Monday, 10 August 2015
Stephen Stills "Illegal Stills" (1976)
Stephen Stills "Illegal Stills" (1976)
Buyin' Time/Midnight In Paris/Different Tongues/Soldier/The Loner//Stateline Blues/Closer To You/No Me Nieges/Ring Of Love/Circlin'
'The less you bet, stayin' in, the more you lose even when you win'
Psst buddy. Wanna buy a record? No it's not a bootleg, though some say perhaps it should have been and many fans reckon 'Illegal Stills' is more criminal. I feel I ought to be making some joke here about the record's famous front cover (the most inventive thing about it actually) with Stills' head plastered on a bottle of hooch with such great additives as 'A Strong blend' 'brewed in the Rockies' (where Stephen was living at the time) and '33 and a third proof' (the 'speed' of the record back at the time when vinyl records played at different sizes for different speeds). Even if they did miss the obvious: 'Not fizzy, but Stills'. You know the sort of thing: 'It's powerful stuff!' 'Alco-Pop!' 'The Booze Brothers' 'Stills is a Hooch-filled coochie blues man!' and on pretty much any other Stephen Stills album these terms would be highly fitting for the sort of bluesy heard-hitting rock Stills usually brings to the table (or on the other-hand his light touch with singalong pop songs). Instead the only one metaphors that really works are 'it's all a bit diluted' and 'don't listen to this album while operating heavy machinery'. Coming hard on the heels of one of the greatest extended runs of writing by anyone ever (between 1968 and 1975 Stills appeared on a grand total of nine studio albums, one of them a double) 'Illegal Stills' just sounds a little dry somehow, a little lacking in flavour and by Stills' usual standards this is actually a rather weak blend of what Stills can do when pushed - whatever it says on the sleeve. The sad fact is that 'Illegal Stills' could have with a little more brewing - and being a lot more 'illegal' (or at any rate slightly more 'dangerous'!)
That's where most of the review of this album end, kicking Stills when he's done and shaking our collective heads at the fact that after several years at the height of his powers Stills is now suddenly a washed-up with nothing left to say. While clearly a major step downwards from the wonderful and much under-rated first album on CBS (simply titled 'Stills' - you can tell how creative an album a Stills solo record is by how bland the name is!) 'Illegal Stills' is a step down from such massive heights that even a half-dose of the usual Stills spirit still packs more wallop than most period records. Though I was as disappointed as everyone else when I first bought this album (and it didn't help that I bought 'Stills' the same day which rather over-shadowed it!) I've actually come to respect if not quite like this album's laid-back groove which is less intense than the usual Stills formula but often as beautiful. Very little here is truly bad and much of it is charming - and still offers the sort of playfulness that few other singer-songwriters of the age were offering: Stills singing in French for his new French wife Veronique Sanson, another Latin language song, a rallying cry against another world recession, a song of support to a Vietnam Vet left dying and forgotten in a hospital ward and an acoustic blues. Only by Stills standards would such a collection seem bland or boring - perhaps we were just spoilt for too long by too many of the highest quality releases. Had this been as low as Stills' solo career had gone I'd have still been impressed - the problem is that most future LPs won't even fare this well (though I must confess to a soft spot for the unusual 'disco confessional' sequel 'Thoroughfare Gap').
