Category Archives: Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills Discography

Stephen Stills is a musician’s musician, a point that is often overshadowed by his strong songwriting. He came to national prominence in Buffalo Springfield, a post-Byrds folk-rock band that had its biggest hit with Stills’ politically charged “For What It’s Worth.” When that band folded after a few years, Stills joined The Byrds’ David Crosby and The Hollies’ Graham Nash in what is arguably the most successful supergroup of all time, Crosby, Stills and Nash.

CS&N changed the shape of rock & roll by blending their multiple and distinct musical personalities into a sum that was somehow greater than its considerable, individual parts. Their first record featured a song written earlier for Stills’ then-girlfriend, Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” The second CS&N record reunited Stills with former Buffalo bandmate Neil Young, beginning an on/off affair as CSN&Y broke apart and reunited in various permutations over the years.

In the Seventies, Stills released a string of solo albums in between occasional CS&N reunions. His first featured a major hit with “Love The One You’re With” and an all-star cast that included Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr and Cass Elliott. After his second solo album, Stills formed another “supergroup” with The Byrds’ Chris Hillman and various CSN sidemen dubbed Manassas. The group’s first release, a double album, showcases the many sides of Stephen Stills to fine effect. After Manassas, Stills switched to Columbia Records, and later recorded a one-off album with Neil Young (Long May You Run). The next two decades saw a decline in solo albums but an increase in CSN activity.

Stills might have enjoyed a long retirement of racing cars and sailing boats. Instead, he formed a blues supergroup, The Riders, in 2013. While his voice has grown craggier over the years, it’s great to see him back in the saddle.

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Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills: Super Session (1968)

super session album coverOne of the great blues-rock jam sessions on record. Apparently. Like jazz, this stuff tends to go in one ear and out the other for me, whooshing through my head with a taunting whisper. I guess you had to be there, or be there and somewhere else at the same time, where the pungent playing of Mike Bloomfield tugged at your aura like a fly caught in a web. Given the small space I’ve cleared out in my life for blues-rock, I can do just fine with a handful of recordings from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Jimi Hendrix, Cream; no need to super-size that selection, I say. But blues-rock was a burgeoning field in 1968, and Super Session did become an important part of the original blueprint. No matter that they never did build that house to the scale they first imagined, the idealism of it is still intoxicating. The record is split between two sessions; the first with guitarist Mike Bloomfield, the second with Steve Stills. Both sessions are cited as spontaneous with horns added later to flesh things out (Al Kooper could never leave things well enough alone). Some of the songs feature vocals by Kooper, a middling singer who does manage to energize Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” The initial attraction for me was to hear Steve Stills let his hair down and cut loose with some great soloing, which doesn’t happen. The instrumental heavyweights here are Bloomfield and Kooper, the latter lighting the material on fire with his organ and, on “His Holy Modal Majesty,” a weird device called the Ondioline that sounds, I kid you not, like bagpipes in space. Super Session is certainly no mere jam session—in walking through Hendrix’ abandoned cupboard you won’t find any tastier jams—but I don’t see God in the details either, and apparently some did. The production and engineering are excellent, one of the best-preserved artifacts from the ‘60s, so plunking down cash for the CD (or MFSL remaster) is advised if you’re planning on taking a trip with Super Session.

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Eric Clapton (1970)

Kronomyth 1.0: TALES OF BRAVE MEDIOCRATES. If I tell you that Eric Clapton’s first solo album is a disappointment, remember that much was expected of the man in 1970. He was the pre-eminent guitarist of the times, the hero of several supergroups (Cream, Blind Faith and, soon, Derek and the Dominos), not to mention his session work with The Beatles. Yet there was the sense that Clapton was shrinking from his own stardom, much as Paul McCartney had done after the breakup of The Beatles. Clapton’s decision to tour with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett was a curious choice given his previously high profile, and his newfound interest in groups like The Band seemed worlds away from the center stage of Cream. In nearly every way, Eric Clapton is an extension of his engagement with the Bramletts, featuring the same players with Bonnie cowriting most of the material and Delaney producing and arranging it. With time, it became clear that many of the interests explored on Eric Clapton (J.J. Cale, soul, a facility for catchy pop songs) genuinely reflect the man, but at the time it seemed unnaturally modest and deliberately circumspect compared to the grand scale of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire. That’s not to say the album was a complete disappointment; it did produce three legitimate singles (including the classic “Let It Rain” and “After Midnight”), and stands head and shoulders above the half-finished McCartney. Yet the fact remains that Clapton generated more energy and intensity with the blues in a power trio setting than he does with an eight-piece group behind him. Eric Clapton marks the beginning of a new chapter, and while many people breathlessly awaited the sequel to Cream (and found it in Derek), a new story was being written that would eventually render those works fantastic footnotes.

