Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Coming in Fourth on the "Creative Outbursts" List...

Coming in at # 4 on the haahnster list of “creative outbursts” is John Fogerty for his incredible output with Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The band was something of an oddity. They were by far the most commercially successful band from the San Francisco area in the late '60s/early '70s. Yet, they are NEVER mentioned as part of the “San Francisco sound” of that era, as people blather endlessly about The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, etc. No offense to the “Deadheads”, but I’ll take one COSMO’S FACTORY over 1,000 AMERICAN BEAUTY(s). But, I digress.

The group’s self-titled, debut album (1968) was powered mainly by spirited covers of songs such as “I Put A Spell On You” and “Suzie Q”. However, it did include five Fogerty-originals, among them “Porterville”, which is quite a rocker.

Then, things really took off for JC Fogerty and the boys. In 1969, they released (count 'em) three albums. Yes, I said, “three”! BAYOU COUNTRY contained only one cover (“Good Golly Miss Molly”), but six Fogerty-originals: “Born On The Bayou”, “Bootleg”, “Graveyard Train”, “Penthouse Pauper”, “Proud Mary”, and “Keep On Choogling”. GREEN RIVER was next, and contained one cover (“The Night Time Is The Right Time”) and eight-Fogerty originals: “Green River”, “Commotion”, “Tombstone Shadow”, “Wrote A Song For Everyone”, “Bad Moon Rising”, “Lodi”, “Cross-Tie Walker”, and “Sinister Purpose”. Lastly, WILLY AND THE POORBOYS contained Fogerty-arrangements of two Leadbelly standards (“Cotton Fields” and “The Midnight Special”) and eight Fogerty-originals: “Down On The Corner”, “It Came Out Of The Sky”, “Poorboy Shuffle”, “Feeling Blue”, “Fortunate Son”, “Don't Look Now (It Ain't You Or Me)”, “Side Of The Road”, and “Effigy”. That’s not a bad year, in my opinion.

Then came my personal favorite, COSMO’S FACTORY (1970). This album includes great covers of “Ooby Dooby” and “My Baby Left Me”, an INCREDIBLE cover of “Before You Accuse Me” (that makes Eric Clapton’s cover of the same song sound like the piece of sh-t that it is), and my 2ND FAVORITE COVER OF ALL TIME, a jaw-dropping, 11-minute guitar workout of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Also included are seven Fogerty-originals: “Ramble Tamble”, “Traveling Band”, “Looking Out My Back Door”, “Run Through The Jungle”, “Up Around The Bend”, “Who'll Stop The Rain”, and “Long As I Can See The Light”.

There was at least a slightly perceptible drop in quality on the 2nd album of 1970, PENDULUM, which contained ten songs, all Fogerty-originals. However, the classics “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”, “Hey Tonight”, and “Molina” are strong entries.

Alas, the party was over, as John’s brother, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty left the band. Apparently, he was disgruntled about the full control little brother John had taken of the group. In response, John insisted that the other two remaining members contribute tracks to the next album, MARDI GRAS (1972). The result was an unmitigated disaster that is often thought to be the worst album released by any group of this stature. In some fairness, two of the Fogerty-originals (“Sweet Hitch-Hiker” and “Someday Never Comes”) still qualify as classics in my book.

So, rewinding to before MARDI GRAS, the original CCR line-up, spearheaded by lead guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter John Fogerty, released six albums between July 1968 and December 1970. And, the best four (the middle four) of the six were all released in the 19-month period of January 1969 to July 1970. Hello!!!

Based on the rapid succession in which the albums came out, and the relative lack of previously unreleased material that has subsequently emerged, it would appear that whatever Fogerty wrote in this timeframe was almost immediately recorded and released. Hence, some might consider the prolific appearance to be a bit deceptive. However, it is almost impossible to argue the consistent quality of the material in question. Had it been sustained just a bit longer, perhaps I would even rank Fogerty a spot or two higher. As it stands though, I am still completely in awe. And, I say this is the 4th most amazing “creative outburst” in the history of rock music.

[For those of you keeping score at home, I guess that means Neil is in the Top 3.]