After all, talent never just disappears overnight (although later Stills records 'Right By You' and 'Man Alive' gave it a very good go!) Like 'Stills' it's lovely to hear Stephen in such a loved-up frame of mind for once and pouring out love songs without the stings in the tails or the soul-bearing that goes with his usual heart-broken love songs; the trouble is that without that tension taking place in his life Stills just can't find any to bring to his music anymore and too much of this records soars where in the old days it would have pounced and spat out feathers while veering from one emotional extreme to another. Without the fire burning in Stills to push the envelope as far as it will go (because, after all, what else was there for Stephen to do after playing to the biggest crowds in history as part of CSNY in 1974?) Stills finds himself sounding more and more like every other artist around in 1976 (this is easily the most Leo Sayer/John Denver/Eagles of solo CSNY LPs, soft rock that's offensive in its very inoffensiveness). However it's hard to put your finger on what doesn't work. Though Stills himself admitted to being disappointed in the album afterwards and reckoned he didn't work hard enough on it compared to past records that isn't actually the problem - it's all well played, often exquisitely song (this is the end of the period when Stills can really sing like an angel, rather than an angel whose been out on the booze with lots of cigarettes) and the production is excellent and sumptuous, multi-layered and carefully planned (though a little more raw grit wouldn't have gone amiss). The songs too aren't bad as songs - a little too heavy on the love theme perhaps but 'Buyin Time' and 'Soldier' in particular are credible and brave on paper, rallying cries in the old CSNY 'town crier' tradition which suggest that even if Stills did write this album while staying at home as a family man, at least he was reading the paper. No the problem seems to have come from the two together - this production and the slick performances are great on the love songs, but there are just too many of them for variety's sake. Equally hearing the songs that ought to stand out played with the same levelled production values as the other songs means that even the songs that deserve to stabnd out don't. You only have to compare 'Buyin' Time' (which was clearly written in an evil mood - 'America the dream is lost and it's killing me and you!') - with what CSNY would have done with the song years earlier, teeth bared and gnashing as if this was the most important thing in the world; Stills just sounds as if he's venting his anger before heading back to read the rest of his paper quietly. Equally Stills' second cover of his partner Neil Young's songs (attacked as sabotage but actually done as a 'favour' to keep his old friend's work in the public eye during his slight fall from grace in the mid 70s and the 'doom trilogy') 'The Loner' shows off everyone of Stills' talents in turn (it's wildly inventive, has a completely new riff, a singalong chorus, a much more 'organised' construction and a passionate lead vocal and strong guitar solo-ing) except one: the passion and authenticity that Neil brought to his original version (on his debut album 'Neil Young' in 1968 - how I'd have loved to have heard a 'Buffalo Springfield' era version of this tune with the best of both worlds!)Equally, even with the language barrier, you can tell that earlier 'Latin' songs like 'Pensamiento' and 'Guacanga De Vera' clearly mean something to Stills by the way he attacks them; 'No Me Nieges' could have been about anything the way Stills sings it here (actually it's another of his more revealing lyrics, certainly for this album - as most of Stills' lyrics that need a translator tend to be - about how Stills needs to be 'misunderstood' or both halves of a relationship will be left 'alone and crying'; the literal translation is 'I Do Not Snow' so make of that what you will!) Also there's a cracking song in 'Circlin' somewhere, with some great edgy harmonics work, some snarling guitar work on a riff that stalks its prey like a wolf and a witty lyric about finding yourself repeating the same old bad habits - but also a much repeated Eurovision-style chorus that just takes all the 'juicy bits' out of the songs ('Illegal Stills' appears to have been put through a stariner before being put back in the bottle).
Perhaps the ultimate reason 'Illegal Stills' 'fails' as a solo Stills record is that it's not really a Stills solo record at all. There's a joke amongst fans that this is instead 'Donnie Dacus' best solo record', which is a witticism so spot-on I wish I'd come up with it. Donnie was a Los Angeles guitarist that Stills had befriended during the late Buffalo Springfield years after his band The Yellow Payges played support with them at a Beach Boys show. Stills must have been struck by how similar Donnie was to the Springfield's Richie Furay - he was straightforward, could sing really well and had a composing style that was uncomplicated and easy to connect to (whereas even back then Stills tended to go for the 'epic'). Figuring that CSNY would never get back together again after their heavy split of 1974 (much more serious than most of their previous splits had been) and with Manassas having split for good in 1973, Stills may have been looking for his own mini-Springfield to put together to take out on the road (though with Stills very much in charge this time, without the clashes that came from working with Neil Young). Dacus (seen with Stills on the back cover, just to underline how crucial he was to this record) was undoubtedly talented as adds some lovely harmonies to this record, sweetening the edges of Still's voice and co-writing some of the better tracks with his new friend. The pair clearly have a blend and a bond and it's a shame for both of them they never worked together again (Instead Dacus joined the cast of Hair and one of the last line-ups of Chicago in 1978, when Stills went back to working with Neil later in the year and - against all the odds - CSN the year after). However there's a line crossed somewhere along the way which makes fans a little uncomfortable. Donnie doesn't just sing a bit when he's needed - he's there nearly all the flipping time, even taking the lead vocals on songs like 'Midnight In Paris' 'Closer To You' and 'Ring Of Love'. Having heard some of his other songs (though there aren't that many out there) it also seems fair to say that the songs he wrote with Stills have much more of a Dacus flavour than a CSN one: respectable, likeable, sometimes beautiful but in truth not that memorable. Had Stills been starting out as a fellow young wannabe this partnership could have worked well - but after hearing Stills working in tandem with such names as Furay, Crosby Nash and Young nearly anyone would sound like a come-down. It doesn't help either that Dacus seems to be doing most of the donkey-work on this album, with Stills content to add a few bits and pieces and pass on his knowledge and words of wisdom to his younger, hungrier friend rather than light the way. Stills may have his name and likeness on the brew of the bottle label but he's just the 'brandname' on this record, the same way that Ronald McDonald doesn't really cook all the burgers at McDonalds (or at least he doesn't at mine - I looked and anyway clown shoes would be a hazard in a fast food chain) and the same way that half the celebrities using L'oriel actually have really posh hairdressers they go to every week and they really aren't worth it at all.
