Monday, 21 March 2016

Stephen Stills "Right By You" (1984)



Stephen Stills "Right By You" (1984)

50-50/Stranger/Flaming Heart/Love Again/No Problem//Can't Let Go/Grey To Green/Only Love Can Break Your Heart/No Hiding Place/Right By You

"I thought music was enough, that I could fill the empty spaces..."

In the mid-1960s Stephen Stills had it all: a singer-songwriter-guitarist in the days when singing, songwriting and guitar playing were the most important talents you could have in music and a sense of the perfectionist that enabled him to make the most of each and every one of those talents. The bright, shiny, optimistic 'real' talent-loving 1960s (especially the hippie political movement at the tail end of the decade) loved Stephen Stills and he loved back with some of the greatest music made by anyone (seriously, has there ever been a better run than Stills had 1968-72?) By the mid-1980s though, the music scene couldn't care less about singer-songwriter-guitarists and since losing his solo contract with CBS in 1978 Stills' profile is at a worrying low, 'Captain Manyhands' output now reduced to a trickle (with just the Stills contributions to CSN album 'Daylight Again' and a paltry two songs released on the following year's live set 'Allies'). The doom-laden, anti-sceptic artificial pessimistic1980s (especially the pop scene in the middle of the decade) couldn't care less about Stephen Stills and everything he represents. Stills probably couldn't care less about what the 1980s represented either, but this time he had a problem. This new record contract with Atlantic is born out of sympathy from Stills' old friends in high places (like boss Ahmet Ertegun) rather than out of belief in Stills' talents or a feeling that he'll get a 'hit' out of it. Instead it's a one-shot deal which Stills cannot afford to break or his solo career is effectively over as few labels will want to touch him after another flop. Just to add another whole tonne of pressure, it looks as if CSN is over for the foreseeable future, possibly forever, with David Crosby attending the first of the court proceedings that will end up seeing him incarcerated on drugs charges, so a solo deal has to work to keep Stills in the limelight. All of which leads to the question: just how do you make your talents heard in a musical world that doesn't care about you any more?

'Right By You' is the answer, an album that couldn't sound less like your average Stills LP and which has left fans scratching their heads ever since. You see, Stills being Stills, he doesn't just release an album that sounded the way it did last time and hope for the best. Instead he gets really into what the sounds of the day are and how people make records the way they do - way more than most hippies vainly struggling to get into new technology to stay hippie-hip. Now that CSN seemed forever stuck in the past, Stills pushes on into the great unknown and comes up with a record that couldn't sound less CSN-like if it a Justin Bieber guest spot and a Spice Girls chorus (funnily enough Graham Nash will do the same with his own 'Innocent Eyes' album a couple of years later, showing what an inventive lot CSN are despite what their critics always say about them being stuck in 1969). Anyone whose come straight to this record from one of Stills' early 70s masterpieces is in for a shock with this record as far away from the laidback pure albums as it's possible to get, with every beat of silence filled, nearly every vocal treated and Stills' playing subservient to the hungry synth monster kept in the studio basement. The music world, or at least the small part of it still taking notes over aging singer-songwriters, was shocked.

This really shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise though: Stills has always loved technology - he was the first artist ever to record using digital equipment back in 1979 - and this time he's got an age to build up his music layer by layer, returning to and tweaking his music safe in the knowledge that for once Atlantic haven't got half an eye on the release date and a certain seller. The good news is that, for what it's worth, Stills has a far better instinctive grasp of what it takes to make a really great 1980s record; the trouble is, however well made, this is still a 1980s record.  Fans then and now would have preferred something a little more 'traditional'. The result is sadly another of one of those 'hideously dated I wish they'd remix it and do it properly' AAA albums from the decade that we seem to have discussed rather a lot on here as of late (amazingly CSN/Y stick to the same formula on their reunion albums 'American Dream' and 'Live It Up', though at least those albums have the benefit of harmonies: 'Right By You' is a strange harmony-less record, in all meanings of that word).

Not that this album is bad - at least not as bad as everyone who heard it in 1984 said it was and so many books say it is now. Stills' talents as a singer and writer might be showing the strain from his peak days, but that still puts him amongst the best writers around and his guitar skills are as strong as ever. Compared to Nash's similar attempt on the half-covers album 'Innocent Eyes' it's positively over-flowing with ideas, if not quite up to past CSN standards either. There are a few tracks where Stills understands this new electronic marketplace better than anybody ('50/50' is a 1980s pop/hip hop hybrid that Stills has found a way to work, thanks to opening the song up to his long-favoured 'Latin' rhythms, 'Love Again' turns the old Stills turbulence into a catchy 1980s pop song where the artificial and coldness of the sonic landscape actually works to a song's advantage and 'Grey To Green' is a great throwback to what the past Stills sounded like), just nowhere near a whole album's worth, with 'Right By You' featuring more padding than the Michelin Man. Given how much 'time off' Stills had to write this album it's something of a disappointment - it sounds like one of his more rushed recordings, a 'Manassas Down The Road' but now without Manassas and that road no longer enough of a stardom super-highway for him to get away with it.

