Neil Young Discography Part Six - CSNY / Deja Vu (1970)
The Christmas release of Neil's self titled debut album didn't exactly gain the sort of sales he might have been expecting. Luckily however Neil's talent for songwriting was becoming better known all the time, and especially amongst the fellow denizens of Laurel Canyon, LA, where he and a number of other songwriters (Crosby, Stills, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons) had settled around the late 60s. A short time before the Woodstock festival, three of these, ex-Byrd David Crosby, ex-Buffalo Springfielder Stephen Stills and ex-Holly Graham Nash formed CSN, and released one of the biggest selling folk rock albums of the decade in the form of Crosby, Stills & Nash. So how to move even further forward? Well how about joining up with someone just as talented as them and making it a foursome. Thus CSNY was formed, and by March 1970 their debut album as a fourpiece, Deja Vu, was ready to be released. And what an album it is. Every songwriter on the album does amazing work, writing songs so good that even the slightly embarrassing (in retrospect of course!) lashings of hippy philosophy don't ruin things. It peaked at number 1 on the billboard charts and featured three massive hit singles, propelling all four members into superstardom and paving the way for Neil's impending solo success.
The album starts with Carry On, a song no doubt picked for the opener as it demonstrates the stunning four part harmonies the band were now capable off, giving us some even better vocal action than on the CSN debut. It's a Stephen Stills penned track, and its really clear straight away how much better he's become since the Buffalo days. The production is strong and bright without being too unnatural, and it really iis a great sunny opening to an album that really doesn't sound the same in winter as it does in the summer. There's some lovely relaxed playing here, a nice, almost dubby bassline, and its jammy without sounding like a jam band (gag).
Next up we have one of the singles, the rather legendary Teach Your Children. Lovely country guitar courtesy of Jerry Garcia, some nice understated acoustic/vocal fun that sounds so natural and spontaneous that the very chintzy and twee lyrics don't cause me too much angst, even though i was bred on Fugazi rather than Joan Baez. Nash was always the most poppy of the foursome, and its actually nice that he pops up every now and then to bring something more simple and Beatlesy to proceedings (gotta back the Brit!).
Third we have the ABSOLUTELY ACE Almost Cut My Hair. So FUCKING GOOD. Loud, kind of silly in its theme, but so heartfelt that it really WORKS! And a song about not cutting your hair really shouldn't work, at all. But it does. In fact a friend of mine refused to cut his hair for ages because he felt like he'd feel like an idiot when he listened to this song afterwards. And I feel the same (sometimes it's a pain being a music obsessive). Neil contributes some lovely guitar work here, duelling a little with Stills in a style that would really develop in the bands live shows.
Okay then, first Neil penned song, and it's an absolute classic. Maybe the best song he had written to date? Also maybe the most covered song in Neil's entire repertoire (and thats really saying something). Very very simple, as it should be. Lyrically succinct, starkly emotional, and just SO SO SO GOOD. The vocal harmonies don't overpower on this one, they're just about right. Neil's lyrics here are really getting somewhere; specific, so that we know the story's true, and yet not so specific as to leave us locked out, and somehow rather mysterious too. Very melancholic, as much of his best material would be in this period, which is just how I like it!
Woodstock is of course a Joni Mitchell cover, and very different from the original. I actually think it works a lot better than Joni's version, having just the right amount of stomping, determined passion about it. Stills vocals are really very nice here, and then when the whole band joins in on the chorus, its a reaaaally nice contrast. Guitar work = great, again. Note: I am drinking cider. This review WILL become more incoherent as we go on. No matter. Turn it up louder. Okay?!?
Deja Vu is an absolutely stunning David Crosby folk workout, very reminiscent of the work of our own James Martyn, with some fantastique intertwining guitar lines and some really very interesting vocal arrangements. The twists and tempo changes remind meof Neil's own Broken Arrow in a way, but I guess that post-Peppers this stuff was just in the air. Around the 2:30 mark we get a stunning slow segue into the end section, with some nice freeflowing basswork. The vocals on this bit are....really good. To say the very least.
Okay! Our House! Another of Nash's fun Beatlesy poppy songs, somewhat ruined for all British people by the fact that it was used on a mortgage advert every day for about 5 years in the early nineties. It still kind of works for me, the sentiment is pretty nice, if maybe a little tooooo twee, but I guess its meant to be, and in fact if Belle & Sebastian had written it I don't think anyone would bat an eyelid. Not that i'm one to every insult a good pop song. It's fucking impossible to write this stuff well, and Nash was somewhat of a genius at it.
4 + 20 is a rather simple Stills folk tune, almost Bluesy in structure and very much reflecting Stills upbringing in the South. He reaaaally knew this stuff well, perhaps having the best knowledge of Black musical styles out of any of the white folksters of the 60s. The song is short, sweet, and that's all it needs to be.
Okay so we finish up with 2 songs that Neil had a hand in writing. Country Girl was completely written by him, and it's a multi-movement mini epic along the lines of one of his Nitzsche produced tracks, but whittled down to its bare essentials. Epic in a very majestic way, the CSNY vocals here demonstrate how they could make a huge and bold sound as well as sweeter/quieter one. It may not be one of his best songs of this period, but it certainly corrects some of the mistakes he'd made on his debut.
The album finishes up with the Young/Stills collaboration Everybody I Love You, a nice storming track that doesn't do an awful lot other than show that the band could rock as well as play the quiet stuff. To be honest most of the songs on this album are great in their recorded versions, but they reaaaally came alive in live shows.
Okay! So in conclusion, it's short, sweet, stunning in places, just adequate in others, but Neil-wise, it really sets the stage for the forthcoming deluge of classic material. MP3s? Here's one from Neil and one from Dave Crosby. Enjoy!
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Almost Cut My Hair
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Helpless