Crosby, Stills and Nash

     Crosby, Stills and Nash (Atlantic, 1969)
    CSN (Atlantic, 1977)
    Replay (Atlantic, 1980)
   Daylight Again (Atlantic, 1982)
  Live It Up (Atlantic, 1990)
    CSN (Atlantic, 1991)
   After the Storm (Atlantic, 1994)
   Greatest Hits (Rhino, 2005)
   Demos (Atlantic/Rhino, 2009)

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young/
     Déjà Vu (Atlantic, 1970)
     4 Way Street (Atlantic, 1971)
    So Far (Atlantic, 1974)
    American Dream (Atlantic, 1988)
    Looking Forward (Reprise, 1999)
     Deja Vu Live (Reprise, 2008)

Featuring David Crosby (formerly of the Byrds), Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield), and Graham Nash (formerly of the Hollies), CSN were one of rock's first supergroups. Their folky tunes and intricate harmonies were sometimes augmented by Neil Young – at which time CSN became CSNY. Both groups were signature bands of the Sixties' hippie movement, though their blander, stodgier tendencies became more pronounced as time wore on.

While dominated instrumentally by Stills, CSN's impressive debut reflected three distinct sensibilities. Enraptured at the time with Judy Collins, Stills led with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"; the seven-minute mini-epic conveyed his easy mastery of a number of styles (folk ballad, light rock, Latin-inflected rhythm), highlighted his sharp guitar work, and introduced the soaring ensemble harmonies that would become the group's trademark. Nash's slight but charming "Marrakesh Express" extended from the fluid pop he'd perfected with the Hollies. Crosby turned in the loosely structured ballad "Guinevere"—all drifty atmosphere and wide-eyed poetry, it exemplified his hippie mysticism. Of as much sociological as musical interest, the album exactly captured the spirit of the last high moment of the American Sixties. Exhausted by Vietnam, embarked upon mind expansion and lifestyle rebellion, the CSN generation found in the band both spokesmen and representatives; the singers' slightly weary utopianism, their bucolic fantasies, and their songs about love and its losses reflected the inward turning of an aging youth culture, the movement away from public struggle to self-examination.

Enlisting the aid of Stills' Buffalo Springfield collaborator (and rival), Neil Young, proved a risky move —Young's urgency and depth would make any CSN record that featured him gain immensely in power; his absences from their other albums, however, would equally resound. Contributing "Helpless," one of his loveliest and leanest ballads, as well as the gorgeous three-song suite "Country Girl" to Déjà Vu, Young also added jagged guitar work that counterbalanced Stills' more technical grace—and his keening, wise-child vocals lent haunting dimension to the trio's harmonies. Though Young's songs were the strongest, the other band members rose to his challenge. With Crosby's melodramatic "Almost Cut My Hair," the communal rebellion of the protest era is reduced to an individual, symbolic gesture; Nash's "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" express the urge toward domesticity on the part of former rebels; Stills' strong, electric reworking of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" takes on, in retrospect, the air of a last hurrah. The Stills-Young collaboration "Everybody I Love You" is so sweeping as to now sound a bit desperate, and Crosby's reincarnation saga "Déjà Vu" hints at the New Age e-z mysticism that would eventually preoccupy many survivors of the CSN generation. Unsurprisingly, CSN&Y soon came apart—Young's forward-looking vision being antithetical to the air of comfort that inflated CSN. The live 4 Way Street distinctly lacked team spirit.

Young was absent on CSN, but by then the Sixties moment that lent intensity and credibility to the trio's songs had passed, and its music had become nice, bland, and comfortable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nash's simple popcraft produced the most dependable of CSN's mild pleasures. Daylight Again was no great shakes, either, even if Crosby's voice sounded stronger than his years of highly publicized hard living might suggest. "Might As Well Have a Good Time" underscored the album's air of drastically lowered expectations—and the song wasn't even an original.

American Dream was still stronger than any Crosby, Stills and Nash record—even if Young's four songs were hardly standouts, the trio sounded more vital with Neil on board. The record's most touching number, however, was Crosby's "Compass," an apologia for his years of substance abuse.

Live It Up was an embarrassment; overreliant on outside writers for inspiration, the group sounded tired and confused, and a techno-happy production, full of synthesizer rhythm tracks, didn't help. After the Storm, one more attempt to rekindle the fire, was equally disappointing.

CSNY resurfaced with 1999's Looking Forward, a pleasant-enough disc that had a hidden gem in Young's "Out Of Control." Déjà vu Live is a document of CSNY's politically charged 2006 summer tour. Tracks from Young's sub-par Living With War disc are greatly enhanced by CSN's harmonies, and oldies like "Militally Madness" and "Wooden Ships" haven't sounded this vital in years.

Replay is a compilation of material from the debut and the singers' solo projects. With 25 of its 77 selections being alternate takes or previously unreleased rarities, the CSN box set not only documents the group's history thoroughly, but it unearths quite a few pleasant surprises. For a shorter CSN overview, you could check out the solid Greatest Hits—but newcomers may be better off buying CSN's debut and Déjà Vu.

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