I'm generally reluctant to ascribe the term dated to any album, as it seems to carry with it a connotation that the music of the past is inherently inferior to its counterparts on the modern rock scene. I've always been of the mind that true art is timeless, and will endure any vicissitudes that may be wrought by an ever-changing medium. Nevertheless, some albums truly have aged poorly over the years, and must be reassessed accordingly.
This 'aging' is especially prevalent amongst albums that rely on something other than quality to make themselves worthwhile. I'm not referring to rock music that tries to be topical, or songs that seek to convey a message, be it political, philosophical or otherwise. Neither am I alluding to music that hinges upon shock value, but that is far closer to what I have in mind.
Without a doubt, Five Live Yardbirds is a historically significant album. Not only is it the debut of one of the premier rock acts of the sixties, it's also one of the first live albums to emerge from the burgeoning British Invasion.
The group was still in its embryonic phase. No band member had stepped up to the plate and assumed the role of songwriter, and as a result there's nary an original composition amongst its ten tracks (or eighteen, if you count the bonus material on reissues). Thus the Yardbirds had to rely on the caliber of their performances.
This was an awkward predicament for the band, as Eric Clapton was the only standout musician amidst their ranks at this early stage of the group's history. Therefore, with neither original songs nor virtuoso performances, the group was forced to depend on one element, namely the ferocious onslaught of their rock and roll power.
This may very well have worked out at the time, but if someone raised on modern rock music heard the album now he'd laugh at the notion that this qualified as uncompromising, unbridled rock music in any era. To those with a contemporary rock sensibility Five Live Yardbirds is thoroughly, unambiguously tame.
Thanks to this antiquated approach to rock music there's little to attract new listeners. It doesn't help that Clapton is criminally underutilized on the albums, as more time is allotted to Keith Relf's harmonica playing than to guitar solos. Furthermore, even if the music was daring for the times, there were contemporaneous rock outfits who were far more willing and able to push the envelope, most notably The Rolling Stones.
There are simply many superior alternatives to Five Live Yardbirds, albums that do precisely the same thing, yet do so far, far better. If one wants to hear Clapton play the blues they needn't subject themselves to solid yet unremarkable cuts like Smokestack Lightnin' when they could listen to the incredible twenty-minute-plus Cream rendition of Spoonful on Wheels Of Fire.
Truth be told, nearly all of Five Live Yardbirds' ambitions were later realized by not only Cream, Blind Faith and Clapton solo, but by later Yardbirds material as well. With time the group became far more accomplished, polished and edgy. Sadly during the band's peak Clapton had already long departed for greener pastures, making it all the more frustrating that he was so badly squandered for his short stay with the group. Of course, axe-men like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are by no means anything to scoff at, which certainly eases the pain.
Nonetheless, it's not as if Five Live Yardbirds is actually bad. It's certainly never offensive, as its primary flaws lie with the fact that it's simply very underwhelming. The songs are all competently performed, but overall it's a rather quotidian affair, with little that leaps out and grabs one's attention. Better songwriting and better musicianship would do the trick, and while that would come with time it does little to help the band so early in their careers.
At first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the intervening year between Five Live Yardbirds and For Your Love. Once again the set-list is almost exclusively comprised of covers. Furthermore, while the guitar tones can be gruffer at times, this newfound heaviness is largely illusory. No matter how aggressive Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck become with their axe-wielding, the vocals and arrangements remain firmly entrenched in a kind of benign wholesomeness, hence tracks like the bland easy-listening of Sweet Music which the likes of The Rolling Stones would contemptuously scoff at. Despite the best efforts of their guitarist, be it Beck or Clapton, no matter how much The Yardbirds strive to 'rock out,' they still never match many of their contemporaries in force or power. This dichotomy between the level of aggression in Beck and Clapton's guitarwork and the remainder of the group's more conservative arrangements can be jarring at times, creating a situation wherein it feels as if The Yardbirds have one foot in the past and the other in the future.
