David Crosby was never known for being particularly prolific when it came to making solo albums. Between 1971 and 1993, the moustachioed megastar had only released three records. Obviously, he recorded and toured with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills in between, but even taking that into consideration, compared with his sometime collaborator Neil Young having released nineteen albums in the same time frame, he’s hardly looked busy…
That is, until 2014. His fourth solo record ‘Croz’ was well received by fans and press; the album had a rich quality in both the songwriting and performance; a brilliance rarely captured since 1971’s ‘If Only I Could Remember My Name’. …And then, barely two years later, Croz released ‘Lighthouse’, a sparse and introspective follow up that was potentially even better. With two studio albums in such a short time, it seemed as if he were truly spoiling us. Given such a burst of creativity, few would have expected yet another David Crosby LP so soon, but in under a year since the monumental ‘Lighthouse’, Croz came back yet with another record.
With barely nine months between them, is ‘Sky Trails’ a rush job, an overhang, or merely leftovers? Absolutely not. In fact, with some more full-blooded material on show, it is sometimes ‘Lighthouse’s flip side, but more importantly as good as a record some of his peers would take years to craft. The opening number, ‘She’s Got To Be Somewhere’ isn’t just a great opening statement for this record, but could even rank among David’s finest solo recordings to date. With full band in tow, he unashamedly explores his love of westcoast and jazz styles, as a funky and driving arrangement leads the album with something that borrows heavily from Steely Dan. The electric organ lays down waves of funk, with James Raymond approaching the music almost as if Donald Fagen has stepped in to lend a helping hand; there are occasional backing vocals worthy of the Doobies; the brass parps like the finest 70s AM radio pop, before playing out with a solo carrying a jazz fusionist’s ear. It’s magnificient…and amid everything, there’s Croz himself, in fine voice on a performance that’s syrupy and understated. If you love the Dan andThe Doobie Brothers et al, this will be extremely familiar territory, but to hear a much loved sound with a legendary voice thrown into the mix…let’s just say it plays like the ultimate jam and quickly scores a place within 2017’s essential tracks.
Equally as essential, ‘Sell Me A Diamond’ blends muted brass with a stately piano to create a solid backbone. This is joined by a jazzy bass and drums that call to mind works of Marc Jordan and mid-80s Michael McDonald, as well as carrying more than a few traces of the adult pop that filled Graham Nash’s often overlooked ‘Songs For Survivors’. Out front, Crosby’s voice doesn’t appear to have aged at all; the best parts of his performance carry the soft lilt from years gone by. Moving into the second part of the track, with increased volume and intensity, the vocals side-step in order for the band to showcase more of their impressive skills. The rhythm section stands firm, while the lead guitar steps from the shadows, dropping in a solo that could’ve graced the earliest Toto recordings. A Toto-ish vibe also runs deep beneath the jazzy ‘Capitol’, a political statement that’s not so much angry as despairing. A circular riff drives the main melody – strong enough to sound hooky, smooth enough not to interfere with a great vocal – before ramping up for a chorus that’s a bit more forthright. However, in keeping with 2014’s ‘Croz’, it’s the way the music hangs together that’s most impressive; this tune has some great bass playing once more, as well as classy muted brass and understated bluesy guitar runs, eventually shifting from the Toto-esque and closer to David Sanborn or something from Sting’s ‘Nothing Like The Sun’. In terms of jazzy pop, it’s pretty timeless…and with Crosby taking a backseat to allow his band room for a midsized instrumental jam, he obviously knows the material is strong.
