Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Tim Buckley - Works in Progress (Rhino Handmade, 1999)
Damn, it's hard to believe that this came out ten years ago. I don't think I had even heard of Rhino's boutique subsidiary label when this CD was first issued until a friend of mine, who knew that I was a hardcore Tim Buckley fan, made me aware of this release. I first became a fan of this fantastic musician during my year as a study abroad student in England as the English often have better taste in American music than most Americans do. By the time I was done with college, I had acquired all of Buckley's albums. Despite his short lifespan, I wondered why such a relatively prolific artist did not have more unreleased material available. Sure, there were the excellent posthumous concert albums Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 and Live at the Troubadour 1969 that became available in the mid-1990s, but what about putting out some of his demos, outtakes, and alternate versions of songs from his studio releases?
My prayers were answered when Works in Progress became available. I could hardly wait until this disc arrived in the mail since Rhino Handmade releases are not available in stores. When it finally did show up in my mailbox, I turned off my phone and got in the proper mental state so I could devote my full attention to the enjoyment of this album. Keeping in mind that it consisted of, as the title indicates, works in progress - and not completed projects - I was, for the most part, extremely satisfied with my purchase.
For the most part, this collection consists of material recorded in 1968 that would eventually be polished and refined and appear on Happy/Sad, my favorite of Buckley's albums and arguably his best. If you're not familiar with this folk-jazz masterpiece, you need to track it down and listen to it right now. "Danang" and the three takes of "Ashbury Park" offer the listener an opportunity to hear how "Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)" came into being. The first version of "Sing a Song for You" (track 2) features Lee Underwood's enchantingly mellow guitar work that is curiously absent from the released version that appears on Happy/Sad and here as track 6. The two embryonic versions of "Buzzin' Fly," probably my all-time favorite Tim Buckley song, are intriguing and demonstrate how he kept working this composition to ultimate perfection. "Song to the Siren" is yet another earlier version of the artist's oft-covered exercise in melancholia and bears great similarity to his performance in The Monkees epsidode "The Frodis Caper." "Happy Time" and "Chase the Blues Away" would both later find a home on Blue Afternoon (probably my second favorite Buckley album). These earlier recordings are both of high quality, althought the arrangements on the latter sound a bit cluttered. "Hi Lily, Hi Lo" is a rare example of Buckley doing material by a songwriter other than himself or Larry Beckett. Oddly enough, the original, with music by Bronislau Kaper and lyrics by Helen Deutsch, appeared in the 1953 film Lili, which may have been something he saw as a child. I always thought this song was just a bit too precious, both here and the similar version on Dream Letter: Live in London 1968, but even Buckley's lesser performances are better than most musicians at their best. "Wayfaring Stranger," an old folk song primarily associated with Burl Ives, also appears on Dream Letter, and both renditions are powerful and superb. "Dream Letter" (the song) is the same version that appears on Happy/Sad. As much as I like this piece, I don't understand why it and "Sing a Song for You" (take 8) are included on this release other than to serve as filler, even if it is filler of the highest order. Prior to the release of Works, "The Father Song" was a completely unknown compostion and had not appeared in any form anywhere else. Perhaps the rawest of the tracks that appear here, it is a mystery why Buckley did not develop this song further. Perhaps the possible subject matter - his allegedly strained relationship with his father or the fact that his own son Jeff had been born out of wedlock - was just too sensitive of a topic. Yes, the song is underdeveloped, but there is still an austere beauty to it. The CD closes with "The Fidler," which is actually an instrumental rough mix of the sublime "Phantasmagoria in Two" from Goodbye and Hello (probably my third favorite Buckley LP) and begs the question, "Isn't there any more unreleased material from the recording sessions for this album?"
The minor quibbles about tracks 6, 7, 8, and 14 aside, Works in Progress is an extremely enjoyable listening experience. The performances may, for the most part, be scraps and leftovers, but they are definitely gourmet scraps and leftovers that Tim Buckley fans will relish.
Note: If you have not already done so, check out Tim Buckley's fantastic 1968 concert recording, The Copenhagen Tapes, here. And be sure to do the same with Live at The Folklore Center, NYC - March 6, 1967 here.
1. Danang (takes 7 + 8 intercut)
2. Sing a Song for You (take 11)
3. Buzzin' Fly (take 3)
4. Song to the Siren (take 7)
5. Happy Time (take 14)
6. Sing a Song for You (take 8)
7. Chase the Blues Away (take 3)
8. Hi Lily, Hi Lo (take 7)
9. Buzzin' Fly (take 9)
10. Wayfaring Stranger (take 4)
11. Ashbury Park version 1 (take 8)
12. Ashbury Park version 2 (take 14)
13. Ashbury Park version 2 (take 25)
14. Dream Letter (takes 17-16 intercut)
15. The Father Song (take 3)
16. The Fiddler (rough mix)