Sunday, May 31, 2020

Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu - 50 Years Ago

Crosby Stills and Nash (AM9): On one hand, it's exacting and rigorous - every aspect of the record compliments another in some holistic way. On the other, like a Monet, it's impressionistic - each song representing a shade, a sonic timbre that meshes and messes with each musical interpretation to present an erratic range of human emotions, effortlessly - "free and easy, the way it's supposed to be." "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" stands unmatched in terms of expression. One can feel the helplessness in Still's voice when he pleads, "Can I tell it like it is, but listen to me baby- it's my heart that's a-suff'rin', it's a-dyin'." It's the foundation of "Helplessly Hoping," the most vocally moving piece, and comes to a climax on "49 Bye-Byes." Although it’s primarily a vocal LP, there is an incredible blend of musicianship and top-notch production.

Nash is Stills' lighthearted romantic equivalent. All of his tunes are delightfully simple but pure, a welcome break from Stills' intensity and Crosby's excess. "Marrakesh Express" and "Pre-Road Downs" are psychedelically tinged and "Lady of the Island" stirs up every desirous and wooing sentiment inside. It’s not that one of the triumvirate is more romantic than another. Instead it’s about how we each perceive romance in a different way.

Crosby's songs are more fanciful, the songs of a dreamer. Guinevere is about Joni Mitchell, but it's not; it's about Guinevere, it's about the ideal of womanhood through a man's eyes. It's old fashioned and whimsical. It's the folk rock/madrigal version of Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers," as politically incorrect as the day is long, but a sentiment that harkens back to a simpler, more romantic time.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter who wrote what. What counts is that each artist shared a vision of earthiness, as evident as the LPs cover: three friends on an old coach.

Déjà Vu (AM9): After the success of Crosby, Stills and Nash, the trio had to think about going on tour. To perform as a full electric band they needed, well, a band. In the end they chose to bring in Neil Young, who had played with Stills in Buffalo Springfield, and had recently started out on his own solo career. Now a quartet, they became Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves rounding out the players.  Young's contract allowed him to continue with his solo career while he performed with the group, who went on tour in the summer of 1969 – and, of course, their second gig together was Woodstock.

With the addition of Young, Déjà Vu wasn't just part two of the debut. The group broadened their palette, resulting in a more diverse collection of songs, if a less consistent effort because of it. More so than the first album it sounded like a collective of singer-songwriters rather than a band. Crosby and Nash's signature songwriting styles become more apparent, while Crosby contributes the solo hippie lament "Almost Cut My Hair" and the surreal, dream-like title track, whilst Nash came up with the radio-friendly country-rock of "Teach Your Children" and the whimsical ode to domesticity of "Our House." Stills contributed the opener "Carry On", which defined the archetypal CSNY sound, and the quiet solo number "4+20," while Young wrote two songs, the slow, aching "Helpless" (which became one of his best-loved songs) and the three-part suite "Country Girl". 

And yet, apart from his own songs, ol’ Neil doesn't sing anywhere else and adds guitar to just three others. He was always the outsider in the foursome and his presence on Déjà Vu is more as a guest guitarist who gets to sing his own songs; a bit closer to Taylor and Reeves than C, S & N, but this is picayune at best; Déjà Vu is one of the best LPs of the best era in rock, so it’s time for this critic to do what more critics ought to do, shut the hell up.

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