More often than not, when a major rock artist had his humble beginnings in a short-lived ensemble the group is promptly forgotten, recalled as a mere trivia item, an anecdote for fans or a topic for rock historians to ruminate on. Such was not the case for Buffalo Springfield; while Neil Young and Stephen Stills were indeed prestigious alumni of the band they never truly eclipsed it, and the group successfully carved their own niche in the world of rock.
The endurance of the band's mythos, however, is an interesting phenomenon in its own right. Buffalo Springfield essentially adopted country rock as their foundation, pushing the boundaries of the genre to encompass everything from hard rock elements to roots rock dynamics. While this is a unique mix, it doesn't change the fact that, on a fundamental level, the band were never trailblazers, and ultimately failed to dramatically influence any rock upstarts or start any musical revolutions.
Furthermore, while Buffalo Springfield were a profoundly gifted rock outfit, they never really attained true greatness. While they were once touted as the 'American Beatles,' this inapt moniker was merely the product of misguided and hyperbolic studio hype, and not indicative of any real parallels between Buffalo Springfield and the Fab Four.
These are hardly liabilities; a group needn't achieve greatness or reinvent the medium in order to be a worthy band. Nevertheless, given the inherent limitations of Buffalo Springfield, their enduring reputation seems a bit disproportionate, as many superior bands have been consigned to irrevocable obscurity.
As stated before, however, a group needn't be great to be worthy, and Buffalo Springfield are very worthy indeed. While quite short, their eponymous debut is a terrific album; Stills and Young lacked the experience to truly hone and refine their craft, but they already demonstrated signs of the songwriting skill that would catapult them to the upper echelons of the genre.
At this point Stills was the most reliable, consistent songwriter in the band; I wouldn't call his musical approach conservative per se, but he certainly doesn't push the envelope on many occasions. Young, on the other hand, takes more risks, and while this results in the occasional misfire it also means that he's responsible for the most memorable moments on the album.
There is one exception to this, however. Nearly any CD edition of the album includes the seminal single For What It's Worth, a Stills opus that towers above nearly every other track in the band's entire catalogue. The song instantly became one of the key rock anthems of an entire generation, and even now it's featured in countless shows and films about the sixties zeitgeist. Its fame is well deserved, as the song boasts one of the catchiest sing-along refrains of all time without compromising its heft as a serious artistic statement.
While most of the other tracks pale in comparison, this doesn't change the fact that the album is filled with strong cuts. As far as Young's output is concerned, Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing is a moody track that manages to be one of the most genuinely moving compositions on the album. Out Of My Mind is also quite emotional, if lacking the potency of the former due to its more conventional nature, bereft of any passage with the force and bite of Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing's refrain. Burned is slighter but quite enjoyable in its own right, but Young's finest contribution to the album is Flying On The Ground Is Wrong, a harrowing number that boasts some of the best vocal melodies on the CD.
As alluded to before, however, Young can be erratic at times, hence the rather pedestrian Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It. The song is bland and banal, descriptions that seldom if ever can be applied to a Neil Young composition. Perhaps at such an early juncture in his career Young felt sufficiently unsure of himself that he'd occasionally rely on more generic elements as a crutch, but even then the rest of his material should have placed him far above such doubts or insecurities.
The area in which Young really lacked confidence, however, was in the singing department, as on nearly every track that he penned he delegated vocal responsibilities to Richie Furay. This is a questionable decision, and a stumbling block for Neil Young fans, but Furay acquits himself admirably as the substitute vocalist even if many would have preferred that Young do the job himself.
As mentioned before, ultimately it's Stills who's the most dependable hand when it comes to songwriting. Thus Go And Say Goodbye and Sit Down I Think I Love You are charming pop songs, while Leave rocks harder than anything else on the album. While not every track is an unmitigated classic, Stills contributes nothing as offensive as Do I Have To Come Right Out And Say It, nor even anything that I would dismiss as filler.
Thus Buffalo Springfield's debut is an immensely entertaining experience that depicts the burgeoning talents of men destined to become icons in rock and roll history. The album eludes true greatness, and may not justify the band's legendary status, but this hardly poses an impediment to one's enjoyment. While they may not be 'the American Beatles,' Buffalo Springfield are strong performers in their own right. When one strips away the hype, inflated critical response and role the band had in starting the careers of Young and Stills then one is left with a very talented ensemble and an album that's a resounding success, if on a somewhat modest level.
