Wednesday, August 29, 2012


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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Magical Mystery Tour was the third Beatles movie, built up to be the television event of the 1967 Christmas season.

That was until people actually watched it.

Originally screened on BBC 1 in the UK on December 26, 1967, the film clocked in just shy of an hour. Though it was shot in color, the "Beeb" broadcast was in dreary black and white.

Reviews were decidedly unkind.

BBC 2 gave it a whirl in its intended color format a few days later, but the damage was already done. The music fared much better with the public. I didn't quite rate it as their finest hour (the original six song EP).

Plans to televise MMT in the US quickly went up in smoke. No proper North American theatrical release happened until the mid seventies and even that was limited. VHS copies began to surface in the eighties, long after it had pretty much gained status as a cult item. More folks had read about it than those who had seen this rare bit of Beatle history. By the nineties, both a laserdisc (1992) and DVD (1997) version hit the marketplace, coupled with The Beatles Anthology series, further raising the visibility of this former curio.

Here we are in 2012 and the Mystery Tour has been polished up/restored for worldwide DVD and Blu-Ray release on October 8th! The collectors edition may just be the version that I scoop up.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is the product of our imaginations and believe me, at this point they are quite vivid"

Nice PR talk track, Paul. "Mystery tripping out of our fucking minds on LSD" is more like it.

To be fair, while MMT is not Oscar worthy material, there are flashes of brilliance. Aunt Jessie's dream sequence is sadistic, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performance with the stripper is bizarre (Viv Stanshall's Elvis inflected vocal is insane) and the visuals that accompany the soundtrack are pretty cool. How about that Busby Berkeley homage for the big finish?

Hey, the Bonzo's tune, "Death Cab For Cutie", even provided a shitty contemporary band with their name. So it's win-win!

There is a hint of the whimsy that the Python troupe would eventually bring to television, though it lacks the cerebral, comedic structure within the silliness. Containing a few laughs, two exceptional tunes ("Fool On the Hill" and "I Am the Walrus") and some wild editing, it is worth a look.

Don't you want to see this film now? Living in the golden age of YouTube allows for a sneak preview. Pack a bowl before you do, as everything will make much more sense.

Should you also happen to own a vinyl copy of MMT, grab it and hold the front cover up to a mirror.

A phone number will magically appear in the stars that spell out BEATLES.

Dial it up. I double dare you!

The person who answers will be waiting for your call...

Friday, August 17, 2012


Blade of Grass have an excellent new video for "Who You Gonna Run To". It's one of my favorite tunes by the duo, soon to become yours. You can support the guys and purchase this and three other selections from their Radio Sampler EP.

Great new music is out there, waiting to be discovered.

Check out their Facebook page to find out the latest on Blade of Grass.

Sunday, August 05, 2012



Constructed from fragmented sessions where the original five members rarely shared the same studio or any common ground, it is a wonder that the second Buffalo Springfield LP exists. Out of chaos, in-fighting and a large cast of contributors came their finest record.

Neil Young and Stephen Stills often had very different ideas about the creative direction of the group. Frequently clashing, their contributions to the set were mostly recorded separately. There were instances where they would chip in on instrumental or vocal parts for one another, though it was the exception rather than the rule.

Young's driving opener, "Mr. Soul", would be one of the few cuts where the quintet laid the track down together. Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer come off like the Stax house rhythm section, pushing the beat while the guitars do an unmistakable variation of the "Satisfaction" riff. Purposefully vague, the lyrics seem to be an uneasy
reflection of the author's love/hate relationship with audience expectation.

In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?

Typically, Neil has avoided any analysis of the song. Like the majority of his work, it has held up quite well. The remake that he did 15 years later for Trans is nearly unrecognizable. He has expressed regret for adding further guitar overdubs to the original version. Stills had advised him that it was done. Young messed with it some more, yet he did not improve upon the initial take. This would be a lesson that he would take to heart soon after he had started playing with Crazy Horse: Get it down and move on.

Melodic sense and a sure touch with a tune benefit Stills' offerings. "Rock and Roll Woman" is the best of the pack in this vein and points in the direction of CSN (with David Crosby himself involved in backing vocals and co-writing). "Bluebird" is another standout, judiciously pared down from over eight minutes of extended jamming. It would become a highlight of their live shows with Stills/Young guitar wars adding to the excitement factor.

