Pittsburgh Union of Record Geeks electronic

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Crosby, Stills and Nash (2006 reissue) and David Crosby- If I Could Only Remember My Name (2006 reissue)

It's easy to look at Crosby, Stills & Nash as the ice patch that began the slippery slope that would descend rapidly from the heights of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield to the dregs of the Eagles' and James Taylor's most insipid products. But some concocted cash-in this record was not. Rather, this is a snapshot in time of three musicians bouncing like pinballs between the highs and lows of their own careers and making a decent little pop record in the process whose reputation tends to become entwined in subsequent events.

Hard to fathom now, but none of these guys were really household names nor generally acknowledged as musical forces to be reckoned with when this record was made. Most musically accomplished was likely Graham Nash, who co-wrote and sang awe-inspiring harmonies on some of the best pop singles of the '60s as a member of the Hollies. That group, though, enjoyed a much higher profile at home in England than in the States. And by 1969, most "British Invasion" groups regardless of the level of brilliance their output reflected had mostly receded into anonymity.

David Crosby was probably the most "famous" of the three, having served as the McCartney stand-in for the pinups of America's answer to the Beatles, the Byrds. But that band's status as the best of the '60s next to the Fab Four had precious little to do with Crosby. While his harmonic prowess rivaled Nash's and was integral to the Byrds' groundbreaking sound, only a couple of the small handful of his compositions in the group are notable, and when he tried to assert himself during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers it resulted in the band's few pompous moments and the breakup of the classic original group.

Neil Young walked away with most of the buzz after the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, a group that had seriously underachieved after copious initial hype. This left some very good moments that Stills masterminded in the group's waning days largely unnoticed. Tracks like "Special Care" and "Questions" hew very closely to what Stills would accomplish on CS&N.

Because what the remastered reissue of this album more generally regarded as hippie artifact than musical creation shows more than ever is that it is effectively Stills' accomplishment alone--and clearly his crowning one.

While Nash's songs on the record are unpredictably weak departures from his impressive resume as a pop composer, and Crosby's work clearly displays the heavy-handedness he suffered from throughout his career, Stills contributes a diverse array of solid compositions. Stills also virtually cobbled the album's backing tracks together singlehandedly, handling the lion's share of guitar parts as well as bass and keyboards.

The remastering job on this issue is exquisite. I had become so used to the thin layer of harmony over deadened instruments that it was like I was hearing this album for the first time. You can hear the trio actually singing together instead of an assimilated whine. And inventive bass playing and guitar work by Stills that had been buried is everywhere, adding life to even the album's less substantive numbers.

The album-closer "49 Bye-Byes" is particularly well crafted song and recording. This is sunshine pop with a sense of purpose not far removed from Rubber Soul or Revolver-era Beatles. "Helplessly Hoping" could have been the beginning of the sensitive singer-songwriter bit that would induce vomiting within a few years, but it's among the most redeeming examples of the subgenre. "You Don't Have To Cry" is the type of vaguely country-inflected pop number that may have saved Buffalo Springfield had Stills come up with it a couple years earlier. And as much as you want to malign "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which seems like a cliche today, it's a relatively heartfelt and adventurous vestige of flower power.

Unfortunately, Stills' days of inspiration and musical adventure ended here. His contributions to the follow up, Deja Vu, largely reflected the pomposity and relative pointlessness he quickly settled into. Nash reasserted his pop genius with "Teach Your Children" and "Our House," Crosby contributed his best number to the group in "Almost Cut My Hair," and of course Neil Young's addition--adding the ultra-powerful "Helpless" and his incendiary guitar--made it look as though Stills was just taking up space.

And while I'll admit to not being familiar enough with Stills' early solo work to posit that he never did anything worthwhile again, I can say with great confidence that they didn't match his bandmates' striking yet relatively ignored solo products of the next year--least of all Young's After the Gold Rush, this reviewer's favorite album of all time, but also Nash's affecting Songs for Beginners and Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name...

Name... has recently undergone the Rhino deluxe reissue treatment, concurrently with the release of a three-CD box set retrospective on Crosby. And while the latter is almost laughable in its indulgence, don't discount the former even given its hefty price tag and dubious bonus DVD.

The album begins with "Music Is Love," a lighweight riff and dippy slogan laid down by Crosby before Young and Nash rescued it, put some meat on its bones, and made it into a beautiful, if incongruous, intro to the album. Much of Name... explores the very dark areas of Crosby's mind, brought to the fore by the recent death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton in a freak auto accident.

"Cowboy Movie" follows, an angry and emotional rocker hinging on Crosby's too-infrequently featured but excellent rhythm guitar playing. The track is remarkably similar to "Revolution Blues" from Young's On the Beach lp, on which Crosby's rock solid playing is also a highlight and which tells a not dissimilar story of depravity in a scary underworld all too real to the two. But while Young's tale is about his too-close-for-comfort associations with the Manson family, the liner notes to this reissue reveal that "Movie" is an allegory to CSN&Y itself. Most of the Grateful Dead backs Crosby on the song, with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh capably matching his instrumental power.

"Laughing" is more in keeping with Crosby's usual of tack of concocting mystical imagery that too often gets away from him. It doesn't here, and stands out as probably the best song he would come up with in his career. The backing track is other-worldly (especially Garcia's pedal steel and Joni Mitchell's backing vocal) in keeping with the lyrical subject matter of searching for spiritual fulfillment. It's easy to imagine the song played by the Notorious-era Byrds, and the fact that Crosby would re-record it on that group's reunion lp in the near future indicates he might have had the same thought. The version here outmatches the reading on that less-than-inspired album, though.

"Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)" is one of several tracks on the album on which Crosby forgoes lyrics altogether. I'm usually not much for this type of thing, but it works to perfection here. His wordless vocalisations carry a lilting melody that an inspired lead guitar (Garcia? Jorma Kaukonen?) picks up toward the end. Let's face it, Crosby isn't the most gifted lyricist, and this format probably gets his palpably deep emotions across better than any words could have.

Sadly, this album's greatness is more or less an anomaly in Crosby's career, much as CS&N is to Stills'. Yet it indicates that maybe there's something to the fact that they maintain such a devoted following among many of those who came of age in the brief moments when the two were creating something special. For the rest of us, the question then is whether these singular triumphs make their future transgressions easier to forgive or just harder to swallow.


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