Crosby, Stills & Nash – Crosby, Stills & Nash

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Crosby, Stills & Nash
Released May, 1969

I’ve been having a love affair with Crosby, Stills and Nash for a long time, thanks to my Dad. When I was a kid my Dad had (and still upholds) this ritual when my mum went out for the evening. He’d shut all the windows and doors and fire up the old Dick Smith home-built stereo system he made from a kit in the 70’s, and chuck the vinyls on. Most of the time, especially in the Hanson and Spice Girls phase, I hated him for it, but as I got older I realised how good my Dad’s taste was and would often join him in the ‘man cave’ where we’d sit in mostly complete silence and just listen. To be honest, I think the first time I fully appreciated CSN was actually in 1994 when I got my first Taxiride album. Taxiride did this truly beautiful and respectful cover of ‘Helplessly Hoping’ and at the time I didn’t even realise it was a CSN song, until several years later when my Dad educated me a bit more.

The reason I love CSN, especially this album is the 3 part harmonies that are often in the style of the Baroque madrigal and which are beautifully showcased in both ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Helplessly Hoping’. I loved the use of the modal scale on Steven Stills’ guitar part in ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’; such a simple trick but it makes a big difference to the sound of the song, especially in that opening riff.  ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ is kind of juxtaposition because it sounds really happy and upbeat but is dealing with the breakdown of a relationship between Stills and his mentally-unstable girlfriend Judy Collins. The Suite also serves as an introduction to the album, giving a taste of all the different themes that are to come, a summary of contents, if you will. Although I think it’s a really cool, fun song, I always skip ‘Marrakesh Express’, because from past experience I know it can get stuck in my head really easy, because it’s just so damn catchy. I also think it’s really clever how the band used the ‘all aboooooard the train’ vocal part to – in a way – replicate the sound of the train’s whistle. Well that’s the way I always interpreted it, anyway! Which brings me to ‘Guinnevere’. Wow, talk about atmospheric.  This track conjures visions of a green-eyed, blonde-haired maiden wandering through misty gardens while ‘peacocks wander aimlessly’ and to me refers to the innocence and youthful beauty of the woman for whom the song is written. Apparently this song was written about 3 different women, one of whom was David Crosby’s ex who was killed in a car crash, one a mystery woman, and the other was Joni Mitchell. I love that Joni seems to have been the muse of so many artists of her time.

There are only two things I would change with this album, if I could. Firstly, I’d make ‘You Don’t Have to Cry’ Track 1. I just think it would be better that way. And secondly, more songs. 6 tracks just isn’t enough Crosby, Stills and Nash for me!

If you can afford it, listen to this album alone, preferably in the afternoon or early morning quiet, and just sit still and really listen. You will be hard pressed to deny the quality of the musicianship, as you experience the beautiful guitar counter melodies that perform a call and response conversation between the vocal tracks and the instrument section, the haunting and delicate vocal harmonies and the poetic lyrics. This is also the first 60’s album so far where I’ve noted the use of guitar harmonics, a technique which accentuates Steven Stills’ melodic style and is showcased on ‘Helplessly Hoping’ in particular. For me, this album is the epitome of the bands who got it so right in the 60’s. Flawless instrumentation, thoughtful lyrics and perfectly-laid vocals. If I had to score out of 10 I would award 15, it’s that good.