Country rock is spotlighted in Ritchie Furay's jaunty, "A Child's Claim to Fame", which was a veiled shot at Neil Young and his less than stellar commitment to the Springfield. James Burton adds dobro to this fine blueprint for the material that would comprise the first Poco album. Every selection on this disc brings with it a seismic shift in style. Another element that brings variety is guitar texture, which is utilized perfectly throughout. Just listen to the distorted, harmonized lick that kicks off "Hung Upside Down". Further evidence comes with the chiming acoustics on "Rock and Roll Woman" and the over-driven, angry frown of a note that cuts across the beginning of each verse of "Everydays". The soloing is mad, untamed.

In terms of return for effort, the thirty days of recording and mixing that eventually gave birth to "Expecting to Fly" were well spent. Written by Young and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, this stunning exercise bears the stamp of a Brian Wilson soundsscape filtered through Neil's special lens. Sunrise is evoked by that long opening note that flowers into a burst of strings just as the other instruments stumble in to support the verse. Nitzsche deserves special mention for bringing all of the components together that make this one so compelling. Geniuses working in tandem.

"Broken Arrow" is another haunting tune which loses points only for the overly cluttered, "kitchen sink" production job. Stills' harmonies on the chorus are stellar but some of the effects/tricks that precede each verse detract from the beauty of the melody. In the wake of Sgt Pepper, many ambitious recordings began to flood the market. This is a case where a re-think and some restraint would have been welcome. (especially that cheesy Take Me Out to the Ballgame organ snippet). There has been much conjecture about the meaning of the words, which some have construed as a rumination on major events up to that point in the sixties. Unfathomable is how I see it. To Native Americans, a broken arrow is a symbol of peace.

In retrospect, it's fairly easy to say that the main writers were charting the course for their own future projects. "Again" definitely benefits from the strong work that they turned in. Dropping "Sad Memory" and "Good Time Boy" to add another of Young's compositions would have added value to the overall presentation. Despite critical acclaim, commercial impact was slight. How this quietly beautiful work escaped record buyers at the time is a mystery. Perhaps if the personalities involved had worked harder to achieve a united front, they could have captured a larger audience.

Regardless, Buffalo Springfield Again stands as one of the premier releases of 1967, easily the equal of anything that was unveiled during that pivotal year.

Friday, August 03, 2012


August 13th is a date that fans of The Kinks should be truly excited about as it marks the release of Kinks at the BBC. This will hit the market in two formats: Five disc plus DVD box set and a stripped down, two CD package.

The Kinks were a top class British Invasion act who had a huge impact on both their contemporaries and subsequent generations of groups. At their peak, they were overshadowed by the giants of the era. The BBC sets will remind listeners of why they were so important.

More info, including track list can be found here

Wednesday, August 01, 2012



Popular music took an extremely unfortunate sonic detour into technocratic mediocrity in the eighties, with the advent of digi-crap, synth pads and annoying drum sounds. Worse still was the gratuitous amount of reverb that most of the productions of that period were drowned in.

Talentless dolts that never would have made it past a hailstorm of flying beer bottles toward the stage became liberated from such pesky tasks as playing their instruments, singing on pitch and in most cases, crafting a decent song. Crass commerce won the day, with dumb, day-glo videos distracting listeners from the fetid stench emanating from their speaker grills. This is really where things went horribly wrong with the so-called “music biz”, creating a very nebulous and disparate atmosphere that allowed many pretenders (all apologies to Chrissie Hynde) to clog the charts with more garbage than ever thought possible.

Thankfully, there were artists that chose to eschew the trappings of prevailing trends, writing and producing music that would escape the gravity of the era in which it first appeared.

If you asked me to bet on an individual who would make the top of the class as a contemporary pop tunesmith, I’d tell you that the smart money would be on Neil Finn.

Cutting his musical teeth as part of his older brother Tim’s band (Split Enz), Finn flowered as a writer, penning several of the group’s hits in the early eighties before that aggregation’s rotating lineup sputtered out. Following the Split Enz farewell tour, he and drummer Paul Hester joined forces with bassist Nick Seymour to form The Mullanes in 1985. Relocating to LA, Capitol records encouraged them to change their name to Crowded House. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” connected as a hit single from their self titled first LP in 1986, though it took some time before radio discovered it. Lucky it was, as listeners were treated to well crafted, edgy, melodic pop which owed a debt to the golden age of mid-sixties mixed with Finn's own particular vision.

