Wednesday, August 29, 2012
FORGOTTEN MUSIC THURSDAY-ILLEGAL STILLS
Following the creative triumphs that Stephen Stills had with his first solo albums, plus the excellent Manassas double set in 1972, he experienced a slight dip in commercial fortunes.
Bearing the weight of wearing too many ten-gallon hats (writing, production and financially carrying the operation), he dove into sessions for the second Manassas album. Down the Road did not have the spark of its predecessor and the group quietly disbanded.
After that, he rekindled his musical relationship with Crosby and Nash for a huge tour in 1974 (with Neil Young on board to put the Y back in the law firm), though the promise of a new record by the reunited quartet was blown out of the water due to battles in the studio. Allegedly, Stills took a razor blade to the master tape of "Wind on the Water", arguing with Nash about a single harmony part. Crosby and Nash decamped, returning to work as a duo.
New material was in short supply. Cocaine fueled Stills at this point, very nearly undoing the gifted musician. He certainly wasn't alone in his indulgences, however, the impact of the drug upon his creativity was negative.
Consequently, the follow up to Stephen Stills 2 took shape in piecemeal fashion over a period of several years. Featuring a staggering cast of contributing musicians, the tepidly received "Stills" was issued in June of 1975. Undaunted, "Stephen Stills Live" hit the marketplace at year end while he continued work on his next studio project.
1976 saw music trends shifting toward flabby soft-rock, watered down disco and a boatload of generic pop. The revolution had come and gone, with those left to fly the freak flag that had caught its first breeze in the sixties out of their element.
Business concerns overrode the constructs of the hippie dream, as state of the art, 48 track studio facilities cranked out product, performed in an antiseptic manner by faceless session crews. Passion, spark and energy were carefully edited out of final mixes in a vain attempt to attain recorded perfection.
Where would he fit in this equation?
Illegal Stills boasts a stripped down lineup, which is a plus. While production values are high with a fair amount of polish, the playing remains cohesive and inventive. Very much a collaborative effort, former Spirit guitarist Donnie Dacus plays the role of right hand in the process. Critics didn't quite warm to the final result, which is strange as the ingredients of this mason jar featured his familiar stylistic approaches (Latin flavored beats, blues, acoustic driven pop). The real reason for their indisposition was likely that there simply wasn't enough Stills etched into the final platter, though I'll touch on this point later.
Opening strong, "Buying Time" has Stills weaving lyrics around the theme of failed Nixon/Ford era economic policies. The music hits a deep groove with the rhythm section driving the tune (bassist George "Chocolate" Perry was a key addition to the band). When vinyl ruled, it was important to grab the listener as soon as the needle hit the playing surface. Incredibly infectious, the hook is vaguely reminiscent of "Love the One You're With".
Employing peerless vocals accompanied by immaculate acoustic guitar, "Stateline Blues" is another potent track. The LP version adds muted bass and drums with some slide to ice the cake.
Stating his business quickly, in a voice infused with world-weary soul, he nails it live on a tour stop in early '76.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
"Soldier" could have easily been lifted from the first Manassas LP. Melodic with a spicy, salsa-inflected bedrock and a "should have been a single" chorus, the block harmonies tie it all together. Doesn't overstay its welcome either. In a similar vein, "No Me Niegas" continues his love affair with Latin music, paying tribute with a subtle ease in a genre where many musicians fear to tread. Going to the well for a cover, Stills curiously chose "The Loner" out of the Neil Young songbook. The crew opts to attack it uptempo, though the arrangement lacks Young's signature bridging riff that separates verse and chorus. He takes liberties with the pre-verse guitar figure, too. Young fanatics may take exception to the tampering but it makes for an interesting listen, despite the differences.
What can be said about his partner in crime here?
Dacus has his share of fine moments ("Midnight in Paris", "Closer to You") bringing a smooth vocal delivery to his compositions and trading tasty licks with the boss. While talented in his own right, you get the feeling that he lacks the charisma/grit of the star of these sessions. Yet Stills depends on him to prop up his ideas, filling in the blanks where needed. Insert conversational marker here!
Closing out with straight ahead rock, "Circlin'" borrows its piano figure from Bad Company's "Run With the Pack" which was released just a scant two months prior. Illegal Stills indeed...
Now some fairly decent arguments have been put forward with regard to the merits of this record. There are some standout cuts, it is fairly well crafted and the playing is pristine enough to eat dinner off of. Despite these high points, it still lingers in the bin marked as "forgotten music".
When the proverbial second shoe clunks to the floor, we find Stephen Stills turning in work that is stellar in places and augmented by a junior partner in others. By no means are the contents poor. When inspired to take the wheel, he drives masterfully. It just seems that he dozed off for a bit in the back seat for parts of this project when he wasn't feeling particularly switched on. The lack of a hit single didn't help, either.
Remember kids: You can lead a horse to water, but the cow must get milked...
That being said, Illegal Stills contains enough intoxicants to make it worth drinking from. If you're a fan, find an inexpensive vinyl copy to enjoy.