Creative Outbursts of Epic Proportions

Yesterday, I came into possession of the most AMAZING disc ever (or damned close to it)!

It's a CD of a soundboard recording from a Neil Young solo show he played on 19 January 1971 at Massey Hall in Toronto. It's the late show (2nd of two shows played on the same date!). This disc is remarkable for the sound clarity, which is EASILY good enough to have been officially released. It's also remarkable for the quality of Neil's performance, which again was easily worthy of release. But, perhaps most remarkable of all, to me, is the song selection in this show. It includes two Buffalo Springfield songs from LAST TIME AROUND (1968), "Bad Fog Of Loneliness" which remains unreleased, except for the RED ROCKS DVD (2000), and "Dance, Dance, Dance" which was only released as a single. It also includes FIVE songs that ended up on HARVEST (1972) more than one year later, two songs that ended up on TIME FADES AWAY (1973) more than 2 1/2 years later, and one song that ended up on ON THE BEACH (1974) 3 1/2 years later. Of course, there are also "Helpless" and "Ohio", both of which were CSNY songs released in 1970. And, there are two songs each from EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE (1969) and AFTER THE GOLD RUSH (1970).

This set list really started me thinking about what an amazing amount of high quality material Neil produced in a relatively short period of time in the late '60s/early '70s. It's truly awe inspiring. In fact, I think it ranks right up there with the greatest creative outbursts in the history of popular music.

With an artist such as Neil, it's incredibly difficult to keep track of which songs were written when, or which ones were recorded in what order. Albums were released out of sequence, songs deleted at the last minute, etc. So, I think the only way to "level the playing field", or at least the way I'm choosing, is to go by release date, although some minor consideration will be given to unreleased material (maybe).

Now, people will want to come at you with The Beatles from 1965 or 1966 (depending on whether they start with RUBBER SOUL or REVOLVER) to 1970. They'll drone on and on about Sgt Pepper's and the "white album" (bunch of crackers!) and ABBEY ROAD. OK, fine. But, there were FOUR guys, and three of them wrote songs. One of the three was a bit hung up on the sitar. But, two of them were fairly prolific songwriters. So, that's (at least) two on one, in a comparison against Neil.

Same logic applies to Led Zeppelin, whose first four albums are as "classic rock" as "classic rock" gets, and were released between Jan. '69 and Nov. '71. Not bad, but Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones were all writing songs (not to mention that they were basically raiding old blues standards-Here's an idea: we can credit Memphis Minnie or Willie Dixon as "co-authors"!).

And, of course, the Stones put out BEGGARS BANQUET (1968), LET IT BLEED (1969), GET YER YA-YA'S OUT (1970), STICKY FINGERS (1971), and EXILE ON MAIN STREET (1972) in succession!!! Now, "Ya-Ya's" was a live album. However, "Exile" was a double-album. So, there you go. Jagger/Richards is probably the greatest songwriting duo in rock history, and this was arguably their creative peak. However, that is still two guys.

So, consider the above as "honorable mentions". I've got a "Final Four" that I think are the absolutely best creative outbursts in rock music history. When I get some more time (later today or tomorrow), I'll post on them. HINT: Neil Young is one of the four. : - )

Monday, February 27, 2006

"Grandpa bought a rubber"

I had to go all the way back to the 1st comedy album I ever owned, A WILD AND CRAZY GUY (1978) by Steve Martin, to get the title of this post. Sorry, I couldn't think of anything too clever on my own. Anyway, GREENDALE (2003) is Neil's allegorical tale of the Green family, the Double E "rancho", and some adventurous activities that occur in and around the town of Greendale, CA.

This is billed as a "Neil Young & Crazy Horse" album. However, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro does not appear. Additional vocals are provided by the Mountainettes (Pegi Young, Nancy Hall, Twink Brewer, Sue Hall).

