Rock-and-roll side projects can make fans wonder what they're getting: the stuff that's too good to be shared with band mates, or the stuff that's too bad.
Stephen Stills, who has just released "Man Alive!," his first solo record in 14 years, should by now be above suspicions that he'd short-shrift anybody. For starters, his band mate bona fides are sturdy: He answered Al Kooper's emergency call for a pinch-hitter to replace guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who bailed out during the making of the 1968 "Super Session" album; and he's the only guy inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night (in 1997, for his work as part of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash). Also, while most of his renown comes from group outings, Stills, 60, has in the past put A-list songs on his own records. One of his most beloved works, "Love the One You're With," was originally on "Stephen Stills," an LP released in 1970.
As could be expected from a guy who has logged so many years and miles between solo excursions, "Man Alive!" (which, despite the title, is not a live recording) is all over the musical map. Most of the landmarks will be familiar to longtime fans. He has been performing some of these songs during the last several tours with his main meal tickets, CSN and CSN&Young. Among them: "Feed the People," which finds Stills, like so many ripened rockers, opting for a Caribbean vibe as he harmonizes with Graham Nash on utopian lines such as, "Why not feed the people everywhere and let the peace begin?" That's a fine question, even if a really rich guy who looks like he hasn't pushed a plate away since Woodstock might not be the best to ask it.
Nash isn't the only grizzled cohort to appear on "Alive." For "Round the Bend," Stills brings in Neil Young and lets his guest's fuzzy guitar dominate the mix. The track sounds a tad too much like Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing." Young sticks around but unplugs his instrument during a reworking of the traditional "Different Man" that will appeal to anybody who liked "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" fame.
The pasteurized blues-rock guitar Stills plays on "Drivin' Thunder," "I Don't Get It" and "Wounded World" echo the late-career stylings of Eric Clapton, who is absent here but appeared on Stills's early solo records. The best blues on the record comes during "Ole Man Trouble," written by Booker T. Jones (of "& the MG's" fame) and appearing on CSN set lists for years. "Hearts Gate," with just Stills and an acoustic guitar, recalls John Hiatt and Bruce Springsteen at their adult and spare best.
Stills sings in French over a Cajun beat on "Acadienne," the bounciest track on the disc. He flaunts fluency in another of the Romance languages during the closing cut, "Spanish Suite," which clocks in at just about 111/2 minutes. Unlike "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," another multi-movement opus written by Stills that appeared on CSN's 1969 debut album, this new suite seems to go on as long as a summer-school class. Band politics being what they are, it's the sort of tune that could only appear on a solo record.