Again is widely hailed as Buffalo Springfield's masterwork, the lone album in their catalogue that constitutes a major artistic statement. While I maintain that even at their best the band falls short of attaining true greatness, I wouldn't dispute that their sophomore effort represents Buffalo Springfield at their peak. Nevertheless the question of the album's superiority is fraught with complexities and contradictions, hardly a simple case of this-is-better-than-that.
This confusion arises from the fact that, on a purely melodic level, Again isn't necessarily superior to or more consistent than the band's debut. Furthermore, in an effort to demonstrate their artistic growth, Buffalo Springfield needlessly complicate many of their arrangements, a practice that sometimes dilutes the quality of the songs' melodies or gives them a disjointed feel.
This sounds like damning evidence, ample proof that Again is inferior to its predecessor. The truth, however, is that this so-called 'artistic growth,' while it can easily be construed as a flaw, is also, in my opinion, the album's greatest asset.
On Again the group become exceedingly ambitious, entering new territories such as psychedelia and avant-garde experimentation. While the band's debut deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of country-rock, Again is an altogether more daring and eclectic affair, to the extent that Stills and Young embrace styles that they were destined to never revisit throughout the remainder of their legendary careers.
As far as the question of melodies is concerned, Again seldom disappoints, but the problem remains that these melodies are hardly a step up from the band's prior work. The truth, however, is that the newfound ambition that the band invests in their work makes many of the melodies all the more captivating and meaningful.
While the album by no means boasts a prog-like instrumental complexity, the structures and arrangements are still exceedingly complex by Buffalo Springfield standards. Even pop-rockers like Bluebird are multipart, complete with mid-song genre-shifts; while some would decry this as excessive or self-indulgent, I find that it leads to fascinating results. The album would likely be very good even without these experimental digressions, but truth be told I would sorely miss them were they to be omitted.
On this go-round Richie Furay joins Stills and Young on the songwriting front. While this isn't necessarily a good thing, it's certainly not the disaster that many would fear. A Child's Claim To Fame and Sad Memory are pleasant, thoroughly inoffensive country fare, while Good Time Boy may be incongruous in its brassy big-band sound but is nevertheless welcome as far as diversity is concerned.
Stills remains as reliable as always. Everydays is a low-keyed, jazzy tune that sounds like nothing else in the band's repertoire, making an already attractive song all the more alluring. The aforementioned Bluebird is catchy, and never loses its audience even as it twists and contorts into different styles. Hung Upside Down is a superb pop-rocker with some clever vocal hooks and a rousing refrain, while Rock & Roll Woman boasts yet another strong melody.
Once again, however, it's Young who has the best showing, particularly since, if his songs are any indication, it seems as if his ambitions were the primary impetus for the band's new experimental identity.
Thus Mr. Soul is a major highlight, a catchy psychedelic rocker that uses a modified version of the Satisfaction riff to great effect. Thankfully Young handles the vocals himself, as I simply can't imagine what the song would have sounded like in Furay's hands.
Expecting To Fly is quite simply a gorgeous, ethereal ballad. While its melody isn't particularly impressive, when the song's arrangements come together the final product is far more than the sum of its parts.
Young is also responsible for the album's most controversial track, the deeply experimental Broken Arrow. Right off the bat it must be remarked that the song's main melody is brilliant, and easily one of the best on the album. The song proper, however, is interspersed with sampling and sound-effects. Some feel that this ruins the song, and I can easily relate to this perspective, but I find this youthful experimentation quite admirable and even charming. The song may have been superior had Young eschewed these avant-garde flourishes, but I seldom object to their presence, and the final product is certainly far more palatable and artistically valid than Revolution 9.
Thus Again is quite a strong album, made all the more so by its profoundly experimental character. While the experimentation may not always succeed, there's a certain innate charm even in the failures or misfires. Furthermore the songs simply feel like they have more heft and meaning when delivered in this fashion, as their melodies are accentuated by their idiosyncratic nature. More importantly, despite the extensive experimentation the album rarely feels pretentious, as the band were somehow able to retain their humble persona even in the midst of artistic and intellectual exercises. The result is a very impressive outing from Buffalo Springfield, and most assuredly the apex of the band's canon.
