Monday, 17 March 2014
David Crosby "Croz" (2014)
What's Broken?/Time I Have/Holding On To Nothing/The Clearing/Radio/Slice Of Time/Set That Baggage Down/If She Called/Dangerous Night/Morning Falling/Find A Heart
'Croz' is what you might call a rare treat. We don't get CSN solo albums very often these days (the last was the Stills solo 'Man Alive!' nine years ago) - heck we don't get CSN/Y albums very often these days either come to think of it (a live album in 2008, a studio album as long ago as 1999) - so this is actually the first new CSN-related studio album to review in this website's lifetime and quite a big day for me. What's more it's Crosby's first solo record in 21 years which wasn't that far past the point when I first became addicted to his music: just think how long ago that was and remember how different the world was 21 years ago (no Oasis, no Belle and Sebastian, no real boy or girl bands and - thank goodness - no Spice Girls!) It's been quite a couple of decades for Crosby as well: he's nearly died several times over, got married for the first time, had a second child and re-discovered the first who was given up for adoption pre-Byrds in 1964. As you'd expect, this album sounds completely different to the three past solo albums, which were themselves all very different: 1971's haunting 'I'd Swear There Was Somebody There' inspired by the death of girlfriend Christine Hinton and was effectively the start of the dark days to come; 1989's courageous 'Oh Yes I can!', largely written in prison while Crosby was recovering from a drug intake that Justin Bieber can only dream of and 1993's singalong 'A Thousand Roads', a covers-led album inspired by Crosby's close friends Phil Collins.
In truth, this fourth solo album sounds more like a CPR album mark three - the long-delayed follow-up to those 1990s albums made with guitarist Jeff Pevar and pianist James Raymond, the very son Crosby gave up for adoption in the sixties. CPR never sold that well (more because we fans couldn't get hold of them than any lack of quality - the studio albums never did come out in Europe properly). The emphasis of the album is on survival, the hard way, full of lyrics that at least trey to cut a shade deeper than Crosby's lyrics with the 'mothership' of CSNY and with a lighter, more delicate sound. Jeff is missing this time around, his writing and producing role on this album filled by Daniel Garcia and the guitarist's role by Marcus Eaton, but James has at least an equal role here to his dad's and it's clear that had any other circumstances been available to Crosby and co this record would have been a CPR (or at least a CGER) album. That's just as well because the two have always had a remarkable blend and the same slightly offbeat sense of writing, the pair sharing a similar set of musical heroes despite the fact that Raymond only found out who his parents were in middle age. Just as with Crosby's most recent work (the unfairly neglected duo album 'Crosby*Nash'), Raymond deserves at least co-billing, putting at least as much effort into this record (he even gets his own 'thanks' list at the end, which is a sweet gesture of Crosby's about how much this is a joint album).
Even by Crosby's standards, it's been a painful few years. Unbelievably the guitarist is still paying off back taxes from his 'rebel runaway' days when he was either spending all his money on drugs or was in prison and you sense that the singer has only stayed afloat thanks to the generous gift of Graham Nash, who bought the rights to his friend's songs but made sure his partner still got all the royalties. Reduced to living in a tiny house with a battered second-hand car, Crosby needs to work which is why his face has appeared on every 'talking head' music documentary recently and why he's never toured as hard in his life, whichever band he's been in. By rights Crosby should be enjoying the peak sales of a CSN album now, but Atlantic - the label that always considered them the jewel in their crown - shockingly dropped them in the mid-1990s and it's been a hard road since, recording only when Neil Young deigns to get involved. A planned CSN 'covers' project with Rick Rubin - the producer who dug Johnny Cash out of a similar hole when he was dropped by Columbia after 40 years - sadly fell apart and the band have since scattered. Plan B would presumably have been to record a fifth Crosby-Nash record, but poor sales and some terrible (and unwarranted criticism) seem to have put paid to that too (Nash ended up writing his autobiography 'Wild Tales' instead). CPR didn't sell many copies even in the better record market of the 1990s. So here we are with Plan D, released with crossed fingers during a recession that's hit the album market like never before.
Considering the difficulties behind the making of this album, it's amazing how wonderful it is in all the ways you wouldn't necessarily expect. Few albums Crosby's been involved with have ever been as well produced as this one, where you can hear every note of the guitar parts and the harmonies float by in 3D. The performances on the record are sublime, despite the fact that the ad-hoc band featured here are all new apart from Raymond, Crosby and a couple of bass parts by Leland Sklar (who last played with Croz in 1976). Hearing this album you'd assume that an awful lot of money and time had been thrown at it - but no, according to the interviews around the album it was recorded in James' home studio built in his garage, with his dad spending the night on the couch after working on it, hurriedly, between projects. The album sounds very much as if it 'belongs' this way - far from sounding like CSN rejects, there's a very particular sound to this record that's unique and all the songs fit together remarkably well. Best of all Crosby's voice is extraordinarily undimmed despite all those years of hard living and in contrast to Stills' sadly now hoarse and weather-worn voice (even if I enjoy it more than most fans) this record sounds like it could have been recorded at any time during the past 50 years.
However, regular readers will know that when I use this tone of voice is because there's a 'but' coming. I've tried to procrastinate as long as I can so that you've all flocked out and bought the album already, because then I won't feel so guilty and there's a lot riding on this album. You see, if it does well we can still prove to the world's record labels that CSN - together and apart - are financially viable and we can look forward to a much happier decade all round, hopefully with Crosby back to the comfortable state he richly deserves. If it doesn't then I fear it may well be the last non-archive CSN release (thankfully just before writing this the album had reached an impressive #31 on the UK chart - not up to the good old days, of course, but still the fifth highest position any AAA-related album has made in six years of writing this site). It's not as if procrastinating telling you anything terrible either - 'Croz' isn't by any means a 'bad' record and there isn't a single weak track on it. Whole careers have been built on lesser achievements than this record. Given the circumstances I'm amazed there's anything hear worth listening to at all. But the elephant in the room is that this album simply isn't 'special', that all the songs sound unnervingly the same.