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[Review] Stephen Stills (1970)

stephen stills album coverI haven’t listened to every solo CS&N record, but this is the best of the lot so far. It opens with the most popular of the solo bits, “Love The One You’re With.” In the middle, Stills holds his own with guests Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton on guitar and Booker T. Jones on organ. It closes on a Beatle-y treat with Ringo Starr on drums. An auspicious start indeed. Solo releases from Graham Nash and David Crosby followed, each helping to bring into sharper relief the different musical personalities of CS&N’s members. Stills took most of the trio’s musical chops with him; he could have made a fine living playing keyboards and guitar and never opening his mouth. “Do For The Others” makes plain what a shame that would have been. The songs here range from thoughtful, acoustic bits sans support to electric blues-rock numbers with rock royalty. Those two sides of Stills won’t surprise anyone. Stills with strings (“We Are Not Helpless”) and Spector-al pop (“To A Flame”) might, but they’re also two of the more interesting avenues on here. Like Clapton’s coming out party, which also featured Rita Coolidge on backing vocals and Bill Halverson behind the boards, this debut had been a long time coming: Buffalo Springfield, the Bloomfield/Kooper session, CS&N. It’s tempting to speculate on whether some of these songs had been rolling around in Stills’ head for a while. “Black Queen,” rendered here in a fiery live acoustic version credited tongue-in-cheek to Jose Cuervo Gold Label tequila, was first recorded in a 1968 demo session unearthed 40 years later. Several of these tracks have since been folded into the extended CS&N canon (“Love The One You’re With” was featured on 4 Way Street), and no harm done if you want to cross that Street and come directly here, since it has the most to offer of the early CS&N solo albums (Young, of course, being another story entirely).

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Stephen Stills: “Love The One You’re With” (1970)

love the one you're with single sleeveKronomyth 1.1: LOVE, THE ONE-YEAR WITCH. The stormy relationship of Crosby, Stills and Nash was over, with Stills fired, re-hired, and then the whole experiment discarded. You can point fingers, wag tongues, but the truth is that magnetic personalities both attract and repel. Stills wasted little time in attracting a coterie of stars for his first solo album, which was led by the brilliant “Love The One You’re With.” It’s an instant classic, with some worldly steel drums added for good measure (shades of Paul Simon there). The B side featured the pristinely produced “To A Flame,” which had a Spectoral gloss to it that gave it a distinctly dreamy feel. It’s one of my favorites on his first album, noting that his first is my favorite among all of the CSN solo adventures. Beatles fans will also detect a slight hint of Apple in the affair, as either Billy Preston or Doris Troy are typically credited for the song’s title, and Ritchie (Ringo to the rest of us) appears on the B side, apparently returning the favor following Stills’ contributions to “It Don’t Come Easy.”

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Stephen Stills 2 (1971)

The critical consensus is that the five records that Stills released on Atlantic (six if you count Stills Live) represent his best work. No argument there. Where I tend to part ways with critics is in the put-down of Stills 2 as inferior to the works before (Stephen Stills) and after (Manassas). It is not the beneficiary of stockpiled songs; only “Change Partners” and “Know You Got To Run” are leftovers, to my knowledge anyway. Second albums are often disappointing for this reason. But Stills 2 doesn’t back down from the challenge; it charges into the breach with a dozen new songs that offer something for everyone: ravers (“Relaxing Town”), CSN-styled harmonies (“Singin’ Call”), the blues (“Open Secret”), guitar duels (“Fishes And Scorpions”) and a smartly arranged return to the old buffalo hunting grounds on “Bluebird Revisited.” Honestly, I think these songs stack up fine against the material on the double-album Manassas and rise above Down The Road. As with his first record, Stills invites some of the world’s best guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and a young Nils Lofgren) and more than holds his own in their esteemed company. While the first album had a genuine hit to rally around, Stills 2 has more surprises in store: the retro raver “Marianne” (it’s a shame Stephen Stills and Steve Miller didn’t play together), the funked-up blues of “Nothin’ To Do But Today,” the sweet southern sound of “Sugar Babe.” Unfortunately, it was “Change Partners” that was tapped as the first single, and listeners may have compared it to “Love The One You’re With” and extrapolated the album’s quality from that single data point, which would be a mistake. On Stills 2, I hear Stephen Stills growing more comfortable as a singer, songwriter and arranger. I know, I did pick on Stills for his lackluster performance on 4-Way Street but, as Stills 2 shows, he’s still a significant talent when fully engaged.

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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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Mickey Hart: Rolling Thunder (1972)

If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.”  While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.

