August 19, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Boy, are they asking for it. Not only are Neil Young and his former partners in buckskin fringe, Crosby, Stills & Nash, releasing new albums on the same day, but both releases coincide with the 25th anniversary of Woodstock — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first major gig and the sociocultural symbol with which they will forever be linked, even if Young did carp, ”I’m not going back to Woodstock for a while” on 1975’s ”Roll Another Number (For the Road).” (Interestingly, Young is often cited as a ”father” of grunge, yet it is CSN, and not Y, who are set to perform at the alternative-minded Woodstock ’94.) The comparisons-between four hippies then and now, and between a restless, ever-ornery rock explorer and his three chubbier former bandmates — are crying out to be made, and they don’t promise to be very flattering. Or do they?

By now, Young’s stances — one minute a sensitive folkie hunched over a guitar, the next a scarecrow stalking a stage drenched with feedback — have become fairly predictable. And sure enough, Young once again calls upon his erstwhile, beleaguered backup band, Crazy Horse, for Sleeps with Angels. But instead of cranking up the amps (as he did with his last Horse studio album, 1990’s one-dimensional Ragged Glory), much of the music is murky and clankety; it sounds as if the normally thunderous band has been covered with a burlap sack. Call it Neil noir, and also call it the most challenging, experimental music he’s made in years. The best example is the title song, an elliptical meditation on Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love (”She wasn’t perfect/She had some trips of her own/He wasn’t worried/At least he wasn’t alone”) that comes across as a cement mixer being driven by haloed spirits. The theme of the frailty of life pops up on several other songs, particularly ”Driveby,” an almost numbingly mournful ballad about the shooting of a young woman.

Had Sleeps With Angels consistently explored that sense of doom and tension (and about half of it does, on brooding rumblers like ”Safeway Cart” and ”Trans Am”), it would have been yet another of Young’s periodic milestones. But, as he did on the half-assed synthesizer album Trans, Young refuses to commit and go all the way. So the rest of Sleeps With Angels is filled out with some pretty, wimpy folkie ballads (two of which have exactly the same melody but different lyrics), a standard Crazy Horse rave-up, and a couple of forays into noise rock that don’t really go anywhere. You can’t help but applaud anyone who, in 1994, records a song that logs in at 14 minutes; it’s just too bad that the song in question, ”Change Your Mind,” ambles along with little of the intensity of, say, ”Like a Hurricane.”

Aside from a comeback by ex-Wham! poster boy Andrew Ridgeley, it’s hard to imagine a record encumbered with lower expectations than Crosby, Stills & Nash’s After the Storm. Never mind the hair loss, weight gains, and creaky harmonies; inconsistent and lazy, these three have gradually slid into the very musical conservatism they once rebelled against. But the first indication that something is actually up this time is Stephen Stills singing in tune on the rubbery, Latin-flavored opener, ”Only Waiting for You.” Are these the same guys who seemed to be literally dragging themselves through their last couple of albums, all their energy and high notes long dissipated?

The surprises don’t end there. Stills no longer sings as if he has a broken whiskey glass lodged in his throat, and he can still unleash some coiled-up guitar leads; someone (probably experienced classic-rock producer Glyn Johns) realized that David Crosby’s songs are better with a backbeat; and Graham Nash sticks to simple love songs instead of chastising us about nuclear sponges on the ocean floor. Against all odds, CSN have made their sharpest, most clear- headed album since the Carter era, an agreeable contemporary-adult record that sounds as if they’re actually trying. With its liberal-minded songs about the homeless, racial prejudice, the evils of drugs, and the renewing power of love at age 50, it’s the album Ted Kennedy would make if he sang. Sleeps With Angels: B-

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