To put that into context, Crosby is one of the few people I trust to tell the truth, to offer us the kind of emotional honesty you just don't get in music any more and to take his music anywhere it demands - though for the circumstances of a single song, not a whole 60 minute album which is all Neil Young seems to be capable of writing these days. While the angry, passionate fire of writers inevitably gets diluted over time - money, family, security and a lack of people listening all getting in the way - CSNY are one of the few 'old' groups who still take brave political stands when they need to and Crosby's fire has burnt brightest of all, with his songs the easy highlights of many a half-hearted reunion album. The two CPR albums released in 1998 and 2001 may well be Crosby's lyrical peak in fact, packed with heartbreaking songs that finally come to terms with what an up-and-down life it's been. For the first solo album in 21 years I was hoping for something special, a whole album made up of those CSN highlights I've loved so much, for that fiery heart to break out into fireworks - and all the more so because of the difficult circumstances surrounding this album (the last time life was falling apart quite so vigorously was during the making of 'I'd Swear There Was Somebody There', generally reckoned to be one of the greatest records of the 1970s). 'Croz' isn't a bad record by any means - but it's not the special record it needed to be. Even more than the covers album 'A Thousand Roads', Croz sounds like an extra on his own record (he doesn't play a single guitar part on it either, which is a crying shame - while not in the Stills or Young bracket - who is? - Crosby's jazz licks and unusual tunings are the making of many of his own songs).
I've been playing this album for a while now - delaying the review of this album in the hope that the pieces might suddenly click together and I could tell you all what a melodic, lyrical album this is and 'Croz' is a 'grower' to some extent, it certainly does sound better than when I first played it. However even a dozen playings in there are only four songs I could name and not co-incidentally they're the most Crosby-ish on the record, on topics that would never be considered by any other writer. 'Radio' is water metaphor-filled song which Crosby used to use a lot in his early CSN work, this time with an SOS message saving a person from drowning (it's a less spooky 'Shadow Captain' or a less pretty 'Lee Shore'). 'A Slice Of Time' is the song we've known and loved since the live Crosby-Nash 'In Concert' CD/DVD a few years back and it's haiku-like verses are a new invention for Crosby, whose tried most everything down the years, doing a good job of extending the 'fluttering pages of faces' line from Crosby's song 'Naked In The Rain' of 1975 (although I badly miss Nash's voice on this rather anodyne re-recording). 'If She Called' is Crosby noticing the things other people don't see, inspired by the sight of a cold and lonely hooker futilely trying to ply her trade to a load of rich ignorant morons and imagining her sorry back-story (rather like 'Through Here Quite Often' from the last Crosby*Nash CD). Finally 'Morning Falling' is the only even vaguely political song here, imagining an American drone attack on an innocent village and the inhabitant's feelings towards the 'hollow men' who ordered the attack without seeing what destruction their decision will cause (and therefore an update of 1990's 'After The Dolphin', about the London pub that became the scene of the first ever attack on civilians during a war). All three are good songs and deserve better than to be rather lost amongst the rest of the album, although it's sadly true that none of these three 're-writes' comes anywhere close to the originals.
The theme of the album is a strong one and one that's familiar to anyone who knows the two CPR albums. Crosby is simply astonished that he's still here, still alive and making music and that despite all the mistakes of his past he got another chance to put things right. There are a few lines here referring to the past being dredged up by a 'friend' (which could possibly refer to the books written by Nash or Young in the past couple of years) and his shame and guilt at how he used to behave. There's even a whole song 'Set That Baggage Down' that sounds like a distillation of every Crosby song ever written, full of having to move on and let the past go, which could easily have slotted onto 'Oh Yes I Can!' Time, too, has been a key Crosby theme for years and - like Paul Simon - the sense of it passing is coming to dominate his later work. There are three songs that deal with time explicitly - 'Time I Have' about life being too short to stay mad at someone, 'Holding On To Nothing' about trying to fill it constructively and 'Slice Of Time' about the very behaviour of how time works - a pattern? A series of images? or something more? The key line of the whole album, though, is when Crosby talks about how time cannot dilute the true essence of a really good message, such as the speeches given by Martin Luther King Jnr and crescendos into the triumphant chorus 'still alive!' (very close, in fact, to the 'Man Alive' title of Stills' last effort). Crosby might just as well be singing about himself - this is an album about what it means to be still alive 30 years after you assumed that you had only weeks to live twice over (the drug dependency of the 1980s and the liver transplant of the 1990s), how precious life is when you get it back again and how you feel a responsibility to fill it better than you did before. Which would all be fascinating had Crosby not already written the definitive word on the subject, the exquisite 'Time Is The Final Currency', on the first CPR album.
Lyrically Crosby has always been one of the strongest writers out there and two of the lesser traditional set of words here - 'A Slice Of Time' and 'Morning Falling' - are up to his usual standards. The rest, however, often sound clumsy and half-hearted. 'What's Broken?' gets positively dungeons-and-dragons ('Tunnels steaming with the breath of a dragon'), 'Time I Have' rhymes 'short sighted shit' with 'just live with it', Radio promises a message 'just like in the movies', 'Set That Baggage Down' rhymes the promising 'ghosts that live and just don't care' with the beginner-style 'that trunk is filled with dusty air' and 'Find A Heart' concludes 'Find the peace to find you whole, pulling light from the black of coal'. Admittedly compared to most songs from the past ten years this is all sheer poetry, but by Crosby's high poetic standards it sounds cobbled together and rushed. Even the long awaited return to 'water' metaphors in Crosby's work ('Radio', concerning an SOS message)for the first time since the 1980s seems like desperate recycling rather than a homage to past great lyrics like 'Shadow Captain' 'The Lee Shore' and 'Delta'. The large amount of co-credits here (Crosby only writes two himself) suggest that possibly the world's least prolific songwriter is struggling as much as ever and sadly his co-writers can't bring the best out of him. Even Raymond - who naturally dominates the writing credits just like the CPR days - isn't on particularly good form, after shaming both his dad and Nash on the 'Crosby*Nash' record, his songs sounding like pale imitations of Crosby's songs for the first time since they met 20 years ago. Melodically, this is also Crosby's weakest album for a while, with only the odd phrase or chorus line catching your ear, making it all sound rather detached and uninvolving - in the days of old Crosby could keep a song going on the same chords for minutes on end and it still wouldn't be long enough. This album's love of middling-to-slow tempos don't really help this record either, with just one song that really rocks ('Set That Baggage Down').