Just as with the disco-bandwagon-hopping 'Thoroughfare Gap', Stills sounds simultaneously as if he's understood the genre better than anyone and also a little desperate to please, throwing a few guest spots in there that really don't fit (never have you wanted CSN keyboard player and singer Michael Finnigan to 'begin again' less than here) and some extra synths in there for good measure (it's all that extra time going to Stills' head you would guess - this is what all the other albums might have ended up like without deadlines and Crosby/Stills/Buffalo Springfield tugging at his lapels). This sense of 'trendy desperation' is something summed up spectacularly by this album's oh-so-1980s-it-hurts (literally, my eyes are aching) album cover, seemingly a rocket taking off from Earth that looks suspiciously like the underside of the power-boat Stills pilots in the oh-so-1980s-it's-silly(honestly, it's a CSN version of James Bond, complete with pretty girls and speedboat chases) music video for the single 'Stranger'. Though CSN have long had links with boats, they tend to be the ones that were built to last: wooden ships, antique schooners, Crosby's beloved 'Mayan', something hippily sustainable and of the earth. Prime CSN are about as far away from flashy speedboat album covers and music videos as it's possible to be, as artificial and over-adrenalin filled as the music is, built for speed but not to last. What it all comes down to is that in 1964 and even in 1974 none of CSNY needed to try to be cool - they just were cool. By 1984 Stills, at least, looks like he needs a new manager to stop himself looking silly.

Thankfully we know in retrospect that this something of a 'middle-career crisis' rather than a new formula to adjust to (with long-awaited sequel 'Stephen Stills Alone' from 1991 an all-acoustic all-solo album with a deeply unflattering front cover photo, seemingly in penance for this one), which means we can celebrate this record's quirkiness better - whilst being equally thankful that Stills never did anything quite like it again. 'Right By You' is perhaps Stills' most rhythm heavy album, with lots of songs driven by the beat rather than the melody or lyrics (a logical extension of where we were heading on 'Thoroughfare Gap' but across nearly the whole album this time). This is something fans had been waiting a long time to see as Stills, who started his career as a drummer, has always had a talent for finding a good groove and the beats across this album are pretty memorable, if a little OTT in places (How much better would this album have been with 'real' drums? Admittedly old Manassas bandmate Joe Lala, the main drummer for the album, may well have collapsed under the strain). In Stills' hands, though aiming at a pop market, the result is nothing short of 80s digital funk and there are times when this album sounds more like an electronic version of Sly and the Family Stone than it does CSN. This is a whole new avenue Stills hasn't really explored before or since and his aging voice is well suited to it, allowing him to sound as intense as before without sacrificing beauty (though upping his vocals in the mix a bit would have helped with this). Unfortunately, after a whole album of such similar sounds (and one bonkers bluegrass cover) the effect is rather lost and you end up yearning for some peace and quiet instead, while even Stills can't make a great beat the whole reason for enjoying a song. The result is something like hearing the 'doo doo doo' finale of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' without the eight minutes of dazzling intensity going on before it.

The other big change is in the credits. Future Stills solo albums will be low-key and sparse; this one looks back to the good old days when the likes of Ringo, Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge turned up on every other track with lots of old mates appearing (including the only return for another Manassas bandmate, Chris Hillman, on 'No Hiding Place' - which is what The Flying Burrito Brothers would have sounded like with Stills in the band - Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and  more Graham Nash harmonies than any other Stills solo LP). Usually Stills is such a big presence in the room that even past guests Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix mould themselves a little to his style, but not here: Hillman and his mate Herb Pedersen (from, umm, Rice Rice Hillman and Pedersen) take the lead on 'No Hiding Place', to the point where Stills sounds hopelessly lost. Jimmy Page gets almost as many opportunities for guitar solo-ing as Stills does and frustratingly the two never play 'lead' at the same time, so that this is less of a return to the twin-guitar Buffalo Springfield/Stills-Young CSNY days as Stills trying to lure Led Zep fans into buying his record. Stills offers his last Neil Young cover with 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' but fails to add the Stillsy signature parts that made past Young covers 'New Mama' and 'The Loner' so distinctive so in effect what we get is slowed down Neil Young karaoke. Mike Finnigan, longstanding keyboard player, sings so many verses on 'Can't Let Go' that you're half afraid Stills won't get the microphone off him for the rest of the album (and it's pretty awful you have to say, 'rubber soul' to coin a phrase rather than the real thing). Only Graham saves the day and even then it's amazing how much the harmonies suddenly seem as if they're missing something without the Crosby 'glue' to hold everyone together. To be honest 'Right By You' would sound a lot better without it's star cast for most of the record.

