American Dream by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

February 9, 2010

Neil Young decided to rejoin his erstwhile bandmates in the studio for the first time since they released Déjà Vu together in 1971. The resulting album, American Dream, was issued November 1, 1988 to middling commercial success.

The album certainly did not live up to its title either in content or results although the precise harmonies are in place and a competent group of musicians are gathered in support. It is the caliber of the songwriting that drags the album down. While a few songs are fine, the majority just did not measure up to the group’s past standards.

Even the members of the group have spoken poorly as to the quality of this release over the years. Crosby thought much of the material was sub par and, to compensate, they lengthened the album.

Neil Young had promised not to record with them again until David Crosby was clean and sober and kept that promise when in 1988 Crosby put his additions behind him. I don’t know whether Young wrote his songs specifically for this project or if they were just leftovers, but they seem more suited to his solo career. Whatever their origins they are overall the best selections on the album. He composed four tracks himself and co-wrote three others with Stephen Stills. The title song is folk/rock with a simple bass and guitar foundation. The lyrics are clever satire as they poke fun at the fall of prominent people. “The Old House” tells the story of a family losing their home. “Feel Your Love” is catchy and contains some nice acoustic guitar work.

Crosby was responsible for two songs. “Nighttime For Generals” has a good rock beat but becomes bogged down lyrically and his political agenda was getting old. The gem of the album and one of the best compositions on his career is “Compass.” It is a gentle and poignant look back at life and Young’s haunting harmonica effectively adds to the mood.

Graham Nash had been responsible for many of the memorable tracks which the group had produced through the years. Here, though, his writing is disappointing. His songs are preachy and his politics and social concerns may have been relevant a decade before but on this album they were just repeats to a generation that was moving on. The passion may still be present but the execution and judgment are lacking.

Stephen Stills’ writing credits are limited to the three Neil Young and one which he authored with multi-instrumentalist Joe Vitale and bassist Bob Glaub. “Drivin’ Thunder” is the best of an average-at-best group of songs. His vocals are still essential to the harmonies, though, and his guitar playing remains excellent in places.

American Dream was not a stellar stop in the musical journey of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. “Compass” stands head and shoulders above everything else and only a few Neil Young creations are above average and, when taken together, do not make for an excellent album.

After The Storm by Crosby, Stills and Nash

February 9, 2010

Throughout their career, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and especially Stephen Stills had an off-again, on-again relationship with Neil Young. 1994 found that relationship in off-again mode as they entered the studio to record After The Storm.

What emerged was a pleasant if somewhat average affair. It reminds me of a nice meal at a good restaurant which is enjoyed, digested, but quickly forgotten.

When I listen to this album I can’t help but think it could have been better. In some ways it was overproduced and just had too many back-up musicians. CSN would have been better served to have stripped back the sound as much as possible and relied on their own voices and instrumental backing. Keep it simple should have been the order of the day.

The album starts out strong but runs out of steam as it progresses. The first four tracks are the equal of their best work. “Only Waiting For You” finds Stephen Stills cranking up his trusty guitar and proving that when properly motivated he is a master of the instrument. “Find A Dream” features more of Stills on guitar plus some wonderful harmonies. Crosby continues his trend of presenting one superior song for each album and on this one it’s “Camera,” which has a gentleness and lyrical beauty that he was so good at creating. “Unequal Love” is centered on Nash’s voice and, yes, more Stills on guitar.

The rest of the album is a hit-or-miss affair. “These Empty Days” contain more classic harmonies which make the song worth while. “It Won’t Go Away” is only saved by Stills on electric guitar. Their cover of The Beatles “In My Life” is not so lucky as it was a poor choice of material and gets bogged down in its own excess. “Street To Lean On,” “Bad Boyz,” and “Panama” just do not rise to any level of enjoyment.

After The Storm was Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s first studio album of the nineties and while it was competent—and even very good in places—overall it showed they were not aging gracefully, at least in the studio. As the years passed this type of release have become all too representative of their eighties and nineties output. Still they remain a popular concert attraction and have built a respected body of work which allows them to remain in the upper echelon of the rock pantheon.

Right By You by Stephen Stills

February 9, 2010

Stephen Stills spent the early eighties involved with Crosby, Stills & Nash. He finally released his only solo studio album of the decade in July of 1984. Right By You would be his last release for a major label and the last one to reach the American charts.