Fortunately, once this initial impression dissipates, one will find that more has changed than is readily apparent. Even if The Yardbirds can't compete with The Stones on the aggression front, they still sound a good deal more self-assured and confident than they had on Five Live Yardbirds, with tighter arrangements and more personality. One might worry that the energy level on For Your Love would suffer now that the group has been transplanted into a studio context, but the differences between The Yardbirds live and studio sounds are negligible. The group were never exactly studio wizards, preferring a more straightforward 'live in the studio' sound to the world of overdubs and sound-effects.
Most importantly, while Clapton still frequently plays second fiddle to Relf's Dylanesque harmonica-fetish, he's thankfully given considerably more opportunities to shine than on the debut. Though he isn't emphasized to the degree that he deserves, Clapton can wow audiences even in short bursts, and when he's fully unleashed on longer solos he adroitly proves why he's considered to be one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
This album also marks the debut of Clapton's successor. While only a few tracks are culled from the post-Clapton era, Jeff Beck adeptly demonstrates that the loss of Mr. Slowhand is hardly the crushing blow that one would imagine.
The set-list is also a great deal more compelling than the band's repertoire on Five Live Yardbirds. The title track was written specifically for the band by pop-guru Gouldman, and while it's difficult to reconcile the song's pronounced sappiness with his subsequent irreverent exploits with 10cc, For Your Love is still a hugely catchy, entertaining number. Embracing this brand of saccharine pop for the sake of a hit single was not without its deleterious effects, however. Feeling that the band's core blues values were compromised by what was arguably tantamount to a sell-out, Clapton left the group in disgust. With Jeff Beck waiting in the wings the band recovered quickly, though in retrospect I would never have thought that Clapton would be more averse to slick pop than his guitar-hero successor.
Amidst the endless covers, Relf does get a single original composition in (two if you count the bonus tracks). Titled I Ain't Done Wrong, it's a decent enough affair, but ultimately it's so generic that there's virtually nothing to differentiate it from any number of other tracks on the album.
One radical departure from the group's status quo arrives in the form of The Yardbirds' cover of the epochal hit My Girl Sloopy. Ushering in a new era of experimentalism for the band, the Yardbirds heavily reinterpret the innocuous pop hit, dramatically extending its length, toying with the arrangements and inserting some proto-Zappa freak-outs. This leads to a rather large problem, though. At the time these changes greatly diminished the superficial entertainment value of the song, but this was compensated for by the daring new direction the track was taken in. Now, however, the song remains neutered from a conventional standpoint, while the latter benefit has long since lost its relevance. The experimental aspects of the song are so tame by today's standards that they can scarcely be appreciated as being either bold or clever, resulting in a five minute mess that ends the album proper on a sour note. The song doesn't bode well for Jeff Beck's tenure in the group, as it's by far the most ambitious track to feature the new guitarist, but luckily he's given ample opportunities to redeem himself.
Nevertheless, while the bulk of the songs are admittedly dated, most of them prove to be quite enjoyable. I'm Not Talking, a pop rocker with Jeff Beck handling guitar duties, displays the huge gulf between the tone of the guitarwork and the rest of the instrumentation, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. A Certain Girl is disarmingly charming with its amusing refrain and innocent lyrics, very much the product of its times while possessing just enough substance to sustain it in the modern era. Got To Hurry is a solid instrumental that gives Clapton the chance to showcase his skills (when Relf isn't indulging in his harmonica fixation, that is), though it feels like it's over far too quickly.
Some of the bonus tracks are worthwhile, but I can't help but feel that For Your Love works better as a compact, concise product, rendering these additions a detriment to the album's focus and pacing. Furthermore, Questa Volta is simply painful, as Relf's attempts at pronouncing Italian words is considerably less amusing than one would surmise.
Thus For Your Love is an auspicious studio debut, one that while not that far removed from Five Live Yardbirds nevertheless manages to do something better without doing something different. A more interesting set-list, tighter arrangements and better use of Clapton (and, where applicable, Beck) proves sufficient to make for a far more entertaining listen, though it's obvious that some dramatic changes would have to be made before The Yardbirds could even think of aspiring to greatness.
