I started GimmeDanger nearly ten years ago. Over time, the tone changed and the writing improved. I got more focused, less introspective. But time is strange; as it passed, the less of it I had. Now, in the year 2016, it appears to be a long time gone.
This brings us to David Crosby and GimDang’s best album of 2015. In a break from tradition, I made a better effort this past year to listen to new music. Alas, nothing grabbed me. Even reviewing the year-end, best-of lists from NPR and Pitchfork, I still wasn’t moved. To be sure, fine work was released by Father John Misty, Courtney Barnett, Chris Stapleton, Jamie xx, Earl Sweatshirt and My Morning Jacket. No matter. None of it resonated. However, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name sunk in. Despite its 1971 release, I spent more time with this album than any other in 2015 -- and that’s why I’m naming it album of the year.
Crosby’s history is noteworthy; it is one of sweet music, famous friends and associations, as well as drugs and guns. The dude lived more life than many others by the time he was about 30, when he felt compelled to make a solo record.
If I Could Only Remember My Name is at turns loose and jazzy, angry and paranoid. Employing the services of a who’s who of SF and Laurel Canyon’s finest musicians, it is nonetheless an assured and concentrated work with lovely hints of peace and grace. I like to think that Crosby, a far-out and polarizing figure, was enough of a friendly and veritable talent that getting the support and assistance of so many notable individuals was no large feat. Because of that, the resulting music is a testament to the power of community and the legend of Croz.
Never a traditional musician, Crosby eschewed tried-and-true structures in favor of free-wheeling arrangements for If I Could Only Remember My Name. His guitar-playing is characteristically unconventional; he often zigs where you expect him to zag. For example, the foundation of “Tamalpais High” might sound unanchored if it weren’t for the hymn-like harmonizing of Crosby and frequent collaborator Graham Nash (never mind Jorma Kaukonen’s fluent noodling). Other guests also help ground the album. Jerry Garcia eloquently textures the eight-minute “Cowboy Movie,” tastefully underscoring Crosby’s spooky western tale and contributing to his own legend. Garcia later plays on “Laughing” which, if not for Joni Mitchell’s haunting vocal, might be highlighted by his drifting pedal-steel. Elsewhere, the kumbaya-groove of “Music is Love,” featuring Nash and Neil Young, makes a strong case that even the staunchest of hippies weren’t ready to leave behind the sixties.
To me, the real highlight is “Traction in the Rain.” A spare, pretty tune that speaks to the feelings of disillusion I have to think were common to the flower children entering adulthood, it acknowledges those feelings and, perhaps irresponsibly, does nothing to alleviate them. Beyond that, it’s beautiful. The subtle acoustic guitar, the fleeting harp and Crosby’s passionately pleading voice combine to great effect. It’s so choice.
Taken as a whole, If I Could Only Remember My Name is a glimpse into a past that I idealize. And while the music of my day and age doesn’t necessarily bother me, it just doesn’t reach me or connect with me like this stuff. The fact that members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, CSNY and various other folks gathered to hang and jam is something that excites and inspires me. And considering their work in the context of my times (which might be a disservice to past music-makers), the fact that they took comparatively weak drugs and made incomparably great music without the aid of modern technology is something worthy of celebration. So because little else got me going this past year, David Crosby’s 1971 album is GimmeDanger’s best of 2015.