In many ways the album was a product of its time. The disco era was winding down but synthesizers and programmed percussion were in style and they adorn a number of his songs here.

As with many of his solo albums there is both good and bad. In fact, this is the last album by Stills which I own on vinyl. The first side is excellent and I don’t know if the material was recorded in the sequence it plays, but it seems as if he ran out of ideas after the first five songs.

Nevertheless, he assembled a stellar cast of musicians to provide support. Guitarists Jimmy Page and Bernie Leadon, mandolin player and vocalist Chris Hillman, keyboardist Mike Finnigan, drummer Joe Lala, and old friend Graham Nash are all on board.

Side one is consistently strong. “50/50,” co-written with Jo Lala, uses brass to fill out the sound and has a wonderful Latin flavor. “Stranger” is a nice pop rocker and proves that an eighties-synthesizer sound can be quite good when used properly and creatively. “Flaming Heart” features the dual guitars of Stills and Page. “Love Again” is a very catchy tune and is another example of an eighties sound that works well. “No Problem” is blues with a strong rhythm driving it along.

The second half of the album is a very different affair. Stills’ cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is representative of the material’s problems. He just tries too hard, which only proves that Young’s own simple version was definitive. The remaining songs are just forgettable.

Right By You continued his trend of producing inconsistent albums. And if you are planning on listening to some Stephen Stills music this is not the place to start. Today it remains just a stop in his musical journey and is only for serious collectors of his music who must have everything.

Daylight Again by Crosby, Stills and Nash

January 30, 2010

Daylight Again started out as a Stephen Stills and Graham Nash project. David Crosby was having personal and addiction problems so his two band mates decided to forge ahead as a duo with help from a number of their friends. Their label was concerned about the commercial appeal of the project, however, so Crosby was invited to participate, resulting in a full-blown Crosby, Stills and Nash album.

I have always felt they received too much help and support for this release. The harmonies are enhanced by a number of other voices and six of the eleven tracks were either written or co-written by other artists.

All was not lost however. The album was released in June of 1982 and while it may have been a mixed affair as far as quality, when it was good it was very good. The first five tracks are excellent and equal to much of their past and best work while the last six are spotty. What this meant in its original vinyl format was you just didn’t have to turn the record over.

The LP produced two hit singles and they are its strongest tracks. “Southern Cross” is a classic CSN song and ranks as one of their best creations. It was co-written by Stephen Stills and combines poignant storytelling, crystal-clear harmonies, and a unique tempo which all combined to make it memorable. Graham Nash’s composition, “Wasted On The Way,” cracked the American top ten. The gorgeous harmonies are in place but the lyrics are darker and may be pointed at his longtime friend, Crosby.

The rest of the first side may not reach the heights of the two hit singles, but they are still very good. “Into The Darkness” is another Nash tune about Crosby. “Turn Your Back On Love” features a gritty vocal and is catchy in its own way. Crosby may have written only one song here, but “Delta” was the perfect vehicle for one of the better vocal performances of his career.

The rest of the material has pluses and minuses—sometimes within the same song. The best of the lot is “Might As Well Have A Good Time,” which was written by keyboardist Craig Doerge and his wife Judy Henske. Crosby brought this recording with him to the sessions and while Stills and Nash may have added some vocals, it’s Crosby’s multi-layered voice which shines.

Daylight Again was the group’s fourth studio album and would continue their commercial success, reaching the U.S. top ten and going platinum. While it may have been their overall weakest album to date, you can always buy the original vinyl release and just never flip it over.

CSN by Crosby, Stills and Nash

January 30, 2010

While there had been a greatest hits and live release, it had been seven years since Crosby, Stills, Nash and the missing Young had produced a studio album. Graham Nash and David Crosby had continued their musical relationship and released three albums on their own. Stills had recorded with Manassas, Neil Young, and as a solo artist but in 1977 decided to rejoin his old band mates for another album. Neil Young skipped the project and his relationship with the other three has been intermittent ever since.

CSN is an excellent album. It has a polish similar to their self titled debut and Déjà Vu. The harmonies remain well crafted and exquisite. It is a more laid back affair, and maybe at times too much so, but it has an overall beauty to it that is missing from the first two releases.

They made the wise decision to work with a stellar group of musicians. The basic backing band consisted of keyboardist Craig Doerge, bassist George Perry, drummer Russ Kunkel, and multi-instrumentalist Joe Vitale. When they combined with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, it gave the music a real group feeling.