Before you think I've really got it in for this record, one real plus in this album's favour above all other Crosby records is the unusual sounds on it that you simply can't get anywhere else. I'm all for a bit of cross-pollination between my AAA members and I was thrilled when I heard that Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler was guesting on the opening track 'What's Broken?' The pair have never met - Crosby sent a tape of the track off to Mark's home address on spec in the hopes of getting him to take part and thankfully the head-banded one said yes - but to my ears they've always belonged together with their shared unusual love of wayward jazz-style guitar tunings and crystal-clear playing. In a parallel universe Raymond's 'Broken?' could in fact be a late-period Dire Straits song, with the central character lost amidst an un-named 'buzzing city' that sounds like its twinned with Mark's own 'Telegraph Road'. Easily the musical high-point of the record for me, it would be fascinating to hear Knopfler team up with Croz for a full album. Sadly it gets rather ducked in the mix, but the sitar by Marcus Eaton on 'The Clearing' is - amazingly - the first time the instrument has appeared on an album by the person arguably most responsible for turning the Western world onto them (not least for introducing George Harrison to Ravi Shankar). Wynton Marsalis' trumpet part on the bluesy 'Holding On To Nothing' is a neat touch too, reminding us just what a jazz fan Crosby is and very welcome. The person whose conspicuous by his absence, though, is Nash: the two have toured together more in the past few years than in the 1970s, so it's a shame he wasn't at least a tiny part of this album. Still, even without him - or any other real CSN name - the contact book seems to have been well-used. It's just sad that the adventurousness and inspiration that went into recording this album isn't there in the songs.
Critic reviews for this album have been unanimously glowing - and quite right too, because as far as I can tell none of these reviewers had even heard of Crosby before getting this album to review and people who've never had the delight of hearing what Crosby is capable at full-speed will still surely be bowled over by what Crosby is capable at at half-speed. Fans however seem to be split on this album, either relieved at finding 'Croz' such a listenable, accessible, gloriously produced record and finding more in it than I can, simply being relieved to have it here at all or, like me, being ever so slightly disappointed without quite being able to put their finger on why. You see, 'Croz' really isn't a bad record. The performances from Crosby's soaring vocals to his ever-reliable son's piano parts to the guest stars are uniformly great, the production and mixing of the record is one of the best CSN/Y have ever had and there are nuggets of brilliance scattered across this album that reveals that the talent we know is there is lying dormant, not extinct. But, hard as I try to love this record, there's nothing here in the writing to build up much enthusiasm for. Nothing here is as movingly personal as in Crosby's past - even his recent past - there's just one moment of social protest which doesn't match his and Nash's anti-Iraq and Afghanistan wars and there's nothing here as pretty as we know Crosby can be ('Song With No Words'), as uniquely ethereal as we know Crosby can be ('Guinnevere'), as angry as we know Crosby can be ('Almost Cut My Hair'), as humourously self-effacing as we know Crosby can be ('Anything At All') or as inspirational as we know Crosby can be (pretty much everything else). 'Croz' isn't a bad album, but it is quite an empty album - to be frank I can handle a bad, uninspired or a misguided record as a bit of a one-off (Nash's 'Innocent Eyes' springs to mind or even the third Crosby-Nash record 'Whistling Down The Wire') but I wasn't expecting empty. Not from David Crosby. Not from someone whose flame has always burnt that bright. Not from someone whose brought me so much joy and given me more to think about than perhaps any other writer. I really hope 'Croz' does well. Crosby deserves much better fortune than he's had recently and I'd gladly go out and buy a hundred copies of this record if it means we get another one in the future. But there's no getting past the fact that I'd prefer to buy a proper re-issue of the two CPR records and the rare 'Oh! Yes I Can' instead and help one of the greatest inspirations of my life out that way instead. Crosby can do better - let's hope he gets the chance to show it, preferably with the same musicians and production team!
'What's Broken?' sets the tone for much of the record, full of quiet reflective verses that threaten to break out into a soaring chorus but never quite do. James Raymond's song is full of his characteristic touches of long sentences broken into snappy quick bursts even though there's less piano here than usual. His soaring harmonies - filling in the parts where Crosby's would have been forty odd years ago - are the highlight of the song, along with Knopfler's characteristic guitar. Soundwise this is clever stuff, but neither the lyrics nor the tune are up to what we know Raymond can write ('Eyes To Blue' 'Lay Me Down' 'Puppeteer'), lacking the emotional punch he usually brings. Thematically, too, this song is a little too similar to 'City' of all things, the title track of the second neglected album by Crosby's old partners from the Byrds McGuinn Clark and Hillman in 1981, which caused Croz so much grief when they refused to let him into the line-up, with a touch of the Hollies song 'Look Through Any Window'. In the song a 'lost soul' is trapped within a buzzing city where everyone has purpose and moves really fast and simply stops moving. It ought to sound great: some lines like 'speaking a frozen language' have a real ring to them and the father-son chant of 'who wants to see an abandoned soul?' in the chorus is a real Crosby-ish moment. Note the references to 'Cathedrals warming to the sunrise' too, perhaps a reference to one of Crosby's favourite 'Nash' songs (from 1977's 'CSN'). And yet somehow the song lets all these great moments float past without linking them together, sticking in a pointless drum lick between each section of the song and letting the song bump jerkily from quiet to loud instead of reaching the crescendo the song demands. Knopfler is badly underused too, as brilliant as his guitar part is: had, say, Stills been invited to play his guitar parts would have been all over the song and threaded the different sections of the song together; Mark, probably out of politeness, simply fills in the 'gaps' where he feels his part is most needed. A lost opportunity.
