Album review: CHRIS HILLMAN – The Asylum Years

CHRIS HILLMAN - The Asylum Years

Omnivore Recordings [Release date 09.02.18]

This new CD brings together Chris Hillman’s first two solo albums, from 1976 and 1977 respectively.  Hillman had a fine pedigree as a member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Manassas.

Immediately prior to going solo, he’d been part of ill-fated ‘supergroup’ The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.  Their first album had some fine cuts, notably Hillman’s ‘Safe At Home’ and Richie Furay’s ‘Fallin’ In Love’ and ‘Believe Me’, but the project fizzled out after a disappointing follow-up.

1976′s Slippin’ Away sits alongside 1998′s outstanding Like A Hurricane as the peak of Chris Hillman’s solo output.  Joyous opener ‘Step On Out’ was later covered by the Oak Ridge Boys.  Hillman cites ‘Falling Again’ as a favourite, while the catchy as hell ‘Take It On The Run’ should have been a country rock AM radio perennial.

The epic and haunting Stephen Stills song ‘Witching Hour’ had been in the Manassas repertoire, but that band’s version was not released until the 2009 collection Pieces.  The laidback ‘Blue Morning’ is another stunner.

Throughout the album, Hillman sounds like a confident vocalist, even though he confesses in the sleeve notes that this wasn’t the case.  Flying Burrito Brothers number ‘Down In The Churchyard’ is reworked here in an almost reggae-country style.

In a more traditional Burritos vein is ‘Midnight Again’, while Hillman returns to his bluegrass roots with album closer ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’.  He’s aided throughout by a star-studded selection of guests, including Steve Cropper, Bernie Leadon, Timothy B. Schmit, Jim Gordon, Lee Sklar and Herb Pedersen.

The following year’s Clear Sailin’ pales by comparison, with Hillman now admitting “I don’t think it has the feel that the first one did and that it was a mistake to change producer”.

Poco/Firefall veteran Jim Mason is at the controls here, whereas the crisp production by Ron and Howard Albert had been one of the key factors in Slippin’ Away sounding so good.  The opening bars of ‘Nothing Gets Through immediately indicate a more slick affair.

There are still a couple of gems which are worth the price of admission.  There’s a lovely version of Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Quits’, while the dark and brooding ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin” is mightily impressive and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Manassas album.  This track was in Hillman’s live set at the time, so clearly he rated it.

Overall, The Asylum Years is well worth picking up for Slippin’ Away alone.  Omnivore’s warm remaster is an improvement on the previous CD issues on Wounded Bird, and the booklet contains a new interview with Chris Hillman along with original album artwork.  ****

Review by Jim Henderson


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