Just Roll Tape
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/18/2007
The very thing that made Buffalo Springfield great was the creative tension between its twin pillars, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. When internal problems tore the group apart, Young pursued his solo career before joining up with CSN&Y in 1971, with such classic early albums as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush establishing him as a top-notch songwriter.
Young followed a path of tortured genius in those early years, his sprawling epics ("Down By The River") and moody lyrics a reflection of his personality. Stills, on the other hand, pursued a much more upbeat and confessional path in the years leading up to the first CSN&Y record in 1970 (consider the difference between Young's "Cowgirl In The Sand" and Stills' "Love The One You're With").It wasn't that Stills was naive. He was just more upbeat, the McCartney to Young's Lennon, to draw a needless comparison. And nowhere is this more evident than on Just Roll Tape.
In 1968, Stills entered a studio where his girlfriend, Judy Collins, was busy recording. Stills bribed the engineer with some money and, with guitar in tow, instructed the engineer to just roll the tape. The session yielded 13 songs, which have never seen the light of day until now. Not even in bootleg form.
Listening to this, it's apparent the gifts that Stills brought to CSN&Y's first two albums. But he's hardly the hippie balladeer here as much as he is channeling Dylan. The songs are pretty much just Stills and a guitar, giving the whole thing a ragged, endearing quality.
Yet for demos, the tunes are pretty much finished. Some are early versions of songs that would appear later, such as "Helplessly Hoping," "Wooden Ships" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which begins with Stills tuning up and segues into an early version of CSN's first hit. It's a bit jarring to hear this one after hearing the other version on the radio for so long, but using just his voice and guitar, Stills is able to create more magic, giving the feeling that he is sitting in front of Collins, playing it for her.
"Wooden Ships" is better here than its finished version, a little more sad and brooding than it would become. "Know You've Got To Run" and "Black Queen" are highlights as well, while "Dreaming Of Snakes" is a minor-chord treat, unsettling at only two minutes but channeling the White Album perfectly.
The disc closes with quite the oddity -- a seven-minute version of "Treetop Flyer" with Stills on the dobro instead of guitar. This is a song that would not appear on a disc until 1991, so it's interesting to learn Stills wrote it in 1968.
As is to be expected, one man and one acoustic can get a little old, especially since the sound quality isn't the greatest. The first half of the disc tends to run together with little distinguishing between the songs, though on a disc of demos this is to be expected.
Basically, this is the sound of an artist taking a break and testing out his new songs in a burst of sudden creativity. Just Roll Tape may not win any converts to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young machine, but it's remarkably not dated and holds up well with any current acoustic singer/songwriter, or anything Dylan has done. Furthermore, it may silence those who think Stills was a lesser songwriter or performer than Neil Young.