Perhaps that's also the reason why, unlike almost every other Stills record solo or otherwise, there isn't really a theme at work here. Or at least actually there's several: Stephen in love, Stephen gets cross and Stephen feels guilty, with 'The Loner' somehow joining all three. But that's kind of the problem here - at his best Stills is one of the most dazzling multi-layered writers going. There are so many layers at work in a song like 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' that it would take me a whole other book to unravel them all and something tells me even then I wouldn't get close to what Stills really meant the day he wrote it. Love in the Stephen Stills world is frightening yet fascinating, repelling yet compelling, full of the greatest joys that life has to bring and biggest deepest chasms when something goes wrong. On this album love is what hangs in the air when you visit Paris (something of a cliché, that), where true happiness is a 'ring of love, surrounding you and me' (again not the most original thought in the world) and a 'pot of gold with a silver lining' (the blues-song-that-isn't 'Stateline Blues') which is surely true only if you happen to own a lot of anonymous MOR 1970s singer-songwriter albums and/or are a pixie (who said the artist formerly known as Prince first then, I heard you!) We've heard Stills pour his heart out so many times, agonising over his mistakes and guilty over his indiscretions and a whole album in 1975 of how much he longed to be a daddy and yet feared being up to the task that it's rather a jolt to be back in a world where love is all nice, all the time (with the exception of 'No Me Neigas', the only song that point to something deeper - though even then, typically, Stills hides it behind a translated lyrics only a few of his fans ever understood in the days before the internet and dodgy translator apps). Even the songs where Stills gets cross - the slow burn of 'Soldier' and the fiery rant of 'Buyin' Time' only sound angry to the same sort of extent that singer-songwriters usually get angry; this is a member of CSNY for heaven's sake, then band who used the word 'passionate' more times than a Masterchef contestant about to go out in the first round.
As for the cover of 'The Loner' that just shows up what's 'missing' from this album - Neil's lyric is elusive, fragmented, confusing. Even after hundreds of playings I'm not quite sure what it means - and yet at the same time I do because the emotion of the performance is so clear: this is a man whose hurting and doesn't quite understand himself why he has to be so separate from people, even at the cost of his own happiness. Stills 'gets' his partner's work better than just about anyone else around (they have much more in common than people think - which is why they fight as much as they do) - but Stills is one of those people who 'forgets' an emotion he isn't currently feeling and is too authentic to fake: this would have been a killer cover song to do in an earlier period when Stephen felt as equally afraid and lonely and distant as Neil did in 1968 when writing this; but in 1976 loneliness is a distant memory and this record can't come close to matching the intensity of the original, even if technically speaking it's probably better arranged and performed. You wonder why Stills chose it when he did - surely 'I've Been Waiting For You' 'I've Loved Her So Long' or even 'Heart Of Gold' would have been a better choice at this point in Stephen's life. That lack of intensity is what's most costly about this record overall in fact - good as all the ingredients are this bottle just doesn't have a strong enough flavour and however good the method, however worthy the ideas, however carefully the ingredients have been picked if there's no taste there's no real point. Even at his worst and most provocative Stills was never an ordinary singer-songwriter up until this point - he always had something up his sleeve, a little bit of emotion or a stunning complex twist right where you least expected it; this record isn't bad it just plays things so safe it never gets a chance to show off how much Stills can do. 'Illegal Stills' isn't anywhere close to being illegal or even illicit, that's it's problem (though 'Bland Stills' probably wouldn't have sold as many copies to be fair).
