Graded on a Curve:
Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key and Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974

Two new releases illuminate Tim Buckley as being far from the typical 1960s folkie. Light in the Attic’s Lady, Give Me Your Key uncovers two ’67 demos and is easily the more consistent of the two, its contents complementing a significant portion of Omnivore’s Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974. That set leaps over a highly fertile period in chronologically documenting the 45s of an artist primarily known for his albums, but still manages to detail the lessening of quality in Buckley’s work. The former comes with vinyl, compact disc, and digital options, and the latter is CD only; both are out now.

Tim Buckley’s output can be divided into three segments: the early formative period that includes his self-titled ’66 debut and the following year’s Goodbye and Hello, a fertile middle section beginning with ’69’s Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon and continuing with ’70’s Lorca and Starsailor, and a highly disappointing shift into strained soulfulness and off-putting conventionality that includes ’72’s Greetings from L.A., ’73’s Sefronia and ’74’s Look at the Fool.

Since his premature death in 1975, Buckley’s discography has roughly doubled, mostly through performance material, a circumstance helping Lady, Give Me Your Key to stand out a bit; composed of a pair of demos made for producer Jerry Yester in aid of choosing the contents of Goodbye and Hello, there are enough new song discoveries to enhance the familiar numbers, and if belonging to Buckley’s earliest period the album deepens the man’s work rather than just offering minutiae for diehards.

If predominantly straightforward in approach, it’s important to qualify that on his first LP Buckley was already more than a clichéd strummer. Working largely in baroque mode with a full band including drummer Billy Mundi, his longtime guitarist Lee Underwood, and on piano, celesta, and harpsichord Van Dyke Parks, a third of the album sets Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 into motion, the A-side to the first 45 lending the collection its title.

Neither “Wings” b/w “Grief in My Soul” nor “Aren’t You the Girl” b/w “Strange Street Affair Under Blue” produced a hit, but their release as singles made sense in an era of wide-open chart possibilities. They also established a 19-year-old vocalist of uncommon emotional range, which has in turn made him an acquitted taste. His ability continued to flourish on Goodbye and Hello, and fans of that album will find much to love on Lady, Give Me Your Key.

Scaled back to just voice and guitar, it’s the sheer intensity of singing, immediately bursting from the speakers in “Sixface” and the more amiable “Contact,” that most effectively reinforce the budding eclecticism, though the songwriting provides a strong foundation; along with much of this record (and across Buckley’s oeuvre), these opening pieces are co-credited to Larry Beckett, whose valuable context in the liners of Lady and Wings is the byproduct of interviews with Pat Thomas.

“Sixface” and “Contact” are the two songs from the initial California-cut demo that were never rerecorded, and the same is true for the tranquil “Marigold” and the more upbeat pop-folk of Lady’s closer “She’s Back Again,” each deriving from a later Manhattan-based session that’s survived via rare acetate. Additionally, the title track and “Once Upon a Time” are acoustic run-throughs for a pre- Goodbye and Hello single; made with a full band but unreleased at the time, those takes are now included on Wings.

The single version of “Once Upon a Time” is uncharacteristically rocking, so its eventual inclusion on Rhino’s L.A.-focused ‘60s boxset Where the Action Is made total sense. “Lady, Give Me Your Key” was the prospective B-side, heard here for the first time as it extends from the overall sound of Tim Buckley. “I Can’t Leave You Lovin’ Me” was never recorded again in studio, but it does figure on Tompkins Square’s Live at the Folklore Center 1967.

That leaves six of Lady’s selections as blueprints for Goodbye and Hello, with four of the finished products appearing on Wings. The contrasts are enlightening, with the gorgeously unhurried reading of “Once I Was” surprisingly (maybe on momentarily) preferable to its very good studio counterpart, which served as the US B-side to “Morning Glory.” The UK flip was “Knight-Errant,” which is understandable as both versions exude a tangible Brit-folk feel, particularly the album/ single version with its strains of harmonium.

The acoustic “Pleasant Street” wields tension augmented with sheer folk-rock emotionalism on its full-band take; in tapping into ambiance appropriate for its title, B-side “Carnival Song” edges into psych-folk territory, while its demo thrives on fragility. Lady’s two Goodbye and Hello frameworks that didn’t end up on 45s are “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” as aggressively strummed as the album version, and an endearingly stripped-down “No Man Can Find the War.” They complete a very welcome addition to Buckley’s shelf.

It’s here that Lady and Wings part ways, Buckley beginning an extremely fertile jazz-influenced stretch that didn’t include a further single until “Happy Time” b/w “So Lonely” was culled from Blue Afternoon, his first album for Straight Records. Lorca was his final LP for Elektra and a decidedly abstract experience released roughly concurrently with the comparatively linear Blue Afternoon, which has been occasionally downgraded by those smitten with Buckley at his most challenging; it’s still a strong effort, and so is its single.

The arrival of “Move with Me” b/w “Nighthawkin’” from Greetings from L.A. marks the downward plunge here. A stylistic redirect featuring backup singers, a funkified studio band, and on the A-side suspect lyrics; it’s indicative of what’s been termed Buckley’s “sex-funk” period (ugh) and represents an album sitting on the border of abysmal. That it’s reportedly his best-selling full-length partially explains why he never rebounded.

Using positive mental attitude, Sefronia is a slight improvement. Of its two singles the main attraction is easily a cover of Fred Neil’s “Dolphins”; the flip “Honey Man,” if less egregious than “Move with Me,” backs-up Beckett’s idea that Buckley was playing around with parody after facing near exile for the progressions of Lorca and Starsailor. Wings final 45 comes from Look at the Fool. Next to the AOR hell of “Who Could Deny You,” the mild achievement of “Wanda Lu”’s curious transmogrification of “Louie Louie” seems substantially greater.

Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 illustrates Tim Buckley’s creative nosedive, a reality made less painful by overlooking a brilliant four-album stretch. Lady, Give Me Your Key sketches a portrait of the artist preparing to make that journey.

Lady, Give Me Your Key
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Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974
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