- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

Stephen Stills

Man Alive!

Titan/Pyramid Records

The voice is wheezy, at times positively Joe Cockeresque in its ravaged depths, and the guitar chops are a little slow on the draw, but Stephen Stills still can write a tune.

For “Man Alive!” his first solo album in 14 years — an interlude when Mr. Stills, 60, did plenty of touring with the can’t-kill-‘em Crosby, Stills & Nash collective — the folk-rock titan enlisted the help of such longtime associates as Neil Young, Graham Nash and drummer Joe Vitale (also the album’s chief engineer).

It has everything you would want from a Stephen Stills album: doleful blues (“Wounded World,” a cover of the Stax/Volt classic “Ole Man Trouble”), finger-plucked acoustic gems (“Hearts Gate,” “Piece of Me”), sweat-flecked tropical rhythms (“Feed the People,” “I Don’t Get It”) and some gospel-tinged rock for your aching soul (“Around Us”).

Mike Finnigin’s accordion turns the folksy “Acadienne” into the breeziest romp of the album, and Mr. Stills teams with Mr. Young on the traditional “Different Man,” which tries to give the bluegrass reviver “Man of Constant Sorrow” a run for its greenbacks — and just misses. (Really: Is there anything cooler than Mr. Stills’ gravelly baritone backed up by Mr. Young’s sugary tenor?)

If you have 11-plus minutes of undivided attention to spare, there’s “Spanish Suite,” featuring jazz fusionist Herbie Hancock and some Spanish-language crooning from Mr. Stills. The musicianship is expert, but the bilingual gesture is, well, a little forced.

What should have worked but didn’t are the outright rockers: The kickoff track, “Ain’t It Always,” is ruined by an unforgivably cheesy backup vocal track; “Round the Bend” boasts Mr. Young on guitar but in the end musters, at best, a sub-ZZ Top boogie; “Drivin’ Thunder” sounds like Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man” after waking too early from an Ambien buzz.

One has come to expect sentimental sermonizing from Mr. Stills and company, so the song-statement “Feed the People” was perhaps inevitable. At first, I was digging on the tune’s odd combination of a Casio Caribbean groove and a rhythm guitar track as cutting as a rusty knife. But then: “Why not feed the people everywhere and let the peace begin?/Turn your swords to plowshares everywhere and feed the people.”

Golly.

Hold out fist. Insert ham here.

But let’s not end on a sour note. “Man Alive!” is a great ride. Except for a few potholes and an annoying political toll plaza, it’s Stephen Stills’ best work in, well, 14 years.

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