Friday 20 February 2009

Graham Nash "Reflections" (2009) (News, Views and Music 22)

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“You can really open up sad eyes, just like they say you can!”

Graham Nash “Reflections” (2009)

At last, it’s here. The 3 CD box-set from Rhino that fans in this country have been waiting for in trepidation since Crosby’s ‘Voyage’ set in mid-2006, delayed on these shores by a frustratingly long-seeming fortnight.. And it couldn’t have come in a better week – Graham’s work has always been a welcome tonic for the soul for me for pretty much as long as I can remember and it’s been a very trying week. (Indeed, my apologies for any inaccuracies or unusual grouchiness in this article but owing to a combination of chronic fatigue and a dodgy tummy I haven’t been able to sit still for longer than five minutes at a time and have been doing a rather good impression of Ian Anderson’s one-legged flute playing at the same time. Returning back to the task in hand, in fact now that I think about it, CSN/Y albums seem to have always been released during particularly trying weeks, so perhaps Graham knows a thing or two about my life that I don’t?! Or maybe his songs are just so warm, loveable and insightful it just seems that way. Whatever.  Spookily enough, Graham himself addresses his tendency to help the weary and downtrodden overcome obstacles in an often uncaring world in his introduction to this booklet – ‘As long as someone is unhappy, misunderstood or unheard, I will continue to love and to fight and to make the kind of music I do.’ This in a sentence is why I’ve always loved Graham’s music so much and why it will always mean more to me than practically anyone else’s on this list. I may have discovered writers with more consistent, more elegant and better performed music than Graham Nash’s occasionally, but few other writers have ever tapped into my thoughts, fears, worries and delights more than he whether as a Hollie, on his own or with ‘the greatest rock and roll law firm that ever lived’ (Crosby Stills and Nash if you hadn’t guessed)..

Don’t worry, though, this won’t be a five-star all-glowing 10-out-of-10 he-can-never-do-no-wrong kind of review because I’m not that sort of a writer. Like many a career retrospective this set is flawed from the first in two major ways, Firstly, this is yet another uneasy alliance between being a greatest hits set, an out-takes and rarities set and something in-between. Secondly, the compilers’ views of the best of Graham’s work doesn’t necessarily tally with mine (to name just one album – why oh why do we get what I consider to be two of Nash’ emptiest, weakest songs ‘You’’ll Never Be The Same’ and ‘On The Line’ instead of that album’s glorious piano ballad ‘I Miss You’?! That album’s career peak ‘Another Sleep Song’ is present and correct however so I’ll shut up moaning about that. For now). Thirdly, the Hollies get side-swiped out of history yet again with just three tracks, all of which were singles and all of which have been issued literally hundreds of times on CD in the last couple of decades (nice to hear the mono mixes for the first time in as while though). Like ‘Voyage’s dismissal of Crosby-era Byrds, this is a shame because we never get to hear the leap between the writers’ heavily derivavitive early Merseybeat efforts and the first audible individual pieces coming together. A few more tracks from late-period Hollies and especially Nash’s ‘breakthrough’ solo composition  ‘Clown’.(It’s not a love song! It’s not piano or guitar based! It has sad words! And its written as early as 1965 for crying out loud!)         

A short commentary on what we do have, however. The first disc spans from 1967’s Hollie evergreen ‘On A Carousel’ to Nash’s dark tea-time of the soul that was his 1974 solo LP ‘Wild Tales’. Along the way we travel to Marrakesh, gawp at the vase Graham bought Joni Mitchell for ‘Our House’ and singalong to ‘Teach Your Children’. In fact, most newcomer Nash fans after a greatest hits package only need the first 8 tracks or so of this box-set, containing as it does pretty much all he songs Graham is best known for. The highlights however include lesser known gems, such as the churning and humble ode to fallen pride ‘I Used To Be A King’ and the glorious hymn to chronic fatigue ‘Another Sleep Song’ (OK so Graham didn’t actually write this song for fellow sufferers but he might as well have done – this gorgeous song might have well have been, so close are the sentiments). Both of these tracks are given new mixes (there are 32 in total on this set) but neither are particularly different – the revelations on the first disc are instead an extended Dave mason guitar solo on ‘Military Madness’ and a thrilling reverberation-filled take on 1971’s lonely lament ‘Better Days’. ‘Wild Tales’ and ‘Prison Song’ actually sound worse – there’s more guitar and some really irritating percussion I hadn’t actually noticed on the former record before instead of Nash’s sterling vocals and Tim Drummond’s liquid bass runs and the emphasised stop-start passages and over-mixed mandolins on ‘Prison Song’ make it come close to being un-listenable. Enough of all this, however - the collector, though, will be turning straight to the sole rarity on the first disc – a late 1968 demo of concert favourite ‘Right Between The Eyes’. Alas, we know it a bit too well from concerts (it appeared on pretty much all of Graham’s solo tours, most of Crosby-Nash’s and a few of CSN and CSNY’s) and this version is pretty much identical to the version on ‘Four Way Street’. Never fear though – there are plenty more rarities to come!