The Yardbirds' discography is fraught with inconsistencies, redundancies and simple frustrations. Seemingly averse to full-fledged LPs, the band has a commercial history that's riddled with EPs, compilations and live releases, with countless variations of any given one of these products in mass circulation. Further inspection reveals that there's rampant recycling on many of these releases, with identical renditions of certain songs appearing on multiple CDs. Thus navigating the group's canon is a dangerous proposition, with any buyer imperiled by the very real threat that even if he purchases every official Yardbirds release he'll be missing some songs that are exclusively featured on alternate versions, while he'll likely be the proud owner of half a dozen versions of one performance.
Thus one would assume that an album like Having A Rave Up would raise the ire of nearly any critic. At a time when the Yardbirds were suffering from a paucity of new material, the record company demanded a full LP from the band. The group had six new tracks, perfectly suited for a superb EP. The label, however, balked at the idea of a mere EP, far too recalcitrant to bend or compromise on the matter. The solution was to 'borrow' four tracks from Five Live Yardbirds to pad the EP until it constituted a full LP, albeit a rather short one.
The tracks culled from Five Live Yardbirds are wholly extraneous for anyone who owns the band's live debut. There's really no defense for their inclusion, as they're unambiguously filler on every level. Furthermore, returning to a time when Clapton was the Yardbirds' guitarist dilutes the focus of the album, as Having A Rave Up centers around Jeff Beck's unique and innovative approach to guitarwork.
Another complaint stems from the fact that, as far as the Five Live Yardbirds imports are concerned, the track selection defies all logic and common sense. A cover of I'm A Man is included on the studio portion of the album, rendering the Five Live Yardbirds version even more redundant than it already was. Likewise, thanks to this mystifying set-list there are three versions of Here 'Tis featured on the album, and I doubt that anyone sane could endorse this maddening repetition.
One might also object to the bonus tracks, of which there are eleven. Nearly every one of these tracks is a basic blues number, all of which are perfectly inoffensive and tasteful yet far too generic to be remembered in the long run. While most of them are attributed to the band themselves, it's clear that little in the way of songwriting transpired here, as amongst these numbers jamming takes precedence over conventional song-structures and melodies.
The truth of the matter, however, is that these bluesy jams are quite entertaining. One can think of them as something akin to the Apple Jams that follow George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, with superb instrumental interplay acting as a coda for a masterful album proper. There is one crucial difference, however; while the Apple Jams were preceded by two full LPs of great songs, casting them as something of a bonus, Having A Rave Up would be anemic without these blues numbers. Thus the album itself relies on some enjoyable but nondescript jams, a predicament that can't help but irk a potential listener. Nevertheless one can't argue with the fact that these jams add a considerable amount of worth to the album, and whether this is right or wrong is irrelevant in the long run, particularly while one is enjoying Jeff Beck's proto-hard rock guitar stylings.
Thus half of the LP is discounted as being wholly extraneous, while most of the bonus tracks are highly entertaining yet fundamentally forgettable. This leaves a mere six songs; fortunately, they're uniformly brilliant, and elevate what could be a dispensable experience to dizzying heights heretofore unexplored by the Yardbirds.
Admittedly, as per the status quo, most of these songs are covers. In the past the band was content to offer faithful run-throughs of old standards, but now, at last, the Yardbirds have mastered the art of making the songs of others their own. Through creative arrangements and deft instrumentation the band make already strong songs truly unforgettable, acting as pioneers in nearly every avenue of sixties music from psychedelic pop to hard rock to experimental genre-fusions.
While its lyrics can be didactic at times, the opener Mr. You're A Better Man Than I is a stellar rock song, with a terrific distorted solo courtesy of Jeff Beck. Evil Hearted You, is the first of two cuts on the album penned by Graham Gouldman. As always, Gouldman's unerring pop acumen leads to strong results. This is especially apparent on Heart Full Of Soul, which is quite simply one of the finest songs in the storied history of the Yardbirds.
Particularly worth noting, however, is the Yardbirds original Still I'm Sad, the most striking representative of the band's newfound experimental tendencies. Featuring everything from echoey chanting to a subdued, subtle sense of menace, the song has no analogues in that era, a testament to the trailblazing nature that typifies the band's output in the post-Clapton era.