This album is one of the first examples of what would become known as the West Coast sound. Around the time this record was released groups like The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel were moving away from loud guitar-drenched rock to sing pop songs with a touch of folk or country and a whole heap of vocal harmonies. The West Coast sound would be defined in the 1970’s by artists such as The Eagles, America, Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne and to a certain extent, The Doobie Brothers. Without the success of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first self-titled album, we might have missed out on all that great music. The emphasis put on vocals is what makes this record so vital. The instrumentation is always second to the harmony blocks, and in some instances the only accompaniment is one acoustic guitar. Stephen Stills shines as the strongest songwriter of the trio; his ‘Helplessly Hoping’, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and ’49 Bye-Byes’ are arguably the best tracks on the album, all showcasing the unique blend of their voices. David Crosby and Graham Nash’s contributions are pleasant enough, but I’ve never thought much of the former’s bubblegum-esque ‘Marrakesh Express’ and I can’t help but drift off during the latter’s dull ‘Guin(n)evere’. They would both lift their game on their 1970 album with Neil Young ,”Déjà Vu” with Crosby’s incendiary ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and Nash’s classic ‘Teach Your Children’ being true standouts. ‘Wooden Ships’, penned by Crosby and Stills (and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, who would remain uncredited until the album’s 2006 extended edition) is another strong track. Although it finishes awkwardly with an unresolved ending, it contains one of their best choruses, delivered with fiery passion. Stills’ backwards guitar on Nash’s ‘Pre-Road Downs’ is exquisite, rivaling The Beatles’ ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ for best usage. Crosby’s ‘Long Time Gone’, written about the assassination of Robert Kennedy is another highlight. Still can’t pick between ‘Helplessly Hoping’ and ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eye’s as my definite favourite, but I’m leaning towards the latter. Click here to see their brilliant performance of it at Woodstock. Great stuff!

I had really high hopes for this album. This is one of the albums that made me want to do this crazy project. Everyone name checks it but I had never really gotten around to actually listening to it, so I was really excited to finally get to listen to it. Let’s just say that I’m REALLY glad I instilled the ‘minimum three listens’ rule. The first listen I pretty much wrote it off and thought it would be up there with The Band and The Byrds in terms of being a little over-hyped. Second listen I started tuning in to the guitar and harmonies. And how freaking good is that bass?! After about the third listen things started to come together and by the fourth listen I was well and truly a fan. The album is really quite beautiful. The thing with CSN is the way they click on several levels. It sounds really quite intuitive and proves the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The combination of the sublime harmonies coupled with the innate musicianship of all involved just transcend it to another level. I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to the lyrics, which is odd for me, but in this case the music was enough. Favourite songs are the lush folksiness of ‘You Don’t Have to Cry’ and as a fan of the Hammond organ I can’t pass up ‘Wooden Ships’. ‘Helpless Hoping’ is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard… yes, a wee tear may have been shed. Do yourself a favour and listen to this on good headphones. They make full use of stereo, which is refreshing for the 60s and the mix is stellar. As the kids like to say “I’m keeping this one on the ipod”!

So pretty! I don’t know what else to say about “Crosby, Stills and Nash” (the album, not the blokes). Not often have I heard a vocal offering with such perfectly blended harmonies. It’s an album that really has the vocals as the lead instrument. The guitars and bass take a back seat to the harmonies, with the drums being very, very subtle, if they’re even there at all. But just because the guitar and bass aren’t at the front of the sound, it by no means suggests that they are weak, or not up to standard. “Crosby, Stills and Nash” has some of the best bass work we’ll encounter through afyccim, and the guitars are brilliant too. I think the best example of this is in ‘Wooden Ships’, which is interesting (and insanely awesome) because Stephen Stills is credited with lead guitar AND bass duties. This combination lead ‘Wooden Ships’ to be my favourite song on this album. Also, Stills plays my favourite guitar, a Gretsch White Falcon. It’d be a hard reviewer who didn’t mention ‘Marrakesh Express’. Written by Graham Nash and originally intended for The Hollies, it’s choc-a-bloc with imagery from Nash’s trip from Casablanca on the Marrakesh Express. It’s so happy and upbeat that I can’t help but smile and tap along to it! And the very high lead guitar licks suit it perfectly. I generally liked the album as a whole, but ‘Guinnevere’ is one I couldn’t get behind. I don’t dig folk at the best of times, and I found it dead boring, even though Crosby was quoted as saying “It might be my best song”. It’s not, Dave. “Crosby, Stills and Nash” is a top album. It’s vocally amazing and it’s an iPod stayer, with the exception of the love songs to Joni Mitchell…

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