Friday, 22 January 2010
Stephen Stills/Manassas "Pieces" (2010) (News, Views and Music 52)
Stephen Stills/Manassas “Pieces”
What an enticing Christmas present this looked in October. An out-takes set from the world’s greatest super-group after CSNY who have one record in our top 101 list (it’s no 51) and a second and final album that would have featured in our top list had the band not been made to dilute it just before release. Both ‘Manassas’ and ‘Down The Road’ are thrilling eclectic masterpieces that branch out into more styles than Michael Jackson did moonwalks. Fans have been waiting 35-odd years to hear more from this seven-piece band and the band’s short history hinted that there would be some glorious outtakes in the vaults waiting to be heard (‘Manassas’ was planned as a single set but Stills was so inspired it quickly turned into a double – and might well have been a triple; ‘Down The Road’ originally featured far more ‘band’ songs that are said to be fabulous before Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun got cold feet and told Stills to write some more in a hurry). So, barring a handful of revelations and one or two truly fantastic additions to the Manassas canon, it’s no surprise that collectors everywhere have been nothing short of heartbroken by this new compilation.
First instincts are that this set is going to be good. The packaging is excellent, right up there with how Rhino releases used to be a few years ago, with stunning unpublished photographs, a band history that contains even more superlatives about the band than this website does and a track-by-track guide (compare this to the other recent Rhino CSN releases, CSN’s ‘Demos’ and Stills’ ‘Just Roll Tape’, and it’s as much of a revelation as when your favourite TV programme changed from black-and-white to colour circa 1970). The track-listing is salivating too: no less than 15 songs, only four of which are familiar via Stills or Manassas albums, leaving 12 unheard additions to the band’s canon. Alas, most of these songs are fragments and nothing more, with an average running time for the whole set of just two minutes apiece. Two of them are really anonymous country covers that should have stayed in the vaults. And many of the songs that have curious new titles are the ones we know and love already but in somewhat different (admittedly sometimes very different) arrangements: ‘Tan Sola Y Triste’ is an early instrumental backing for ‘Pensamiento’ that gets looped for the final version; ‘Fit To Be Tied’ is an early version of the 1975 ‘Stills’ LP’s worst song ‘Shuffle Just As Bad’ and ‘Love And Satisfy’ is a more-or-less identical version to the Souther-Hillman-Furay band version. Still, the real frustration with this set is that we know there’s so much more in the vaults: there’s a good half dozen tracks from ‘Down The Road’ still awaiting release, never mind all the many alternate versions of songs from ‘Manassas’ that are rumoured to exist. Compared to this a handful of fragments and two studio warm-ups of old Stills songs prior to the band going out on tour seems stingy.
But there is good stuff here. Stills is right at the tail end of his ‘golden period’ which stretched right back from 1968 but he’s still firmly in it: even his self-admitted (in the sleeve-notes) throwaways on this record have a panache and a sparkle that practically all his songs in this halcyon period contain. We also get lots of Chris Hillman on this record, the ex-Byrd and early Buffalo Springfield supporter who helped give Stills his big break and acted as one of his best musical foils, something which is more than overdue. And the rest of the band aren’t bad: from the pure blues of ‘High and Dry’ to the pure country of ‘Uncle Pen’ they’re never less than professional and frequently virtuostic; for seven more or less complete strangers (they each knew Hillman or Stills but very few of them knew each other) they certainly gelled together quickly – it’s staggering to think that the band only spent about 18 months in each other’s company.