I'm A Man had already been featured on Five Live Yardbirds, a fact that the group feels compelled to remind its audience of through that version's pointless inclusion on the album. This rendition, however, is nothing like that competent but unspectacular live interpretation. The pace of the song is accelerated to such an extent that well over two minutes are condensed into a ninety-second sprint, and the song's final minute is devoted to a manic jam that anticipates everything from Zappa to Pink Floyd. Better still, this freak-out is far more than a mere novelty, as it's thoroughly enjoyable for its full, sixty-second duration.
While Train Kept A Rollin' seems like more traditional Yardbirds fare given the band's innate predilection for all things blues-related, the band are hardly content with a faithful rendition, adding everything from vocal-overdubs to a frantic-yet-structured breakneck pace. The song fits the old 'controlled-chaos' cliché to a t, and in the absolute best sense of the term.
There are also some bonus tracks that are particularly worth noting. Shape Of Things, one of the very best songs that the Yardbirds ever penned themselves, is a proto-psychedelic voyage that in no way conforms to the blues archetypes that the bonus section centers around.
Stroll On may seem more typical, but it's essential for any fan of the Yardbirds, as it's one of the few, rare examples of Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page guitar interplay. The song is transparently a reworking of Train Kept A Rollin' (though they still had the hubris to take credit for the songwriting), but its Beck/Page duel is truly breathtaking, making it all the more frustrating that the track is over in less than three minutes.
Thus Having A Rave Up is a frustrating yet brilliant album, featuring the band at their peak, the band at their humble beginnings and the band on auto-pilot. The initial six songs unquestionably present the Yardbirds at their very best, while the subsequent live cuts would be a fascinating foray into the group's past were it not for the fact that these exact same performances had already been released. Anything else from that era, even something dramatically weaker, would still be preferable to this blatant redundancy, and the presence of these songs is an unmistakable blemish on what is otherwise a rock masterpiece.
The bonus tracks are a more complicated matter, as has been discussed, but they ultimately act as a worthy complement to the opening six tracks, adroitly compensating for the frustration of the album's recycling.
Thus I still consider Having A Rave Up to be a true classic, but that's a qualified statement. I give the album a thirteen, but not without reservations. The sad part is that had the record label given the Yardbirds more time to produce some new material the album could have been mind-blowing, but as it stands one will have to settle for a brilliant but flawed masterwork.
In 1966, the Yardbirds were finally poised to deliver the grand artistic statement that had eluded them in the past. The band had always shown tremendous creative potential, but in their early years their ambitions were continually thwarted by their awkward, frustrating approach to album releases. Strange as it may seem, it wasn't until 1966 that the group produced their first true studio LP. The band's past was riddled with live releases, EPs and singles-compilations masquerading as legitimate albums, thoroughly diluting the potency of the Yardbirds' musical endeavors. Thus in 1966 this would all change with the release of an album that was not only a full studio LP but also the first Yardbirds product to consist solely of original, band-written material. The Yardbirds would, at long last, make their grand artistic statement. Only they didn't. And the critics still haven't realized that there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
It's understandable that critics had certain expectations concerning Roger The Engineer, but it's unfortunate that they remained inflexible once their initial preconceptions were contradicted. Not every album needs to be a serious artistic statement; more than that, not every album needs to be serious. It's the latter point that critics really took exception to, as Roger The Engineer is not a serious album. It almost seems as if the critical community took the album's levity and casualness as a personal insult, as Roger The Engineer's slight nature is irreconcilable with the epic masterwork that they had been anticipating.
The fact that the Yardbirds don't come across as serious artists on Roger The Engineer isn't a failure on the band's part, as they had never aspired to be such in the first place. It's clear that Relf and company hadn't envisioned Roger The Engineer as an epic undertaking, so it's unreasonable to take them to task for failing to deliver something that they had neither promised nor attempted to produce.
So Roger The Engineer isn't a grand artistic statement. What it is, however, is a hugely entertaining melting pot of countless diverse styles and experimental techniques. The album incorporates everything from blues to jazz to proto-hard rock to country ditties to Latin American rhythms to fifties-style boogies to tribal chanting to Gothic overtones to psychedelic rave-ups into a time-span of just under forty minutes. Furthermore, the ferocity of Jeff Beck's guitarwork would remain unequaled until the heyday of Jimi Hendrix, and the same can be said of the endless innovation he brings to the table.
