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.
Solo albums from Graham Nash and David Crosby are as infrequent as Haley’s Comet sightings these days, and no doubt many observers put their telescopes away after Innocent Eyes. It was something of a surprise then that Graham returned to the studio after CSN&Y’s Looking Forward to work on an album of new material. Released almost two years after the fact on independent Artemis Records, Songs For Survivors finds the UK contingent of CS&N alive and well. Pristinely recorded (the liner notes go to the trouble of listing each individual microphone) and produced with father-and-son Russell and Nathaniel Kunkel, Nash’s first new solo album in 16 years is a warm and well-crafted collection of original songs featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica and that seemingly ageless voice. The album is a nod to his past (Songs For Beginners), a tip of the hat to fallen comrades (George Harrison, Cass Elliott, Michael Hedges and writer Allan MacDougall) and a concession to the challenge of simply surviving in this mad, modern age. “The Chelsea Hotel,” “Lost Another One” and “Liar’s Nightmare” address those issues directly, while love songs fill the gaps. Also included is a cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Pavanne” (from First Light), smartly done and smacking of woodsmoked folk. Nash was never the most politically pointed of CSN&Y, yet with age has come a certain amount of crustiness, evidenced by a barbed opening pair in “Dirty Little Secret” (about the 1921 Oklahoma race riots, I have no idea why) and “Blizzard of Lies” (drug abuse). Taking into account that “Nothing in the World” is a (probably unconscious) rewrite of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” Songs For Survivors shakes out to eight new tracks in 16 years; not enough to suggest a second wind. In fact, we’re still waiting for an encore. However, it’s a markedly better record than his last two, a graceful graying that shares the quality and integrity of recent CS&N albums like After The Storm and Looking Forward.