Category Archives: Chris Hillman

Stephen Stills: Manassas (1972)

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 two albums, 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.

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Stephen Stills/Manassas: Down The Road (1973)

Kronomyth 4.0: DOWN TO EARTH. The second Manassas record sounded a lot like Stephen Stills 2 with better playing behind it, which wasn’t good enough for critics, most of whom panned Down The Road as second rate. It’s really not a bad record, a good half of which can hold its own with the material on the first Manassas record. Highlights include “Isn’t It About Time” (which features some blistering slide work), Hillman’s pretty “So Many Times,” a pair of winning south-of-the-border songs and the closing “Rollin’ My Stone.” Unfortunately, about half of the album could be accurately described as filler, including an apparently unconscious rewrite of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” as “City Junkies.” For Stills’ fans, Down The Road is still a worthwhile purchase. There’s no question that the man sounds better with a good working band behind him, especially when it includes extra piano, guitar and percussion. After listening to the lovely “Guaguancó de Veró,” which references his new relationship with Veronique Sanson (the pair married shortly before the release of this album), I’m convinced that Stills should pay a bongo player to follow him around everywhere. The undoing of Manassas wasn’t an uncertain future, but the pull of the past. Stills and Hillman would soon reunite with their former bands (CSN, The Byrds), and Manassas would be remembered as a felicitous, ephemeral alignment like Derek and the Dominos. Both bands deserved an encore, Manassas got theirs, only to find that half of their audience had left in the interim. The fault doesn’t lie with the musicians but the material, which spends too much time in the middle of the road. If you’re planning on buying three Stephen Stills records in your life, it’ll come down to this or Stephen Stills 2, so take your pick.

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Chris Hillman: Clear Sailin’ (1977)

7E-1104 album coverKronomyth 2.0: WORTH A FLYER. Imaginary wrasslin’ match, the first: Clear Sailin’ vs. Thirty-Three & 1/3 (The Bearded Byrd vs. the Shaven Beatle). It’s something I’ve been toying with in my head lately, finding a fitting partner in the same weight class and letting them go toe to toe. Of course The Beatles were bigger (and better) than The Byrds, Harrison more spiritual than Hillman, a better guitarist to boot, but you get the analogy. Both are boogaloo albums: soft rock with some funky horn charts and a country honky-tonk heart. Harrison’s had two legitimate hits (“This Song,” “Crackerbox Palace,”), Hillman’s doesn’t. Take away the two hits, though, and they’re pretty similar. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” stacks up fine against a “Learning How to Love You,” “Ain’t That Peculiar” to “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me,” “Fallen Favorite” to “See Yourself,” “Clear Sailin’” to “Pure Smokey.” Hillman is more Eagles than Beatles I realize, but I don’t own any Glenn Frey solo albums so I’m going with what I’ve got. Both Hillman and Harrison had professional bands behind them; here, Skip Edwards and Al Garth deserve special mention. Lyrically, however, Clear Sailin’ isn’t always clear. The opening “Nothing Gets Through,” for example, consists of a string of nonsensical similes, which I’m pretty sure was the intent but still doesn’t start the record off on a strong note. (You could argue that “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” was an odd way to open Thirty-Three & 1/3 too.) “Quits” is also clumsily worded. As a solo artist, Chris Hillman doesn’t have the vocal presence of a Roger McGuinn or his dramatic sensibilities. He needs the help, the harmonies and a prevailing wind to push him along. Clear Sailin’ is a mostly competent album of country/rock/disco (“crud” to the rest of you) that suggests Hillman had about half a good album in him at any given moment, a point that McGuinn, Clark & Hillman confirmed.

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McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)

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.

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Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman Featuring Gene Clark: City (1980)

The second album from the Byrds trio, diminished to a duo because of Gene Clark’s instability (sound like any other trios you know?). Clark wrote and sang on only two tracks, then split to sort things out or solve mysteries with Daphne and the gang or something, leaving McGuinn and Hillman on the hook with the Alberts to make another album. While it lacks the standout pop singles of their last album, City does sound more like the work of the Byrds, just not their best work. “Let Me Down Easy,” “One More Chance” and the silly “Skate Date” aren’t bad at all. “Painted Fire” and “Who Taught The Night” are, in fact, pretty bad. The pair probably should have spread these records out a little farther, like CS&N regrouping every three to five years after they’d had a chance to stockpile better songs. While a lot of City is filler, it’s no worse than Graham Nash’s albums from the 80s. And the new decade found a lot of folk rockers floundering: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, etc. Most bands from the 60s and 70s have the 80s to thank for an album or two in the discount cut-out bin with their name on it. If you’re intent on owning everything by The Byrds and can defend these solo byrdflights the way most of us defend solo albums by the Fab Four, then you’ll find something of interest in City. McGuinn and Hillman have earned that kind of loyalty, and the clustering with Clark, however brief, will be too tantalizing to some, like the magic glyph of CS&N that has been invoked throughout the ages. There’s little magic on here, mostly mediocre and midtempo rock songs that shine in relation to pleasant memories you have of The Byrds, and not the reunion you bin looking for (every sentence, there is an imperfect ending).

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Roger McGuinn: Back From Rio (1991)

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.

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