Even if the critics decry the LP as being shallow or frivolous, the originality of the album can't be questioned. It's amazing that a group that started out with the conservative, tried-and-true and unadventurous approach of the Yardbirds would become pioneers in countless burgeoning musical movements, and this is a testament to the tremendous growth that the band had undergone in just a few short years.
One area in which the Yardbirds have clearly made great strides is songwriting. While the material is still sometimes mired in generic blues clichés, there's no question that huge advances have taken place. Even when the group's compositional skills falter the band are saved by the diverse character of the album. The Yardbirds tackle so many disparate genres that the sheer variety of the overall package ensures that no one will ever find Roger The Engineer boring.
Over, Under, Sideways, Down was the album's first single, and it's easy to see why. The riff that drives the song forward is solid on its own, but when coupled with Beck's unique guitar tone the song truly sounds like nothing else. Elsewhere, He's Always There is a terrific rock song, with a heaviness that is in no way compromised by the track's poppy refrain. Turn Into Earth injects a note of Gothic mysticism into the proceedings, more evidence that the band were truly ahead of their times. As far as bonus tracks are concerned, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago is a timeless classic, a psychedelic anthem featuring a dual onslaught of guitar pyrotechnics from Beck and Page.
The album is not without its flaws, but even when the band err there tend to be redeeming factors. Ever Since The World Began is laughably foolish with its bloated and bombastic lyrics and pompously recited vocals, but the song is so creative for its time that it's hard not to find at least a modicum of charm in it. Hot House Of Omagarashid is outright ridiculous with its ya-ya-ya chants and attempts at exotic Latin American rhythms, but there's something disarming about its very absurdity, the result being an immensely enjoyable listening experience.
Thus Roger The Engineer is a slight but vastly entertaining listen. When the band's songwriting skills fail the diversity invariably saves the day, and all members, particularly Jeff Beck, are to be commended for their experimental leanings. It may be true that the Yardbirds missed their one chance to deliver a grand artistic statement, but with their countless accomplishments in the arena of rock and roll the band will be able to endure without that particular feather in their collective cap.
Not all rock fans are terribly tolerant when it comes to change. In the eyes of many a devoted fan-boy, a stylistic shift is emblematic of selling out. Some audiences feel threatened the moment they encounter a difference, no matter how superficial, in the sound of their group of choice; many even feel insulted by such a change, viewing it as an artistic, perhaps even a personal, betrayal.
This philosophy isn't solely confined to a band's fan-base. In the case of the Yardbirds, it even extends to band members, as Eric Clapton hastily exited the group when he felt that they'd abandoned their blues roots.
Given how many changes the Yardbirds underwent in a few short years, there were many cases of perceived betrayals, and narrow-minded listeners responded accordingly. Most of these 'betrayals' are purely illusory, more indicative of the volatility and reflexive stubbornness of the Yardbirds' core audience than any wrongdoing on the part of the band themselves.
The Yardbirds began as a simple, straightforward blues ensemble, and in the eyes of many, including erstwhile members like Clapton, the band should have remained such. The first stylistic shift of note came when the Yardbirds began to incorporate more pop dynamics into their work, as demonstrated on tracks like For Your Love. While that track proved to be anathema to both Clapton and blues purists alike, it doesn't change the fact that it's an immensely entertaining number. The song may reflect the band's commercial ambitions rather than their artistic ones, but I would hardly equate this to selling out. As time goes on most rock groups begin to assimilate elements of pop music into their work, a transgression that I'm quick to pardon providing that said groups do pop music well. The Yardbirds most assuredly handled the genre well, and for that reason I'm far more apt to commend them rather than condemn them for their forays into the realm of pop music.
The next change was ushered in when Jeff Beck replaced Clapton as resident axe-man. Beck, a hugely ambitious guitarist, took the Yardbirds in a considerably more experimental direction, eschewing traditional conventions with his revolutionary guitarwork and predilection for innovative arrangements. This development can scarcely be considered 'selling out,' and in fact may represent the artistic zenith of the Yardbirds' storied careers.