They wrote all twelve tracks except for one co-written by Craig Doerge which produced a lot of superior songs and really no poor ones.

Stephen Stills contributed five songs and they were better than most of the material he had been producing on his own. “I Give You Give Blind” is a good Stills rocker and he adds some of the best piano work of his career. “See The Changes” contain some of the best lyrics he has produced as he explores relationships. “Fair Game” is a folk/rocker with Stills on acoustic guitar. It has interesting tempo changes and wonderful harmonies. “Dark Star” is another beautifully put together piece about relationships.

Graham Nash contributed four tracks and they are the type of gentle songs which he had produced in the past. “Just A Song Before I Go” is the groups biggest hit to date reaching number seven on The American singles charts. I have always thought “Cathedral” is the album’s best track. It is a contemplative exploration of his anti-Christian views.

David Crosby’s three songs are highlighted by his “Shadow Captain.” You can almost smell the ocean as the voices creative a mood which few groups have ever been able to do.

CSN is an album which combined the strengths of Crosby, Stills and Nash well. It proves that the whole is better than the parts.

Thoroughfare Gap by Stephen Stills

January 23, 2010

I think I remember playing this album quite a bit when it was released in 1978. But I haven’t listened to it lately, which means its been years and probably decades since the last time I did.

Stephen Stills had spent 1977 producing a studio album and touring with Crosby, Stills & Nash. He contributed several strong songs to the album and saw his popularity soar due to their reunion.

In 1978 he returned to the studio and issued his sixth solo album in September of that year. It would mark the end of a very prolific period of his career, as it would be six years before he issued another solo release, and four until the next Crosby, Stills, & Nash project.

Thoroughfare Gap is emblematic of many of his solo albums as it contains a few good songs among the chaff. Much of the material would have a somewhat different sound than his previous releases as he veered away from his rock/country roots. It proved to be his least commercially successful solo release to date peaking at number 83 on the American album charts.

The first sign of trouble is the number of instruments he plays on the album which include guitar, horns, strings, percussion, bass, and synthesizer among others. He would have been better served to have left more of the instrumental tasks to his huge cast of supporting players.

There are still a few gems to be found here. The title song is gentle, contemplative, and has a beauty to it. “Woman Lleva” is filled with Latin rhythms and is a direction he should have explored more often. I also still like his version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

On the other hand it’s the seventies and “You Can’t Dance Alone” is a poor attempt at trying to conform to the music of the day. The title “Can’t Get No Booty” just about sums up the closing track and was not a good way to end an album. The rest of the material just disappears into his vast catalog.

Thoroughfare Gap is a fairly typical album of the seventies. As such, it remains a mundane stop in the career of Stephen Stills.

Long May You Run by The Stills-Young Band

January 20, 2010

Drawn like a moth to a flame or ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ probably best describes the relationship between Neil Young and Stephen Stills.

The duo had recorded and toured together as a part of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young and issued solo releases, but in early 1976 decided to produce an album together within a band context. Their goal was to recreate the sound and energy of their legendary Buffalo Springfield days. The resulting Long May You Run did not achieve that goal. They did not write any songs together nor are there any stirring guitar duels. It has the feel, most of the time, of two solo artists using the same backing band. Another mistake may have been to remove the backing vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash from the final mix.

The Stills-Young Band is small but tight and fits the sound they were trying to create well. Percussionist Joe Lala, keyboardist Jerry Aiello, bassist George Perry, and drummer Joe Vitale were all veterans of the road and the studio.

For some reason I have always associated this album with Neil Young. When I pulled it off the shelf for this review, it was filed under Young and not Stills. This may be due to the fact that two Young tracks are the best of the nine. The title track is a brilliant performance and would have fit any of his solo albums at the time. “Fontainebleau” is just a cut below and features some creative guitar work and an odd beat. His other three songs are okay which is faint praise. “Let It Shine” is amusing if nothing else, “Midnight On The Bay” does have some nice guitar work from Stephen Stills, and “Ocean Girl” just disappears.

Now we come to Mr. Stills who contributed four tracks. The best of a desultory lot is “Guardian Angel” which is up beat and has a spiritual nature to it. “12/8 Blues” is a competent blues rocker but “Black Coral” and “Make Love To You” continued the downward trend of his writing skills which was plaguing his solo career at the time.