It's worth reminding you, though, that this poor little record really isn't bad. Reading some of the reviews of this record, both at the time and in the decades since, you'd have thought Stills had burnt the American flag upside down whilst pledging his allegiance to the Spice Girls the amount of flack he's taken about this record. Honestly it's not that bad - it's a lot better than the horrific over-produced 'Right By You' (which actually has some promising songs you just don't get to hear) and the even more horrific under-written 'Man Alive' (which has some truly terrible songs, however well intended or well performed) and a lot less boring than 'Stills Alone'. There's nothing here likely to give you a headache or bore you to tears like that trio of unfortunate records to come - it's just that instead of a fiery Stills we get one that fizzles (Hey 'Fizzle Stills' - there's a better name for it!) Heard individually you can really see the worth in the individual songs that gets lost when heard all together (this is another of those CSN solo records weaker than the sum of it's parts) - 'Buyin' Time' is restless and troubled, like a cloud hanging over the rest of the record of bad times to come if people don't take heed an do something soon; 'Soldier' is a gloriously biting song about one of Stills' favourite subjects, abandoned Vietnam Vets who went from heroes to zeros in the eyes of the American public even though it wasn't often their choice to declare war (the idea of the soldiers fighting a harder, tougher war when they get home is well handled, with Stills' anger menacing rather than biting for once); 'Midnight In Paris' may be a clichéd song in the extreme, but it's a clichéd song by a songwriter who has every trick of the trade at his fingertips and is both pretty and smart; the dreamy 'Different Tongues' fails only compared to past glorious Stills orchestral weepies - it still has a certain power and charisma behind it's romantic outpourings and pleadings for honesty and a sharpness that (just about) cuts through the lush backing; 'Closer To You' has a delicious organ part and a lyric that sounds as if it at least started as a decent song, full of another favourite Stills theme about 'hiding' your real self behind a 'reserve', 'within walls'; finally 'Circlin' ought to sound grand - there's a terrific riff, a strong band performance and the central theme about messing up yet again has led to some real triumphs in the past - the fact that it just sits there and doesn't do anything shouldn't get in the way of the fact that the ingredients for a great song are there - it's just that the chef forgot to turn the oven on so they never coalesce (or, if you like, the malt-in-a-bucket-about-to-become-beer tastes great, but mother nature hasn't mixed the ingredients together yet). If this album had received the greatest plaudits of Stills' career then no doubt I'd have been scratching my head the other way (and personally mailing everyone I could find a copy of 'Stephen Stills Manassas' as proof of how great Stills could be) - but given that everyone hates this album's guts (dregs?) I simply can't bottle it up any longer: there's a lot of great music here, not just as great and not as much of it as was there in the past. After so many past successes an album as so-so as 'Illegal' was always going to struggle (it would be a different story if Stills were to release something this good now I fear), but it is a vintage that's aged particularly well (remember time is only water that we drink) and may be worth revisiting after all.
'Buyin' Time' is the album in a nutshell. I love this little song which is so Stills, tying up a lyric that's despairing and depressed and is throwing in the towel while the music can't resist being happy, forcing the music on to the warmth of a classic singalong chorus that only Stills can write. It's very of its times too, both celebrating the fact that Nixon is gone out the White House and that American youth has 'won', whilst simultaneously telling us that it's not over yet - that there's still so much work to do. Recorded two recessions ago, Stills' lyric sounds shocked - how can a country so rich and powerful ever fall on such hard times? - whilst using the witty metaphor of the lending and borrowing doing nothing to solve the actual problem, merely 'buying time' until we end up going through this whole cycle all over again (Stills feels compelled to compare it to recessions past too - 'It happened once before you know in 1932 - but now there's so many more of us!') Stills sounds to me as if he's reaching back further than a mere capitalist diatribe here though and is commenting on the 'death' of the 60s dream despite all the victories taking place in the age: he even starts the song off by quoting from the Loving Spoonful whose hippie songs of 1965 in many ways started the hippie era ('Unless you believe in magic - there ain't much that youy can do' he sighs), peaking with the aggressive line 'America the dream is lost - and it's killing me and you!' The backing half-supports this, with the weary shrug of a great organ part from Jerry Aiello and a Latin America salsa of the sort Stills always did so well, caught somewhere between gospel and blues, which is restless and fiery, swaying about this way and that throughout the song as if trying to take control back by swiping at the main heavy rock beat. But it never quite does - instead the momentum of a capitalist system is too strong and the song just keeps trundling on like it always does, with no changes made. That all results in a terrific song - but sadly it makes for a lousy recording as - the organ and piano part aside - there's just no life to this track, which sinks under the weight of a top heavy performance and a chorus harmony that comes with ready-made cheesy grins that are just 'wrong' for this song. Had Manassas performed it, with all their genre-bending, salsa-loving funky rhythms 'Buyin' Time' would be stupendous - instead your heart sinks as you realise that this is the closest that 'Illegal Stills' ever comes to a 'classic'. Still, overlook this song at your peril - it's a bit of a breakthrough for Stills in this period.
