Everybody said “Why are you doing a double album?” I listen to it now–it overreached a little bit. It didn’t quite get there, but it was sure damn close. — Stills in an interview with Sounding Out.
Kronomyth 3.0: ALL THING MUST PASS THROUGH MANASSAS. As the CS&N solo albums slowly bled into the bland, Stephen Stills set his sights on a new supergroup featuring a couple of leftover Burritos (Chris Hillman, Al Perkins) and a backing band that included CS&N alumni Dallas Taylor and Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels. Dubbed Manassas (inspired by the cover photo taken during a tour through Virginia), the band released a double elpee’s worth of new material from Stills that represented, to date, the largest single outpouring of Stephen’s creative muse. In a sense, Manassas is his All Things Must Pass, a magnum opus that shows his multifaceted muse in its most flattering light. Country, rock, blues, folk, Caribbean, it’s all in here and spread over four album sides with the best backing band he’s ever had. Although George Harrison’s was the higher achievement, even with an album side of jams, Manassas has a similar effect on Stills fans, insofar as it’s a tower by which his other albums are judged and by which his legend will ultimately be measured. The twenty-two songs themselves range from good to great, sticking mostly to the country-rock sound of the Flying Burrito Brothers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Eagles and, of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Stills tosses in some unexpected surprises, however, and the results sound more like Fleetwood Mac (“It Doesn’t Matter”) and Cat Stevens (“Bound To Fall”) in a couple of spots. Manassas has at least a half-dozen songs that belong in a discussion of his best work including “Anyway,” “Colorado,” “So Begins The Task,” “The Treasure (Take One),” “How Far” and “Johnny’s Garden.” While I was impressed with his first album, my estimation of the man as a songwriter grew some after hearing Manassas–and this even after the CS&N albums. If you’re looking for the most interesting of the CS&N solo projects, Manassas will have you seeing double.
This was actually my first adventure in byrding, having netted it for “Don’t You Write Her Off,” then releasing it, then capturing it anew in a used record store. (The great cycle of something, I suppose.) It caused a small stir at the time and contained three wonderful tracks: “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” These songs are representative of what was right about the ‘70s soft rock movement. The rest of the album flirts with disco, adopting the city-slicker-in-cowboy-boots stance of Eagles and others. Honestly, the album begins to fall apart after “Surrender To Me,” though the closing “Bye Bye, Baby” is an awfully pretty ballad. Like the CS&N alliances, the three songwriters came to this project as individuals, choosing to write with outside collaborators rather than each other. Where they meet is in the harmonies, though even here other artists cloud the picture. That the trio couldn’t came up with better material is a bit disappointing, but that they left any kind of keepsake behind is a plus. However, this isn’t The Byrds in their natural setting. The pointless plug from Stephen Peeples on the cover and the staged cover photography scream “Cheese factor nine and scaling.” In fact, I’d rate this as some of the worst album packaging of all time. What’s inside is occasionally very good, especially the opening four cuts, which compare favorably to Bob Welch, Eagles et cetera. Still, the world needed The Byrds, not more songs about groupies, maneating women and soured relationships. At some point in your life, you should hear “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” The rest of this record you can live without.
Roger McGuinn is back. From Rio (not really). And he brought Tom Petty with him. I guess that’s the premise behind re-launching his solo career after so many years. Back From Rio sounds a lot like Tom Petty, or at least Tom Petty with Don Henley’s brain inside of him. (I don’t know why I’m always taking out people’s brains and putting them in other people’s bodies.) The songs are punchy, polished pop with a noticeable twang, not far removed from the contemporary work of singer/songwriters like Graham Parker and Lindsey Buckingham. The lyrics generally emanate from a failed romance (must be the influence of all those Heartbreakers); the Henley connection occurs in the social correction and anti-materialism found in songs like “Car Phone” and “The Trees Are All Gone.” It’s a very professional affair, affording younger artists (Elvis Costello, Michael Penn) a chance to work with an influential if infrequent artist. McGuinn, never a prolific songwriter, takes help where he can get it: EC is stamped all over “You Bowed Down,” Petty on “King of the Hill.” Combined with McGuinn’s own material (“The Time Has Come,” “Someone To Love”), Back From Rio is remarkably solid. Of course, a lot of people were making music like this: studio pop with ringing guitars and harmonies that could be seen as an alt rock update of The Byrds’ original vision. That McGuinn can lay claim to this legacy puts him ahead of the pack, much as it aided Roy Orbison and The Traveling Wilburys. But the history lesson was lost on most and, despite charting well, Back To Rio went back to the cutout bins. If you missed his emergence from the shadows the first time, this effort is worth a second look.