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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tim Buckley, "Happy Sad"

Tim Buckley
"Happy Sad"
Elektra (1969)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Fans of '60s folkie Tim Buckley find "Happy Sad" to be an appropriate title for the artist's third album. On one hand, this is his best collection (in my opinion), but on the other, it also represents the turning point at which Buckley began his descent into commercial and critical failure.

It's only fair to start out with the good, and that's Buckley's experimentation with instrumental style on the album. He had always despised being compared to Bob Dylan, and the range of instruments featured on this record allowed him some breathing room. Lee Underwood added electric guitar to Buckley's acoustic strumming, and John Miller provided a richer tone on the upright bass. Most notably, particularly on this record, is vibraphone player David Friedman. The vibraphone is a xylophone-type percussion instrument popular in jazz music. Buckley respected musicians like Miles Davis highly, and looked to emulate their style in his own music. Upright bass is a nice, but not uncommon sound in folk. The vibraphone however, as featured in tracks like opener "Strange Feelin'," makes Buckley's sound truly unique.

The only song on the album that departs from the formula explained above is "Gypsy Woman," a 12-minute jam that is far funkier than folky. The song features congas prominently, and Buckley testing his vocal range, hitting falsetto notes that differ from his then standard warble. Despite being a far cry from the other five tracks on the album, "Gypsy Woman" is not all that bad. However, it serves as an omen for what was to come soon in Buckley's future.

Buckley, like so many other artists, didn't like being pigeonholed into one genre. Therefore "Happy Sad" was to be his last album that could truly be labeled merely as folk. Following "Happy," he released a series of three albums that experimented with free jazz and absurd vocals (shrieks and low baritones), creating avant-garde recordings that neither sold nor satisfied. From there, he pursued a funk sound during an era that many refer to as his "sex funk" period. Unlike vilified funk artists like Issac Hayes, Buckley's attempts at promiscuous music were blunt and awkward, with lyrics like "spank me" amongst similar oddball requests. Buckley would die at the age of 28, poor and dissatisfied with his own music.

"Happy Sad" demonstrates that the apex of a musical career can be a very sharp point. It proved to be, again, in my opinion, by far his best album. But the following records did not get gradually worse, but rather dropped off dramatically. Buckley fans were "happy" to hear the musician's experimentation come to happy fruition, but then again, they were "sad" when he just kept pushing the envelope.

INTERESTING FACT: Buckley was a star athlete in high school, playing quarterback for the football team. He broke two fingers and they never fully healed. This made playing barre chords difficult for him, and as a result, guitarists will notice that his songs are largely composed of extended chords.

Strange Feelin' by Tim Buckley on Grooveshark

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