The second disc takes us all the way from the second Crosby-Nash album of 1975 to the first of the disappointing CSNY reunions in 1988 and in almost every way it’s the best out of the three – for known material, new mixes of old material and unreleased songs.. The new mixes are much more interesting on this second disc, including two fantastic insights into the making of the CSN album in 1977 (or ‘the one with the boat on the front cover’ as Nash himself calls it in the booklet). ‘Cold Rain, Graham’s moving ode to his hometown of Manchester and how, on a visit in the mid-70s, nothing in it seemed to have changed while Nash himself had changed completely, sounds even better in its new home, with Stills and Crosby’s harmonies erased. Yep, perfect as they always were, this is the sort of lonely and isolated song that badly needed Graham to sing on his own and this moving song sounds even better here. I thought the set would have to go a long way to improving that album’s ‘Cathedral’ too, but they have – as well as an eerie opening line that was excised from the released version, this new mix is much more dramatic than the old one and the sudden switch to the frenzied choruses from the spooky verses hits even harder. Nash’s solo effort ‘barrel Of Pain’ also sounds better courtesy of a new edit – while I’m never usually in favour of shortening songs this ecological plea now sounds like the proud and angry rocker it was always trying to be, rather than an uneasy bridge between blues, funk and rock and roll. Two of Graham’s loveliest songs about family life are here too – ‘Song For Susan’ and ‘Magical Child’, although it’s a real shame that there wasn’t more room for Graham’s underrated ‘Earth and Sky’ LP.

Best of all, 1986’s ‘Sad Eyes’ – a gorgeous track chosen as the highlight of dodgy 1986 LP ‘Innocent Eyes’ in these pages a mere month ago – sounds like a completely new song, stripped of much of the mid-80s technology that held it back from blossoming originally and turned into a moving bare-bones ballad. We also get two real rarities from the Nash canon back in their proper places – the Stills collaboration ‘Raise A Voice (one of only two studio songs from the CSN ‘Allies’ concert, a set that is now redundant now that the complete live show is back out on our shelves without the studio tracks as the CD ‘Live In LA’ and the DVD ‘Daylight Again’) and the Cameron Crowe film soundtrack song ‘Love Is A Reason’. Neither song is an example of Nash at their best, but these two ‘throwaways’ have always deserved a much wider audience and it’s nice to get a chance to hear them again! Ooh yes, and an early CSN version of the (for Nash) rather boring pop song ‘Clear Blue Skies’ which sounds marginally better here without quite so much synthesiser added on top (although there’s still far to much of it).  There are two completely unreleased tracks on this set, both dating from the 1980s – ‘Water From The Moon’ is no great shakes, being an out-take from Graham’s worst album ‘Innocent Eyes’ (that shortest of short albums actually had out-takes?!?) but ‘Lonely Man’ is the best of the unreleased songs, a CSN out-take from 1984 that –if my maths is right – makes it the last CSN collaboration before Crosby’s imprisonment in 1986. If so, and had the trio never worked together again as they feared – this would have been a fitting eulogy, with Graham returning to his earlier classic ‘Simple Man’ by telling us how, before he met his wife, he was always lonely no matter who he was with. The mid-80s sound effects are again present but don’t get in the way on this song (which, by the way, seems to have been a Nash song re-worked in 1985 for an aborted CSN project, having just read the booklet again – fascinating stuff!)

