Too much, man

Rock - Richard Cook on three survivors and one star from the glory days of pop protest

Protest music was annexed by rap in the 1980s, and the old American folkies who'd previously looked after it were made to seem like hayseeds in comparison. The long tradition of pop protest that the counter-culture of the sixties spread like a genteel virus has its noble streak, but American rock took it on board all too smoothly. By the time we got to Woodstock, it was already just another fad. For every Phil Ochs or Country Joe McDonald, there was a fraudulent careerist whose anti-whatever-it-was was just another way into a mediocre midstream, where "protest" was manifest as the vaguest kind of nod to the zeitgeist.

Survivors of the period can't forget those glory days. Consider the four old rascals named Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their new record, Looking Forward (Reprise), is the collaboration that they manage between them roughly once every decade. The title suggests the hankering for a fresh start that seems to be the standard mise en scene for everything emerging at this point, and references in several songs to passing wisdom on to a new generation fit the mood. Except all these relics can do is reminisce about when they were giants. The music is the same old rock, goosed a little here and there by the odd hint of a multinational groove, and as each character steps forward for his turn in the limelight it's like watching music hall turns run through their most prehistoric routines.

David Crosby, once the little blond angel of the Byrds, has roused himself sufficiently to contribute one-and-a-half songs, the first of which , "Stand and Be Counted" - where he insists that we all thank the boy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square - is the most sanctimonious poppycock I've heard all year. Graham Nash's songs have never passed muster, but his two are flimsy even by his standards. One says "life is hard enough, I know" and the other goes "life's too hard to bear". Pretty enlightening from someone who's had little to do other than be a rich and privileged hippie for the past 30 years. The spit and venom comes, as always, from grouchy old Stephen Stills, whose "Seen Enough" and "No Tears Left" reprise his ineffective flailing at more or less anyone with a Powerbook and a website (the sleeve lists the existence of a website called I have a sort of grudging admiration for Stills's pointless chutzpah, but his voice is in tatters and so is the songwriting.

The asinine flannel that this record peddles is a wretched and unbelievable shout into the void. "Protest" is reduced to a footling ramble through cliches that would have been unpromisingly thin even when CSNY first started strumming. But there is, of course, Neil Young to save their bacon. Young never keeps the best of himself for these projects, but even an off-form Young can trounce the efforts of the other three. He brought four songs to the date, and though two of them are nothing much, "Looking Forward" itself is one of his cracked little folk-fables and "Slowpoke" is Young at close to his offhand, by-accident best. There's no protest in Young's lyrics either, just a reflective window on a carefully observed world of his own.

Where Young scores - and the others miss by a country mile - is in his modesty. CS&N all perform and sing with the effortful manner of men who believe they're indispensable messengers of great thoughts. Y simply plays in the old folkie skin he always forgot to shed. He has another thing, too: all the best tunes.