Monday, September 12, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #40 - The Flying Burrito Brothers - Gilded Palace of Sin

The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin is the quintessential country rock album – even more so than the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Radio, the album that’s believed to be the first substantial document of hippies adventuring into Hickville. I favor the Burritos’ album because it’s got a little more rock energy to it; the vocals are a bit louder, edgier, full of attitude, and there are psychedelic flourishes here and there, like on the opening track, “Christina’s Song,” where they run the pedal steel guitar through a fuzz box. And the lyrics are downright weird in spots, most notably on the title track, an acid-soaked redemption song with a chorus that laments how “on the 31st floor, a gold-plated door, won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” Yet the record remains true to the simple but wondrous form of the country song, which is really what the whole country-rock movement is all about: conjuring far-out, spectacularly beautiful sounds from within the cozy confines of good old American melody and harmony.
There’s a direct connection between Gilded Palace of Sin and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, of course: Gram Parsons was a new addition to the Byrds and a driving force behind the band’s fulsome embrace of country, and he broke off with Chris Hillman after Sweetheart to form the Burritos. Parsons is a tough guy to admire. The history books paint him as a spoiled rich kid who couldn’t handle his booze and drugs. He’s the one on the cover of Gilded Palace in a suit adorned with sequined pot leaves, poppies and pills. He OD’d at 27 in a motel in the California desert, and the output on his short career was inconsistent, which is apparent in the CD double release on which Gilded Palace is paired with the band’s second release, Burrito Deluxe, an album that’s good but not stellar, due in large part to stoned-out infighting within the band. (If you’ve got a record player, splurge for the 180-gram reissue of Gilded Palace; it sounds fantastic.) Still, when I listen to Gilded Palace, I’ve got to hand it to Parsons. He had moments of genius, especially during “Dark End of the Street,” a cover of a soul song about cheating that was a hit in 1967 for James Carr. It’s truly one of the greatest performances in the history of modern music. The whole notion of taking a contemporary R&B hit and bending it into the then-new genre of country rock is radical and novel to begin with, but it’s the way Parsons sings it that sends it over the top. His voice has a Southern twang that’s outright stoic in places, as though he’s playing the role of a country deacon who’s caught up in an affair and powerless against it. And at the same time, there’s just a hint of echo on his mic that brings some extra color to the aura of dreamy rock star that surrounded him in those heady days before the booze and powders really started getting the best of him. He really belts it out, too – so much so that he captures the anguish and ecstasy of doing something no good, of committing the kind of sin that you know will hurt like hell when the bill comes due, but you do it anyway because it feels so goddamned good.

- Joe Miller

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