First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2009, Volume 16, #11
Written by John Metzger
Wed November 4, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
How is it possible for a band as good as Manassas to be so grossly overlooked for the better part of four decades? Although the outfit was viewed by many important folks in the industry as nothing more than a side project for Stephen Stills, his main gig — Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — was so immensely popular that some level of lasting attention should have rubbed off on Manassas. The involvement of former Byrd Chris Hillman also should have cemented the ensemble’s credentials enough to keep it firmly entrenched in the mainstream.
Alas, the lack of attention that Manassas received from its label seemed to doom the outfit right from the start. Manassas lasted merely 18 months and produced only a pair of albums. Its self-titled, double-LP debut was magnificent — and it sold remarkably well, too. Nevertheless, by the time that the collective concocted its sophomore set Down the Road, it was clear that the wind had been taken out of its sails. Lured away by more lucrative projects, Stills and Hillman lost interest in the group, and as a result, Manassas never was able to overcome its status as a secondhand gig. Pieces, a compilation of previously unreleased material, not only provides plenty of proof that Manassas’ debut wasn’t a fluke, but it also offers a glimpse of the things that could have been possible, if only Stills and Hillman hadn’t grown even more disillusioned with the industry than they already were.
The key to Pieces' success lies with its history: There is no doubt that Stills’ first two solo albums had their share of highlights. Yet, it also seemed as if Stills had formed a cocoon around himself, one that offered protection from the backbiting that was tearing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young apart. Because Stills’ outings were forged in moments of insularity, weaker songs were able to infiltrate his fortress, and these tracks disrupted the flow and undermined the strength of the endeavors. Meanwhile, Hillman was dealing with a similar array of issues. He left The Byrds after he had grown weary of wrestling with Roger McGuinn over the direction of the group. The Flying Burrito Brothers, his subsequent project, also was floundering. Its numerous personnel changes had stifled its chemistry, and as a result, the collective wasn’t able to maintain its consistency or gain any kind of traction.
Manassas evolved from the work that Stills was doing on his third solo outing. He had honed his backing band on the road while supporting Stills 2, and he knew how much potential the outfit had. Yet, he also sensed that something was missing. He reached out to Hillman, who subsequently brought the Flying Burrito Brothers to Miami. There, Manassas’ remaining personnel matters were resolved. Having learned a lot about group dynamics from his role in The Byrds, Hillman was able to submit to Stills’ whims while also maintaining a huge influence in the evolution of Manassas’ sound. The most important thing about the ensemble, though, was that it gave Stills and Hillman exactly the kind of respite they needed to reignite their creative juices and forge ahead with their careers.
Pieces is filled with songs that exude the spontaneously combustible energy that radiated from Stills’ and Hillman’s rebirth. Its 15 songs delightfully highlight every facet of Manassas’ work, too — from the suave, Latin rhythms that feed Tan Sola y Triste to the biting, blues-imbued groove that underscores High and Dry. Elsewhere, the group delivers a picture-perfect cover of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic Uncle Pen; it embraces the chugging rock ’n‘ roll of Lies; and it settles comfortably into the pure, infectious pop that dominated AM radio in the 1970s (Like a Fox).
Much as its title suggests, Pieces offers a series of snippets and snapshots, some of which fade away as quickly as they appear. Nevertheless, the tunes are strung together in a fashion that captures the remarkable enthusiasm that Manassas brought to the recording sessions. Naturally, there are minor mistakes and miscues scattered here and there throughout the set, and some of the tracks have abrupt endings. These flaws, however, ultimately give the effort its character. Collections of b-sides, outtakes, and assorted rehearsal material really aren’t supposed to sound this good, but Pieces feels like the sophomore set that Down the Road should have been.
Of Further Interest...
Pieces is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box