The album that made CSNY superstars sounds as great as ever, certainly the pinnacle of the band's many iterations and reformations. It's also the best of the first three letters of the bunch, but not of course Young, who always held back his best for his own albums. While this is the album that gave us "Helpless," one of Young's most famous cuts, there's not much else to speak of from him (I've never thought much of the "Country Girl" suite), and the other three really provide the bulk of the greatness. "Carry On," "Teach Your Children," "Our House," "Almost Cut My Hair," these would have been just as good if it was another CSN album, so credit should go to that trio. I've often wondered if Young's presence hijacked and ultimately destroyed the band, rather than made it better.
The big surprise here is how much alternative material was left in the can to beef up this fine box set. It's now a full four-CD set, which also includes a vinyl pressing of the original album, with sets of demos, outtakes and alternate mixes making up the new CDs. While a few of these tracks have slipped out over the years, on the career-spanning CSN box and Young's many historical releases, the vast bulk, 29 cuts, are new to us. As always, some are diamonds in the rough, some were deservedly rejected, some are cool as historical documents, and some leave you wondering why they didn't release them in the first place.
The demo disc shows all four writers working on their own on the songs they brought to the album, those that made the cut and others that got rejected. There are two versions of Nash's "Our House," the second the most compelling, as it features Joni Mitchell, the object of the song, trying out some home harmonies on the beloved classic, a moment to treasure. Crosby tries out his controversial "Triad," given to the Jefferson Airplane after the Byrds rejected it, Crosby still itching to do his own version. Stills, dripping with songs, offered several that never made it to the studio sessions, although his embryonic work was hit-and-miss at best, vehicles for licks and jams. The big surprise here is Young trying out a demo of his "Birds" featuring Nash on harmonies. Ultimately he pulled it back for "After The Goldrush," but if it had been included on Deja Vu, it's presence would certainly have made it a better album, as a replacement for "Country Girl."
The outtakes group of songs is dominated by Stilla, with a few more of his works-in-progress that sound pretty good but don't really take off. He was tinkering with a couple of songs that would show up on his later albums, including the fine "Change Partners" and "Bluebird Revisited" but they weren't ready. There are some great CSN moments, featuring the classic vocal mix that still amazes, especially on one called "Ivory Tower." The best is "Horses Through A Rainstorm" which came out on the CSN box, and if you don't know it, you should. It's another cut. lead by Nash, that could have fit nicely on the original album, a good closer instead of "Everybody I Love You," the other weak track on the disc.
The alternates disc is another fun set, with some significant differences to the well-known originals. It's quite surprising to hear the changes in arrangements in "Woodstock," for instance, in the vocals and timing. Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" features completely different singing, and you can hear him striving to get the right attitude into the song. This one is too cocky, and wisely they chose the other take. Clearly, as heard on "Carry On," "Deja Vu" and "Teach Your Children," the key to this album is the famous vocal blend, and that they worked hard to get just the right take.
The big takeaway from the box set is that Stills really was doing all the heavy lifting. He brought the most songs and was the musical and recording leader. He wasn't holding anything back, and neither were Crosby and Nash. All their best songs were considered, and a fine, equal blend of them made up the bulk of the album. Young's addition probably put them over the top, getting them more press and public interest, but his focus remained as a solo artist. As for a listening experience, it's fun. These are such iconic songs that demos and different takes are surprising to hear. The outtakes and rejects pile isn't that interesting, with a couple too many similar Stills songs, but there are more than enough moments to make this a great start-to-finish listen