'Time I Have' is a solo Crosby song that veers from inspired to hopeless. On the plus side it's great to hear Crosby singing more or less alone for a lot of the song with just an acoustic guitar part (sadly played by Eaton rather than Croz himself) and a pattering of congos and the opening verse is the kind of personal 'take' on life that Crosby does so well: admitting that this peace-and-love saviour still gets angry at all sorts of things and wishes he didn't because time gets short. Had this song stayed as a two verse fragment a la 'Music Is Love' it might have been stunning. But the song ends up back in the same place as 'Broken?' with a take on how everyone in a crowd in a busy city street is 'afraid' of each other' (are they?) and a rather OTT verse about a guy in robes in the middle East in the present day getting persecuted for wanting peace ('Does that sound familiar to you?') While there's a song to be made about parallels between that troubled section of the world in biblical days and now, the figure in Crosby's song seems to be fictional by most accounts (the trouble is that the East largely doesn't have a leader away from the rich and powerful, without a section of the 'arts' at more than a local level and no 'martyr' figures to believe in). Crosby's lines about one of his (and mine) heroes 'Martin Luther King Jnr should raise a lump in the throat, but this song is no 'Stand And Be Counted' never mind 'What Are Their Names?' and the song ends up with some of the worst lines of Croz' career: 'I have a dream' the great man said, another man came and shot him in the head'. The theme that the dreams eloquently spoken about by the few will persevere long after they've been assassinated ('Still Alive!') is a good one - but it's not handled with Crosby's usual care here and it doesn't belong in this song, which sounded much better when it was kept to a personal level. Also, is 'fear' the antithesis of peace as it says in the chorus? Surely war is the antithesis of peace - and 'love' the antithesis of 'fear'? As ever with this record, this song is well performed and sounds great though, especially Kevin McCormick's rolling bass (very Dire Straits-ish interestingly - has Crosby been getting Mark Knopfler's records out to play?) and Shane Fontayne does a great Stills pastiche in his howling guitar work.
'Holding On To Nothing' is a nicely calm and quiet collaboration between Crosby and Sterling Price. Crosby's multi-layered harmonies are particularly gorgeous when they rush in out of nowhere and the even bigger surprise entrance of pulitzer prize for music winning Wynton Marsalis' trumpet part is a moment of pure genius, turning the song from folk to jazz in the space of a few notes. It's all very Crosby-ish, but sadly there's not very much happening outside these two magic moments and by Crosby standards there's not much of a tune to reflect on, the song quickly palling and becoming boring. The lyrics are among the best on the record, in the CPR vein of being poetic rather than literal and reflecting on the 'mind games' the brain can play: that time can run at different speeds when there's more to do, how 'sunny days' can start off looking like 'rain' and how even words from best friends can hurt you without meaning to (is this a reference to Nash's book, released late last year? While full of references to how much Nash adores Crosby, the passages about Crosby's descent into drug hell in the 1980s and his partner's frustration over Croz' inability to tour and make music cuts even deeper than Crosby's own chapters on the event in his own book 'Long Time Gone'. Or is this just speculation?) The best line here comes near the end, when Crosby looks back over 'pictures' from years gone by (again - part of Nash's book? As a keen photographer he included lots of CSN shots even us monkeynuts passionate fans had never seen before) 'smiling at me' but realises that he's not the same person you can see in the photographs: that 'today I'm somebody new'. Sadly, though, the rest of the song isn't quite up to that clever observation and without much of a tune to keep our attention this song doesn't make much of an impact until the trumpet part comes in. Again, a strong performance by all concerned (especially Crosby) nearly salvages the song, but it badly needs something else thrown into the mix - a sudden jarring middle eight or at least a change of time signature or key or something - to make it gel together.
'The Clearing' is a James Raymond song that has the opposite problem: it's a little too cleverly constructed and designed to catch the ear, full of a clever acoustic guitar part that runs throughout most of the song and takes the lead on an ear-catching instrumental part and all sorts of clever sounds are heard throughout from synths to sitars that are genuinely exciting. Had this song been left as a backing track leaked on bootleg, we fans would have been talking about it as a lost gem. However the more you analyse this song the more you realise how little there really is to it: 'This kind of love don't need a home, this kind of heart beats all alone' isn't the greatest chorus Raymond's ever come up with and the rest of the lyrics don't make any real sense: 'Fear doesn't live inside the blind, let go and step into the clearing mind and soul' is how the song starts and it goes downhill from there. Raymond's known on the two CPR albums and the Crosby*Nash record for writing the more ear-friendly songs, full of striking riffs and exotic sounds and 'Croz' the album badly needs a track like this to shake the sound up a bit. Unfortunately, though, there's less space for Crosby and son's soaring harmonies to take part in this song and there's no real message to the song, which tries hard to re-create the feel of 'Deja Vu' ('Lay down the things that came before') without any real purpose or message. Still, as a 'sound' goes, this is clever stuff indeed - and pretty darn incredible for being pieced together in a home studio and made up of lots of overdubs!