As, in a rather different sense, is 'Midnight In Paris. This song is Stills at his most dewy-eyed and love-lorn, his most openly naked love song without any of the usual 'you make it hard' style twists and turns. His wife Veronique was French and - Europhile as he was at the time - much of their courtship took place in Paris, the 'city of love' (though from my experience the 'city of high prices' might be closer to the mark). Stills slightly alters his career tradition of singing his most open lyrics he doesn't want anyone to hear in a foreign language - but this time it's a lovey dovey verse written in pidgin-French for his new bride (That second verse in full: 'We waited for months, I came from afar, I will tell you about music if you tell me about you, if you want to feel how real this is then dance with me, we'll open another bottle...' or something like that anyway, thanks to Le Allan's Le Musique Archiver and their mascot Le Maxamillion Le Chant Chien for the translation!) However, this being Stills he can't quite bring himself to see the world from another person's perspective totally and if you took the lyrics away this would sound like another of those Stills Latin songs, with a slightly slower variation on his usual rhythms that suddenly explode into a funky samba in the chorus. He also can't quite write this sort of a song, which is where co-writer Donnie Dacus enters in earnest, singing the entire first verse without warning (so that the first time you hear this song you're busy checking the label to check they haven't printed the vinyl up with the wrong album) and the song is much closer to his natural laidback mellow groove than Stills' usual more restless, energetic style. Stills puts on a good show - as he says in his ever entertaining sleevenotes for his solo albums it took hours of painstaking work to get the French pronunciation right, though he still sounds a tad uncomfortable - but once again the track isn't quite as loose and flamboyant as it should be. After all this is Paris, the city where anything should goes - but Stills sounds as if he's stuck in Luton, with a stiff and heavy performance where again Jerry Aiello on piano fares best. This song also contains one of the either best or worst lines of Stills' career depending on what mood you're in: 'I'm a little funky, been wearing out my shoes - but don't mean anything unless I'm dancing with you!', although some of the other English lyrics are better, Stills backing in the glow of ordinary moments, sheltering with his beloved in a French park 'while the rain came down'. The very Stills line that he's 'wound up like a clock that's too tight' as he waits for his beloved to appear, lost in a strange foreign land where he feels very self-conscious is a great opening to any song and would perhaps have made a better composition than the rather puppy love lyrics of the bulk of this track.
The dreamy 'Different Tongues' picks up on the same mood - Stills still feels out of place in the world of his new wife but it doesn't matter because love can overcome the language barrier. However, Stills is more concerned about something deeper, the doubts and fears and darker side that always seems to scupper his more intense relationships in the past. The language barrier is just a smokescreen really - what he's concerned about isn't whether his wife can understand what he says but what he means, what drives him and where he's coming from. Stills is often at his best when he's at his most vulnerable and he's rarely been more vulnerable than here with a lyric that on the one hand says 'well you ought to know me well enough by now' and on the other acknowledges that he can't expect others to know him when he doesn't even understand himself yet. A lovely string arrangement flows in from nowhere to make this the most passionate, delicate love song since 'To A Flame' six years earlier (both share a similar melody too) - but alas yet again that's where the comparisons end. You just knew on that song that Stills meant every line and every turn of the strings cut like a knife. The recording of 'Different Tongues' is merely lovely-dovey and that's not anywhere near as convincing. Stills also uncharacteristically chickens out of going all the way after his excellent opening, turning the song into yet another romantic love poem where he gets upset at the thought of being 'all alone' and a rather patronising lyric where he suggests to his lover that asking for help like this is a good thing and she ought to try it sometime (knowing Stills she's been crying out for help too but he's been too busy turning his own into 'art' to listen!) The result, then, is a slightly uncomfortable listen, with a production that again is a little heavy and weighty for what should be a delicate feather of a song and a growl of a vocal that doesn't come close to expressing just how personal this song was to Stills - but there's a highly promising song underneath it all that too often gets written off.
