Morning Glory: The Tim Buckley Anthology
Rating: 5
   You may recall from your economics classes a concept called “division of labor.” It means that, instead of one person doing all the work to complete a good or service – for example, building a car from the ground up – a team of people will each specialize in one function – for example, one person drills holes, another puts bolts into them – and the work gets done a lot faster.
   The music industry used to operate this way. A person who had someone to distinguish himself or herself as a performer (charisma or good looks, say, or even vocal or instrumental talent) would concentrate on recordings and live appearances. Somebody else, with a talent for writing songs, would write songs. A few multi-talented souls could do both, but it was rare for someone to excel in both fields.
   I’m not sure why, but by the late sixties that division of labor was frowned upon by “serious” rock and roll musicians, and we wound up with all sorts of records full of good songs poorly sung, or incredible renditions of vapid material. Tim Buckley’s as good an example as any.
   Buckley was an L.A. folkie with an incredible voice. On his earliest records, he’s crystalline pure, like a male Judy Collins. Later, he developed some soulful technique and expanded his lower range and has a lot of Marvin Gaye influence. He’s a real pleasure to listen to. Unfortunately, he performed almost exclusively his own compositions.
   When Buckley’s tunes aren’t formulaic folk stuff, they’re just plain odd. Earlier material has a number of gems, like “Pleasant Street” with its powerful “down down” refrain over descending chords and ominous organ, and “Buzzin’ Fly” with its good-time jazz guitar and vibes, but a lot of the others recycle old Folkways lyrical and melodic tropes (“Aren’t You the Girl” even steals the tune from “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, but at least it’s a good tune.)
   Around 1969, Buckley took a serious turn for the bizarre. His songs became exercises in trippy improvisation, mostly long droning chord sequences with lots of high held notes. Probably neat if you’re contemplating your toes with the assistance of some chemicals, but hard to find a lot of hooks in. Some later tunes have thrilling string arrangements, which pick up the drama (“Make It Right”, “Sweet Surrender”) but others are gibbering messes (“Monterey”).
   Tim Buckley was an incredible singer, and it’s a real shame about his songs; had Tim Buckley worked with some good songwriter who couldn’t sing, two careers could have been saved. The grip of the invisible hand never gets any weaker.

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