Crosby, Stills and Nash
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Demos" is the equivalent of hanging out with the Wright Brothers when Wilbur looked up at bird and said, "Hey Orville, I've got an idea," or when Booker T. Washington complained, "Now what am I gonna do with all these peanuts? It's history, kids, a musical blueprint for a generation.
Nash has been the group's diplomatic driving force since the 80s. Whenever there's been a reunion of the combative trio, Nash has been the catalyst, the peacemaker. (Getting Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt to play nice was an easier task.) Nash is also the group's archivist; he put together "Reflections (3.5 out of 5 stars)," his own 3 CD career retrospective, earlier this year, and co-produced "Demos." It may be his pet project, but Nash remains a team player - he and Stills are well represented and even the elephant in the room (Neil Young) makes a cameo appearance.
"Demos" could just as easily been called "Demos unplugged." Each member produced his own songs, and in most cases they accompanied themselves on acoustic guitar. The 12 cuts are a mixture of songs destined to appear on the first CSN album in 1969, the 1970 follow-up, "Deja Vu," or on one of the trio's early solo efforts. For folks who need something new, there's Stills' uncovered gem, "My Love Is a Gentle Thing."
Most of the demos are only a tweak or a time change away from the final version. Others, particularly Crosby's cuts, are noble embryonic efforts that ended up miles away from the original concept. The two cuts that ended up being most radically altered are Crosby's demos for "Almost Cut My Hair" and "Long Time Gone." "Almost Cut My Hair" still has Crosby's angry, kill the pigs rhetoric, but Crosby, all alone on acoustic, infuses the song with the same numbing, rambling jazz-folk shuffle beat that's hampered much of his solo work and makes his songs, however planned, sound as if they were conceived amidst a peyote induced revelation. (Crosby was influenced at an early age by jazz junkies Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Unfortunately their detritus is reflected in his musings.) "Almost Cut My Hair" is the only poor performance, but the bare acoustic backing manages to show off Crosby's stunning vocal range. "Long Time Gone" is an example of Stills in his role as "Captain Many Hands." He plays guitar, bass and, surprise...drums! Stills doesn't have the subtlety of CSN's first percussionist, Dallas Taylor, but he's not a lifeless metronome either. Bashing the cymbals or double-smacking the snare, Stills lays the groundwork for the finished version's funky middle-finger attitude. Another interesting aside is the original second verse, which was rightfully deemed less compelling than the others and exorcised: "You can smell something burning, but you don't know who lit the fire. You can smell pavement getting hotter, you can see flames rise high."
His voice full with the youthful soul of a Southern rebel, Stills is represented by early versions of "You Don't Have to Cry," "My Love is a Gentle Thing," "Singing Call," and "Love the One Your With." In its finished state on the first CSN album, "You Don't Have to Cry" was a powerful testament to the trio's tight harmonies. In its earliest stage it's missing a verse, but it's still a tour-de-force for Stills' matchless picking and syrupy delivery. The rare cut "My Love is a Gentle Thing" is moody, personal; and with Stills impassioned singing, it's a great reason to buy the CD.
Scratched out on acoustic guitar, "Love the One You're With" is still a naughty musical aphrodisiac, close in its free wheeling execution to CSNY's live version on "Four Way Street." "Singing Call," which finally got the call when it showed up on Stills' second solo album, finds Stephen still messing with his cowboy imagery and phrasing, but nevertheless, it's a riveting tune and should inspire you to give the emotional final version a spin. If you pick up "Stephen Stills 2," listen closely for Dallas Taylor's rim shots and Crosby and Nash's soaring back ups.
Nash steps up with "Marrakesh Express," "Sleep Song," "Be Yourself," and "Chicago." "Marrakesh Express" arrives almost fully formed, minus Stills' crisp electric guitar, and Hammond carpet backing. (Stills is still present on bass.) Despite missing Dallas Taylor's shuffling beat, the song chugs along pleasurably, propelled by Nash's acoustic. Crosby's on hand to provide harmonic support. "Sleep Song" and "Be Yourself" and "Chicago" would turn up on Nash's excellent first solo record, 1971's "Songs for Beginners."
"Sleep Song" is hushed perfection, ideal for a single guitar. "Be Yourself" has some interesting first take lyrics and shows Nash was wise to add a roomful of singers to the final version in order to fill out the rather repetitive chorus. The altered piano figure during the last verse in "Chicago" will give you an idea what Nash was trying to pull off live on "Four Way Street." (He wound up hitting a few bad notes. No bad notes on the demo!)
Thankfully, Neil Young only appears on one cut, "Music is Love," which eventually found its way to Crosby's first solo album, "If I Could Only Remember My Name." It's not that I don't respect Neil, I think he's a decent solo act, but as a member of CSNY I cringe whenever I hear his ferret-like harmonies or his axe murdering on electric guitar. Besides, Neil has his own ten CD/DVD demo/live/unreleased collection out - talk about overkill!
The only collaboration between Crosby, Nash and Young (Stills was working his own solo album at the time), "Music is Love" is a hippie anthem for San Francisco free love and peace contingent. The demo yields a few surprises. The trio sings the first verse together; the finished version had Crosby out front on his own. All three are singing high harmonies; since nobody's handling the bottom part it's not CNY's best moment, and you can thank Mr. Ferret for the initial shaky beginning, but Nash and Crosby soon bring the vocals back to an even keel. A few other factors were tightened up in the final version - Nash and Young stole the tape from Crosby and added watery vibes and congas to give the message of the song a transcendental feel. (Crosby later recalled: "They gave it back to me and told me 'It's going to be on your next album, don't give us any sh**.' I learned a long time ago not to argue with Nash and Neil.") The demo extends the guitar fade out against Nash's enthusiastic hand percussion (okay he just claps). It's a very nice nearly there version that was tightened up on Crosby's album.
So heed CSN's singin' call; hop on the Marrakesh Express and get "Demos." You don't have to cry; it'll stir up pleasant memories that are a long time gone and give you a fulfilling sense of deja vu. "Demo's" proves CSN's music is love.