Saturday, July 7, 2012

July 7: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Déjá Vu"

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Album: Deja Vu
Year: 1970
Label: Atlantic

There are a handful of performers throughout music history who truly seem to be able to take any configuration of musicians and achieve superb musical results.  Whether their groups are referred to as "supergroups," or they simply each carve out their own, unique space in music history, in retrospect, the talent and impact of such musicians is impossible to deny.  Though they are perhaps the most rare breed of musician, there is no question that amongst the most accomplished and outright talented is the trio of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash.  Having already achieved massive success with their self-titled debut, the band felt that there was a need for a fourth musician, and though most are unaware, they initially approached Steve Winwood, though he was already working with the project that would become Blind Faith.  It was at the suggestion of Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun that the trio were pointed in the direction of Neil Young, through Stephen Stills was a bit hesitant due to their interactions within the band Buffalo Springfield.  Yet after a great deal of discussions and debate, the quartet was formed, and their 1970 album, Déjá Vu, remains today one of the most phenomenal achievements in the entire history of recorded music.

On many levels, Déjá Vu picks up right were the self-titled release from Crosby, Stills, and Nash left off; as the harmonies are amazingly tight, mostly backed by large guitar parts.  However, it is quickly clear that there is more of a "rock" feel to Déjá Vu than its predecessor, and one can see this as a direct result of Neil Young's involvement in the group, as well as the overall direction that music as a whole was headed.  Especially on songs like "Woodstock," the true appearance of the bands' ability to write more rock-style music is apparent, and yet their core of blissful folk is certainly present throughout the entire album.  Along with the now-quartet of guitars from the bands' namesakes, the group also enlisted a handful of equally amazing musicians to fill out the sound throughout the record, as John Sebastian plays harmonica on the records' title track, and none other than Jerry Garcia lends his pedal-steel to the iconic song, "Teach Your Children."  Greg Reeves returns on bass, though he would not last much longer in the band, and the light drumming of Dallas Taylor serves as an ideal finishing touch to each song.  It is the fact that there is so much sonic diversity throughout the album that makes Déjá Vu such a superb musical work, and it has rarely been equaled in any form to this day.

As one might expect, the addition of Neil Young to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash vocal style only makes it better, as his high range, and amazing level of emotion gives a number of these songs an unthinkable level of depth.  Yet at the same time, the four voices blend perfectly, and while the focus is not as much on the vocals as it was when the group was a trio, there is no question that the singing here is easily on par with that of any of their peers.  While one cannot overlook the blissful vocals, both solo and group that one can find throughout Déjá Vu, the reality remains that the lyrics found all across the album represent some of the finest any of these four have ever written, encompassing a wide range of emotions and themes.  There may be no more iconic a song from the entire era than the Nash-penned "Teach Your Children," as he takes aim at the way parents explain various aspects of society to their kin.  Nash also lent his words for "Our House" on this album, and both the peaceful nature of the melody, as well as the song itself have become something beyond timeless.  However, it is perhaps Neil Young's "Helpless" that refocuses the album, as well as showing just how much the band has broadened their musical styles.  It is the fact that so many feelings and sounds are explored through the vocals that pushes Déjá Vu even beyond the previous "trio effort," cementing its place as one of the truly amazing recordings in history.

Strangely enough, the song that is perhaps the most "famous" in terms of musical and social importance from this album was actually NOT written by any of the bands' namesakes.  "Woodstock" was in fact penned by Graham Nash's girlfriend, one Joni Mitchell, and the words came from his description of the event, as well as what she was seeing on the news.  Mitchell had been invited to perform, but her management thought that it would be better for her to make a television appearance instead of playing what was expected to be a rather inconsequential festival.  However, the truth of the matter is, almost every song from Déjá Vu has achieved an iconic status, and there is not a moment on the album that is anything less than superb.  From the flawless musical performances across a wide range of approaches and orchestrations to the equally powerful and enjoyable vocals, the song perfectly represents the transition from the folk sound to the rock sound, and even more than four decades later, each song remains just as engaging.  Due to this reality, any person can take their own "favorite moment" from the album, and this in many ways is the most obvious way that the group WITH Neil Young separates itself from the previous incarnation.  Whether it is the band members, the album title, or the songs therein, there is not a single aspect of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 1970 record, Déjá Vu, that is anything less than legendary, and it deserves every accolade it has ever received.

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