STEPHEN STILLS – Thoroughfare Gap

Following the release of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s excellent ‘CSN’ LP in 1977, Stephen Stills returned to his solo work. He’d made some excellent albums before [1970’s self-titled album and 1975’s ‘Stills’ are both essential listening, and 1976’s ‘Illegal Stills’, while marred a little by a thin sound, is very enjoyable], so there was no need to think that his next solo LP wouldn’t be of a certain standard. However, in comparison to almost everything he’d put his name to previously, his 1978 release ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ can be seen a big misstep.

Its ten songs cover a lot of ground stylistically – retro rock, the almost obligatory Latin track, a throwback to rhythm and blues, even a flirtation with disco – but an attempt to pack too many diversions into a very short record (even by the standards of the day), makes for a somewhat messy listen, to say the least. At it’s worst, ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ could even be called terrible; it’s worst songs are by far the worst that Stills had committed to tape since his recording career began some fourteen years earlier. Part of the problem is his insistence on trying to stay relevant by messing with disco. It had worked for some, obviously – Dan Hartman, previously of the Edgar Winter Group, briefly became a disco megastar and in 1978; The Rolling Stones’ ‘Miss You’ crossed the rock/disco divide with massive success – but for Stills, any such experiments fall somewhere between average and iffy.

One of the disco tracks is used to open the record, which really doesn’t help its cause. Had the music in question been used to fill out a 1975 Bee Gees hit or pave the way for the next Taste of Honey smash, it’d sound great, since ‘You Can’t Dance Alone’ is constructed around some tight funk bass and the kind of swirling strings that lift most disco to dizzying heights, and there are even backing vocals by Andy Gibb. Approached in the broadest way possible, there’s nothing wrong with the arrangement if you like disco…at all. The problem is Stills himself: he insists on tackling a vocal with the same rough-hewn moodiness you’ll find on his bluesy or acoustic numbers. In a land of sparkle, the man with the sideburns is the elephant in the room, as if he’s wandered into the adjacent studio by accident where Chic are laying down a groove. To call it mildly uncomfortable listening would be kind. A second disco number, ‘What’s The Game’, finds Stills in a much perkier voice and features some great bass work from session player George Perry alongside some equally fun guitar fills from Stills and Clapton’s sometime right hand man George Terry. It would possibly suffer with the same issues as ‘You Can’t Dance Alone’, except Stills has had the good foresight to include a couple of vocal sections that accentuate some strong harmonies, and explore melodies that hark back to ‘Stills’, making it the more interesting of a dodgy disco duo. You’d never call it “top tier Stills” by any stretch, but it’s a reasonable track. The problem here, if there is one, is that it would fare so much better in the hands of someone else.

A Latin influenced track, ‘Woman Lleva’, suffers a little from uninspired backing vocals combined with an equally uninspired Stills going through the motions, which results in some obvious album filler. A Latin inspired piano solo is a high point, but everything sounds so laboured in direct comparison to CSN’s ‘Dark Star’, Stephen’s own ‘My Angel’, or even Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Uno Mundo’ from his formative years. ‘My Angel’ proves that when he’s truly in the zone, Stills can bang out a brilliant Santana inspired track, but even with horns – which would normally make everything better – ‘Woman Lleva’ sounds like some kind of contractual obligation. This is the kind of track you’ll play once or twice and then skip on future listens, while a fuzzed up cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ also should be much better than it is. Stills truly sounds like he’s phoning it in with a half-arsed vocal with no bite, whilst occasional keyboard stabs seem equally weak. Attempts at making the track more up to date with a slight funk swing don’t turn out as badly as you might expect, but there’s something genuinely lacking in Stephen’s guitar work. Almost like he’s reached the point where he just coasts through the session with one eye on the studio clock. It’s worth a cursory listen, but not much more. It’s fairly dull, but it still isn’t ‘Thoroughfare Gap’s worst tune. That dubious honour goes to ‘Can’t Get No Booty’, something that’s so jaw-droppingly awful, it’s almost beyond words. A funk driven workout with Stills playing a reasonable slide guitar could have major crossover potential, but a repetitive lyric where the protagonist complains about a lack of sexual thrills is hugely embarrassing. It seems unbelievable that the often great Danny Korchmar would’ve even considered putting his name to such a travesty.