Neil Young and Stephen Stills would tour together to promote the album but would soon part company again. They would leave behind a relic of their off again, on again relationship. In the final analysis when Stephen Stills and Neil Young walk into a recording studio together more is expected.

Illegal Stills by Stephan Stills

January 20, 2010

1975 and 1976 were two very prolific years for Stephen Stills. Two studio, one live, one greatest hits, and a duet album with Neil Young kept him busy and in the public eye. Illegal Stills was released in March of 1976 and was the fourth of these five albums.

This album marked the beginning of a down turn in the quality of his albums and commercially would be his last release to reach The American top thirty. While he would continue to produce good and sometimes brilliant tracks here and there, his solo work would not have the consistent excellence of the past.

Donnie Dacus is back on board for a third album and is over-involved, which means Stephen Stills is not involved enough. In some ways this album can be considered a Stills-Dacus project rather than a solo release. He co-wrote five of the tracks, which are both good and bad, plus plays a lot of guitar.

The best of The Dacus tunes is “Midnight In Paris,” written with Veronique Sanson. Sanson was a French singer of note and was married to Stephen Stills for six years. “Soldier,” written with Stephen Stills, is a better than average post Vietnam protest song. However, “Closer To You,” “Different Tongues,” and “Ring Of Love,” range from average to just filler.

The albums best track is a Stills creation which demonstrates just how good he can be at times. “Buyin’ Time” was an acoustic part of his live act, but here is re-invented as a rocker and it works. It features excellent guitar playing, a solid song structure, and is just Stephen Stills doing what he does best.

“Stateline Blues” is almost good but is under developed at less than two minutes. His cover of Neil Young’s “The Loner” is competent but I prefer the original. “Circlin’” and “No Me Niegas” fall into the average category.

Illegal Stills is an album that had not been off the shelf for years, and probably decades, until I gave it a couple of spins for this review. When reaching for some Stephen Stills music there is any number of superior releases. It does have a great cover which needs to be seen on the original vinyl release to be truly appreciated.

Ohio 45 by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

January 15, 2010

Four Students were killed at Kent State University by National Guardsmen during a demonstration protesting The Vietnam War on May 18, 1970. Neil Young responded by writing a biting anti-war song about the incident which became a hit song a month later. It just missed being available for their DEJA VU album.

The lyrics would strike a chord with the youth generation of the day and would help fan the flames of protest that broke out across America.

Today the song is a relic of a past generation yet is still a powerful song that reflects the moral conscience of the day. It was released with a picture sleeve that printed the lyrics which was the point.

Stephen Stills Live LP by Stephen Stills

January 15, 2010

If you want to hear an under the radar but excellent live album just check out Stephen Stills Live which was issued in December of 1975. It contains the best selection of live material of his career. It is readily available in its original vinyl form or if you want to stray from the faith it has also been reissued on CD.

Stephen Stills had just finished a tour with David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Neil Young but quickly set up a series of concerts as a solo artist. This album was recorded March 8-9, 1974 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

Stills put together a veteran and talented band. The group included Donnie Dacus as the second guitarist, bassist Kenny Passarelli, keyboardist Jerry Aiello, drummer Russ Kunkel, and percussionist Joe Lala.

The album is not just good but is interesting as well. The song selection is a bit eclectic which enhances the overall satisfaction. The original release was also presented as one electric side and one acoustic side which was a wise decision.

The electric side begins in an all out rock mode as “Wooden Ships” blasts out of the starting blocks and ramps up the energy for six minutes. Stills shares the guitar duties with Dacus and many times lets him take the lead on this and some of the other songs. The old Buffalo Springfield tune, “Four Days Gone,” receives a good workout with Stills on piano. The medley of “Jet Set (Sigh)” and the Joe Walsh tune “Rocky Mountain Way” is fine blues/rock. The electric side concludes with another Buffalo Springfield track as “Special Care” emerges as live rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

The acoustic side is pure Stephen Stills. His acoustic guitar playing is some of the best of his career and his voice is in fine form as well. “Change Partners” is given a beautiful and moving rendition. The medley “Crossroads” by Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” may seem like an odd combination, but Stills manages to pull it off. The strangest selection is Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me” but it is a fine vocal performance. “4 + 20” is just too short as he gives a clinic how to play the guitar. “Word Game,” from his second solo album, brings the album to a satisfying conclusion.

Stephen Stills Live proves that live rock ‘n’ roll was alive and well during the mid-seventies courtesy of Mr. Stephen Stills.