertaining in the old-fashioned sense. They release albums at amazingly regular intervals; they continue to be one of America’s best performing bands, and wind up each performance with the kind of break bar bands use to designate the end of a set. McGuinn, like the elder Muddy Waters or T-Bone Walker, lays back; after years of scuffling along, he, like those older bluesmen, is happy to let the rest of the band do the majority of the work. Digging in for the long haul entails a slowed pace of growth, a curtailment of artistic ferment. Yet in an age of meteoric rises and falls, sheer longevity is unfashionably reassuring.