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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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[Review] Stephen Stills: “Turn Back The Pages” (1975)

Kronomyth 5.1: WHO HAS TIME FOR REPETITIOUS PAGES? This was the first and only single released from Stephen Stills’ new album for Columbia Records, titled simply Stills. Once again, it was the album’s lead track, following a long-standing tradition of putting his best musical foot forward. It’s also one of two tracks co-credited to new guitarist Donnie Dacus. In this case, it sounds as though Stills and Dacus fused two different songs together, since the main verses and chorus have a completely different tempo and feel, and the lyrics don’t jibe. As a result of this, I’ve never been clear on what this song is about; maybe a reference to a soured friendship? I couldn’t tell you with any certainty which half belongs to Stills and which to Dacus. The lyrics throughout the main verses sound like Stills, but so does the Latin-themed music in the chorus. At any rate, the song didn’t capture the attention of radio listeners for nearly as long, and quickly dropped off the charts. The version that appears on the single is edited, with chunks of the second chorus and third verse cut out and a shorter fadeout.

Turn it on again.
The song’s title has always had a nostalgic quality, even if the lyrics don’t bear it out. When CSN toured in 1977, “Turn Back The Pages” was included in the group’s concert set. The harmonies from Crosby and Nash replaced the vocal harmony from Marcy Levy (who did an amazing job on the original). Twenty years later, CSN featured the song again in their 1996 tour, although at that point age had robbed their voices of their original luster. Some years later, a compilation of Stills’ Columbia recordings (including his early Super Session recordings) was packaged under the name Turnin’ Back The Pages. Of minor interest, the myriad song lyrics sites that popped up on the Internet years ago (and seem to continue to skirt copyright issues for the most part) have quite a few errors. I remember thinking at the time that the poor people who did the data entry for those sites had the most miserable job on earth. That is, until I started writing reviews that no one reads for free. On a brighter note, the B side is the album track “Shuffle Just As Bad,” which is some of the better blues this side of Eric Clapton.

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Stephen Stills: Stills (1975)

After Manassas, Stills went back to recording solo material, signed with Columbia Records and released Stills. The opening “Turn Back The Pages” sums it up nicely, as the album collects material from several sessions including one (“As I Come of Age”) dating back to 1971. The music on Stills isn’t quite as compelling or cohesive as the last two Manassas records, a point that didn’t escape critics. But it’s not a bad record by any means. You’ll find ambitious arrangements (“Love Story,” “Myth of Sisyphus”), sneaky melodies (“My Favorite Changes,” “In The Way”), a Neil Young song (“New Mama”) and what might be the best CSN song that never was, “As I Come of Age.” The supporting players represent a several-year span of time, including some new faces: Donnie Dacus, Marcie Levy, Kenny Passarelli, Rick Roberts. If you’re a fan of Stephen Stills, then Stills is definitely worth a flyer at some point. At least it meets my expectations of a Stephen Stills solo album: solid songs, thoughtful lyrics, some sharp guitar and organ playing, a revolving cast of stars and cameos from Crosby and Nash. You get the sense, reading some of the negative reviews of Stills as the time, that critics had simply soured on the whole CSN and sometimes Y experience. I’ll admit that their hand was overplayed and that the whole country-rock movement (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Crosby-Nash, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Firefall, Poco, The Southern Hillman Furay Band, etc.) seemed to re-shuffle the same cards in endless and often-diluted variations. A world that had grown tired of Stephen Stills, however, was a jaded world indeed. I think there’s plenty on Stills to hold your interest, even if it isn’t the first, second or third Stephen Stills album you need to own.

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Stephen Stills: Live (1975)

Not the Christmas season afterthought you’d think, Stephen Stills is indeed alive and well on this live record. Usually, critics say silly things about live records like “only for hardcore fans” or “a fine sampling of hits.” Stephen Stills Live isn’t either. The record features a handful of solo and CSN tracks—“Wooden Ships,” “4 + 20,” “Change Partners”—but no claims of pandering to the past can be made here. There’s even an original unique to the album, “Special Care,” that holds its own with anything on the electric side of the album. Yeah, that’s right, this one comes in two flavors: the electric side and the acoustic side. I can’t tell you who’s in the backing band on the electric side, since my elpee doesn’t have a lick of liner note information on it. (The notes below come courtesy of Wikipedia.) As far as I can tell, Stills is solo on the acoustic side, unplugged and unfettered. The opening “Change Partners” is as close as he comes to pushing his own product; no “Love The One You’re With,” no plug for his latest record (since this show pre-dates it). There’s also precious little interaction with the audience on this record, which is fine with me. What replaces the expected selections are unexpected covers: the James Gang’s “Rocky Mountain Way,” a smokin’ acoustic version of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” the blues standard “Crossroads” and a sweet rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me.” There’s something so casual, so natural about Stephen Stills Live that it may be the best way to experience him. Honestly, his recent solo albums were a little uneven, burdened with the need to make the occasional “big” statement. Live isn’t try to say anything deep, isn’t pushing any political agenda (except for the closing “Word Game”), isn’t leaning on the crutch of past glories. It won’t change your world, but it might be the solo album that best bespeaks this charismatic cowboy.