GREENDALE is a real multi-media affair, with various audio, video, and print formats involved. It is also something I've never been a huge fan of, a concept album. Generally, I've found "concept album" to be synonymous with "pretentious bullsh-t". However, I don't really feel that is the case here. Neil seems sincere enough. And, the album certainly doesn't suffer from the over-production that plagued so many of the "concept albums" of the '60s & '70s. [I'm sorry, but I feel compelled to mention here that the term "rock opera" has always made me want to wretch. So, I refuse to use it. In my opinion, the only, and I mean only, thing that The Who's TOMMY ever had going for it was Keith Moon being perfectly cast as the pedophile "Uncle Ernie" in the movie version. Perhaps that crystallizes my loathing of "rock operas" for you.] Thankfully, I think it's safe to say that this is NOT a "rock opera". You'll certainly never hear me refer to it as such!

All songs were written by Neil Young:

"Falling From Above" (7:28) introduces us to some of the cast members, particularly Grandpa Green. Grandpa's notable lines include "I won't retire/But I might retread" and "Seems like that guy singin' this song/Been doing it for a long time/Is there anything he knows/That he ain't said?" This song is also memorable for rhyming "religious wars" with "church's exposed sores".

Neil plays some pretty cool bluesy guitar on the next two tracks: "Double E" (5:19) references the "summer of love"; "Devil's Sidewalk" (5:19) references John Lennon (by which I mean, his lyrics are quoted, and followed by the words "John Lennon said that."). Did I mention Neil's guitar was really cool? Good.

"Leave The Driving" (7:15) has some decent bluesy guitar and harmonica from Neil. Oh, yeah, and Cousin Jed (accidentally?) shoots a cop named Carmichael during a traffic stop. The best lyrics here are clearly "And as an afterthought/This must, too, be told/Some people have taken pure bullshit/And turned it into gold".

"Carmichael" (10:20) might be a bit overlong and musically bland (perhaps?). However, Neil does offer us an interesting look at our reaction as a society to an untimely death. It basically boils down to this, "The force got back to normal/Carmichael was replaced/For one year nobody parked a car/In Carmichael's space."

"Bandit" (5:13) is an acoustic guitar-based song which loosely quotes Bob Dylan, and then says "Bob Dylan said that, something like that". Neil uses a whispery voice on some of the lyrics, which is interesting. "Grandpa's Interview" (12:58) is longer than hell, and capped by the observation, "Grandpa died like a hero/Fighting for freedom of silence".

"Bringing Down Dinner" (3:16) is a little organ-based number that adds next to nothing musically. I suppose it progresses the story (?), but even that is open to some question. "Sun Green" (12:03) actually starts off sounding like a Crazy Horse song (for maybe the 1st time on the entire album). I really like Neil's guitar work on this one. Oh, and a cat gets shot after scratching an FBI Agent's leg.

"Be The Rain" (9:14) is the catchiest tune on the album, in my opinion. It is certainly my favorite song on GREENDALE. The backing vocals, Neil's use of the megaphone, the environmental message, Neil's guitar, the "Be The Rain" catchphrase, it all works for me here. I think this is a strong finisher.

So, what does it all mean? I'm not 100% certain. However, here are some possible messages/lessons:
  • Religious wars are bad (see also "With God On Our Side" by Bob Dylan)
  • A little love and affection make the world better (see also "All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles)
  • Change comes slow in the country
  • "One thing I can tell you/Is you got to be free" by John Lennon (see "Come Together" by The Beatles)
  • Cop killing might be bad (at least, it certainly leads to other bad things)
  • B.S. can be turned into gold
  • Bob Dylan is loosely quoted (see "Like A Rolling Stone")
  • Leave It To Beaver and Andy Griffith = GOOD
  • Inside Edition (and its ilk) = BAD
  • Corporate farms are big polluters
  • Although Enron and the Bush White House were the ones in bed together, Gray Davis is the one who got f-cked
  • If your cat scratches an FBI Agent, it will be summarily executed
  • The environment is important, and you can't trust the government or big business to protect it; rather, as consumers, we must all make appropriate choices.