'Soldier' is another of the album highlights, a song that starts off mocking to another salsa beat before suddenly growing into a heartfelt assault as Stills' heart bleeds for the very same veterans CSNY once tried so hard to bring back home without fighting. Stills consider the young strong men sent to fight as the archetypal American hero - brave, brawny and dashing - with the wrecks he's seen of veterans sent home, phsyically and mentally scarred for life. Where the world once seemed at their feet, now they're just 'stuck in a hospital ward, living in a wheelchair'. Stills reckons the Vietnam war was 'easy' - they were told where to shoot and didn't have to think and thought they had the backing of their country. The real 'war' starts now, struggling to overcome the changes in their lives alone in a world that simply doesn't trust them anymore. The chorus cries out 'soldier soldier', usually the rallying cry that means the cavalry are coming to help and it's all going to be ok - but the cry falls eerily on an uncomfortable note that shouldn't be here and the realisation hits you: this time the soldiers are lone and no one is there to rush to their aid. 'Was anybody with you when you felt your body die?' challenges Stills, 'The shell of a man' that the authorities 'hide; because it's bad for their propaganda. Like much of the album, a slightly sluggish performance doesn't offer the power that Stills on his peak form might have delivered and once more Jerry Aiello's wonderfully mocking jazz chords are the highlight of the backing track, but this time things are better for two important reasons. One is that this song suits being so claustrophobic and weighty - the other is that Stills turns in a stunning guitar solo (rare for this album) which ratchets up the tension nicely, starting as a whisper and growing into an angry snarl that hurls itself at the walls of its musical prison before sinking, wearily, back down to Earth again. This song is clearly a step under a song like 'For What It's Worth' on a similar theme, but the most reluctant political writer of CSNY had a real way with songs like this, speaking up on behalf of the underdogs, and this is a much overlooked song from Stills' canon.
Side one ends with the rather busy re-make of colleague Neil's 'The Loner'. The major differences are a whole new riff (which Stills, whose only just moved from England, compares to the theme tune to TV show 'Crossroads', though it doesn't really sound like that to me) which is to Stills what the original was to Young: it's brittle, relentless and far more rocky, getting by through sheer turbulence and power whereas Neil's is more piercing and goes straight to the jugular. The mass harmonies and salsa rhythms also turn this into much more of a 'brotherly' song than Neil's version from 1968, which sounds almost proud about the title character's ability to remove himself from the influence of all people. The difference too is that between the music styles of the two eras: Stills' version borders on noisy for the soft rock year of 1976 whereas it still pales in comparison to the rootsier year of 1968 (for which Neil actually doesn't go as far as some of his peers might have done at the time). The cover should work - the main thing that Stills and Young have in common is a sense of vulnerability and a mixed ability at social interactions (a similar shyness that's solved by Stills by taking charge and by Young by staying away and leaving when things get messy - he's definitely an #INFJ in the Myers-Briggs types with the loudest and most thorough 'door slams' of them all, whereas Stills reads more like an ENFP, opposites but not by too much). Neil sounds at times as if he genuinely hates people and would much rather be on his own - Stills though just mis-reads and mis-understands them and needs the social interaction (that's perhaps why he keeps returning to CSNY but Neil rarely does) which of course changes the tone of a song like this one. When Stills sings 'step aside, open wide - it's the loner' in his own head he may be opening the door for Neil, looking at it from the outside in and offering a hand of friendship to a friend whose only now beginning to slowly get back on his feet (that offer will backfire, though, with the ill-fated and quickly dissolved Stills-Young Band getting together mere weeks after this record's release date). Many fans say that they hate this cover because it shows such blatant disregard for Neil's original, or to some of the 'Crazy Horse over CSN' cronies it's evidence of why CSNY were never as good as Neil's other band. However I like this cover version a lot which does exactly what a good cover song should do, looking at the song afresh from an entirely new perspective without losing complete touch with the original sentiment. However in this case the original is still very much best.
