Chris Hillman: The Asylum Years

Chris Hillman
The Asylum Years
(Omnivore)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

There’s little doubt that this remastered reissue of ex-Byrds/Manassas/Flying Burrito Brothers’ co-founder Chris Hillman’s first two solo projects would have seen the light of day if not for his recent, well-received Tom Petty-helmed 2017 comeback. Hardcore Hillman fans likely don’t return to these slick, mid-’70s studio sets often and even the artist himself seems pretty unimpressed with them. The liner notes quote a recent interview saying “Doing these records was part of my growing process.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Those familiar with the West Coast singer/songwriter scene of the era will immediately recognize that these albums—now conveniently combined onto one platter– are a product of their time. Hillman was rebounding from the relatively disappointing “supergroup” Souther-Hillman-Furay and encouraged by Asylum boss Joe Smith to give it a go as a solo act, something he wasn’t entirely comfortable with at that juncture. But despite these impediments, there are enough keepers to make this worth at least a some of your time.

The first, 1976’s Slippin’ Away, is the better of the two. Hillman had stockpiled songs for a while, so this was his chance to finally record them. The high profile backing musicians include players from S-H-F and Manassas (pedal steel-man Al Perkins pianist Paul Harris, percussionist Joe Lala and drummer Jim Gordon). And with Ron and Howard Albert behind the boards, this was a professional if somewhat sterile production. Opener “Step On Out” is an obvious aim at crafting a charting pop song. It’s very much a continuation of his Souther/Furay association, powered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-styled harmonies. Hillman records “Witching Hour,” a Stills composition left over from his Manassas days with a sizzling slide solo from Donnie Dacus almost buried by overdubbed strings that reek of the time period, not necessarily in a good way. The overall quality of songs like the mid-tempo pop/rocker “Midnight Again” and the low key title track is impressive, Hillman makes an affable enough lead singer and the closing rootsy bluegrass gospel “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat” with Herb Peterson, Bernie Leaden and Hillman on mandolin is a highlight that shows where his musical heart really lies. It’s also an early indication of 1985’s Hillman fronted Desert Rose Band’s approach.

Next year’s follow-up, Clear Sailin’ tries to replicate the formula, down to its title dropping a final “g” replaced with an apostrophe. It also has a few winners, in particular a heartfelt if somewhat sappy version of Danny O’Keefe’s “Quits.” But with such questionable choices as covering Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” as tropical funk, the affair resembles a weaker Loggins & Messina. Uninspired production, this time by Jim Mason (not surprisingly of the similar sounding Firefall), doesn’t quite sink it, but comes close.

Both albums get a pass due to retro charm and the sense that the talented Hillman and his backing players are giving it their best shot to land on the radio in the style of that time. But with a storied history like his—a major player, even architect of folk rock—they are disappointing reminders that even the most talented artists are led astray by the promise of creating commercial hits and generating forced crossover appeal that doesn’t align with their musical strengths.