Bottom line: Upon initial listening, I strongly preferred the live, solo acoustic version of GREENDALE on the bonus DVD "Live At Vicar St." The electric version has grown on me a bit, after repeated listens. Still, the only song I would specifically pull it out for is "Be The Rain". Perhaps that's because Neil's environmental message is his longest-standing socio-political cause, and the one where he has the most credibility. Or, maybe it's just that it's the song that seems most fully-finished. Is it that Poncho's absence is best hidden here? I'm not sure. Something just seems a bit off to me on much of the electrical stuff. But, I don't get that same feeling listening to the acoustic version.

In fact, here's what I REALLY WANT: I'd love to be able to rip the audio off the acoustic DVD version, edit out Neil's between-songs narrative, and burn the music itself onto a CD. Anyone know how to accomplish that?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Table for 5 with JJ, JD, NY & WB

There's no way to know, I suppose, how a dinner conversation with Jim Jarmusch, Johnny Depp, Neil Young, and William Blake would've actually gone, had it been possible. However, the soundtrack to DEAD MAN (1996) is an interesting listen [haahnster note: the movie itself is listed as being from 1995; the soundtrack had a release date of Feb. '96].

Having never seen this movie, my comments about it will be very limited. Apparently, Jim Jarmusch edited some footage from the film with some of Neil's songs as a make-shift musical score. Then, he showed it to Neil to help convince him to do the project. At least, that's what I read in the CD booklet.

The soundtrack CD contains 13 tracks. My CD has no indication of any song titles, per se. However, the allmusic site lists them as follows (those not labeled as a "solo" are pulled from the spoken words included):

1. Guitar Solo, No. 1 (5:17)
2. The Round Stones Beneath The Earth... (3:31)
3. Guitar Solo, No. 2 (2:03)
4. Why Does Thou Hide Thyself, Clouds… (2:24)
5. Organ Solo (1:33)
6. Do You Know How To Use This Weapon? (4:24)
7. Guitar Solo, No. 3 (4:31)
8. Nobody's Story (6:35)
9. Guitar Solo, No. 4 (4:22)
10. Stupid White Men... (8:45)
11. Guitar Solo, No. 5 (14:40)
12. Time For You To Leave, William Blake... (0:51)
13. Guitar Solo, No. 6 (3:22)

I don't really have much else to say, other than Neil's guitar sounds absolutely gargantuan. It's really quite cool, in my opinion. Billy Bob Thornton fans will recognize his voice on track 10. Some of his dialog is strikingly similar to that of his character during an argument with Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) in the movie Tombstone (lots of "God damn", "by God" and "is that a fact?").

Bottom line: Far from essential, but it's pretty cool for big fans of Neil's more distorted guitar sounds. [I suppose big fans of the movie, Jim Jarmusch, or maybe even William Blake might want it too.]

Friday, February 24, 2006

"The Lost Songs" II + What's In A Name?

This post will conclude my run through "The Lost Songs" of Neil Young, per the Jan. 26, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone. Plus, I've got a new idea for a Neil compilation.[For those of you keeping score at home, I believe there are ten officially released albums about which I have yet to post. I'll get to those soon.] Rather than waste time & space with a recap of yesterday’s post (Feb. 23, 2006), I’ll just jump right back in:

It’s hard to argue with the choice of “Mideast Vacation” from LIFE. However, “Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll” is also a ton of fun. And, Neil’s inclusion of live versions of it and “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” on YOTH certainly bring a little added perspective to the album LIFE as a whole (though I still think it's his weakest album with CH).

“Kinda Fonda Wanda” is a cool choice from E.R. But, as I stated in my Jan. 19th post, that whole album is a blast. If you’re at all a fan (even just a little bit) of early rock and roll, then this entire album is a cool listen.

“Goin’ Home” might be the closest thing to a “lost song” on Sheffield’s list, as it is the lone Crazy Horse song on an otherwise Memphis soul/blues album cut with ¾ of Booker T. & the MGs. If you’re an avid fan of Crazy Horse-Neil only, then you would want to cherry-pick this song. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’d be getting the flavor of the album as a whole.

