The period in the late 1960s during which Bobby Darin turned to a sort of vague folk-rock style has always been difficult to grasp. In part, that's because some of the recordings (particularly those on his own Direction label) have been difficult to find, whether on the original vinyl or via reissue; in part, that's because his folk-rock material was interspersed with other releases during the same era in which he recorded in much different styles. Songs From Big Sur does collectors and Darin fans a favor by assembling much of his more obscure folk-rock-ish 1965-70 material in one place, largely taken from his 1968-70 Direction releases (both on LP and 45), although there are also a couple of little-known Atlantic singles. Best of all, from the hardcore Darin fanatic's viewpoint, there are also eight previously unreleased tracks, as well as two done for Atlantic that were not released at the time they were cut.
So, does it add up to a major chapter of Darin's discography? Not really, though it was an interesting one. It was a time where Darin was moving to more personal and socially conscious songs, and by including nothing but Darin compositions (no "If I Were a Carpenter" here), this CD represents that facet of his work well. Musically, however, Darin's brand of folk-rock was mild, and this material in particular was rather unimpressive, if heartfelt in its sentiment. At times, too, his more ambitious reflections could be awkward in their bluntness, sounding a little like a man from the older generation who was hitching a ride with the changing times just a little too late. Not that it counts as a strike against what he was doing, but not all of this was conventional folk-rock by any means: "Jingle Jangle Jungle" sounds a little like the Monkees' more serious material (borrowing a little too liberally from the "Last Train to Clarksville" riff, in fact); "Funny What Love Can Do" is close to Jimmy Reed-like blues; the Nick Venet-produced "Long Time Movin'" is good-timey country-pop; "I Am" is orchestrated baroque folk; and the previously unissued "My Baby Needs Me" is close to poppy blue-eyed soul. It's often at its best, a little surprisingly, at its bluesiest, particularly on the (very) small hit single "Long Line Rider." Some of the best of the previously unreleased tracks, incidentally, are the four live songs from a 1969 appearance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, with a gutsy full-band arrangement of "Long Line Rider" and a couple of tunes ("Simple Song of Freedom" and "Questions") that are not represented by studio counterparts elsewhere on the CD.