Liner Notes: Crosby, Stills and Nash


October 26th, 2011


By: Nick Bradley

I remember the very first vinyl album I ever got: Crosby, Stills & Nash’s eponymous first album. They are, perhaps, the world’s best-known folk rock artists and, to this date, my favorite band. The album’s design is simple and clean. A picture of Graham Nash, David Crosby & Stephen Stills (unintentionally not in order) sitting on a couch adorns the front cover while another picture of the three in fur coats, in order this time, graces the inside. The music is very much the same – incredibly simple on the surface but so rife with complexity and pregnant with meaning that every listening experience reveals something new.

The album’s first track, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s a winding, complex journey through Stephen Stills’ breakup with his girlfriend Judy Collins. The song starts with a jangling guitar riff and some pop-y lyrics about love lost but soon evolves into a slow, harmonic section that could make Chuck Norris shed a tear. Harmonies lock and a guitar jangles in the background and, for just a moment, time stops as the listener gets a taste of raw emotion in Stills’ vocal solo. The rest of the song is a series of poetic lyrics and climbing tension that finally reaches its climax in the last verse, a jumble of not-quite-proper Spanish backed by some “doo-doo-doots” from Crosby and Nash. And in a flash, it’s all over.

“Marrakesh Express” follows with a lighthearted tale of all the curiosities found when you leave the passenger compartment of the train and go for a walk. Then comes “Guinnevere,” another stunningly mature example of CSN’s vocal prowess. Tight harmonies rise into the air and mingle with moving electric and acoustic guitar lines. Pastoral images fill your head and it’s hard not to feel a little attachment to the three women who are the topic of song. I’d like to meet any woman who can inspire that sort of music.

The “B” side of the album opens with “Wooden Ships,” an eerie-sounding song written by Crosby, Stills and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. The unsettling lyrics tell the story of the aftermath of a nuclear war but it is the instrumental music that drives home the point. An organ cries persistently in the background as Stills’ guitar wanders the scorched landscape in search of shelter.

Still reeling from “Wooden Ships,” the listener is pushed into “Lady of the Island” and “Helplessly Hoping,” two mournful acoustic pieces showcasing, once again, CSN’s impeccable harmonies. In “Helplessly Hoping,” the musical focus is on Stills’ alliterative lyrics: “helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovers nearby…wordlessly watching, he waits by the window and wonders at the empty place inside.”

The album draws to a close with David Crosby’s protest song, “Long Time Gone” and Stills’ “49 Bye-Byes.” Written in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, “Long Time Gone” speaks out against injustice in the political system. While his lyrics are not particularly compelling, Crosby’s tone of voice makes the message clear. Such stunning examples of Crosby’s vocal ability are rare – his next lead vocal appearance of such powerful stature would be “Almost Cut My Hair” on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s album “Deja Vu.”
And that’s it. It feels, for just a moment, like there’s nothing left to be said. In a genre as diverse as folk rock, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of competing influences and unknown singer songwriters, but CSN’s soulful harmonies, ingenious lyrics and stunning instrumental performances put them a cut above the rest.

If you enjoyed Crosby, Stills & Nash and want to hear some more folk rock, I’d recommend:
– America
– Simon and Garfunkel
– Vetiver
– Nickel Creek

You can catch Nick’s radio hour, Liner Notes, on Monday’s at 10pm.


One Comment

  1. Matt says:

    I’m pretty partial to Deja Vu, but this album definitely holds a spot in my record collection too. Thanks for the post!

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