Taking a voyage into something quieter, the title cut is an intricate acoustic affair, designed for male and female voices. This represents one of those times when this collection of songs comes closest to revisiting the mood of ‘Lighthouse’, as the two voices weave in and out of a finger picked melody, exploring complex and contemporary folk moods, while the sparse, late night vibes of ‘Somebody Home’ similarly never rush to make their musical point. The bulk of this excellent track reverts to Crosby’s comfort zone, as gentle neo-psych jazziness lays a canvas for his voice – a voice which isn’t so far removed from his own ‘Guinevere’ or even ‘Triad’. With that voice given comparatively little to hide behind, it’s a master class of performance; a performance which Croz makes appear effortless. Credit should be given to his excellent band of session guys too, who take a very stripped back arrangement and make it sound so encompassing, especially in the way echoing guitar parts play against classic organ sounds.
Crosby’s love of jazz is explored even further on ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset’, a tune that takes a heavy rhythmic base, but still comes up with something that seems almost floaty. The warm bass playing is constantly inviting, as is the way the vocal is interspersed with sketches of classy soprano sax. As with ‘Capitol’, more open minded listeners might hear a trace of early solo Sting, though to be fair, that’s almost certainly due to the way the sax is employed, since the bulk of the tune owes far more to ‘Taming The Tiger’ era Joni Mitchell in the way it fuses jazz, folk and pop. While ‘She’s Got To Be Somewhere’ is the album’s best cut – no question – this is also nothing short of stunning…and even more so when you consider it comes from an artist into his sixth recording decade. The influence from Mitchell comes in a far more obvious form elsewhere as Crosby’s recording of her 1976 classic ‘Amelia’ is thoughtful and very close to the original in arrangement, save for the fact he trades in Joni’s own sparse guitar melodies for a piano. With most of this cover presented via just keys and voice, it provides another opportunity to really look at how well Croz’s gentle and syrupy tones have aged.
The album’s final pairing takes Crosby into other folk and jazz workouts. These, though perhaps never as instantly stunning as some of ‘Sky Trails’s other material, are still stronger than most of his peers could turn in at this late stage. ‘Curved Air’ presents intricate but disjointed folk melodies played on an acoustic guitar, linked by busy bass runs. In this voyage into a gypsy jazz workout, the band seem much less fluid than before, while Crosby remains resolutely the same man you’ve come to love. On first listen, it sounds like the most challenging thing the album has to offer – oddly messy, even; although there is no doubt it is very well played. It isn’t until the chorus hits and the melody swells that it makes complete sense. In keeping with the majority of the material, there’s a westcoast feel under the jazz and Crosby uses each element of a now stronger melodic root to push his voice to the fore. There’s a lot to like here, but in relation to everything else, it might not be a favourite for some listeners. In closing, ‘Home Free’ is a short foray into psychelic jazz-folk. The slow chord progression, again, does nothing to hide Crosby’s admiration – nay, love – for Joni, while the haunting sparseness against which he chooses to explore a few higher registers occasionally recalls ‘Happy/Sad’ era Tim Buckley. Feeling like the musical opposite of the album’s opener and steered by a man still in command of a complete vocal range, Crosby clearly knows this is the perfect way to bow out. “This is my home, I live here / Like a baby in a blanket with nothing to fear”, he croons, possibly reflecting upon the comfortable lifestyle decades of fame have afforded him, but at the same time there’s something slightly unnerving in the way he uses the word fear to close this long-player. He might often be more subtle than, say, Neil Young’s political breezeblocks when it comes to offering a social message, but it never makes him less passionate. …And here, he leaves us to ruminate upon that possibly loaded word as the record stops spinning.
In short, if you thought ‘Croz’ was great and the wistful ‘Lighthouse’ represented a smart and thoughtful listen, then you’ll love ‘Sky Trails’, since it blows both records out of the water. It’s almost perfect. It’s not just potentially the best album in Crosby’s solo career, but it could rival most of his peers’ best works, too. It’s easy to call something “classic” or “genius” on a whim, but in this case, both superlatives can be instantly applied. Is ‘Sky Trails’ the best album of 2017? A strong case could definitely be made. Having just celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday a few weeks before release, if ‘Sky Trails’ turned out to be his final album, Crosby really could not offer his fans a more suitable parting gift.