I just wrote about YOTH earlier this week. I’m a big fan of the entire album. We all know that Neil & CH have a phenomenal live sound. This album in particular has an understated, free and easy feel to it (especially compared to the more aggressive sound of WELD, which I also love). The YOTH version of “Slip Away” is really cool. But, I can’t get past that 13+ minute version of “Danger Bird”! I refuse to concede that YOTH is a “not-so-stellar” album.

Speaking of which, we come to UNPLUGGED. Certainly, “Stringman” was previously unreleased. But, what about the complete re-envisioning of classics like “Mr. Soul” (does not violate my previously-stated “Neil...” rule—UNPLUGGED was released as a “Neil Young” album), and “Like A Hurricane”, or the stripping down of the (in my humble opinion) previously over-produced “The Old Laughing Lady” and the de-techno-fying of “Transformer Man”?

Speaking of "Transformer Man"…Where is a song from TRANS on Sheffield’s list? How do I interpret this absence? Does it mean that he thinks TRANS is a “stellar album”? Or, does it mean that he couldn’t even find a single “buried treasure” on it? Ditto for LANDING ON WATER and OLD WAYS. You see, that’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to review each album, and each album in its entirety. I wanted to put the entire official catalog out there (and I’m almost done; though, barring a miracle, I won’t get to JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST, which I don’t possess).

Now, as far as Macky’s request for a “greatest hits” limited to 15 songs, that’s a challenge. I’ll need at least the weekend to consider that one. But, here’s an idea I had for a Neil compilation: NEIL YOUNG – TITLE TRACKS (aka "What's In A Name?"). Sometimes, one of the best tunes on a Neil album is the title track. Other times, it’s just one of the songs. But, it would be an easy, albeit arbitrary, way to get an interesting cross-section of Neil’s career:

1. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” 2. “After The Gold Rush” 3. “Harvest” 4. “Time Fades Away” 5. “On The Beach” 6&7. “Tonight’s The Night” 8. “Comes A Time” 9. “Hawks & Doves” 10. “Everybody’s Rockin’” 11. “Old Ways” 12. “This Note’s For You” 13. “Harvest Moon” 14. “Sleeps With Angels” 15. “Silver & Gold” 16. “Are You Passionate?” 17. “Prairie Wind”

Bonus Tracks: “Journey Through The Past” (song is actually on TIME FADES AWAY), “Mystery Train” (from EVERYBODY’S ROCKIN’, later used as title of a compilation of Geffen-era tunes released in Germany), “Eldorado” (title track of an EP released only in Australia & Japan; this song was later released on FREEDOM), “Philadelphia” (title track of, and only Neil song on, this movie soundtrack)

Bonus, Bonus Tracks (some of which break my "Neil..." rule): “Broken Arrow” (Buffalo Springfield tune that pre-dates Neil’s album of the same name by almost 30 years), “Long May You Run” (title track of the “Stills-Young Band” LP), “American Dream” (title track of CSNY album), “Looking Forward” (title track of CSNY album), “Buffalo Springfield Again” (Neil tune from SILVER & GOLD that appeared more than 30 years after the Buffalo Springfield album of the same name)

Bonus, Bonus, Bonus Tracks: The entire ARC and DEAD MAN discs, which have only “untitled” tracks on them!

Now, how’s that for a compilation?

PS – I’ve been fairly strict in my interpretations. One could open it up a bit, and include the songs from which album titles are taken, but are not actually title tracks in the strictest sense (e.g., “Rust Never Sleeps” is an album title pulled from the lyrics, “It’s better to burn out 'cause rust never sleeps,” of the song “Hey Hey, My My” – and, before you say anything, no it’s not also from “My My, Hey Hey”, in which Neil says instead, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”). But, you might say the turn of phrase in “My My, Hey Hey” is close enough. But, then, to represent RE*AC*TOR, I suppose you’d have to pull the song “Rapid Transit”, given that it contains the words “Melt down” (which are the most “reactor”-related lyrics I can find on the album). So, it’s a slippery slope, as you can surely see. By the same token, the two versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World” might well be the signature pieces on FREEDOM. But, I don’t see how they could be called title tracks, by any definition, as they merely allude to one interpretation of our relative freedom(s), but do not actually include the word “freedom” at all. Hey, I have to draw the line somewhere.

