Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Stephen Stills



"Once you decide that it is the art that is important and not how popular and well received you are, you no longer have an albatross" - Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills (1970)



Love The One You're With/Do For The Others/Church (Pt. Of Someone)/Old Times Good Times/Go Back Home/Sit Yourself Down/To A Flame/Black Queen/Cherokee/We Are Not Helpless

"I've been listening to and really like Stephen Stills' new album... finding it really funky" - Mick Jagger

This was Stephen Stills' first album and was released in the wake of CSNY's DéjàVu in 1970 and was critically well-received, deservedly so, it's great - a mixture of several different styles including folk, blues, rock and soul.

Love The One You're With is a vibrant, irresistible Marrakesh Express-style CSN-influenced breezy hippy anthem, so typical of its era. It was a big hit, particularly in the US. The folk rock vibe continues on the beautiful, airy and perfectly laid-back Do For The Others. It is backed by a lovely subtle bass and the acoustic guitar is razor sharp.

The organ-driven, gospelly soul of Church (Pt. Of Someone) is proud and uplifting, Still's gruff, soulful vocal merging well with the gospel backing singers. Once again the bass is sumptuous as is the piano and Stills' voice is superb. The song builds up to an almighty crescendo of an ending. Old Times Good Times is a wonderful serving of early seventies robust country rock with that typical merging of drums, organ, guitar and great vocals. The bluesy guitar solo in the middle is outstanding. This is one of my favourites on the album - listen that fantastic organ too, and the bass/percussion interplay - seriously great stuff.

Go Back Home is a stonking piece of blues rock, overflowing with wah-wah guitar and blues guitar - once again, I cannot stress just how good this is. It breaks out at the end into a frantic, Midnight Rambler-style ending. Sit Yourself Down is a Free meets gospel blues rock number with powerful backing vocals. It is blues, gospel, rock and soul all in one.

To A Flame is a beautiful slow piano, bass, acoustic guitar and drums ballad given a plaintive, quiet vocal from Stills. Black Queen is an infectious, brooding bottleneck gambling table blues. Cherokee is a superbly rhythmic, flute and bass-driven slow burner with a real soul feel to it and et another different but convincing vocal. The horns are big and punchy too, and there is a great saxophone solo on there. We Are Not Helpless is a dignified rock ballad closer that climaxes with another frantic rock and gospel collaboration.

This is a highly recommended album.

Stephen Stills 2 (1971)


Change Partners/Nothin' To Do But Today/Fishes and Scorpions/Sugar Babe/Know You Got To Run/Open Secret/Relaxing Town/Singin' Call/Ecology Song/Word Game/Marianne/Bluebird Revisited

"Stills is of course detestable, the ultimate rich hippie--arrogant, self-pitying, sexist, shallow" - Robert Christgau

This was Stephen Stills' second solo album and it was not.well-received on its release in 1971. I have no idea why, I think it is really good, so there you go. I will try to detail what is good about it, for me.

Change Partners is a mix of slow country and folk with a few solid rock drums and an Eagles-like chorus. Nothin' To Do But Today has some big rock riffs, excellent guitar and a Little Feat feel to it. There are fine blues parts to the song, Stills' vocal going a bit Paul Rodgers in places. Incidentally, Crazy Horse's Nils Lofgren is the guitarist on the album and there is quite a lot of similarity to Crazy Horse's early work on here.

Fishes And Scorpions is a mysterious-sounding number that sort of mixes a vibe of CSN with America. The guitar solo is quite grungy and suffers from a scratchy sound quality, to be honest the sound is pretty ropey on the loud parts although the quiet ones are fine, which is odd. It is actually Eric Clapton on guitar too.

Sugar Babe is a very early seventies piece of rock fare, you know what I mean if you hear it. It is still a good, robust track though. Now You Got To Run is an authentic-sounding Delta blues-ish number with the bottleneck sound and a bleak vocal. It has a lovely deep bass line on it when it arrives after a minute. There are shades of early Elton John about this and it is a really atmospheric offering. These last two have been impressive.

