Listening to: Eagles, The Very Best of

The Very Best of Eagles

Mirrors on the ceiling | Pink champagne on ice | And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”

This is a confession of sorts. I really like the Eagles. I know I’m not supposed to. It’s just not cool. Mainstream rock circa 1976 is like mainstream country today. In fact, much new country sounds distinctly rockier than the Eagles. After punk, New Wave, the 80s, the 90s and the 00s, this music just doesn’t have a place anymore. It doesn’t fit. Old people listen to it. The Eagles are still touring, as a very expensive nostalgia act. After disbanding in the early 80s, they made two quite successful ‘comeback’ albums, Hell Freezes Over in 1994, and the Walmart-only Long Road out of Eden in 2007. Both were reasonably well received, but in that slightly shocked, “It’s not quite terrible! It’s not embarrassing!” kind of way that ‘comeback’ albums are often reviewed these days. They’re competent, journeymanlike productions full of the latest studio techniques, made by artists past their prime. 60 is the new 30.

But when the Eagles were in their prime, they were immensely competent songwriters, assured, even exciting performers, and they made great records. I was born in 1970 with no older siblings, so I have no ‘original’ recollection of any of this. I discovered them ‘on my own.’ Well, I think I taped Eagles Live off of my friend Marc’s dad’s record collection. Then, a little later, I bought it on tape. For some reason, that was the one I latched on to. Reviewing the band’s history and discography now, I realize that this first foray was very much at the tail end of their career and I was listening to a band that was already no longer particularly cohesive. Maybe they never were. Too many drugs and other trappings of Southern California rockstardom.

Even though it’s inexcusable for anyone who professes to write about music on the web to admit to liking them, the Eagles were of course deeply influential, and their aesthetic (coupled, maybe, with the Beach Boys and CSN&Y) permeates every aspect of what we call country and ‘country rock’ today. Even still-active bands in related genres that are beyond a shadow of a doubt ‘credible,’ like Blue Rodeo, Wilco or Carl Newman’s New Pornographers, are more than a little indebted to the Eagles’ way of marrying country/folk harmonies to danceable, old-style rock ‘n’ roll. And their classic songs, themselves distilled archetypes built from classic country and continuing a journey begun by Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others, have become models for much of what followed.

Like mid-70s Fleetwood Mac (another guilty pleasure I proudly admit to and whose defense I’ll write up one of these days), the production values of records like Hotel California are fantastically detailed and flawlessly well thought out. I’m not sure whether I should say they demonstrate studio mastery: they probably do, but given the incredibly long months/years these artists spent in the studio, I have to imagine productivity was quite low. Whether that was because the equipment – though expensive and great – was cumbersome to use, or whether there were other factors (dissent in the ranks, drugs, too much free time) is unclear to me. Either way, the resulting records sound like studio magic. They have an unmatched clarity (well, I think there are some ‘matches,’ like the Mac’s Rumours…), an anologue warmth and a very spacious balance. They also have real drama.

The Very Best of Eagles is a very nice package and, I think, worth getting for even the most unconvinced Indie listener who’d never consider listening to the Eagles. To understand why you’re manning the barricades, it’s often interesting to return to before the revolution and be open to things as they were then. If you like Carl Newman’s full harmonies/wall-of-sound approach, you might wonder where that came from. This is where. The other audience demographic (to use labelspeak) that would probably really enjoy listening to this is the ‘urban country’ crowd in small towns all over North America. The reason the Eagles are on classic rock format radio and country stations rarely play them is related to formulaic corporate programming norms (and taxonomies created by music historians) rather than any base in reality.

There’s a certain 1970s superstar fabulousness to what the Eagles may sing about; an imagined hippie America that was, even then, probably an entirely mythical place.

Take it easy, take it easy | Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy […]

Or, of course, a little further along in the same number, the always-classic lines:

I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona | I’m such a fine sight to see | It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford | Slowin’ down to take a look at me | Come on baby, don’t say maybe […]

These situations and sentiments are both completely familiar and completely strange to us now. That’s because the Eagles (and various country/rock predecessors and cohorts) invented them. As a band, they are perhaps the final truly commercial embodiment of this ethic.

After them, popular music changed forever. It fragmented, renewed itself a hundred times; and with each split and rebirth came layers and layers of judgment about what had come before. Now, in 2008, it’s still ‘common knowledge’ that you’re not supposed to think the Eagles are cool. If you’re over 35, you can maybe get away with listening to them and liking them (in your own car, with the windows rolled up… and maybe with the volume lowered a little when you pull up at an intersection just to make sure nobody outside overhears you). But you’re certainly not allowed to think they’re cool. Given the quality of their music, it’s essentially irrelevant whether they were ever cool. Theirs is a great, lasting body of song that should be heard.

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