'Radio' is a fan-pleasing return to Crosby's beloved sailing and the metaphors of a sea journey as a journey through life. The 'radio' onboard ship ties into Crosby's other love of music and the result is a song that's uniquely Crosby's, telling the story of how an SOS message saves someone from drowning. Like the classic Crosby song 'Shadow Captain', you can plot your course and set sail where you want but the sea's waves can be so treacherous that it's too easy to get thrown off course without knowing it (A chorus of 'You are the captain, this is the ship, you will have to decide what gets done!' isn't fooling anybody). The characters in the song are offered a choice: do they risk their lives trying to save the figure whose fallen overboard? Of course they do, but not without a few doubts. A powerful chorus ('Look down! Reach down into the water!') makes 'Radio' one of the more likeable and immediate songs on the album and while hardly fast-paced there is at least a little momentum to this record, a little more spark and fire than what we've had so far. The metaphor of a 'message' from someone saving them from drowning is a clever one too and could refer to any number of Crosby's friends who stepped in to save him when the drugs became too bad (perhaps even the 'judge' whose prison sentence arguably saved his life, however unpleasant life was at the time) or the transplant donor who gave Crosby a second shot at life. I would have liked a little extra going on in this song too instead of simply verse-chorus all the time, but 'Radio' is easily one of the best songs on the record and the performance is again spot-on, Raymond's harmony wrapping around his dad's vocals as if offering protection.
'Slice Of Time' is a poor recording of a great song. My hopes were high for 'Croz' simply on the back of this song, the one lone new Crosby song featured on the 'Crosby-Nash In Concert' record. Heard live the song is far more cautious and tentative than here, a fact which suits the song's unusual time signature and edgy haiku-style lyrics before suddenly exploding into life when Nash joins in. Hard as the band try they can't replicate that feel here on the record and the song ends up sounding rather stylised - also, brilliant singer as Raymond is, he's no substitute for Graham in full flight. Still, as a song this is clever stuff and certainly the most adventurous track on the album and wonders out loud yet again on a Crosby song what 'makes up' a life. Freeze-framing moments in life back on camera never quite recaptures a moment you live in somehow (Crosby's dad was a famous cinematographer who was used to freeze-framing and editing film and often took his work home to show his sons so no doubt his image is in here somewhere too) and Crosby's memories of a teacher talking about time being 'elastic' and still not knowing as a grown-up quite how they work is delicious. Like the subject matter, the lyrics are nicely abstract and show a real turn of phrase: 'Light fluttering as if between two trains, motor drive frames of life' is the second verse for example. The chorus line which repeats 'Images Images Images!' is a special moment too, suddenly bursting into full flower without warning. The song owes a debt to two past songs: 'Camera' from 1994's CSN album 'After The Storm', with its plea for time to stand still so 'I could slice time like a knife' (compare to this song's title) and 1975's Crosby-Nash song 'Naked In The Rain' with its line of someone's past flying by as a series of 'fluttering pages of faces'. (that song was inspired by a 'drug' trip where for a few hours every person Crosby met seemed to be a 'series of pages' that opened or shut depending on their mood and who they were speaking to - a 'different' person for each 'different' relationship they had with someone else). 'A Slice In Time' isn't quite up to either earlier song - the melody line isn't quite as powerful or memorable and while it's certainly 'atmospheric' there isn't quite as strong a hook to hang the track on. But for all that I love this song, which is every bit as adventurous as Crosby has always been and the subject is a strong one, with Croz still preoccupied with the question of time he's been trying to solve since at least his 20s (possibly earlier given the references to 'time' in the classroom as heard on this song).
'Set That Baggage Down' is a noisy song with an unusual message of letting go of things that hurt you too much. Crosby has said in interviews promoting this album that the song was inspired by 14 years of attending AA meetings and knowing he will never be fully free of the hold drugs had over him even 30 years on. Urging the listener to forget 'every girl that left you, every friend that ran and everything that broke you' should be a really moving moment on the album, but is it just me or is there something slightly 'wrong' about this song? Crosby, more than most writers, has always 'mined' his past in order to make sense of it: had girlfriend Christine Hinton not died so suddenly in 1971 we wouldn't have had half of Crosby's most beautiful song, right up to the present day; surely the only way to move on from something is to learn from it, not 'set it down'? It's worth pointing out, too, that Crosby has in many ways been at his bitterest across this album, remembering 'words from a friend that can bring back the pain' elsewhere on this album: is this song wish fulfilment, then, rather than a new policy, which Crosby knows he'll never quite manage? This issue wouldn't matter if the song was a better one, but sadly it's a gormless 'gospel' type number which doesn't suit Crosby's voice or his principles (hearing him sing 'set that baggage down, brother!' is just plain wrong; in fact it's not far removed from The Beach Boys' 'Hold On Dear Brother' which seemed similarly out of place and pointlessly hard to play). Crosby and Fontayne's lyric is a little too simplistic in places too, from the trunk full of 'dusty air' to the pained cry 'leave it at the station, leave it in the street, toss it in the gutter, set it down by your feet'. The worst performance on the album doesn't help matters either, with the players not quite sure of how to link parts A and B and switching the song from electric-guitar-led gospel to acoustic folk to cover the gaps - to be fair this probably shows how uncharacteristic a song this is for Crosby. sadly the only real song to make a virtue of its slightly faster pace and nastier tone is arguably the worst song on the record.
Thankfully 'If She Called' is better. Crosby's carved out quite a niche writing sensitive songs about people in troubled times over the past couple of decades and this song about a prostitute he spotted from his Belgium hotel window trying her hardest to win a client clearly struck a nerve. This is a detached sounding song about detachment, imagining a whole back story for the poor girl, perhaps cut off from her family (the title refers to whether or not they'd be interested in helping her out if she was ever brave enough to call them - and never has 'if' sounded like such an impossible event), certainly trying to disassociate herself from her surroundings while she works, looking at 'empty space'. There are several clever lines in this solo Crosby song, from the girl 'listening to another language on TV' (which could be both literal - is she an immigrant desperate for work? - or is it a sign of her foggy state of mind?) to her memories of what love was like that 'gets lost in the sound of the city's morning drive'. Very much like 'Through Here Quite Often' - a tale of a working class waitress who got a whole song simply for giving Crosby a smile while she went back to get him a spoon at a cafe - this is Crosby at his empathetic best. Unfortunately, being such a lyrical song, there isn't much room for a 'proper' tune to stay in your head and this song is one you admire rather than fall in love with. It's also sad that Marcus Eaton gets to play most of the guitar part here, instead of this being a solo Crosby performance. But, as ever, Croz gets the vocal spot-on, with just the level of detachment he needs until finally breaking down in sympathy at the end and it's a rare treat to hear Crosby as nakedly as he is here, with no harmonies or accompaniment apart from the guitar. Another album highlight.