Open Secret is a brassy, soulful number with hints of Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears about it. There is a great trumpet solo near the end and then some jazzy, improvised Mike Garson-esque piano followed by some infectious Santana-style Latin percussion. Good track. Then we get some pounding rock on Relaxing Town, with Stills sounding every inch like Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty with a gruff, abrasive vocal. The guitar soloing is great too. Singin' Call is an entrancing number with a beautiful bass line and a really nice, understated bluesy but melodic slow rhythm. I really like this one.



Ecology Song definitely has a huge Chicago vibe about it - full of blaring horns, throbbing bass, rollicking piano and drums and a rousing vocal. The lyrics are, as the title suggests, ecologically aware in the "open your window...the earth is dying" fashion. "America is lost" claims Stills - a pity nobody listened to him and we are still where we are in 2020. The consciousness continues on the very early Dylan-influenced gritty acoustic blues of Word Game. "America's propaganda, South Africa's lies..." rants Stills. This is credible protest fare.

Marianne is up next - a disarmingly poppy, lively song featuring some upbeat wah-wah guitar. It is a surprise to hear the often grumpy-ish Stills so loose and happy. Bluebird Revisited is Chicago meets CSN on another energetic number enhanced by some fine Latin percussion breaks, horns and Mexican-style trumpet solo.

Despite getting a critical slaughtering, I think this was a perfectly acceptable album featuring a lot of different styles and displaying a lyrical sincerity. In 1971, upon the album' release the noted US critic Robert Christgau gave this particularly sour, mean-spirited summing-up:-

"Stills is of course detestable, the ultimate rich hippie--arrogant, self-pitying, sexist, shallow. Unfortunately, he's never quite communicated all this on a record, but now he's approaching his true level. Flashes of brilliant ease remain--the single, "Marianne," is very nice, especially if you don't listen too hard to the lyrics—but there's also a lot of stuff on the order of an all-male chorus with jazzy horns singing "It's disgusting" in perfect tuneful unison, and straight, I swear. Keep it up, SS—it'll be a pleasure to watch you fail."

How nasty. Totally unfair too. Don't listen to him - listen to me :)

Manassas (1972)


Song Of Love/Rock 'n' Roll Crazies/Cuban Bluegrass/Jet Set (Sigh)/Anyway/Both Of Us (Bound To Lose)/Fallen Eagle/Jesus Gave Love Away For Free/Colorado/So Begins The Task/Hide It So Deep/Don't Look At My Shadow/It Doesn't Matter/Johnny's Garden/Bound To Fall/How Far/Move Around/The Love Gangster/What To Do/Right Now/The Treasure (Take One)/Blues Man

"I know you're tired, but there's this idea I've got for this song that I want to get on tape before I forget it" - Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills' sprawling 1972 album featured a sizeable group of supergroup-inspired musicians and was apparently recorded over several mammoth recording sessions, often lasting all night. Stills played for an unbroken 106 hour session, it is reported. That seems incomprehensible, doesn't it? It was 1972 after all and overflowing double/triple albums were all the rage - the more music and the longer it took to lay down the better.

The album was divided in to four parts - The Raven; The Wilderness; Consider and Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Stay. It is quite good in that respect in that one can cherry-pick the sections depending on what sort of music is required.

An interesting piece of trivia is that Bill Wyman, who played bass on The Raven and The Wilderness said that he would have left The Rolling Stones for Manassas at this point had the group continued.

The Raven

This was the first disc on the original release, and had a tough-ish rock sound blended with some Latin rhythms flavouring the proceedings (but not quite as much as some have said - it is certainly not Santana-esque, just some Latin-influenced cowbells on occasions).