First-up is ‘Witching Hour’, the definitive song on this album and the Stills outtakes that fans have been crying out for for years. You won’t know it from the coy sleeve-note (most of Stills’ songs are ‘personal’ far more than most songwriters) but Stills kept this awesome song in the vaults because its just so darned vulnerable and revealing. Stills songs often talk about ‘hurt’ and his characters often put up ‘walls’ to protect themselves, but this one is a rare glimpse of what lies behind those walls: fear. Talking first about the ‘witching hour’ when his spirit comes alive (the hour when everyone else is in bed but the workaholic Stills is pacing the floor, looking for one last drop of inspiration for words, melody or arrangement) Stills is in danger of pointing himself out as genius of the week, but the chorus tells us why Stills’ narrator works so hard: he’s still a lost soul trying to fit in and overwhelmingly sensitive to the slights others pour on him at regular intervals. The sleeve notes imply the song is about the latest CSNY reunion which fell apart despite the pressure from several directions that would have seen them become millionaires and this is partly true: the only reason ‘Manassas’ came about at all was because CSNY fell through and the band certainly were being ‘used’ as it says in the lyrics. But I would venture that’s not the whole truth – this is about Stills the workaholic, the sensitive genius that’s never happy with his own work and still pushes himself to work through the night to get things perfect even though he knows it will never measure up to his expectations. A sterling track that’s right up there with the best Stills songs, from ‘For What It’s Worth’ to ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ to ‘Carry On’ to ‘Word Game’ to ‘Southern Cross’, it’s worth the price of the set just to hear this long-lost classic back in its rightful place in Stills’ development as a songwriter. Chris Hillman was so enamoured with the song that, once he realised his partner wasn’t likely to record it, he did it himself for his first solo album ‘Slipping Away’ in 1975, which I must have worn out I played it that many times. I’ve been waiting 20 odd years to hear stills tackle his own song and, even though its obviously unfinished, this ‘new’ version it doesn’t disappoint.
Alas from then on its all downhill. ‘Sugar Babe’ is a lovely song, one of many that deals with Stills’ infatuation with Rita Cootlidge and one of his best on that theme: it’s another personal song that spells out all the arguments philosophical and emotional Stills can think of for getting the dark haired beauty in the title to get together with him. But the definitive version already exists on Stephen Stills II (see review no 48) – the ‘new’ version we have here is simply a rather rushed rehearsal recording where Stills forgets his own words, instruments come and go and clash with each other and the harmony singers aren’t quite sure where to come in. That’s no surprise: this recording was made, after all, as a warm up for the Manassas tour and it was never intended for anyone outside the band or close management to hear. But its a curious choice for this outtakes set: the arrangement isn’t all that different to the original and the real selling point – the chance of hearing Hillman’s harmonies on this lovely song – is all but ruined by a dodgy performance and a low mix.
‘Lies’ is a much better prospect. One of the better Hillman songs of the 70s, it was one of the highlights of ‘Down The Road’ and this arrangement is at least quite different to the finished product: much harder and rockier than the latin –orientated final version, it might have been a better bet had the band pursued with this arrangement. It’s a fine song about dishonesty and game playing from the ones you love most, played with a rather disarming honesty and straightforward openness, the musical equivalent of holding your hands out to show you have nothing up your sleeve. The original is a great marriage between the band’s favourite styles of rock and country but this version is firmly in the outtake mould, with a muscle the band only really display on ‘Right Now’ from the first album. On the downside, however, the band haven’t quite got the hang of the song yet and the vocals come and go out of the mix seemingly on a whim. If only the band had been persuaded to go for one more take we might have been talking about a band highlight here – instead this is just an intriguing curio that sheds some light onto how one of the band’s better songs got recorded.
‘My Love Is A Gentle Thing’ gets a cautious thumbs-up because, well, it is a great song. It’s a lovely sweeping half-reggae song about Stills falling in love with the Carribean islands he was staying in. It’s more of a fragment than a song but it shows plenty of the promise that was seemingly throwaway by Stills in this halcyon period of his. But unfortunately, we’ve already heard this version, minus a couple of insignificant overdubs, in all its glory on the CSN box set which came out a ridiculous 19 years ago this Easter, so every CSN fan has already had the chance to hear it. And I doubt that there’ll be any takers of this spin-off CD from a 1970s spin off CSN band who won’t already have access to that box set. Add to that the fact that a very similar reading of the song made it to the ‘CSN Demos’ album six months ago and you have to ask what the heck is going on here. For all that I wouldn’t mind if this track really was a long lost outtake from the Manasses era, but it isn’t – as the sleeve notes state, it dates from 1975. So what the hell is it doing here? And if its alright for one stray outtake to come in from a different era, why can’t we have the other fascinating 1970s Stills outtakes originally intended for the 1976 LP ‘Stolen Stills’?