Dark shadows loomed over the subject matter of his compositions for the immaculate follow up disc, Temple of Low Men. Forced to capitalize on the momentum gained from their first outing, Neil delivered under pressure.

Breaking the sophomore jinx has proved difficult for many bands, as the old saying rings true.

You have your whole life to write your first record and little or no time to produce the second one.

Produced by Mitchell Froom, who also contributed on keyboards, the disc contains none of the grating synths or clangy drum noises that were all the rage in the late 80’s. The decision not to obfuscate the end results with the shallow sounds of that time period proved to be wise, ultimately giving the material a much longer shelf life. Instead, great care was taken to capture warm, stripped down takes from the three instrumentalists (four with the addition of Froom) who played with taste and restraint, always in service of the song. All selections are thoroughly engaging with nary a note going to waste in the entire program.

Gelling as a trio, the musicians create an intimate soundscape, augmented by Froom's atmospheric parts. Spooky vibes permeate the opener ("I Feel Possessed"), with icy retro keyboard textures sweeping over a choppy, stop-start beat in the verses that perfectly complements the sentiments expressed in the lyric. Describing the claustrophobic element of an all consuming relationship succinctly, even when the musical tension snaps in the hooky chorus, the ominous fact remains.

I feel possessed when you come round

Touches of cynicism and introspection are everywhere, with the listener getting a sense that the author of these lines could be expressing serious doubts about newfound success, partnerships and a host of other possibilities. This desultory, minor-key unease is leavened by truly great melodies for which Finn has a natural touch. Humor, however black it may be here at times, is the other crucial ingredient in the successful blend of personalities within Crowded House. Paul Hester was generally the ringleader when it came to the infusion of silliness onstage or alleviating the "serious quotient" that often makes obligatory promotional interviews fairly joyless for entertainers.

Their skills at putting their material across in a minimalist fashion served them well.

"Kill Eye" comes across almost as a bizarre, lost White Album cut. Chord changes swirl over a dense, insistent pulse rife with extraneous noise. Easily one of the more experimental journeys taken on this sometimes nervous soundscape. Just as you think you're headed in one direction, the ride jolts abruptly and peels into a 180 degree turn. "Into Temptation" is an unsettling exploration of human weakness, painted so vividly that it caused the author's wife at the time to question the inspiration. The arrangement features mellotron parts flown in from twenty years in the past. They join soft acoustic guitars and brushed snare in a triumph of aching economy. To me, this ranks with Squeeze's "Tempted" and Lennon's "Norweigan Wood" in terms of evoking the raw emotion of remorse in the wake of infidelity.

Or something like that.

You laugh at yourself while you're bleeding to death

Chalking up another tale rife with bitter wit, "Mansion In the Slums" presents some of the most sarcastic lines on the album, though it is done with such melodic aplomb that they sneak by on first spin. Meditating on the age old traps of greed and ego, there is no preaching involved. The dark undercurrent is subtle, yet the message is delivered.

Who can stop me? With money in my pocket. Sometimes, I get it free. The best of both worlds.

The laughs just keep on coming, though it wins my vote for the stand out in a class of high achievers. "Better be Home Soon" scored as a single, though the enticing melody and heartfelt plea for the return of a love interest is tempered with dismissive ultimatums involving the fact that the author is "right" and may decide to bail even if the object of their desire does come back.

Strong contributions from everyone involved makes the hard medicine go down fairly easily. "Never be the Same" and "Love This Life" provide real bite without ever straying into turgid, humorless territory. One thing that floored me at the time was the lack of impact that Temple of Low Men had in comparison to its predecessor. They had joked about titling it as "Mediocre Follow Up" or "Krakatoa", though it is nothing less than a spotless ten songs. Quietly beautiful song craft doesn't always translate into mass success. Fairing respectably chart-wise, it certainly deserved much more of a response from record buyers at that time.

Brimming with invention and energy, the music has aged remarkably well, sounding every bit as fresh as it did when I first picked it up. There is something substantial lurking beneath the surface of every cut. Highly recommended listening.