With all that surface noise going on over the top, the actual songs on this album tend to get a bit overlooked. In some cases that's probably a good thing: 'Flaming Heart' is a pop song so simple Buffalo Springfield would have passed over it for their first album, 'Can't Let Go' is embarrassingly twee for a writer of Stills' talents and even the only track on this album to ever get a good review (the bluesy title track) doesn't come close to similar past classics like 'Go Back Home' 'Black Queen' and 'Bluesman'. The less said about the bluegrass and Young covers the better (the 'old' Stills would never have chosen bluegrass and Young covers quite as obvious as traditional standard 'No Hiding Place' and 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' either).

Which is not to say that there aren't some good and properly developed songs on here too - just that those that are good tend to get somewhat lost underneath all the noise, almost as if we weren't 'meant' to hear them and how personal they are (even by Stills standards). I've always maintained that the hidden-behind-a-vocoder 'Trans' (1982) was always one of Neil Young's better efforts, with lyrics of real emotional heartbreak about his son Ben (born with cerebral palsy) and their struggles to communicate, speaking two completely different languages. That album is downright 'alien' at times, as cold and austere as any digitally-made 1980s album, but simultaneously Neil's most emotional work as a bunch of robots sing about yearning to be 'transformed' and long for a similar robot to 'sample and hold'. Stills, we know, always listened long and hard to what Neil had to say (so, for a longer time than anyone admits to, Neil did to Stephen) and this very album contains a cover of Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Is 'Right By You' Stills' response to 'Trans', a 'digital' and artificial album detailing his latest heartbreak? Is Stills now hiding not just 'behind walls' (his favourite phrase) but behind synthesisers too? Or is this all just a side-effect of 'Captain Manyhands' being given both time and a bank of synths to overdub for the first time going as far-out as he can? 'I hear that you're concerned about hearing me' jokes Stills in 'No Problem', the song right in the middle of this album which really is hard to hear. 'I understand your problem, but if you see the candles burn out from the middle - and I don't know how to stop them!'

This is, you see, a deeply sad album behind all that constant rhythm, noisy drums and power-boats, though for once Stills seems to be hiding what he's really feeling and insists on pretending to us that he's 'happy'. Those of you who've been following these reviews in chronological order will know the Veronique Sanson story well by now - the rushed engagement and marriage, the temper tantrums and bust-ups, the vows by Stills to be a good family man and putting his foot in it over and over as music and self-destructive tendencies that would put The Muppet Show's Gonzo to shame keep taking over. By 1984 their marriage is finally over after eight years of cat and mouse (including Stills taking up a new girlfriend, Susan Saint James, between 1978 and 1980 who might well be lurking in some of these lyrics too), with both sides feeling as if they've been savaged by lions (though some writers only write when they have an album contract, it seems likely knowing workaholic Stills that some of these songs date back to immediately post 'Thoroughfare Gap' in 1978 anyway). Stills has already seen the end in sight for a long time and written about it accordingly (CSN's 'Daylight Again' LP is full of songs of loss - 'Turn Your Back On Love' and marriage-escaping 'Southern Cross' amongst them) and his songs are in a similar vein here: guilty and burned-out yet still clinging to life, just about. 