‘Like A Fox’ is one of only two truly new songs on the set and shows the problems with this set: with a bit of work this song could have been fabulous, but as Stills himself admits he had to finish the song off quickly when he heard there were guests coming to sing along with him that day and as a result we have here a promising song that doesn’t actually go anywhere. The opening riff and the lyrics to ‘The Raven’ (Stills’ usual name for Rita Cootldige) suggest that we’re in for a classic, but the song simply has nowhere to go and by the time you’ve heard the third straight repeat of ‘like a fox, like a fox, like a fox on the run, she stole away my heart like a fox on the run’ you’re ready to reach for the skip button. You probably won’t guess from the title, but it’s another Stills song about unrequited love felt by the narrator but not his partner, with his ‘heart’ ‘stolen’ against his will by someone cunning. Heavy on the pedal steel, this is a sweet little number which is well worth hearing after all these years but you so wish Stills had just called a halt to the session that day and spent another hour working on it: we might have been talking about a masterpiece here rather than a curio. I have to say, though, this song is growing on me the more I play it – usually unfinished songs sound worse the more you hear them but with this one I keep hearing more and more potential.
‘Word Game’ is one of the best songs ever written. It’s very very simple yet very very complex to play; its very simple in it’s language but its oh so scathing and unrestrained in the fury it unleashes against all sorts of racism, sexism, ageism and anyone who laughs at another for failing to understand their differences. We’ve already discussed this song in some detail on review no 48 (Stills II, again), so suffice to say that no one else’s blood boils as impressively as in Stephen Stills and nowhere does he sound as moved as on this song. But that was the original acoustic version – this recording is a later electric arrangement from the time when Manassas were toying round with ideas for going on tour. Despite what the sleeve notes say (‘it kicks ass’ says Stills), this is a song best kept to the stark, scary acoustic – played on electric with a band tacking onto a song they don’t really know as the opportunity arises as a minute-long fragment, this is a frustrating exercise in filler. And like racism and word games, filler on an album festers and grows, the grain left to carrion and crows.
‘Pensamiento’ is a forgotten Stills classic lurking on the poor-selling ‘Down The Road’ album. A Latin extravaganza that embellishes the coda to ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and sets the template for many classic Latin-style Stills songs to follow (Latin was big in the part of Texas where both Stills and percussionist Joe Lala were growing up, so it’s not as strange a choice as it might seem once he has players of Manassas’ eclecticism to hand), its a thrilling journey through several complex time changes handled with deft aplomb by the seven-piece band. ‘Tan Sola Y Triste’ is the first version of ‘Pensamiento, a lyric-less jam that lasts barely a minute (although whether this is an extract or whether that’s all it did last we don’t know and for once on this set the excellent sleeve-notes aren’t helpful) and, surprisingly, you miss the latin-language vocals more than you might expect. The trouble is, trimmed of its overdubs and un-decipherable lyrics this wondrous track now sounds like a jam and nothing more. Shorn of its focus and finishing touches all we have here is the basic track that got looped for the finished product – and, alas, its not that interesting on its own – especially to fans who are still trying to track the impossible-to-find original ‘finished’ version.
‘Fit To Be Tried’ is a slightly lazy, bluesy version of the very lazy blues song ‘Shuffle Just As Bad’ from 1975. This time around the lyrics are very different, after the first identical verse at least – the former ends up being about the spark of love taking place between lovers, the latter is more about when that spark ends. This ‘new’ version is described in the sleeve-notes as being the less ‘toned-down’ version of the two, mainly thanks to Stills’ wah-wah heavy guitar break and an ending that spins round and round further out of control instead of just crumpling on a fade-out as the finished version did. Thankfully this track really is different, which is exactly what you’d want from an outtakes set – unfortunately this is perhaps the most boring and ordinary song of any Stills had written up to that point.
