Chris Hillman: The Asylum Years (Omnivore Recordings)

By the mid 1970s, musician Chris Hillman had established himself as a first rate songwriter and studio musician, one that was adept at composing songs that could be cutting edge rock’n roll or gentle, wistful, easy-going Country rock. Having served in The Byrds, he would later move to Flying Burrito Brothers, and by the early 1970s he was working with Stephen Stills‘s band Manassas, as well as participating and recording with other singer songwriters in various duos and trios. After the dissolution of his most recent collaborative project, his record label, Asylum, suggested that he pursue a solo project, which resulted in a pair of albums for the label, his 1976 debut, Slippin’ Away, and 1977’s Clear Sailin’, both of which have not been reissued on CD until now.

Musically speaking, the two albums are very much what one would expect from Chris Hillman, given his vast discography. However, there are stylistic differences between the two that are quite noticeable and provide a listening experience that never grows monotonous. Slippin’ Away was quite an adventurous record, thanks to its rotating cast of band members from all walks of Hillman’s past musical projects. Musically, it’s all over the map, and while in some instances this diverse range might be a hindrance, Hillman and his crew pull it off with such expert ease that it never feels forced. From slinky, sly Southern Californian singer-songwriter fare (“Slipping Away,” “Blue Morning”) to upbeat country rock (“Down in the Churchyard,” “Midnight Again”), from heartfelt ballads (“Love Is the Sweetest Amnesty”) and even a straight up bluegrass hoedown (“(Take Me In Your) Lifeboat”)–-Slippin’ Away is the sound of a man and his friends having a hell of a good time in the recording studio.

 

Clear Sailin’ was a quickly written album, recorded with a set backing band, and as a result it lacks much of the flair and excitement of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s a bad album; if anything, it’s very much in line with the mellow, soft rock country that would soon be on the rise in the late 70s and early 80s. Not that it doesn’t have it’s more up beat numbers; ”Ain’t That Peculiar” and “Lucky in love” are fun, funky barroom rockers. Yet it’s on the mellower numbers where Hillman really shines; “Quits” is a tastefully arranged, lush country ballad that tugs at the heartstrings, as does the piano balladry of “Heartbreaker.” “Playing the Fool,” however, is pure modern country, sounding like a forerunner of the soon to be successful Alabama. All in all, Clear Sailin’ is a low key affair, one that is definitely charming and enjoyable, even if it might not be his strongest work.

But Hillman never quite felt comfortable enough to establish himself as a full fledged solo act. After this pair of records, you will go on to join several different groups and collaborative projects, most notably the Desert Rose Band, which found him returning to his folk and bluegrass roots. He still releases the occasional solo album though, most notably last year’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful biding my time. The Asylum Years documents the flights of fancy of a very talented Byrd, and captures him at the peak of his creative abilities.

The Asylum Years is available now from Omnivore Recordings.

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