The music-praising autobiography of '50-50' - the only song from this album to make the CSN box set, which is at least one more than was taken from 'Innocent Eyes' - has Stills the musician desperately trying to fill his now empty house with music but reveals that he's 'too high to hear the song' and now it's all just noise (a fair appraisal of the album). 'Stranger' is the Sanson soul-meeting of 1975's 'Love Story' in reverse, Stills getting excited by the very fact that he's met someone he plainly doesn't know and wondering where a new romance will take him. 'Love Again' is a sweet and much under-rated song about Stills trying to pick himself up and try love once again, reflecting that 'love is an accident of faith' as he picks over the bones of his latest romantic failure and figures that the problem wasn't that he wasn't loved but that Veronique loved him so much he could never match what she wanted from him. 'Can't Let Go', a track that sounds suspiciously like it ought to be a Donnie Dacus co-write from 'Illegal Stills', repeats the messages and gooey-eyes from early in the pair's relationship - but the song is handed over without comment to Stills' latest protégé Mike Finnigan, as if to distance himself even more. The charming 'Grey To Green' addresses the fact that Stills struggled to work out what his love wanted from him and what mood she was in, so he 'invents' a fictional girl from the future whose moods are always clear because her eyes change colour (they turn every possible colour it seems - your eyes will too given the ups and down on this record). 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' may be an obvious choice, but Neil's song of sympathy for Graham is in effect another one of those CSN theme songs that applied to all four with some regularity and an apt choice thematically, even if the synths sound ever more awkward on one of Young's most 'open' (and Stills-like) songs (if you count Crosby's longterm girlfriends as 'wives' then all four are on their fifth or sixth relationships by now). Bluegrass standard 'No Hiding Place' may be an anti-war polemic at heart, but in context it sounds like Stills near the end of the LP acknowledging that he's made another album of heartbreak after all, however hard he tried not to. Finally the title track tries to tell the 'truth' - that Stills will be a long time getting over one of the loves of his life, still having 'fantasies about you in the middle of the night' however hard he tries not to. By the end of the track - and the end of the album - though, Stills tells her and himself 'Time for a big change - a general haul of your attitude', which feeds back nicely into the fact that though 'Right By You' might read like a typical Stills album on the lyric sheet, it doesn't sound like one on the record.

Overall, then, 'Right By You' is a slightly painful record. It sounds like a painful period for Stills to have lived through ('It was a trip I had to deal with!') and it's often turned into painful music, with some of the biggest disasters in the Stills songbook. If ever a CSNY record deserved marks for trying though it's this one, a record that arguably tries a little too hard in trying to sound so utterly totally different to anything that came before - and unfortunately for us Stills chose completely the wrong time to get stuck into period technology. Like oh so many of the most overlooked CSNY solo albums, however, there's...something here worth a second glance and the ear-ache of putting up with the synths and artificial drums, with half an album of prime Stills here no matter how much he seems to be trying to hide the fact at times.

'50-50' is the closest to a song that fans will probably know and for good reason - it's probably the best thing here with Stills finding a way to match his distinctive 'Latin' music with modern technology. Having Stills and Nash together on the vocals (with Mike Finnigan taking the 'Crosby' role) and Jimmy Page at his most Stillsy on a bluesy solo also makes this the most 'traditional' of the big production numbers on the album. Not for the first time Stills tries to tell us two different stories in one track, with music that's upbeat and built for dancing married to a lyric that couldn't be more downbeat and mainly takes place with Stills' narrator lying in a soggy heap on his bed. He's just woken up, again, to an empty room after forgetting that he was alone now. He does what he always does when he's anxious or upset and reaches for his guitar, but somehow even his loudest playing can't 'fill the empty spaces' and leaves the racket 'bouncing off the walls', no one there to respond to it or soak it up. Stills is playing an 'oldie', 'too high' to recall what he meant when he wrote a past song of heartbreak (presumably one he wrote for Judy Collins or Rita Coolidge - 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' or 'Dark Star' seem likely candidates), but remembering that the last time he felt this bad at least he had the wherewithal to turn his mood into songs; now he simply feels empty. A fascinating verse has Stills debating what Sanson wanted from their marriage, cursing the fact that 'she wouldn't change me' and yet expected more from him. Stills worries that 'I could lose myself trying to please her' and fears that if he does transform into a better man as he's long wanted (see 'As I Come Of Age' written almost in parallel with falling in love with Veronique) he might lose the better things that makes him 'him' as well, that 'I might not like what I'd become'. Stills ends by turning to the audience he's afraid he doesn't have anymore, urging us to 'listen to our love - if you let it, it will take you' and to never pretend to be more than you are. The song's fine verses are slightly upset by a puzzling and oddly algebraic chorus ('That's 50/50 - or a hundred at a time!') when all Stills really means is that if you don't find the 'right' pairing you're doomed to 'be still one and one'; the percentage may also relate to how 'equal' relationships need to be to last, although Stills seems to change his mind whether he's making all or none of the effort. Forget the lyrics if you need to though (they're not very easy to hear!) and simply bask in the glow of the most percussion-heavy track of Stills' career. Noisy, but noble and with some real passion and 'truth' to go with the commercial sound.