‘Love And Satisfy’ is the weakest of Hillman’s three songs for his next project after Manassas, the Souther-Hillman-Furay band. A group even more ill-fated than Manassas, this ‘supergroup’ with singer J D Souther and Buffalo Springfielder Richey Furay also made two albums before calling it a day and never really gelled despite at least two classic songs: Furay’s ‘Believe Me’ and Hillman’s ‘Rise and Fall’, a song generally reckoned to be about the S-H-F band’s decline, despite the fact that it’s on their 1st album (could it actually be about Manassas’ winding down and falling apart? The first overlooked album is well worth looking out for Manassas fans - Hillman took Manassas’ pianist Paul Harris and steel guitarist Al Perkins with him when he left – although the second is pretty awful). ‘Love and Satisfy’ never really gets going as a song, despite some intriguing guitar work from Stills, a bar-room piano from Paul Harris, some harmonica from Hillman and a good attempt by the band to sound like the train that’s moving ‘right on down the line’ (I should have recorded it in last issue’s top five of train songs in fact). Stills’ guitar is easily the highlight of this track and this together with his backing vocals make this unfinished version a far better recording than the finished product, even if Hillman hasn’t quite got around to stretching this into a full song yet. Barely 2 minutes long, this is over before its begun but nice while it lasts.
‘High and Dry’ has an interesting history. A live favourite that was never recorded to Stills’ satisfaction, this is its first official appearance on record in any format and was originally created during a studio jam based on a Ray Charles version of a Doc Pumas song that came out sounding rather different. But was all the fuss worthwhile? Well, this is Stills in his blues persona, something fans have been asking for for decades, but even though the performance is thrilling enough as a song this is a weak substitute for other Manassas blues outings like ‘Jet Set Sigh’ and ‘Blues Man’. To me, Stills always sounded at his most convincingly raw and bluesy on acoustic where in the 70s his technical skills remained unmatched – on electric with a band behind him he seems to be less in touch with the raw part of his psyche. The song almost comes alive when it suddenly lurches out of its stupor into a 4/4 rock and roll beat, but as the song rights itself it also seems to lose much of its passion, with the band going through the motions for far too long before Stills gets going again on guitar. The band also take the curious choice of tacking on a recording of live applause at the song’s end – it might have sounded like a good idea on paper, but it’s easy to see why this track never made it out the vaults because the band are just drawing attention to why this recording doesn’t work – without the audience, without the spotlights, without the high stakes this song is just too obviously confined to a studio rehearsal room.
But suddenly the applause fades and we’re off to the wonderful world of the country. Well, I’m not one of country music’s biggest fans despite a soft spot for Johnny Cash and Mike Nesmith’s country recordings. For me the country section of the Manassas records/concerts was the bit where I got a cup of tea. Alas, the two extracts we have here – a wordless ‘Panhandle Rag’ and a cover of Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’ with violinist Byron Berline on vocals – are about as far removed from the Manassas sound as its possible to get. A namecheck for ‘Curly’ Hillman on mandolin aside, these early songs from the very first Manassas recordings could have been made by any anonymous band with country leanings. Lasting less than two minutes each, surely there was something better than these curious recordings to release from the vaults?
‘Do You Remember The Americans?’ was one of the unloved rushed tracks by Stills that infamously made it onto ‘Down The Road’ after pushing out better band material. The finished version was firmly in the pop bracket but this original recording is pure country – despite my reservations written above, this song does actually suit the country style better. Unfortunately, rattling off the lyrics at break-neck pace means that Stills runs out of them awfully quickly and, like many of the songs on this album, this is a minute long fragment rather than a novel recording in its own right. An odd, unlikeable song about how the young whippersnapper generation don’t have characters like the old days did and how the new multi-racial America doesn’t have the patience and kindness ‘real’ Americans show, it sits mighty uncomfortably after hearing the venom of ‘Word Gamer’. For years I assumed the finished product was a bad joke and sung tongue in cheek – but now I’ve heard the original it sounds pretty straight (‘Nowadays they just roll along looking kinda mean...four years overseas, who are these strangers in my home?’) Is this really by one of the pioneers of the 60s generation? Full credit to Hillman on mandolin, though, whose virtuoso performance salvages a rather odd song.
‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud Loud Music’ is another one of those awful failed country songs that people like Hillman in the Flying Burritos used to mangle horribly for a living. There’s nothing loud or atmospheric about this song or the sleepy recording that accompanies it, with this cover of a Joe Maphis song one of the worst things I have ever heard by anybody at any time. Nobody has a clue what they’re doing except for Hillman and he should have had the sense to recognise that this choice of material is woefully inferior compared to everything else Manassas ever did. Thank God this one stayed in the vaults back in 1973 – if only it could have stayed there I’d have been happy. Surely there’s better recordings out there than this?
‘I Am My Brother’ is a final fragmented unfinished Stills composition, but at long long last it finds the great songwriter reunited with his acoustic guitar. It doesn’t say so in the sleeve-notes, but this clearly an early version of ‘Manassas’ closing song ‘Blues Man’ with its lonely fragile goodbyes to the inspirations and friends that Stills had lost to the rock and roll lifestyle by 1973. Less focused than the final version and with far less of a tune, this is nevertheless a fascinating glimpse of Stills’ psyche, with seemingly ad libbed vocals like ‘now I’m lost now I’m alone without you brother’. Could it also be that this is yet another lost CSN song from the period when the four musicians weren’t getting on? Is this Stills worried about going it alone, little knowing that he was at the start of a series of sessions that would create Manassas? (I don’t buy the sleevenotes line about the band being ‘the sweet salvation of brotherhood’ either, this song sounds too early and fragile in the sessions for that). There’s also a fascinating line about ‘playing my last symphony to these empty walls’ – a line reminiscent of one from Stills II’s ‘Open Secret’, singing a symphony to an ‘empty room’. Frightened of losing his influence, with his powers waning, perhaps even afraid of dying unloved and unrecognised and alone like many of his best friends (Hendrix included), its interesting to see that this highly personal; song took such a different tack when it was finished. A fascinating little snippet of a song, this is Stills at his undiluted ghostly best, caught in the ‘witching hour’, playing whatever comes into his head.
If only there had been more snippets like that one this would have been a fascinating outtakes set, but as it is there are just too many throwaways or rehearsal takes or unfinished fragments to make this a satisfying or rounded listening experience. Far better would have been to have saved the best tracks, like ‘Witching Hour’, ‘Like A Fox’ and ‘I Am My Brother’ and added them to a CD release of the forgotten ‘Stolen Stills’ set, the general set of outtakes from all of Stills’ 70s albums that was being talked about as a follow-up to 1976’s ‘Illegal Stills’ and a few times thereafter. Package it up with some of the Jimi Hendrix/Stills collaborations (‘White Nigger’, the closest to a finished track, has been due for release by the Hendrix estate for a couple of years now and has leaked out on youtube) and the songs that Stills was working on in the late 80s before throwing in his lot with CSN for the ‘Live It Up’ album and you have the potential for the best CSN-anything album in 20 years. Instead what we’ve got is another record company compromise and, good as it is and excellent as sections of it remain, both Stills and Manassas deserve far more than that. ‘Pieces’ is a good name for a rarities set, yet it suits this one more than most: remnants of a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box, this is an album for die-hards only and doesn’t quite have the power to convert non-fans in the same way the two finished albums can. Still, three valid additions to the Stills canon are always welcome and I’d rather hear Stills on a poor day than most people on a good day. It does make you think, though, what else are Atlantic hiding in their vaults, waiting to be released by Rhino? And are they saving these gems for a Stephen Stills retrospective equally to the Crosby and Nash ones? Let’s hope so because the good stuff here really does give cause for a celebration if they do …