'Dangerous Night' is a Crosby-Raymond collaboration that could have easily slotted into either CPR album - it's a piano-led, rather wordy song about trying to do something in your life and finding it has the opposite effect. Crosby's lines in the verses about 'trying to write 'Buddha' and it comes out 'guns' is a clever metaphor and the chorus (which sounds more like Raymond's work) offers a believable plea for someone whose worked out what life is all about to come forward and tell the hapless narrator. Further lines have the narrator watching the world's latest catastrophe on 24 hour news and demanding to know why bad things happen, 'voting for peace' and finding that wars still run unchecked (has Crosby fallen out of love with Obama after appearing at his inauguration ceremony?) and a nod to Crosby's 'Dream For Him' when son Django was born that 'I want to believe I can pass 'happy' to my child' even though Django is 19 now (and a promising photographer - he took the cover picture of his dad used on the album sleeve). So far so good, but there isn't much 'life' to this song, which seems to take the 'easy' way out in terms of melody and whose frequently repeated chorus quickly becomes irritating instead of uplifting as it's meant to be. Some of the lyrics sound rather overworked too: 'Send me someone who won't give up in the frozen rain, who'll walk with me right through the orchards and the grain' - what?! How did we end up there?!? Only a minute ago we were watching CNN on the sofa in the middle of the night! 'Dangeorus Night' has some clever moments, but sadly it squanders them in favour of a very radio-friendly backing track full of pulsating synths and programmed drums that so isn't Crosby and the lack of a real melody (only the chorus really shines through and that's heard way too many times) hurt this pleasing song badly. Another lost opportunity badly in need of a remix.
'Morning Falling' doesn't quite come off either, but it's a clever idea for a song that at least stretches Crosby's abilities unlike a lot of the record. Another collaboration with James, it's the tale of a drone attack on a poor village in the middle East and the sheer cowardice of American military might who don't even have to look at their victims nowadays as they used to in the 'honourable' days of hand-to-hand combat. Similar to Roger Waters' 'The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range', Crosby sings purely from the victims' point of view, imagining their last actions and thoughts, their hatred of the 'hollow men' who killed them for an ideology they don't understand, 'agents of a God they'll never know' (the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are clearly about oil and home support, whatever various American and British politicians tell us but after a whole tour discussing the theme with CSNY in 2006 Crosby adds another twist here, imagining the war as a religious one between Muslims and Christians). The closing verse, where 'a world away a trigger is pulled and there is no reason to forgive' is an especially memorable line. Crosby's famous for delivering songs 'the establishment won't like' and it's great to hear him sticking his neck out for a controversial song like this one. However, the decision to make this song the 'moody' other-worldly one on the album dilutes a lot of the anger and outrage heard in the lyrics and too many people, not used to reading the lyric sheets like 'us' CSN-fans have learnt to over the years, will be in danger of missing the point completely and will think instead how strange it all sounds (Steve Tavaglione's collection of 'electric wind instruments' is memorable and striking but not quite right for this particular song). There's even a slightly Spanish air to the track, which seems odd for a song about American colonialism in the Far East (unless it's a nod to the Spanish invading the Aztecs? In which case it's official - Crosby's been listening to far too many Neil Young records). That's a shame because, although the 'gulf' between the two cultures comes over loud and clear, it might have been better still to show the similarities and the song's moody, unusual melody line gets lost in all that extra noise and atmosphere. My advice is treat this song as a poem instead and it may well be the most moving moment on the record.
The album then ends uncomfortably on 'Find A Heart', whose chirpy saxophone-and-piano backing track sounds particularly jarring coming after the last track. Sounding very much like a 'Nash' song, a very hook-driven song with a message imploring us to make a 'connection' with someone else in order to 'make you whole'. The whole thing sounds rather light and unsubstantial after the last three songs with another rather lacklustre melody that doesn't really stay in the mind once the song has stopped playing. Some of the lines are clumsy by Crosby standards too: 'Make it work like touching skin, breathing out and breathing in'. The song this reminds me of is 'Arrows', the lovely and rather neglected Crosby song from CSN's 'Live It Up' album: there are lines about 'pulling light from the black of coal' which reflects that song's message that even dirty fossil fuels can turn into diamonds if placed under enough 'pressure' and the same quirky saxophone lines, this time played by Tavaglione. The trouble is CSN have done this sort of thing many times over - together and apart - and there's nothing here to make this song special or lift it out of the ordinary. Even some late-on jazz scat singing and a repetitive block chord piano part - clearly added in an attempt to make the song more interesting than it really is - fall flat; nice as it is to hear Crosby scatting wordlessly over jazzy chords, as we've heard him do so many times down the years, this is the wrong song to do it on: a simple arrangement for this simplest of tunes would have done just fine.