Onto side two, which isn't quite as strong as the first. Stills opens with an acoustic blues song which is normally a place where he'd excel. But 'Stateline Blues' sounds like the sort of thing The Eagles would call 'the blues', it's a quick stepping finger-snapping blues with a daft lyric about a gamblin' man (Fancy Dan) whose always coming up trumps. The narrator looks on aghast as Fancy Dan keeps betting his money, sure from experience that his luck's going to run out sometime and he's bound to come a cropper, but amazingly he never does. It's hard to know what Stills meant by this curio track - was it written as a joke? A homage to old blues days? or just a finger exercise to keep his playing in shape? At a fraction under two minutes it's one of Stills' shorter songs and the fact that most of those two minutes is taken up the repetitive chorus 'a pot of gold and a silver lining' (repeated six times within those two minutes - every twenty seconds or so, even the worst jingles don't do that!) It's nice to hear Stills stripped down to the basics and his acoustic playing is as good as ever even if his vocal sounds a tad distracted - but ironically just as the album's production sorts itself out the song isn't worth the effort invested into it! Also, why is this song a 'blues'? It's certainly the happiest on this album!
The sweeping Aiello organ and samba beats that dominate this album are back again on 'Closer To You', which starts with a whole verse of Donnie Dacus before Stills finally gets to sing on his own song. My guess is that Donnie wrote the generic verses ('Have you seen the ;ladies passing by? They don't seem to notice that I'm lonesome and I cry!') and Stills the grittier chorus which again returns to the distances between people (the much more desperate sounding 'I just want to be closer to you - I don't want to be alone!') It's the single best chorus on the album and features a very Stills combination of bluesy guitar, latin rhythms, flamenco flourishes and a gospel organ and yet still ends up turning out rather rock and roll ish. There are some lovely moments across this track - the moment the chorus sweeps back in quieter, sadder and slower after the solo as if Stills is saying 'no, really - that was just the pop trappings to get this song on the radio, I do mean this!' is one of the best moments on the record. But there aren't enough of them and once again only Jerry on that overworked organ part sounds as if he got the memo about what the song is really about, circling the other almost dementedly happy players with a swirling cloud of sorrow that's about to sweep the lovers off their feet the minute they lose touch with what they really feel. Stills also gets in another dig at capitalism in the second verse (the second half of this song sounds like an entirely different song in fact), where 'bright lights are shining in front of me - but all I see at night is clockwork deception'; that removing yourself from a society that tells you making money is the only reason to live gives you a chance to see how much more life has to offer. Stills has a 'positive energy' by the third verse, having recharged his batteries (in Paris?) and is ready to pass on the 'message' of what life is really about all over again (though typically Stills calls for life to 'bring on the ladies' rather than both genders!) Like much on this album there's a great song in here somewhere but it seemed to get kind of lost in translation (which is kind of apt for a song about getting lost in translation when you think about it!)
'No Me Neiges' is the most Latin song on perhaps Stills' most overtly Latin album as he returns to the music of his youth to pour out his heart on a song that veers from English to Spanish throughout. As ever with Stills and his foreign languages, he appears to be pouring his heart out - though the title is in French (and translates as 'No Snow On Me', weirdly) as if to point out that this is yet another song written in Veronique's direction. However much of this song is in Spanish and translates as follows: And if you do not understand me, I'll leave you alone and crying, And what you get what you happened, As dear or not as you may want, Do not let me miserable, And if you come from your heart we still can feel, Listen to me listen my dear love, and we pair will feel love throughout our lives (our thanks to our Spanish sister site Hallano's Musica Archivo - our thanks to their special mascot Maxa Da Canto Perro for this translation!) Stills is already worried about a relationship that seemed so perfect just a year and an album before (sadly the marriage won't last and will be all over by 1978) and sounds like one of those 'daggers drawn' flamenco flourishes rather than the introspective doubt-ridden songs that usually make up Stills' Latin lyrics. Stills basically declares that he'll never ever turn away so she's stuck with him and had better learn how to cope with him good and bad. 'It may not mean much to you'# he sniffs huffily, but it clearly means a lot to him. Though not a match for other similar Stills songs in the Latin vein - it's all a bit closer to what other songs in this vein sound like ie Ricky Martin without Stills' own characteristics thrown in the melting point - it's another song that might have sounded great recorded for any other album but this one; here it just all sounds a bit wet. For once Stills is great on form with his lyrics - it's another one you can understand just from the passion of his singing - but the rest of the band don't quite 'get' it and even the reliable Jerry is hopelessly miscast on this song with a sweeping string synth string part that's icky and not all part of the very real drama unfolding on this song. Stills talks in the sleevenotes about how proud he was that the bunch of musicians nailed all the beats but to me that's what ruins this song - the band are at least a take away from playing this song fluently and by Stills standards muck up every '#full stop' the music has to offer. Me No Comprende.