By the time this album was released future singer-songwriter and Stills Jnr Christopher was ten years old and already making most of both his father's musical genes and his record collection. 'Stranger', the album's lead single, is the first and - oddly enough - only collaboration between father and son and it seems likely that Stills was borrowing his son's know-how of younger artists that had passed him by. Even for this album 'Stranger' is your typical 80s pop song, high on hooks and synths and accessible lyrics (and yes, inevitably, 'stranger' does indeed rhyme with 'danger', although Stills adds it in a post-chorus hook that sounds almost apologetic). The lyrics, though, are pure Stills Senior as he tries to fall in love once more and meet somebody new to take him out of himself. Unlike past and future love songs (1994's 'Only Waiting For You' is a good example) Stills only sounds optimistic about his chances of meeting a future lover in the music and the slightly OTT vocal and guitar showboating, not in the lyrics which again seem like one long sigh. 'Mutual attraction can be so distracting' Stills mutters, 'Make you forget where you are...' while he also remembers the heartbreak that can happen if he picks the 'wrong' stranger when in the song's excellent middle eight 'the loneliest person that you know is looking back in the mirror at you you you!' The twist compared to 'Love Story' is that Stills 'is' the stranger, acting out of character as he gives up on his old soulmate for a night on the pull and he seems almost to be warning the new girl in the block to back away while simultaneously seducing her. The trouble is that, unlike '50-50', the dichotomy between what the song sounds like and is really saying is a bit harder to understand with the backing by now pure 80s pop hell rather than a clever Stillsian twist on a modern format. For most fans 'Stranger' sounds like such a lot of noise about nothing it's easier just not to bother with it. Don't be a 'stranger' though - the lyrics at least are worth a look.

'Flaming Heart' is the album's first real disaster, which seems odd given that it's probably the most 'traditional' recording here. We can actually hear Stills for once (sort of) some love-lorn lyrics while there are some real guitars playing in criss-cross formation. Unfortunately, they're all played by Jimmy Page (here called 'James' as 'Stephen' introduces his solo), with Stills passing over the opportunity for some Springfield/CSNY-Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin duelling. Stills also decides to sing in his gruffest, most lived in voice yet (well, since 'Blaxk Queen' maybe) and the lyrics he sings aren't exactly taxing for the songwriter who once poured his all into 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes'. This is a clichéd love song, complete with references to 'fires' and 'endless yearning' while no line of thr song seems to last for more than a few words at a time. The most irritating thing about this forgettable track, though, is the guitar riff which sounds as if it belongs as the signature tune for some really bad 1980s soap opera (you can almost picture smiling pictures of the cast while it plays, all of them in speedboats). To be fair there are some good things in there too: George 'Chocolate' Perry was one of Stills' best bass players and he's rarely better than here with a walking bass that does some good work distracting us from the noise on top. As for Stills and Page and those synth drums, though, my ears are still ringing.

'Love Again' is perhaps the most interesting song here, even if it again sounds like all of your worst nightmares of what the 1980s sounded like. Stills sing single-tracked for once on this album and that adds a real vibe of vulnerability to this song - until Nash and Finnigan pop up on the power pop chorus anyway. Time seems to have moved on a little since some of the other songs were written and Stills is on the verge of a nervous breakdown from being 'so alone' before vowing to take a 'permanent spiritual break' which seems to have made him even more philosophical than normal. In one of the sweetest and happiest lyrics of recent years Stills decides that good times are never impossible and - perhaps remembering Judy and Rita and Veronique - that love can come along when you least expect it (again it's interesting to compare with the later 'Only Waiting For You' as Stills sings of how 'fate can be your best friend'). We've already quoted the line 'love is an accident of faith' but it's worth mentioning again because it's such a clever and heartfelt one for someone with so many heartbreaks in his life. Stills has always felt genuinely in love with all of his girlfriends - he's just had too much faith that too many of the differences between them will be overcome and fell in love with the wrong person. Stills doesn't sound unhappy about it here though; instead each relationship has taught him something new he didn't understand before and by the end of the chorus ('Here is love come again!') he's eager for the next stage of 'learning'. Surely singing about Sanson again, Stills recounts the story from the 'other' point of view. 'She' always felt that she 'loved him' but could never work out why and in the end he tested that blind faith too much. A final verse might well be about Susan Saint James (what is it with CSNY and Susans? We're only missing Crosby and we'd have a full set!) as Stills sings about being 'glad we got lucky' and looking forward to the 'growing' he'll surely do from this latest conquest. The best use of synths and drums on the album outside '50-50', the song is musically as dramatic (if slightly more wild) as the lyrics and is driven along nicely by a thrilling keyboard riff (which sounds not unlike that from 'Casualty', the Hollies reunion track made with Nash in 1983 funnily enough...) If every song from the 1980s had sounded like these two the decade might not have been so bad...