Which is kind of a microcosm of the album really: there are some very clever arrangement touches here and there but they've been stapled to the 'wrong' songs. Too often the interesting additions of woodwind, trumpet, saxophone or Mark Knopfler guitar are here to hide the fact that nothing interesting is really going on in many of the songs. Writing a full album has always been a hard task for Crosby - only in the early 70s when mourning caused him to pour his heart out into music and again in the late 80s when escaping drugs and leaving prison inspired a second gush has he ever really had enough material for a full album on his own. Had the best three or four songs from this album come out as part of a CSN package we'd again be talking about Crosby writing the best songs - and certainly 'Croz' has more decent songs than 'Man Alive', the rather sorry Stephen Stills album from 2005 that had a similarly painful and extended birth. Crosby still sings beautifully - there's no need to 'treat' his vocals with electronics the way his peers like Paul McCartney have - and the harmonies by Raymond are rock solid and more like the Everly Brothers than ever without having to have a 'third' part. Four of the songs here - 'Radio' 'Slice Of Time' 'If She Called' and 'Morning Falling' - are welcome additions to the Crosby canon, harking back to old themes but still with plenty to say. Given the troubled circumstances behind this album - no money, no studio, no record label interest (this album is out on the minor label 'Blue Castle', which I'd never heard of before this record) - it's a triumph that 'Croz' is out at all. But all too often Crosby's writing is clumsy or uninteresting, which is a huge surprise - even on his more misguided songs Crosby has never been boring or delivered anything as poorly written as some of the songs on this album. I really wanted 'Croz' to be special, but it may well be the first 'ordinary' album he's made. That's not to say that parts of this album aren't classic Crosby, that even the worst parts of this record aren't well performed and well sung throughout and that you shouldn't go out and buy ten copies at once - we all should, in honour of Crosby's past if not his present. But 'Croz' isn't even up to the much-maligned 'Crosby*Nash' album, never mind the two CPR records and anyone coming to this album directly from the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s CSN albums are going to be rather disappointed I fear.
Dear all - yippee! The local library's had a re-fit and the music book section in particular has been much improved: the one lone biography of the Spice Girls has vanished to be replaced by a handful more AAA-related tomes. So without further ado here's another 'random recent purchases' top five containing three books that will also be added to our more comprehensive 'AAA Books' section (http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012_07_01_archive.html) along with a couple of CDs that need adding to our 'AAA solo albums' special (http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010_08_08_archive.html).
1) "Paul McCartney: A Life" (Peter Ames Carlin, J R Books, 2009)
Does the world really need another Paul McCartney biography? Probably not, but Carlin's book at least does a good job of explaining why there's still such interest in his work. The book isn't perfect by any means - key albums like 'Venus and Mars' and 'London Town' get short shrift and a lot of the Beatles and Wings-era tales have been told better many millions of times over. But Carlin's book is the best yet at describing Paul's early years (the death of his mother and his early days with the Quarrymen especially) and the characters of his dad and brother Mike come across as three-dimensional characters at last. The book is also strong for Macca's post-Wings solo years in the 1980s, with far more detail about Paul's work with Eric Stewart and Elvis Costello than heard elsewhere (even if, like everyone else but me, Carlin doesn't rate 'Press To Play' very highly). Best of all, Carlin gets Paul's character and his difficult but still largely positive relationship with John Lennon spot-on: despite only getting the chance to meet the Beatle very late on in his career Carlin's description of Paul as a 'conservative rebel' is the most fitting yet, Paul wanting to do all the things his partner does without thinking but having too much sense and regard for the old ways to fully overthrow them. Kinder to Paul than most biographers of late, Carlin isn't blinded by love either and manages to turn in a book that's pretty neatly balanced between respect and frustration, as well as adoration and acknowledgement of Paul's occasionally shadowy self. 8/10
2) "The Making of Pink Floyd: The Wall" (Gerald Scarfe, Phoenix/Orion Books, 2010)
From what I can tell, illustrator Gerald Scarfe's always been keen to distance himself from his part in the Floyd story. While Scarfe always got on well with the band (especially Nick Mason and Roger Waters) he had an awful time during the making of 'The Wall' film, a case of too many cooks with too many ideas and with Scarfe's opinions often the ones over-ridden and ignored. So not only is a whole book about Scarfe's time with the band (starting with his illustrations for their 'Wish You Were Here' tour, projected on a screen while the band are playing) completely unexpected but so is the fact that he kept so much: film cell after film cell of the drawings used in the film, pen-and-ink storyboards that reveal how much of an input Scarfe had into the film 'script' (as much as a film without much dialogue has a 'script per se), unused sketches and ideas and most interestingly of all polaroids of Scarfe with various members of the band (who are never together, note). Roger, Nick and David Gilmour were all 'interviewed' for the book - most of which tend to be them leafing through the early pressing of the book and talking about their memories - and the affection all three feel for their colleague is clear. How nice that the 'wall' around Scarfe has come down after all these years. Some of Scarfe's illustrations are remarkable even now - falling leaves turning into humans, brittle teachers dominated by their fat wives, the age-old man-woman battle related in terms of two flowers and best of all doomed bomber planes slowly turning into crosses stained with blood (is there a more chilling image of the Second World War?) Some of the pictures are just odd - metal beasts, men carryuing 'burdens' on their backs, city towers marked with blood and an aborted attempt to draw Pink and his un-named wife as Punch and Judy. The best bit, though, is by another artist working on the film who was 'hired' by alienated director Alan Marshall (whose also interviewed for the book and surprisingly kind about it all) which shows 'school bully Roger and his pal Gerald Inky' - which says more about the state the makers of the film were in than any number of reminiscences and photographs. A nice collection, although you have to be a fan of the film rather than the Floyd to get the most of the book. 7/10
3) "Every Night's A Saturday Night" (Bobby Keys, Omnibus Press, 2012)