While Beck retained his experimental inclinations on the Yardbirds' first studio LP, Roger The Engineer, there were still changes in store for the band. Not content with their creative approach to rock music and the blues, the Yardbirds embraced diversity, warding off many old fans who weren't terribly eager to expand their limited musical horizons. Many fans and critics excoriated the band for losing sight of their roots, dismissing these genre exercises as frivolous and immature. I once again have to differ from the critical establishment, however, as I found this newfound variety to be hugely entertaining and creative, a sign of progression rather than deterioration.
Thus the Yardbirds passed through many different modes, and while detractors emerged at each stage of this development I've always been ready to defend what I find to be the mark of an inspired band rather than an unfocused one. I vehemently disagree with anyone who feels that the Yardbirds sold out, and I likewise feel that each change was the right course of action for the group. That is, until I came to Little Games.
As I've remarked, change isn't an inherently bad thing for a rock group, but it still certainly can be. On Little Games, the Yardbirds' second studio LP (and first album of the Jimmy Page era), the group feel muddled in a way that they never had in the past, even when they were nimbly shifting styles and tones on Roger The Engineer. Worse, they seem willing to not only abandon their old style but trample on it as well.
Certain tracks, like Stealing Stealing, I Remember The Night and Ha Ha Said The Clown, are quite simply insipid drivel, not only coming across as childish but also inexplicably sounding as if they were made for children. There are no signs of the Yardbirds of old on such numbers, and indeed these songs would have been no worse in the hands of a vastly inferior group. I'm always reluctant to call something a betrayal, but there's no other way to describe songs of this nature.
The Yardbirds have made great strides as songwriters, and this is especially apparent on Little Games, not because of the exceptional caliber of the music but rather due to the fact that the songs from outside writers are staggeringly awful. The one exception is You Stole My Love, a contribution from the ever-reliable Graham Gouldman, but even this track isn't anything remarkable, as it's just a short instrumental that the future 10cc founder could likely toss off in his sleep.
Part of the lackluster quality of the material from outside contributors can be attributed to the mind-boggling decision to cover the likes of Manfred Mann and Harry Nilsson, artists' whose styles are completely incompatible with the sensibility of the Yardbirds. Furthermore, somewhere along the line the Yardbirds forgot how to make the songs of others their own, a dispiriting development that proves even more depressing if the band simply no longer cared to try to do so.
While one could easily compile a list of the odious tracks on Little Games (a list on which the title track would be first and foremost), one could likewise counter this negativity with a handful of minor classics. White Summer is a superb acoustic instrumental written exclusively by Jimmy Page, and it may very well constitute the only truly emotional moment on the album (excluding anger and frustration as emotions). Elsewhere, Puzzles is a solid track that's a good example of the band's considerable songwriting skills in action.
Admittedly the album's blues tracks are a quotidian lot. Despite this, however, tracks like Smile On Me, while consummately generic and predictable, are still rather refreshing, if only because they signify that the Yardbirds haven't cut all ties to their rich past.
While Page's solo number is strong, not every band-member is equipped to pen a song by himself. This sad fact is made abundantly clear by Relf's Only The Black Rose, a colossally clumsy and awkward ballad that makes his harmonica obsession seem endearing.
Strangely, the best tracks are the ones that in no way conform to the Yardbirds' style of old. Were I to draw analogies, I'd say that the three strongest cuts resemble early Pink Floyd more than the group's own past work. Glimpses recalls Pink Floyd's psychedelic astral soundscapes, while Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor and Little Soldier Boy can be likened to the child-like fantasies of the late Syd Barrett.
Thus Little Games is a severely flawed affair. While boasting a handful of lost gems, the album also contains the worst songs in the group's entire history to this point. To its credit, the LP is actually fundamentally more interesting than the clearly superior Five Live Yardbirds, but this interest is more akin to watching a car crash than listening to a compelling musical experience.
One must be wary when approaching a rock reunion, and one must be especially so when dealing with a group that has essentially been out of commission for over three decades. Reunions of this nature tend to be toss-offs, cynical attempts at extorting cash from a fan-base whose loyalty has managed to endure these many years of dormancy. This isn't the case with Birdland, as from the very beginning of the album it becomes apparent that some true care and energy has been invested in this enterprise. The question remains, however: can any amount of effort and passion salvage a CD released in 2003 from two secondary members professing to be the Yardbirds?