Alas 'No Problem' ranks up there with the 'Live It Up' title track, Wham! and anything by Michael Jackson as the most uncomfortably, hideous 1980s statements, complete with the sort of drum part that seemed to appear in every song back then (the 1980s 'Now That's What I Call Music...' all sound like this, for hours and hours and hours...) and a keyboard riff that's verging on the hysterical. Above all this sits Stills' vocal as low in the mix as it can be whilst still being there, drowned out by the sheer 80s pop hell going on around him, without even a guitar part in sight (again only Perry's respectable bass line holds the song together). That's a shame because, as off-putting as this song is to listen to, the lyric is another one that's worth digging through and the closest 'Right By You' comes to the CSN political commentary of old. Scorning the gimme gimme gimme attitude of the 1980s, Stills complains that 'the story goin' round the welfare line is that no one matters' and that 'fat cats are getting fatter'. Stills tries to attack the people who deserve it, telling us all in his best hippie voice that 'when everybody's hurt...when there's people going hungry...we better fix it!' The thing is, though, that Stills feels less sure about this world than he did back in 1970 when CSNY were at their revolutionary peak; he doesn't know anymore what to do to put things right and compared to the old days when 'Ohio' could sing from the heart about 'us' being 'finally on our own', Stills doesn't know what troops he can assemble anymore or why people seem to be content to just turn a blind eye without getting cross like him. he figures it must be because everybody's in pain ('Everybody got a story') but this doesn't appeal to his hippie community spirit and anyway the people in power have more than ever, leaving Stills more confused than ever ('Ain't nobody near enough worried!') Though the least likely out of CSNY to write a political protest, Stills played more than his share of political rallies and this song is a rare example of the democratic heart so often heard quietly beating in Stills' songs coming to the fore. On this evidence Stills should write more songs like these - and then never, ever go within a hundred miles of a synthesiser!

One song I'll never be able to find a good word for is 'I Can't Let Go', weirdly picked by more than a few reviewers as the record's highlight down the years. Stills was heading towards dodgy lowest-common-denominator silly love songs on 'Thoroughfare Gap' as it was, but this is the one and only song in Stills' catalogue you could imagine Barry White singing. Sickly sweet in the worst possible way, the song would have been poor enough with a clearly uncomfortable Stills singing the whole song. Instead Stills only sings the first verse and hands the reigns over to Mike Finnigan who is as 1980s a partner for Stills to pick as Jimi Hendrix was 1960s. Don't get me wrong, Finnigan worked well in the CSN band (he deserves plaudits for his work filling in for Crosby on 'Daylight Again' so well and he came into his own on the 1983 tour) but there's sadly a reason Neil 'Mr Authenticity' Young fired him from the 1999 touring band; Finnigan has a tendency to go all MOR and false if left unchecked and he's given free reign more than on any other song here. As for the backing, well, at least it tries to be loud enough to distract us from the vocals I suppose. For once on this album the lyrics are every bit as bad as the cringeworthy tune and tasteless performance, with this as a random sample: 'Slow down, things go through change, and pleasure can come from pain, so here's a memory of where we both belong'. Thankfully this wasn't picked as an album single but if it had been it would have had one of those awful 1980s videos with pink CGI love hearts and bad soap opera extras, probably in a powerboat. Very few songs in the CSN canon are completely and utterly bad but this is a sorry exception. That's four minutes 11 of my life I will never get back. Don't waste your time - reach for the skip button.

By contrast 'Grey To Green' is the track every other review always dismisses as 'silly' but is actually rather lovely. Stills is despairing, he's been rejected by cupid's arrows again and - in a reprise of 'Can't Get No Booty' - all the girls who used to come running now won't even give Stills' lonely narrator a second look. Suddenly, mid-second verse, the song changes, with 'she' arriving un-announced with the complaint that things go wrong because 'she' (perhaps a combination of every lover Stills has had to now) has to 'try so hard' to get Stills to work out how she's feeling. Stills' mind wandering, he thinks that human beings should come with colour coded eyes that reveal what we're thinking: green in love, blue when 'bad', 'hazel' when 'she works' and seemingly grey when she's feeling lonely. Stills vows to change 'her' eyes back to 'green' every chance he gets. I'd like to think that Stills was trying to write another 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes' when he sat down to write this song and got into thinking about why he'd fixated so much on Judy Collins' eyes when he had so much of her to choose from. Actually it makes sense for a writer like Stills, who loves showing his 'realness' and vulnerability while peeking out from songs filled to the brim with confidence to make up a song purely about eyes, the 'windows to the soul' embedded in the body and closer to our 'hearts'. As with 'Love Story', two strangers then fall in love at the end of this song, mutually attracted by each other's angst and pain and vowing to put things right for each other, which they do 'in the twinkling of an eye'. Quite unlike any other song in the Stills canon, this pretty pop ditty is actually more like a Nash song and Graham's guest vocal sounds a lot more comfortable than Stills' does (he even sings in falsetto as if trying to reach for 'Nash notes' in his lead vocal!) Sweet but undemanding, at least it's a song that works well with the 80s pop setting and is actually a bit easier to listen to than some of the others on this album with less synth and drum distractions. My reviewer's eyes aren't quite green, but they're changing from the deep dark blue I felt on the last track...

