One of the less well-remembered sections of Stephen Stills' recording career is chronicled on this two-CD set from British reissue label BGO -- his three-LP stint at Columbia Records in the mid- to late ‘70s. When Stills signed to Columbia in 1975, he was coming off the record-breaking 1974 reunion tour of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Like a professional sports team signing a veteran free-agent player, Columbia seems to have thought it was contracting a major star who could mint gold records. That's the way it had worked several years earlier; in the wake of the first CSN&Y breakup in 1970, its individual members had all made gold-selling solo albums. What Columbia did not realize was that the second coming of the band, instead of serving as another springboard for each musician, instead produced an expectation in CSN&Y's audience that they would continue to come together and that what they did in their solo careers was just mark time until the next reunion. As ever, Neil Young was an exception to this rule, and David Crosby & Graham Nash as a duo, signing to ABC Records, showed that spinoffs could still sell if the label was aggressive in its promotion, going gold with Wind on the Water (September 1975) and Whistling Down the Wire (July 1976). At Columbia, however, Stills was expected to do the heavy lifting himself. He made a brave attempt with Stills (June 1975), his first album for the company. It was very much in the tradition of his previous solo albums Stephen Stills and Stephen Stills 2, featuring name guest stars including Crosby, Nash, Rick Roberts, and "English Richie" (Ringo Starr), and boasting anthemic folk-rock songs with strong choruses and plenty of tasty guitar work. In his lyrics, Stills reflected on his status as husband to French singer/songwriter Véronique Sanson and father to a son on such songs as "My Favorite Changes" and "To Mama from Christopher and the Old Man." In the same spirit, he also covered a Neil Young song, "New Mama." And he reunited Crosby, Stills & Nash for "As I Come of Age." All of that was enough to push Stills into the Top 20, barely, but the album was not a major hit.
Its successor, Illegal Stills (April 1976), followed a mere ten months later and was one of those albums on which the artist hadn't had enough time to craft a full disc's worth of good material. There was another Young cover, "The Loner," and Stills leaned heavily on singer/songwriter/guitarist Donnie Dacus, who wrote or co-wrote five songs and actually sang lead vocals on all or parts of three of them, "Midnight in Paris," "Closer to You," and "Ring of Love." In his lyrics, along with the romantic sentiments, Stills examined the failing U.S. economy on "Buyin' Time" and, with Dacus, lamented the military victims of Vietnam in "Soldier." Sales were disappointing, with a peak at number 31 in Billboard. In the wake of the album, Stills embarked on an abortive tour with Young that managed to produce an album, Long May You Run (September 1976), and then reunited with Crosby and Nash for the multi-platinum Crosby, Stills & Nash comeback album CSN (June 1977). He still owed one album to Columbia, however, and he fulfilled that commitment with Thoroughfare Gap (October 1978). By now, Dacus was out of the picture and, if the lyrics were any indication, Stills' personal life wasn't faring too well. He had always been interested in dance beats, particularly Latin rhythms, so it was no surprise that he jumped on the disco bandwagon with "You Can't Dance Alone," the leadoff track. The title song was an acoustic ballad that was thoughtful but somewhat ambiguous. Elsewhere, Stills expressed his romantic disappointment in self-written songs like "What's the Game" as well as a cover of the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider" and a version of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" with rewritten lyrics. On the whole, the album was not one of his better efforts, and it struggled to reach the Top 100. Stills, Illegal Stills, and Thoroughfare Gap have had a spotty presence on CD, and fans will welcome this reissue. They may want to skip John Tobler's digressive liner notes, which are littered with factual errors and say next to nothing about these particular albums.