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[Review] Stephen Stills: Illegal Stills (1976)

illegal stills album coverKronomyth 7.0: THE PROOF IS IN THE PADDING. Stills’ second album for Columbia follows the format of the first, featuring material collected over the last few years. At the time of its release, Stills was at work on the album that would become Long May You Run, and a quick glance at the songwriting credits suggests that Stills wasn’t fully engaged in his own solo career. Donnie Dacus appears happy to pick up the slack, taking lead vocals on a couple tracks and even cowriting one of them with Stills’ soon-to-be-ex wife, Véronique Sanson. While nothing on Illegal Stills could be considered classic Stills, it’s a competent studio rock album from the mid 70s, suggesting Elton John’s Rock of the Westies on a more modest scale. (In fact, Kenny Passarelli, who again cowrote the closing track, was currently a member of Elton’s band.) The album’s hit single, “Buyin’ Time,” is typical of the American malaise of the mid Seventies, as history (the bicentennial celebration) and reality (the shadow of the Vietnam War, gas shortages, economic recession) collided. Other highlights include the biting “Soldier” and a decent cover of Neil Young’s “The Loner.” Given the diminishing quality of the product, Columbia had to be wondering if they didn’t trade for a lame horse. The collaboration with Stills and the CSN reunion showed that Stills still had some ethanol in his tank, so maybe it was just a case of Stills not taking his Columbia contract seriously. Both the label and fans weren’t paying for half of a Donnie Dacus album, but that’s what they got with Illegal Stills. Again, it’s not a disaster, but Stills was fast becoming an anachronism in a world where punk had been let out of Pandora’s box.

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{Review, in two parts} Dave Mason: Mariposa De Oro (1978)

mariposa de oro album coverKronomyth 10.0: NO KRUEGER ADDS FOR DAVID. You would think it impossible to play bottleneck slide in a leisure suit. And you would be wrong. Mariposa De Oro is a strange hybrid: the army of backing vocalists and orchestral arrangements are clearly influenced by disco, but the songs themselves are California rock with tasteful slide guitar and solid playing from a crack session band that now included Jeff Porcaro, Gerald Johnson, Mark Stein and songwriter Jerry Williams. Jim Krueger, Dave Mason’s primary collaborator up to this point, was off making his own solo album, so Williams was brought in to fill the gaps, and fill them he does with some terrific material including “Share Your Love,” “All Gotta Go Sometime” and “No Doubt About It.” The album’s big hit was an update of the old Shirelles song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which is a bit like shooting a fish in a barrel but at least not the beating a fish to death with a club that Jim Capaldi’s “Love Hurts” was. Stephen Stills, who appears here on two tracks including the a capella “Warm And Tender Love,” arrived at much the same place musically on his next album, Thoroughfare Gap. Both Mason and Stills were products of the Sixties who were trying to sell their product in the disco-crazed landscape of the late Seventies. They made some concessions to the times but continued to turn out good product. Like Stills and Eric Clapton (who would later retain the services of Mr. Williams), Mason gets some much-needed support from backing vocalists, experienced studio hands and an infusion of energy and ideas from a second guitarist (George Terry, Donnie Dacus, Jim Krueger, Jerry Williams, and there were plenty more where they came from).

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Stephen Stills: Thoroughfare Gap (1978)

Kronomyth 9.0: DISCO JOCKEY. This is as close as Stephen Stills has come to making a disco album, which is probably enough to seal its fate as an also-ran in his catalog. Yet behind the string arrangements, punchy rhythms and backing vocals (which feature the up-and-coming Andy Gibb) is the usual strong songwriting from Stephen. In fact, I might give Thoroughfare Gap the nod over his other Columbia records, which is as good as a wink to a blind horse. “Can’t Get No Booty” is the funniest song Stills has ever recorded (okay, so it’s a short list) and should have been a hit, especially given the success Joe Walsh was having with “Life’s Been Good.” On most of the record, Stills strikes a good balance between high-gloss production and guitar-driven rock (e.g., “What’s The Game,” “Lowdown”). He mixes it up with the usual polyglot pop (“Woman Lleva,” “Beaucoup Yumbo”), adds a nice acoustic number (“Thoroughfare Gap”) and even includes a couple (admittedly inferior) covers, “Midnight Rider” and “Not Fade Away.” Honestly, I didn’t expect much after the last few Stills albums, and the picture of him in a jockey’s uniform (a look that no one, not even Prince, could pull off) didn’t bode well. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that the music on Thoroughfare Gap wasn’t a case of Stills trying to work outside of his idiom, but rather to adapt his idiom to contemporary influences. Unfortunately, Columbia didn’t pick up his contract and Stills went silent during his pending divorce, resurfacing several years latter under the protective glyph of CSN.

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