Friday, 13 July 2012

Stephen Stills and Manassas

Some years ago, I embarked on a journey through the California rock movement of the 60s and 70s, encompassing country-rock, the singer-songwriter movement, and the tangentially connected "scenes".

One day in my favourite record store, I discovered the 1972 debut album by Stephen Stills' group Manassas. To my shame, I had not previously even been aware of the existence of the record or the band. I distinctly recall standing in the shop, gazing at the cover of the CD, with the names of the group members in white lettering, and thinking that this was almost too good to be true.  I had no internet access back then, and so without undertaking any additional research, purchased the album, feeling reasonably certain that it would accord with my tastes.

As soon as I played the album, I "got it".  A bunch of accomplished and skilled musicians, performing songs embracing a number of styles - blues,country,folk,Latin,R&B and straight rock, these genres often being amalgamated.  The record instantly appeared diverse,funky and broad in its scope, almost an embarrassment of riches, the music equivalent of a delicious plum pudding!  Having not heard of the Manassas project before, it was akin to discovering a box of hidden treasure.

Another thing which occurred to me right away was the lack of artifice or self-indulgence on the album, in spite of the calibre of the musicians featured on it.  Manassas is almost entirely founded on concise songs.  Tentative parallels may perhaps be drawn with another double-album issued in 1972, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones.  Both exuded rootsiness, and the joy of a group of guys making music almost for the hell of it.  Of course, Stephen Stills had some links with the Stones around this time, and Bill Wyman makes a guest appearance on Manassas.

Mercifully, in digital formats (those which I have heard, anyway), the music retains its essentially organic and earthy ambience, the emotion and grit not being sucked out by over-zealous remasterings. The sounds are permitted to breathe....

In addition to the presence of Stills himself, other elements go towards making this such a fine album. The pedal steel of Al Perkins injects vital nuance, soul and novelty throughout.  The variety of guitar sounds adds depth, with Perkins complementing Stills' own prowess. Joe Lala's percussion adds a certain funkiness and rhythmic vigour to many of the songs.

The role of Chris Hillman is also crucial, his harmonies being an important, but underplayed, element. To describe him as Stills' right hand man here may be inaccurate, but his input and presence add a subtly different dimension to things; a welcome counterweight to the other participants.

On an album which is so uniformly enjoyable, it is a tough task to select highlights, but I'm going to do it anyway!  "So Begins The Task" has an enigmatic, ethereal and haunting quality about it, with a tasteful backing track overlaid by some affecting and inventive pedal steel. The vocal harmonies in the chorus are perhaps the most impressive on the album.

"It Doesn't Matter" features some languid vocals.  This track is almost "Byrdsian", but with a seductive and hedonistic "Seventies" feel, mostly by virtue of the glitzy guitar parts.  Another deceptively strong melody.  On Manassas, many of the songs are subsumed into the whole, seemingly not wishing to draw attention to themselves. 

A powerful, driving core is at the heart of "Right Now", with quite a breathless riff holding things together.  The track is propelled along by the efforts of the whole musical combo.

The penultimate number, "The Treasure", contains what could be loosely termed a "guitar jam", but it is a strong song in its own right, with some pleasing changes and hooks.  When the guitars do kick in, some variety and invention at least partially answer any charges of excess. 

One of the delights of Manassas is its ability to offer up hidden gems, and for the beauty and charm of some of the songs to reveal themselves gradually. Even many years after first hearing it, I am still constantly discovering hitherto neglected corners and depths.  Is it probably true to say that none of the individual songs are outright masterpieces, but this is to miss the point.  This is an album, in the truest sense, with a real vitality about it. 

The running order is arranged astutely, divided into four sides (as per the original vinyl LP), each one nominally covering a musical style, or the subject matter.  This itself is not immediately conspicuous, but the scheduling works well in practice.  There is some "light and shade", and this all helps to keep the listener intrigued.

The Manassas combination released a second album, "Down The Road", in 1973, and although this possessed its stylish, entertaining and appealing moments, it could not fully recreate the magic and zest of its predecessor. 

A contentious point, I know, but the Manassas album might just be the most fully realised, coherent work which Stephen Stills ever committed to record.

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