PPS – The CSNY album DÉJÀ VU had a title track, but Neil did not write that one. Here’s a “near-miss” for you: TIME FADES AWAY has a song called “The Bridge”, you know, as opposed to “The Bridge School Concerts”. Coincidence? I think not. But, I'd better stop before I lose my mind completely.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Request lines are now open

For those of you who might not know, this is Macky Ole. Macky is a faithful reader of this humble little blog. Macky expressed several concerns in his last comment posted here:

Interesting RS piece. I haven't heard most of the stuff on
that list, with the exception of Razor Love, Big Time (love it), and Soldier (meh).

However, given your ownership of every damn Neil album ever, I'd like to see what kind of Lost Songs list you could put together. A future post? You're running out of albums dude, but the Neil content must live on. I'd also like to get your take on a potential greatest hits set - let's say 15 songs.

I linked to Rob Sheffield's Rolling Stone piece (to which Macky refers) in my post on SILVER & GOLD (2000), which was called something silly like "Y2K, Precious Metals, and 'New' Old Tunes". This RS piece was sort of an article within the featured article on Neil in the Jan. 26, 2006 issue. It was called "The Lost Songs", which is even sillier than my titles, since all the songs listed are readily available on commercially released albums. More on "Lost Songs" in a minute.

Unfortunately, Macky is 100% correct when he says that I'm running out of albums to review. More importantly, he's at least 100% correct (maybe more!) when he says "the Neil content must live on." I did already have a few ideas for future posts. Now, Macky has made a couple of requests, which I will certainly honor. But, first I want to comment further on "The Lost Songs".

Part of being a Neil Young fan is trolling through his bad albums in search of buried treasures. So here's the ultimate Neil Young mix CD -- seventy-eight minutes of stellar songs on not-so-stellar albums. Remember: It's better to burn CDs than fade away.

Rob Sheffield, you are certainly giving me a run for my money in the "I'm sooo clever"-department. However, I'm not ready to concede that these are all "bad albums". So, Mr. Sheffield, your premise is somewhat flawed. But, let's take a look at your list just for fun:

1. "I'm the Ocean" - Mirror Ball, 1995
2. "Razor Love" - Silver and Gold, 2000
3. "Big Time" - Broken Arrow, 1996
4. "Captain Kennedy" - Hawks and Doves, 1980
5. "Will to Love" - American Stars 'n Bars, 1977
6. "Slowpoke" - Looking Forward, 1999
7. "Soldier" - Journey Through the Past, 1972
8. "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" - Re-ac-tor, 1981
9. "Mideast Vacation" - Life, 1987
10. "Kinda Fonda Wanda" - Everybody's Rockin', 1983
11. "Goin' Home" - Are You Passionate?, 2002
12. "Slip Away" - Year of the Horse, 1997
13. "Out of My Mind" - Buffalo Springfield, 1967
14. "Stringman" - Unplugged, 1993

First off, I'll never include anything on any "best of Neil" type of list that wasn't performed by a band whose name started with the word "Neil". Sorry, Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, etc. are EXCLUDED by me. Sure, there are some great songs. But, if I start opening the door for them, where do I draw the line? I just can't handle that type of pressure. So, if the album was put out under "Neil..." (e.g., "Neil Young", "Neil Young & Crazy Horse", "Neil Young with Crazy Horse", "Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks", etc.) it's eligible. All apologies to the rest (e.g., "Stills-Young Band").

Beyond that, I still get pissed off reading the words "bad albums", and then right off the bat he goes to MIRROR BALL, SILVER & GOLD, etc. I'm sorry, but I do not consider those to be "bad albums". So, I'll use words like "underrated" and "underappreciated" instead. Otherwise, I just can't do this. So, I'll start by comparing which songs I would've picked from the "Neil" albums on Sheffield's list.

"I'm the Ocean" is a GREAT choice. However, "Act of Love" and "Downtown" certainly would've been fine as well. "Razor Love" is a great song, but so is every song on S&G. Here, I think he just really wanted to make his clever little comment about bootlegs, the @sshole.