Given the brevity of Buffalo Springfield's lifespan, it's almost as if the band went through a kind of accelerated development, casting the group's history as something akin to a microcosm of an average rock outfit's full career.
On their debut Buffalo Springfield were a somewhat insecure band who betrayed obvious signs of talent, but already by their second album, Again, the group were demonstrating ambitions and artistry that most ensembles wouldn't be capable of, in terms of both confidence and ability, until they'd reached a much further point in their careers. Thus on Last Time Around the band, whether consciously or not, had embraced a kind of return-to-their-roots mentality, a phase that generally signals the twilight period of a group's lengthy career.
While this attitude did indeed indicate that Buffalo Springfield were fast approaching the conclusion of their careers, it was an end that came far sooner than one would have anticipated, an abrupt abortion that caught many fans without warning.
Thus Buffalo Springfield produced a mere three albums, with each one representing a phase that for most groups would constitute an entire period, processes that would customarily unwind over the course of at least several LPs.
As far as the adoption of a back-to-their-roots philosophy goes, it wasn't necessarily a decision that worked in the band's favor. The return to a more conservative mold makes Last Time Around somewhat less interesting and attractive than Again, while the album also suffers in the melody department when compared to the band's debut. Nevertheless Buffalo Springfield were a sufficiently talented rock outfit that even their weakest effort is by no means without merit, and thus their third and final outing still has much to offer fans of the group.
Despite the aforementioned lack of risk taking, it's not as if Last Time Around is devoid of innovation, as demonstrated by tracks like Stills' Latin-American influenced Uno Mundo. That number is an exception to the rule, however, as much of the album is devoted to the country-rock that typified the band's early output.
Still, the group had proven their mastery over the genre, and even when the caliber of their songwriting had somewhat deteriorated they were capable of producing solid work.
Furay, while still the weak link as far as songwriting is concerned (excluding the fact that even Jim Messina contributed a composition, the generic but pleasant Carefree Country Day), has displayed growth since his insecure compositional beginnings on Again.
It's So Hard To Wait is rather uninspired, and the closer Kind Woman is perhaps the only song in the history of Buffalo Springfield, a group known for their almost unparalleled conciseness, that feels overlong, but Merry-Go-Round is decent enough. Nevertheless, his crowning achievement in his tenure with the group is the moody opus The Hour Of Not Quite Rain. The song boasts elaborate arrangements, a rarity for a musician who usually favors basic, perhaps even rudimentary, country instrumentation. While the track isn't a total success, lacking the substance that his collaborators usually invest in their own compositions, it's quite alluring and atmospheric, and it's refreshing to witness Furay trying his hand at a more ambitious piece of work.
Neil Young is conspicuously underrepresented on the album, with a mere two compositions under his belt. The first is the opener, a country rocker called On The Way Home. The track, while entertaining, is remarkably generic for a Neil Young song, but he compensates for this lapse of personality with the album's best number, I Am A Child. The track features a strong, memorable melody, and while it's far shorter than logic would dictate it remains thoroughly enjoyable for its unfortunately brief runtime. Young's delivery on the song is brilliant, ample proof that he needn't always hide behind the accomplished vocals of Richie Furay.
With Young shunted to the side for a good deal of the album and Furay not quite ready to step up to a meaningful extent, it's once again up to Stills to hold the album together. Ever reliable, he excels on tracks like the irresistible pop song Pretty Girl Why and the rocker Questions. It's invariably Stills who takes the disparate styles of his partners and makes a cohesive whole, and on the band's swansong he does so once again for the very last time.
Thus Last Time Around is an entertaining album that nonetheless falls short of the standards set by its predecessors. As per the band's usual formula the songs are generally well-written and tastefully arranged, and while more experimentation in the vein of Again would have been welcome perhaps this was a more appropriate note to end the band's careers on: a solid if unassuming album by a group endowed with considerable talent who will nevertheless always fall just short of greatness.