So, with the negatives out of the way, what’s good about this distinctly dodgy album? Against the odds, the album’s remaining tracks are absolutely wonderful, meaning that this nag is far from ready for the knackers’ yard. The sedate title track is worthy of ‘Stills’ (the album), with Stephen tackling a country-folk workout that accentuates the ringing tones in his guitar and an aching sadness in his voice. A lyric concerning watching trains as spring turns into summer and wondering about mortality is both thoughtful and forlorn, while a gentle string accompaniment constantly hints at old bluegrass moods – in keeping with Young’s 1977 LP ‘American Stars & Bars – suiting Stills rather well. It’s a track that could easily stand with the best moments of ‘Illegal Stills’ and should appeal to lovers of the sole Stills-Young Band album ‘Long May You Run’ from ’76. The slow and moody ‘Beaucoup Yumbo’ retains the strings, fleshing out another fine arrangement, while the main melodies settle into a slow groove mixing elements of blues, Allman-esque roots and occasional hints of mid-70s Dr. John – though, obviously with much better singing. Across these flawless three and a half minutes, it’s a real pleasure to hear how the piano flourishes drop in and out of a slow rhythm, while Stills – always sedate, but never dull – approaches some of the soulful brilliance of his former self. Add a few sparingly used baritone saxes and a brilliant piano solo, and this joins the title song in the pile marked “essential Stills deep cuts”.

A second foray into Latin grooves, ‘We Will Go On’ shows Stills in a very natural flow, singing against a slightly funk oriented rhythm, thus bringing the likes of ‘Dark Star’ further up to date. A fine lead vocal augmented by a world of harmonies sets things on the right path, but the occasional presence of brass and another fantastic bassline from Perry really lifts everything. If you’ve owned any of Stills’s other 70s albums, this won’t add anything new to his oeuvre, but by blending the Latin sounds with something then more contemporary, it’s a tune with a lot of spirit. On a cover of the Allman Brothers’ ‘Midnight Rider’, Stephen’s 70s mojo is allowed to fly in a far classier way than on the album’s disco stumbles. Keeping the arrangement very respectful to the original is obviously a sensible choice, but Stills kind of makes it his own by dropping the more Southern edge, choosing instead to concentrate on its main groove. The end result sounds great: with a deeper bass and electric piano at its centre, there’s a very strong core, while Stephen’s lead vocals finally manage to rise enough to reclaim some of his early 70s grittiness. In a similar vein, the guitar heavy ‘Lowdown’ represents the very best in a fuzzy Stills blues/soul hybrid, as he puts in another great vocal against some really tasteful lead guitar work. In lots of ways, it’s Stills by numbers, but a real attention to it’s downbeat vibes and some great playing from all concerned make it stand up rather well.

On the whole, with four fantastic tracks, one merely good track, a few misguided numbers and one absolute clunker, ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ is far from being Stills’s best thirty six minutes. However, despite a hundred reasons why it could be – or perhaps should be – avoided, its good bits make it genuinely worth hearing. The title track and ‘Beaucoup Yumbo’ are more than deserving of a place on a well-curated Stills anthology, and one of those is actually missing from his extensive ‘Carry On’ 4CD set, giving yet more insight into how unloved the album is… In terms of fatally flawed albums from the 1970s, ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ might be king of them all, but it’s good half is certainly ripe for re-evaluation.

[For those who’ve never heard this album and have often wondered why it gets short shrift from a lot of fans but are concerned about wasting money, by way of good fortune, the BGO Records reissue from 2007 combines ‘Thoroughfare Gap’ with the indispensable ‘Stills’ and thoroughly enjoyable ‘Illegal Stills’ on a brilliant 2CD set. If then viewed as a collection of bonus tracks appended to two must-have records, there’s more than enough enjoyment to be found. You can buy that reissue here.]

February 2019