We've stuck this book under the 'Rolling Stones' section because that's the band Bobby is most 'linked' with (he was born on the exact same day as Keith Richards albeit across the pond and plays on a majority of the Stones albums since 1971) although he played on quite a few other AAA albums too (there are mentions of work with Graham Nash, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and a particularly memorable encounter with John Lennon during his 'lost weekend'). It's the Stones stories that are the most exciting though, revealing quite a bit we didn't know before. Long seen as Keef's big 'ally' within the band (and almost as hedonistic as the guitarist), Bobby actually started off as Mick Jagger's big friend, even staying rent-free at his Stargroves house for months on end, even though the pair barely speak anymore apparently (Keys did rather leave the band in the lurch, his alcoholism getting the better of him mid-tour, something that comes across as entirely reasonable in his re-telling of the story). The photographs with this book are a delight, showing just how much a part of the action is and his own personal voice comes over loud and clear throughout the book. Unfortunately, though, it's all too clear that this autobiography is one dashed off into a dictaphone between gigs and written by a secretary rather than a ghost-writer: the dates jump around, memories get stuck together and the whole book sounds more like a semi-celebrity chatting about their story down the pub than a collection of the man's true status within rock music. 5/10
4) Eric Stewart "Frooty Rooties" (1979)
The only 10cc solo album released while the band were still 'together', I was expecting more from this album, which isn't up to the standards of even 10cc's worst records. Eric recorded it quickly during his recovery from a life-threatening car-crash, which explains both why he gets so few songs on the next 'proper' 10cc album 'Look, Hear, Are You Normal?' and why he sounds rather less than himself here. Too often the album takes the easy way out, interesting ideas getting buried under silly retro-rock riffs and track titles like 'guitaaaaaarghs' that sound like pastiche 10cc rather than genuinely funny. There are highlights though: the opening song 'The Ritual' is a 10 minute mini-masterpiece of frustration at all the nonsense meaningless things humans do when they could be doing something bigger and clearly a key development in Eric's writing (it'll end up with what I consider his best work in a few years on 'Windows In The Jungle'). 'Doris The Florist' is a fun 10cc-ish story that doesn't go where you think it does that's funnier than most of 'Look Hear' to boot. Everything else, though, sounds a bit tired and unsure of itself - understandably, really, given the circumstances - with the title downwards rather too far a throwback to the 1950s: the horrid 'Night and Day' might well be the worst thing the guitarist ever wrote and even gets an unwelcome reprise! 3/10
5) Eric Stewart "Girl" (1980)
After his car-crash Eric became ridiculously prolific, as if making up for lost time. This film soundtrack, however, isn't one of his better ideas: most of the songs are full of the sort of soft 'lift music' instrumentals every film from the 1980s seems to be full of and there are only four actual 'songs'. To be fair, these aren't bad: despite the generic titles 'Warm Warm Warm' 'Tonight' and the title track 'Girls' are real character songs, Stewart doing well to get into the mindset of an ambitious female blocked not by talent but by sexism (it may be that the 1983 10cc song 'Working Girls' started life here too - the date seems wrong but it sounds like a good fit at least). I couldn't tell you how the music fits the film sadly - like the soundtrack album it seems to have died a very quiet death and even Film4 have never repeated it to date. One for the committed fan only really, although you'll be pleasantly surprised once you get past the instrumentals. 4/10
6) Eric Stewart "Do Not Bend" (2001)
Apart from two underwhelming 10cc reunions and his work with Paul McCartney, this was the first 'proper' Eric Stewart release in 18 years and hopes were high. A clever 10cc-ish title and some 10cc-ish song titles (sample: 'Set In Blancmange') set those hopes higher. But as a whole 'Do Not Bend' is even worse than Eric's 'Frooty Rooties' record, an embarrassing collection of white reggae and soul-less soul music without Eric's usual character and cleverness. Only closing track 'You Are Not Me' has any real emotion to offer - and then it's of the 'stop pigeon-holing me' type which seems a rather odd statement to make after so many poor re-makes of 'Dreadlock Holiday'. Eric is a terrific team-player - one of the best in fact, with harmonies to die for and an ability to put guitar to anything - but he really struggles to front a whole album, especially one as low budget as this done on the cheap. Give it a miss. 2/10
7) Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott "Majic Mijits" (2003)
The last recordings made by the two chief songwriters in the Small Faces were never finished - Steve Marriott left temporarily for another Humble Pie reunion and then died in a house fire - so what we have here is a compilation of a CD of largely 'finished' material and a second CD of 'outtakes'. Most fans are disappointed by it and certainly this album doesn't compare to the band's 1960s material (not least because Ronnie's MS is giving him a real battle recording the vocals). But treat this album as a fascinating 'extra' and it certainly has its moments - lots more than the two 1970s Small Faces reunions anyway. Marriott is on particularly blistering vocal form and comes up with his single greatest song since the early 70s 'Lonely No More', on which he finally sounds happy (his 'Toe Rag', celebrating family life and his own 'Artful Dodger' like offspring, is pretty sweet too). Ronnie Lane's songs - his first recordings for nearly a decade after illness and record company problems - still sound like they've always done, gorgeous pieces of folk-rock that might suffer from the tinny 1980s recording productions and Ronnie's increasing problems with his once smooth vocals but beneath the surface are still as wonderful as ever (the autobiographical 'Son Of Stanley Lane' especially). Whenever any of the Small Faces got together post-split they invariably spent their time slagging off their early managers who cost them so much money and the way the Immediate record label went bust without warning. As a result there's a couple of really bitter songs here you might not be expecting from the pair's 1960s songs, but far from being off-putting these are amongst the best on the album, Ronnie taunting everyone whose ever stood in his way for being 'chick chick chicken!' Best of all are the chats between Steve and Ronnie mid-song and thankfully left intact, goading each other on and showing how much affection is in the room and that they've got together for reasons bigger than financial ones. A clever title, showing the duo are 'still' the Small Faces and then not quite the same after all, is the icing on the cake. 'Majic Mijits' isn't classic Marriott or Lane but it did deserve to come out at the time and would surely have boosted both men's popular standing in a way that the later Humble Pie and Lane's Slim Chance records hadn't quite managed. 6/10
And that's it for another week. Join us next issue for more news, views and music!