Disc three has some of the dodgiest choices of all the running orders, taking us from those infamous lunar cocktail sausages to a track recorded late last year (much as I like the cover of ‘If Anybody Had A Heart’ - no not the Cilla Black one! – and adore the cover of ‘I Surrender’ that’s all they are, covers, and a waste of space when graham has so much fine material still missing from this set). Songs like 1999’s sappy ‘Heartland’ and a rather ragged live version of ‘Unequal Love’ (one of Graham’s best modern-day compositoons, not that you’ll know that from the murdered version here) also hurt Nash’s reputation rather than enhance it. There is still plenty to enjoy – if you don’t plan to listen to the set in order then turn to the gloriously dramatic anti-war song ‘After The Dolphin’ first (no, it’s not the ecological plea many people assume it is, but a damning attack on the first civilians killed in modern warfare – pub-goers at the Dolphin in London’s West End in WW1) and the fascinating anti-apartheid rallying cry ‘Dirty Little Secret’ second. Along the way we get a fascinating unreleased version of the tour de force ramble ‘Liar’s Nightmare’ (an uncharacteristic Nash song this, remembering the lurid and surreal images Graham suffered while undergoing anaesthetic) and a near-solo alternate take of the moving ‘Michael (Hedges Here)’ . There are no less than five unreleased songs here (at least, I’ve never heard of the Carole King collaboration ‘Two Hearts’ before so I’m assuming it’s a mis-print), none of them great but all are too good to go unheard for all these years. Best of all is ‘Try To Find Me’, another concert favourite that most of Graham’s fans probably know from some performance or another (the CSN Acoustic is the best place to see it) but which sounds much better here than I expected. Accompanied by an orchestra rather than just the one piano or guitar, the song sounds more rounded and completed than before and really does tear at the heart strings with its tale of an active brain trapped in a disabled body. Many Nash critics call Graham’s work ‘mawkish’ and ‘sentimental’, but actually very few of his songs are – this one however is unabashedly sugary but still hits the spot if you’re in the right mood. The later songs ‘Two Hearts’, the Roy Orbison tribute ‘Behind the Shades’ and the solo songs ‘We Breathe The same Air’ and ‘In Your Name’ are nice but nothing more and a bit of a let-down all sequenced together at the end of the set.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, this one’s another frustratingly mixed bag with to many songs for the casual collector and not enough truly rare stuff for the average collector to fork out a whopping £47.99 for. But the packaging might just swing it for you – like ‘Voyage’ it features a 150-page booklet full of comments on every song and hundreds of well chosen glossy photographs (they are, in fact, better than on Crosby’s set as Nash has always been a bit of a camera buff and has quite an extensive collection of his own and other people’s prints). Best of all is the picture of the Hollies on stage at the cavern in 1964 – in all my years of collecting I thought I’d seen all of the handful of photographs of this band’s early years but this one had passed me by. Oh and the booklet is once again filled with fascinating titbits about the songs a la Crosby’s ‘Voyage’ – I never knew for instance that the 1976 song ‘Mutiny’ was inspired by Neil Young leaving yet another CSNY reunion at the last minute without actually bothering to tell the others, or that the ‘Sailboat Bay’ in the lyric was an actual place rather than just a lazy rhyme for ‘so far away’. In all, things could be better, but if you love Graham’s work as much as I do then this delightful but pricey time capsule is a must-have, even if you have to starve for the next few weeks to be able to afford it (not that we’re advocating starvation or anything, its just that I’m really off my food this week and won’t find that a problem for once!) Graham’s career is a special one and one that hasn’t been properly documented before (no solo best-ofs for Graham) – not to mention the fact that until the last year most of Graham’s solo works were out of catalogue and hard to find (‘Wild Tales’ still is unfortunately). So if you like what you see or only know Graham from the odd CSN LP and want to know more, look out for ‘Reflections’ and hope you find it cheap one day (oh yeah and that title – why is it named after the American re-issue of an obscure Hollies LP for crying out loud – most of our British readers might not have got that reference and there isn’t another connection I can think of).Roll on the Stephen Stills box-set, that’s what we say!!! (Just give me enough time to get saving first!!)

A Now Complete List Of CSN/Y and Solo Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Crosby, Stills and Nash' (1969)

'Deja Vu' (CSNY) (1970)

‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)

'If Only I Could Remember My Name' (Crosby) (1971)

'Songs For Beginners' (Nash) (1971)

'Stephen Stills II' (1971)
‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972)

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973)
'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973)

'Stills' (1975)

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975)
'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976)
'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976)

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976)

'CSN' (1977)
'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978)
'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980)

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982)
'Right By You' (Stills) (1984)
'Innocent Eyes' (Nash) (1986)
'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988)

'Oh Yes I Can!' (Crosby) (1989)

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989)

'Stephen Stills Alone' (1991)

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998)

‘So Like Gravity (CPR, 2001)

‘Songs For Survivors’ (2002)

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008)

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008)

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009)

'Demos' (CSN) (2009)

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010)

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013)

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014)
'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014)

'This Path Tonight' (Nash) (2016)

‘Here If You Listen’ (Crosby)

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings
Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009)
Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009)
Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980)
Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012)
Essay: The Superest Of Super Groups?
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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