If I were picking the "hidden gems" from B.A. and H&D, I probably would've picked "Big Time" and "Captain Kennedy" as well. The "Big Time" choice is fairly obvious, particularly since he nabs the YOTH version of "Slip Away" later on his list. However, the "Captain Kennedy" choice leads me to believe that he actually listened to HAWKS & DOVES. What a great song! And I quote myself (sorry) from my Feb 2, 2006 post, "Now, 'Captain Kennedy' is the hidden gem. This one really explores a Dylanesque style, early Dylan at that ('He worked 'til his fingers wore to the bone/To buy that wooden schooner and sail on his own')." -- But that's not to say that there aren't any other good songs on the album (e.g., "Comin' Apart At Every Nail").

On "Will to Love", I wrote the following in my Jan. 27th post: "'Will to Love' (May'76) is a 100% Neil solo effort, and seems to anticipate future songs like 'Pocahontas' and 'Ride My Llama', though this one is longer and slower." -- I do really like this song, but there's also "Star of Bethlehem", "Saddle Up the Palomino", etc. (I'll go ahead and assume that "Like A Hurricane" isn't eligible for a "lost songs list", but it's sure on AS&B!)

"Soldier"? It's on DECADE, which means it's certainly far from "lost". By the way, Macky, not to disappoint you (quote: "given your ownership of every damn Neil album ever"), but even I do not own JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST! So, I'm guessing Sheffield's inclusion of this song was motivated by his desire to throw in the snide comment, "butt-ugly soundtrack to a self-directed movie nobody ever saw."

RE*AC*TOR?!! I'm going "on the record" (AGAIN!) in support of this entire album as a proto-grunge noise-fest of sublime proportions. "Surfer Joe..." is wonderful. No complaint there. But, how about "Shots" for example? Or, "Southern Pacific", for chrissakes...Just buy this whole damned album, OK?!

This post has grown beyond the point of decency. So, I'll cut it off here. TO BE CONTINUED(?)...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Forget the dog, the monkey, etc. Every year is the Year of the Horse in my book

YEAR OF THE HORSE (1997) is a 2-Disc set that is a great addition to the Neil Young & Crazy Horse live album collection. The performances were recorded during the tour supporting the underappreciated album BROKEN ARROW (1996). It includes great versions of three songs from that album. Beyond that, many of the other selections are also a bit off the beaten path. True, there are two songs from RUST NEVER SLEEPS (1979) and one from AFTER THE GOLD RUSH (1970), all three of which have appeared on previous live albums. However, there are two songs from one of Neil’s all-time most underrated albums, ZUMA (1975), and neither one of them is “Cortez The Killer”! Also, there are two cool versions of songs from LIFE (1987), Neil & CH’s Geffen album. Throw in a fresh version of the Buffalo Springfield classic “Mr. Soul”, and a nice, mellow tune from COMES A TIME (1978), and you’ve completed the rather eclectic mix here.

All the songs were written by Neil Young:

1. When You Dance* (6:19)
2. Barstool Blues (9:02)
3. When Your Lonely Heart Breaks (5:04)
4. Mr. Soul (5:05)
5. Big Time (7:27)
6. Pocahontas (4:50)
7. Human Highway (4:07)
1. Slip Away (10:52)
2. Scattered** (3:59)
3. Danger Bird (13:33)
4. Prisoners*** (6:40)
5. Sedan Delivery (7:15)
* aka “When You Dance I Can Really Love”
** aka “Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)”
***aka “Prisoners Of Rock 'n' Roll”

The album opens with the perfect introduction, Neil’s now famous declaration “It’s all one song!” They proceed to march through a heavy version of “When You Dance” that owes more than a little to the LIVE RUST (1979) version. But, then, to prove that there’s no way in hell it’s all one song, Neil blisters through a mucho-guitar-solo version of the ZUMA hidden gem “Barstool Blues”. How “mucho” on the guitar solos? The original ZUMA version clocks in at a mere 3:02. This version is 9:02, 'nuff said.

