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Who knew that the best way to enshrine Crosby, Stills & Nash would be to remove the harmonies?

Out today, CSN Demos covers some of the group’s more memorable early takes between 1968 and 1971, including rough cuts of “Almost Cut My Hair,” “You Don’t Have to Cry,” “Déjà Vu,” and “Chicago.”

As outtake/demo discs go, the appeal of CSN Demos is closer to that of the BeatlesAnthologies than of, say, the Exile on Main Street Outtakes. (The former offered substantial insight into the songs’ geneses, whereas the latter was a mash of B-takes and unmastered irrelevancies.) All of which is to say that the new disc accomplishes something of which only the best vaultstuffs are capable: re-illuminating the original takes while standing as a damn decent record in its own right.

The pleasure of CSN Demos is a loose naturalism that undercuts the trio’s image as studio perfectionists. One’s tempted to call it a “warts and all” production, though let’s face it, even in rough draft these guys were always too clean to be warty; not for nothing did Robert Christgau call their unrugged fussiness the aural equivalent of castration. If the group’s matchless control kept them from rock ‘n’ roll legitimacy as defined by critics like Christgau, it also lent the first record (which Demos evokes more than anything else) an unprecedented unity. Stills‘ helming alone (he wrote and sang a plurality of the songs while playing guitars, bass, and organ) rendered Crosby, Stills & Nash a concept album without the concept, a fully articulated, formal pop album whose refinement not even the second album (recorded with Young, and their best) could touch.

The biggest beneficiary of the proceedings is David Crosby. If there’s no getting around the academic pleasure of these demos—don’t expect them to make converts of your kids—there’s also no getting around the spooky perfection of Crosby’s “Déjà Vu” demo, a distinct and worthy song in its own right: so much lither than on the album cut, with an ethereal scat performance set to solo acoustic harmonics. This, alongside the very able dress rehearsal of “Almost Cut My Hair,” ought to put an end to Crosby’s status as the punchline of the trio. (It won’t, of course.)

Most of all, these dry (mostly solo) runs cast the subsequent harmonies in new light. CSN’s black magic was their white blend, the constituent voices subsumed in near-inscrutable harmony. On the Demos, you hear them feeling out lines that were, at the time, totally new—Nash’s ’68 Chicago philippic-turned-plea, Crosby’s blackface performance on “Long Time Gone,” and the only flat-out improvement on the record, “Love the One You’re With”—which, divested from the cheese of the mastered version, conveys a tuneful, offhand sense of fun. It’s like harmonic archaeology! Or a karaoke machine that bleeps out the harmonies to “You Don’t Have to Cry.”

Either way, stream it on NPR Music; track listing & summer tour dates below. Again, don’t squander these demos on the skeptical (see above)—strictly for the archivists & devotees. But if you’re among the latter, this record is just brain candy.

Track Listing

1. “Marrakesh Express”
2. “Almost Cut My Hair”
3. “You Don’t Have To Cry”
4. “Deja Vu”
5. “Sleep Song”
6. “My Love Is A Gentle Thing”
7. “Be Yourself”
8. “Music Is Love”
9. “Singing Call”
10. “Long Time Gone”
11. “Chicago”
12. “Love The One You’re With”

TOUR DATES

JUNE
3 St. Louis, MO ——— Chaifetz Arena
4 Chicago, IL ——— Charter One Pavilion
6 Detroit, MI ——— Meadow Brook
7 Toledo, OH ——— Zoo Amphitheatre
9 Niagara, ON ——— Fallsview Casino Resort
10 Canandaigua, NY ——— Constellation, PAC
12 Cooperstown, NY ——— Doubleday Field
13 Mashantucket, CT ——— MGM Grand @ Foxwoods
14 Boston, MA ——— Bank of America Pavilion
27 Glastonbury, England ——— Glastonbury Festival
29 Cork, Ireland ——— Marquee

JULY
1 London, England ——— Royal Albert Hall
3 Bonn, Germany ——— Museum Plaza
4 Paris, France ——— The Olympia
6 Amsterdam, Holland ——— Heineken Music Hall
7 Brussels, Belgium ——— Forest National
10 Manchester, England ——— Manchester EN Arena
11 Edinburgh, Scotland ——— Edinburgh Castle