To further complicate matters, eight out of the fifteen tracks on Birdland are new renditions of old Yardbirds classics. One must therefore wonder what the neo-Yardbirds could possibly hope to achieve by producing faithful interpretations of established songs, with the sole difference of note being that this time these songs are being performed by an inferior lineup.
When Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds most thought that he was irreplaceable until Jeff Beck arrived on the scene. When Beck left the doomsayers returned to their bleak prophesizing, but then Jimmy Page came to fill Beck's void. Now, however, all three are gone, and this time no axe-wielding messiah has emerged to return the Yardbirds to their guitar-glory of old.
This may seem unfair to Gypie Mayo, who by all means is a skilled guitarist, but there's a profound difference between being good and transcending the limits of an entire medium. In the past, when the Yardbirds faltered they could usually rely on the likes of Clapton, Beck or Page to transfigure a drab by-the-numbers blues number or nondescript rocker into a compelling listening experience. Mayo may be solid, but he simply comes across as 'one of the band,' whereas his predecessors, more often than not, were 'the band' themselves.
It's clear that percussionist/songwriter Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, the two returning members, understand this guitar-deficit and act accordingly. Thus some guitar greats, such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Jeff Beck himself make guest appearances on Birdland. With no guitarist lasting more than one track, however, these performances come across more as cameos than meaningful contributions to the overall album.
Thus these self-covers, which account for over half the album, can't help but pale in comparison to the originals. Worse, they're seldom changed enough to offer an appreciably different listening experience. I'd rather these covers be inferior yet altered in interesting ways than adequate but by the book, as in this form these tracks really don't offer much of note at all.
There are minor exceptions; for example, For Your Love sounds somewhat darker this time around, which works in its favor. Nevertheless, the covers still feel nearly completely superfluous, woefully redundant and seemingly bereft of any purpose at all. Admittedly all eight are inherently entertaining, as they're great songs covered completely competently, but this alone isn't a reason to expose oneself to them when one can merely listen to the originals.
There's more to the album than extraneous retreads, however, as Birdland features seven new 'Yardbirds' songs, nearly all of which are penned by Jim McCarty. Most of these tracks are markedly generic and predictable, but they're still vastly superior to much of the insipid idiocy that can be found on Little Games. As with the covers, most listeners will be apt to listen to real Yardbirds classics as opposed to these solid but unremarkable imitations, but, much like said covers, these songs can be thoroughly enjoyed while they're on. What's most important is that these new songs are perfectly tasteful and inoffensive, which is a relief in a musical climate wherein seemingly every classic rock group is reforming and embarrassing themselves with ill-advised attempts at following the times and at would-be-hip posturing. Even at its worst Birdland never comes close to tarnishing the Yardbirds' legacy.
There are also some surprises amongst the new tracks. Dream Within A Dream sounds as if it will be a pretentious debacle, as McCarty has the hubris to set an Edgar Allen Poe poem to music and call it a song, but the track is surprisingly atmospheric and hauntingly arranged. An Original Man, however, doesn't fare as well. The song is a tribute to the late Keith Relf, but it's never managed to affect me on an emotional level to any meaningful extent. Perhaps a better tribute is the fact that apparently Relf was the hardest talent to replace, as his absence demanded two additional members, one for vocals and the other for the harmonica.
Most of the new songs are-- as one would anticipate from a Yardbirds lineup that seem fixated on nostalgia and past glory-- standard blues numbers. Even without a guitar virtuoso the band handle these tracks well, though songs like Please Don't Tell Me 'Bout The News could just as easily be a cover without sounding particularly different. That track happens to be a highlight, but certainly not due to any creativity or imagination in the songwriting department.
Birdland is, quite obviously, a hugely flawed album, with excessive past-mongering and a fairly uniform sound. Nevertheless, it manages to be more entertaining than Little Games, a 'real' Yardbirds album. McCarty and Dreja clearly have great reverence for their band of old, and even if they're not really the Yardbirds they're still committed to reminding their audience of their former greatness without resorting to trend-hopping or modernization. Birdland is simply not a Yardbirds album, but it's also not something that Yardbirds fans, or the Yardbirds themselves, need ever be ashamed of.