My eyes are now turning black because being semi-conscious is the only way to get through the frankly horrid cover version of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Though it's nice to hear Nash singing on a song written about his breakup with Joni, Stills sounds deeply uncomfortable once again and takes several liberties with a song that arguably wasn't one of Neil's stronger ideas to start with. The slow tempo, the parping synths (which sound like a doorbell, presumably at the 'Heartbreak Hotel') and the presence of a misguided and derided extra verse written by Stills which tries to add some optimism but forgets to rhyme ('And so my friend if you have seen the other side of all those dreams know that you can take it as far as you want to, don't believe the great run around') all add up to another troubling three minutes better spent listening to the original from 'After The Goldrush'. Or indeed any other Neil Young song (except ones from 'Greendale', obviously). You have to say, though, that what Stills does here sounds more like sabotage than the inventive treatment he gave to past Young covers 'New Mama' (given added punch with some added guitar breaks) and 'The Loner' (with a new and rather handsome rock and roll riff). There is, for instance, a moment just before the last interminable reprise of this song where the synthesiser actually winks at us - yes, it winks! If Mills and Boon ever need a soundtrack for an audio CD, this is surely a candidate with more cheese than a delicatessen. Neil, of course, hates this sort of thing with a passion which makes you wonder if Stills was trying to wind him up (they weren't at peak speaking terms, their last regular contact being with the Stills-Young band tour Neil walked out on in 1976 and the quartet not quite back together again for Live Aid, where this song was also played - sans the extra verse and synths, thank goodness). Another awful mistake.

'No Hiding Place' solves some of the problems of the album by getting rid of the 1980s pop setting and the synthesisers in favour for a banjo bluegrass song that could have slotted in easily on the second 'Wilderness' side of the Manassas album (barring Stills' now over-growly voice). That's Manassas man Chris Hillman on the mandolin and once again he gets more air time than Stills on a song he recommended to his old partner. Unfortunately what looks so good on paper sounds terribly out of place and anachronistic and Stills sounds dreadful, as if he's been up all night for three nights solid, in contrast to Hillman and his buddy Herb Pedersen's lush leads. Once again Stills adds  lots of words to the song, replacing the Christian imagery of the original ('Sister Mary she wears a golden chain, on every link there's Jesus' name') with a set of lyrics about the cold war ('Did you hear the sport on TV holding forth about war, nukes and victory?') with only the chorus left intact. Turning not being able to hide from a God to not being able to hide from a man-made Judgement Day is an interesting twist and this is the sort of thing you can imagine being sung round nuclear bunkers the world over had Reagan got drunk enough to press that red button (we know Bush would have done in his place, probably Trump too). Some of these lyrics seem overwritten for such a simple song though, which occasionally loses the thread of what it seems to be saying ('With no hand upon your fate all the prophets do is wait either ending or ten thousand years'). The backing musicians try their best to whoop and yell the song on, but the backing track sounds strangely antiseptic considering it's the only one on the album not to feature a synthesiser at all. A bit of an oddball experiment, this, which misses the creativity and vision of Manassas to pull it off. Hillman and Pedersen might have been better off putting this song on one of their own albums.

