LP Review: David Crosby, The Beautiful ‘Sky Trails’

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My path to the solo music of David Crosby was somewhat circuitous. By the time I graduated high school, I was already a big Neil Young fan. My college roommate Drew turned me onto Crosby, Still, Nash &/or Young and really expanded my knowledge of Neil Young’s solo catalog. I was always more into the yang of the Stills/Young part of the band than the yin of Crosby/Nash. Or are Stills/Young the yin and Crosby/Nash the yang? I can never keep that straight. Anyway, over time I began to realize that songs like “Deja Vu,” “Long Time Gone,” and “Guinevere” were amongst my favorite songs from CSN/CSNY. Crosby’s impassioned harmony vocal on “Ohio” is the thing of legend. There is something so distinctively sweet about David Crosby’s vocals…the guy was probably humming a counter-melody to his ultrasound whilst still in the womb… if they did ultrasounds back then?

In college, I was too busy burying myself deeper and deeper into Neil Young’s catalog to really explore any of the other members of CSN’s music. I finally got around to checking out Stephen Stills’ early solo work and his brilliant double-LP with Manassas. Eventually this meandering musical spelunking led me to the classic duo albums Crosby did with Graham Nash. Those guys are just meant to harmonize together. Two of their early records, are simply put, must-haves. ‘David Crosby/Graham Nash’ from 1972 and ‘Wind On The Water’ from 1975 are exceptional showcases for Crosby and Nash’s ability to bring out the best in each other. Crosby’s “Carry Me” and “Mama Lion,” both of which I believe were written about the passing of his mother, were the tracks that first jumped out at me from ‘Wind On The Water.’

Finally, years later, after Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young put out the box-set, triple-disc live album ‘1974’ I realized it was time to start checking out David Crosby’s solo stuff. The only thing I was really familiar with was the song “Drive My Car” from ’89’s ‘Yes I Can,’ his first LP after his stint in jail. It was while I was in college that Crosby famously melted down and ended up in a prison in, I believe, Texas. I always liked “Drive My Car,” it’s a great tune, but for whatever reason, maybe it was the legal stuff, I didn’t explore Crosby’s solo stuff any further. I did really like the songs Crosby contributed to CSNY’s reunion album, released around that same time, ‘American Dream,’ especially, “Compass,” a harrowing acoustic journey through his addictions. Yet, I never jumped in…

After the release of ‘1974,’ I finally went back to his first proper solo album, ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ What a stunner of an album that was. I’ve read in several places that it’s considered a “cult classic.” I just call it a classic. It was this bizarre amalgamation of folk, jazz with a good dose of psychedelia thrown in. I absolutely love the record. I know it went gold, but it’s surprisingly an album that you only rarely hear about. “Cowboy Movie” is an epic tune with both Jerry Garcia (who arranged and helped produce the album) and Neil Young on guitars. I’ve always been surprised that “Laughing” wasn’t a huge hit. It’s a beautiful song, amongst Crosby’s best.

The rest of Crosby’s solo career was sporadic. It wasn’t until 2014’s ‘Croz’ came out that the critics started to notice his solo recordings. He returned quickly in 2016 with the spare, acoustic LP ‘Lighthouse’ produced and cowritten with Snarky Puppy’s Micheal League. ‘Lighthouse’ was a return to and a publicly admitted homage to ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ It’s an unvarnished, almost under-produced gem of a record. While I didn’t hear anything as immediately impactful as “Cowboy Movie” I certainly appreciated the effort. After ‘Croz’ and ‘Lighthouse,’ it was official: David Crosby was on a late-career hot streak!

Now, merely a year after ‘Lighthouse,’ David has returned with his superb new album, ‘Sky Trails.’ Cheap Trick, Van Morrison and now David Crosby all putting albums out in successive years… it feels like the 70s again. The album is produced by his son, James Raymond who also plays a lot of the instruments on the album. There’s some great acoustic guitar work on this album and while I can’t find credits, I think its both Raymond and Crosby playing. Crosby has worked with Raymond before and I do think Crosby does better in collaborative situations, be it this one, Jerry Garcia on his first record, Micheal League on ‘Lighthouse’ or Graham Nash on those classic Crosby/Nash albums.

I kept reading that there were some songs on here that were Steely Dan-jazzy type songs. I was skeptical about that until I saw that former Steely Dan member Michael McDonald had cowritten a song here… I will say, the opening track, “She’s Got To Be Somewhere” is a funky Steely type keyboard with saxophone song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Aja.’ It’s a great track but it’s really the only Steely Dan-like track I hear here.

The epicenter of the album for me are the two overtly political songs, “Capitol,” and “Sell Me A Diamond.” Although in his 70’s it’s nice to see that his old hippy protest spirit is alive and well. “Capitol” is the best protest track Crosby has written since “Stand And Be Counted.” I dig the righteous rage. “Sell Me A Diamond” is a brilliant tune and reminds me of some of the stuff CSNY did on the wrongly maligned ‘Looking Forward’ album (It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t that terrible, folks). “Diamond” has a soaring chorus and a nice little pedal steel. I love the coda of the song, where Crosby repeats “Makes conflict free sound good to me…”

There are some great quieter moments here. Crosby duets again on this record, like on ‘Lighthouse’ with Becca Stevens on the title track and their voices harmonize like Crosby’s and Nash’s. It’s a spare, acoustic number punctuated with light saxophone. It’s an ethereal song about being lost out on the road and a true highpoint here. “Before Tomorrow Falls On Love,” cowritten with Michael McDonald, is a piano/vocal number with a great jazz vibe. I feel like I’ve just walked into a hip jazz club and there’s a guy singing at the piano. Crosby also beautifully covers Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia.” I know they go way back and she has had some health issues of late… it’s a nice gesture to hear Crosby sing one of her songs. “Somebody Home” is an atmospheric acoustic/vocals tune with just the right amount of organ and some more pedal steel and naturally, another great vocal.

Towards the end of the first half is another favorite of mine, “Here It’s Almost Sunset” that has some beautiful percussive elements with a sax that almost sounds like early Sting and Branford Marsalis. It’s a beautiful melody that drifts by like a cloud. There are just so many moods here. And through out are Crosby’s spectacular vocal performance. His voice brings all these different moods and tempos together, it’s the common thread. Toward the end of the album comes “Curved Air” with some great percussive elements and almost Spanish-guitar type riffing. It’s just great.

This is the most enjoyable, consistent thing I’ve heard Crosby do since ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name.’ It’s great to hear a more mature artist exercise his beautiful vocal instrument against these various musical backdrops. It still has that folky/jazzy vibe of his first record and I mean that in a good way. This is the kind of record that often gets overlooked out there in today’s market but is definitely worth the investment. Pour your next nightcap and drop “Home Free” on the stereo and drink in the night.

Cheers!

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