'Ring Of Love' is one of the weaker album tracks too. This is effectively a Donnie Dacus solo piece, with Stills only popping up on the chorus and it's a clichéd song about love gone bad and then gone good. Everything's going to be fine now, though, because everyone is surrounded by a 'ring of love' that will protect them forevermore, which suggests the pair have been listening to a bit too much of Johnny Cash. There's a chorus that stands out from the verse simply by virtue of not doing what you think it will (staying on the aggressive 'push' long past the point most songwriters would have gone back to the verse, like the terrific rush of adrenalin at the end of Manassas song 'It Doesn't Matter' and almost certainly Stills' contribution, alongside the characteristic 'boom...dum dur da dum' drum riff that follows). However too much of this song is just 70s singer-songwriter schlock about a couple falling in love so hard they'll never fall out of it again, which Stills can usually do better standing on his head. It sounds rather like wishful thinking too given the torture of the other lyrics on the album. Apparently Dacus didn't want to sing lead on this song but Turtles stalwarts Flo and Eddie (who appear on loads of 70s albums including 'All Things Must Pass') were hanging round the studio and talked him into it while Stills looked on, adding the hard-to-hear lower harmony part.
'Illegal Stills' needs a strong closer and Stills was characteristically worries that he didn't have one, until late on in the album sessions Stills feverishly wrote a first draft of 'Circlin', later finishing it off with the help of bass player Kenny Passerelli (who happened to turn up for work early that day). Recorded afresh when most of the usual musicians for this album had been sent home, it's a song that could have been another great one - especially if performed 'as live' like Stills at his best usually is. However, once again 'Circlin' is a song that's intriguing rather than powerful, with an arrangement that switches too quickly between the funky verses with some delightful philosophy about doing things over and over because you haven't learnt to overcome your mistakes ('There's very few that can face themselves or each other alone') and the singalong poppy chorus that seems very out of place ('Feet where are you going when you're circlin?') Sensing that he's treading on established territory, Stills even quotes from Joni Mitchell's 'Circle Game' at one stage which raises an interesting point - is this song not just about Stephen and Veronique but possibly about Stephen and Graham Nash? (That's who Joni wrote her song for, after the pair's split in 1971). Stills introduces the song by addressing...someone ('Can I tell you a story?' before adding self-deprecatingly 'It ain't too long') before turning in a lyric about being sorry for past bad behaviours. The performance too leaves much to be desired, with guitars in the left right and middle apparently turning up at random and only Passarelli's nicely funky bass adds a touch of menace to a song that badly needs it. However, what could have been a great guilty rant ends up becoming just another flimsy pop song which is such a shame - even more than normal for this album this is the 'one that got away' and for once on these style of songs the fact that the song structure is caught in a 'trap' where one leads always to the other in an endless circle isn't clever so much as irritating - these parts need to come from two entirely separate songs!
Sadly an album that to some extent is just treading water by Stills' standards ends with the far from positive message 'I'm just circlin'. That's this album in a nutshell, Stills repeating old ideas without having as many new ones as usual. However Stills' ideas from the past were always so strong and the few new additions to his repertoire show so much promise that I'm always sad when I see 'Illegal Stills' written off by fans. No it's not Stills' best moment by a million miles and it's far from an album where everything works, but there's some truly excellent moments scattered across this album and some songs that had they been recorded in a different way with a different set of musicians could easily have become amongst Stills' best loved. Not that the problem lies with the band either or the production per se - it's a standard glossy production for the time and there's nothing here that's badly played - it's just that this set of songs doesn't go with this album's texture and the two together shows up the album's weaknesses rather than its strengths. The result is an album that surely isn't strong enough to be the 33 and a third proof promised on the front cover and a brew that needed to go back into the airing cupboard or the distillery for a bit longer, at times too bitter and at others too sweet. But it's a beverage worth returning to and trying again for several reasons: out of loyalty to the old 'brand', out of an understanding that compared to modern productions this actually does sound funkier and grittier than it ever did at the time and because back in 1976 we were so spoilt by first-class Stills releases that anything less than perfect seemed like a giant come-down. Even on auto-pilot, even with a 'guest' singer-songwriter doing so much of the work and even on an album filled with more average songs than before in his solo career, Stills had so much natural talent pulsing though him at the time that there's still more to love about this album than hate. It's not really illegal, not even criminal - it's just not potent enough to get you as drunk as the other stuff.