The album ends on another odd note, with the title track 'Right By You' a blues that sounds deeply out of place on perhaps Stills' least bluesy album. Though Stills sounds more 'right' here, it's a shame that he chooses to hand over the bluesy guitar solo to Jimmy Page (whose good, but clearly not Stills-good - and boy is that remark going to get me comments!) and that the song runs out of ideas so early on, fizzling out to a sorry conclusion instead of building in power as the Stills of old would have managed. Lyrically this is a step back towards the album's better moments, though, with a 'wasted' Stills repeating old favourite phrases like 'to a flame' on another journey down memory lane. Perhaps noticing that all his girlfriends have something in common (complex love lives: 'No man ever done right by you!') Stills regrets the fact that he couldn't be 'that man', too busy 'pleasing' everyone around him to take care of what his beloveds really needed. 'Time for a big change' sighs Stills as he vows once more to learn from his mistakes. Though Stills has recorded lots of blues songs before and since this is arguably the most traditionally blues (alongside 'Run From Tears' perhaps) as he complains about 'all this misery and this cryin' and not knowing what to do!' (other Stills blues songs being about drunken card games, lost friends and musicians and Ole' Man Trouble). Stills reaches a peak of indignation that at last points at the real heartbreak and misery buried so well beneath the surface sheen of this album, but ironically there's something about this track that doesn't sound quite as moving and openly honest as the more 'hidden' songs on this album.

Sadly, if predictably, this album failed - despite the synths and the power boats - and 'Right By You' remains the last solo album Stills ever released on a major label as well as one of his weakest sellers. Clearly making a commercial album in 1984 was never going to work (not with a band who'd always relied on being so 'real' to their muse and music anyway) and Stills tried just a little too hard to do  'right' by his record company instead of 'us'. The first half though, especially, has its share of surprises and 'Right By You' seems to be an album that improves with age and extra playings (the further we get from the 1980s the less common hearing those sounds become and the deeper you dig in this album the more treasures you find). It's not a classic by anyone's standards and remains one of the few CSN albums this site can't wholeheartedly recommend, but 'Right By You' isn't quite the total disaster everyone thinks it is. A remix, a couple less experiments, a couple of replacement songs, no Mike Finnigan and less powerboats and 'Right By You' would be better remembered and rather more loved.


 Other CSNY-related articles from this site you might be interested in if you have a spare month or three:

‘Graham Nash, David Crosby’ (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/graham-nash-david-crosby-1972.html

'Stephen Stills-Manassas'  (1972)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-51-stephen-stillsmanassas-1972.html

'Wild Tales' (Nash) (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/news-views-and-music-issue-75-graham.html

'Down The Road' (Stephen Stills/Manassas) (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/stephen-stillsmanassas-down-by-road-1973.html

'Stills' (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/review-65-stephen-stills-stills-1975.html

'Wind On The Water' (Crosby-Nash) (1975) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-67-crosby-nash-wind-on-water.html

'Illegal Stills' (Stills) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/stephen-stills-illegal-stills-1976.html

'Whistling Down The Wire' (Crosby-Nash) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/david-crosby-graham-nash-whistling-down.html

'Long May You Run' (Stills-Young) (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/news-views-and-music-issue-33-stills.html

'CSN' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-70-crosby-stills-and-nash-csn.html

'Thoroughfare Gap' (Stills) (1978) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/stephen-stills-thoroughfare-gap-1978.html

'Earth and Sky' (Nash) (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/graham-nash-earth-and-sky-1980.html

'Daylight Again' (CSN) (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/news-views-and-music-issue-131-crosby.html

'American Dream' (CSNY) (1988) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-american.html

'Live It Up!' (CSN)  (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/news-viedws-and-music-issue-104-crosby.html

'CPR' (Crosby Band) (1998) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/cpr-david-crosby-band-1998.html

'Looking Forward' (1999) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-looking.html

'Crosby*Nash' (2005) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/news-views-and-music-issue-21-crosby.html

'Deja Vu Live' (CD) (2008) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/08/news-views-and-music-issue-1-crosby.html

'Deja Vu Live' (DVD) (2008) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_09_21_archive.html

'Reflections' (Graham Nash Box Set) (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/news-views-and-music-issue-22-graham.html

'Demos' (CSN) (2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/news-views-and-music-issue-41-crosby.html

'Manassas: Pieces' (2010) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/news-views-and-music-issue-52-manassas.html

‘Carry On’ (Stephen Stills Box Set) (2013) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/stephen-stills-carry-on-box-set-2013.html

'Croz' (Crosby) (2014) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/david-crosby-croz-2014album-review.html

'CSNY 74' (Recorded 1974 Released 2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/crosby-stills-nash-and-young-csny-74.html

The Best Unreleased CSNY Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/csny-best-unreleased-tracks-news-views.html

Surviving TV Appearances (1969-2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/csny-surviving-tv-appearances-1969-09.html

Non-Album Recordings (1962-2009) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young_6.html

Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One (1964-1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young.html

Live/Compilations/Rarities Albums Part Two (1982-2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/crosby-stills-nash-and-sometimes-young_20.html



No comments:

Post a comment