Song Of Love is a solid, mid-pace rock number that has hints of Traffic's early seventies material for me. Rock 'n' Roll Crazies/Cuban Bluegrass is a riffy, powerful Little Feat-esque combination of tracks, the latter section being quite CSNY in feel before it goes Latin. In fact the whole thing sounds very CSNY, I have to say and is most appealing.The more I listen to it, the more I get into it. The ending sounds a bit like Joe Jackson on 1982's Night And Day album.

All the tracks segue into each other and the next up is the Free-like, deep, bassy thump of Jet Set (Sigh), which is full of impressively robust bass from Wyman, majestic lead guitar, pounding drums and a fine, gruff, bluesy vocal from Stills. After a bit of a false ending it rocks into the powerful rock groove of Anyway and the first side ends with the very CSN/CSNY airy country rock of Both Of Us (Bound To Lose). It finishes up with some strong Latin-influenced instrumental. I love this phase of the album, it is just so damn good and it gets better with every listen, as I said.

The Wilderness

Now it was country/bluegrass all the way as Stills goes very Byrds (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) and Dylan (Nashville Skyline). This is not surprising as founding Byrds member Chis Hillman is on vocals, guitar and mandolin - he had played, of course, on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and also notably with The Flying Burrito Brothers (a lot of their sound can be heard on here).

Fallen Eagle brings to mind the music of Pure Prairie League in its short, fiddle-dominated political vibe. Jesus Gave Love Away For Free is a slow Gram Parsons-like country ballad while the tempo ups a bit on the Eagles meets Traffic sound of Colorado. So Begins The Task is a laid-back country-ish number with a winsome, melodic bass line, lovely clear percussion and a vocal that sounds straight out of Stills' work with CSN/CSNY with touches of Don Henley about it in places. The guitar, percussion and overall ambience reminds me considerably of CSN's Marrakesh Express. It is one of my favourites on the album thus far. Hide It So Deep is a Gram Parsons-ish twangy country bar-room ballad and the suite ends with with the very country, upbeat sound of Don't Look At My Shadow. This is a track that for some reason brings to mind Nashville Skyline.

 

Consider

Folk and melodious folk rock is the vibe for this side a before we get the more mysterious folky airs of It Doesn't Matter, which, for me, has big hints of Matthews Southern Comfort's Woodstock in its vocal delivery. It also has a nice easy going rock solidity about it and is another of my favourites.

Johnny's Garden is bassily infectious, and carries a slow, entrancing melody. Bound To Fall is a very folky piece, reminiscent of Pentangle or early Strawbs with those very English-inspired vocal harmonies and a lovely, warm easy rock feel comes on How Far. This track is quite Paul Simon in its ambience and vocal while Move Around is ethereally attractive in a hippy sort of way - very 1972. The Love Gangster, co-written with Bill Wyman introduces some funky wah-wah guitar is the most "rock" of the songs since the end of side one. It is a good one.

Rock 'n' Roll Is Here To Stay

This final session is, as you might imagine, rockier and bluesier. What To Do is muscular and rocky, but still has harmonious country airs to it. Right Now is a fine rock number with an intoxicating bass line and some impressive vocals. The Treasure (Take One) finds Stills going all Neil Young and giving us an eight-minute plus rock workout full of superb wah-wah soloing. Stephen finally rocks out properly on the jam-like final part which is great stuff. I like a bit of seventies rock-out indulgence at times, despite my punk sensibilities. Music is great like that, I think one can like what the hell one wants to, particularly once one matures and the trends of youth are completely eschewed. Yes, I like Stills and his mates getting their heads down and yes, I like The Ramones and yes, I like Neil Diamond too, and The Archies!

This comparatively underrated piece of work ends with some Delta blues in the haunting Blues Man, with its resonant, deep guitar sound, like The Stones on No Expectations or Love In Vain.

Overall, while I like the country/folk of the discs 2 and 3, I really love the rock/blues of discs 1 and 2.

Stills has often been somewhat maligned, perhaps for a perceived (or maybe warranted) arrogance that has put some people off. Maybe it was just self-belief. Who knows. This album is certainly worthy of crowing about.

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