The Flatlanders' debut album, when it was eventually released years after it was recorded, was appropriately entitled, "More a Legend Than a Band." The group, which came together in 1972 and featured a very young Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, never really had a chance to make their mark the first time around. After all three singer/songwriters became stars of the Texas music scene, the band was rediscovered, leading to an eventual reunion and more excellent albums.
The Flatlanders' latest, "The Odessa Tapes," actually predates "Legend" and represents the first recording sessions by the band, done in a studio in Odessa, Texas. The demos, most of which ended up being rerecorded for "Legend," were thought lost for years. They didn't come to light until musician Lloyd Maines found the tapes in a friend's closet and, realizing what they were, brought them to Ely. The press materials for the album call the Odessa sessions the birth of alternative-country music. While the claim is ripe for a spirited argument - Gram Parsons, anyone? - "The Odessa Tapes" is much more than just a historical curiosity.
The songs were originally recorded on a tape format that is no longer used, so reformatting them required some effort on Ely's part to find a three-track tape still in use. The results, though, are pristine; these demos sound like they were recorded last week and not 40 years ago. The songs are more stripped down than the versions that appeared on "Legend." There is more of a focus on harmonizing, and it's nice to hear Hancock and Ely's voices complementing Gilmore's lead vocals. The lack of a fleshed-out sound, though, leaves the songs a little lacking. It's hard to say just how important Steve Wesson's saw is on a tune like Dallas until it's not there.
There are four unreleased songs, and they fit in with the more familiar ones. Number Sixteen, the best of the bunch, resurfaced years later on a Gilmore solo album. Shadow of the Moon, written by Hancock, is another standout. While the original demos are worthy finds, it's the discovery of "new" vintage Flatlanders' music that is sure to make fans salivate. It's nice to know that after 40 years, the band's legend continues to grow.