Next comes what was almost a totally forgotten tune at that point, “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” from LIFE. This is somewhat slow & plodding, but with a cool, laid-back feel. This is followed by an incarnation of “Mr. Soul” that seems drawn more from the UNPLUGGED (1993) version than the original. It’s pretty cool, with plenty of extra guitar pickin’ at the end.

“Big Time”, which is my favorite song from BROKEN ARROW, is represented very well here, complete with Neil’s fantastic guitar soloing. It’s very faithful to the original, clocking in at 7:27, amazingly close to the 7:24 of the original version.

“Pocahontas” seems to follow the slower pace of the UNPLUGGED version, but here it’s electrical, and plenty chunky. Neil’s vocals are relaxed to start, but seem to build to genuine anger at points. “Human Highway” closes out the first CD, with acoustic guitar and harmonica. The boys from Crazy Horse can’t quite match the harmony vocals Nicolette Larson provided on the COMES A TIME original, but it’s still a great song. Its inclusion here ultimately serves as a nice remembrance and tribute to her life, which ended in a very untimely fashion in December 1997.

“Slip Away” is a laid-back guitar opus, which at 10:52 even expands on the 8:36 BROKEN ARROW original. As performed here, it is definitely a welcome addition to Neil’s live guitar masterpieces. It’s not his most pyrotechnic, but rather a relaxed odyssey that definitely has its flashes of brilliance. “Scattered”, also from BROKEN ARROW, follows, and is fairly faithful to the chunky original. Here, the ending blends perfectly into “Danger Bird”.

Now, I could go on all day about “Danger Bird”, but I’ll try to boil it down. The original ZUMA version is an aural feast of distorted guitar-soloing virtuosity, and clocks in at a healthy 6:54. Here, nearly 22 years later, Neil’s first official live version finally appeared, and at a tremendous 13:33. Neil proudly represents this tune, and particularly his guitar work. Listening to this song yesterday actually gave me a hard-on, and at work, that’s not a convenient thing for me! (OK, so I made up the erection story. Still, I must say Neil’s guitar work here is nearly a sexual experience.) For the true Neil & CH fan, this one song easily justifies the entire album, not that it needs additional justification.

Neil & the boys take a romp through “Prisoners” from LIFE, which is a fun-loving tune about “record company clowns”. They “don’t wanna be good.” But, fortunately for all of us, they are. Neil’s guitar is on fire again here, and there’s even a hidden treasure, as he breaks into what sounds like a Hendrix-style “The Star Spangled Banner” for the last 70 seconds of this track.

“Smell the horse on this one!” Neil exclaims by way of introduction for the closer, “Sedan Delivery”. Of course this song was already on LIVE RUST (in addition to RUST NEVER SLEEPS), but a rockin’, slightly extended version like this one is always welcome on my stereo.

Bottom line: Though it begins and ends with familiar-sounding live cuts, in between are some great versions of some lesser-known Neil classics, as well as a couple new approaches to familiar tunes. Sure, I would rank it behind LIVE RUST and WELD. But, sh-t, that’s certainly no insult!!! If you’ve already got the other two, you should still grab this one. Or, even if you’ve only got LIVE RUST, you might want to grab this one anyway, because its price tag is generally well below that of WELD.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Y2K, Precious Metals, and "New" Old Tunes

SILVER & GOLD (2000) was Neil’s first solo studio album since he released the Crazy Horse effort, BROKEN ARROW (1996). Apparently, he originally envisioned S&G as a 100% solo acoustic effort. Instead, he ended up adding some accompaniment, albeit very understated and unobtrusive. The musical line-up is Neil Young (guitar, harmonica, piano & vocals), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar & dobro), Spooner Oldham (piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, pump organ & Hammond B3 organ), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), Jim Keltner (drums & percussion, all except tracks 4&5), Oscar Butterworth (drums, tracks 4&5), and Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt (background vocals on track 7).

All the songs were written by Neil Young:

1. Good To See You (2:48)
2. Silver & Gold (3:17)
3. Daddy Went Walkin’ (4:02)
4. Buffalo Springfield Again (3:21)
5. The Great Divide (4:32)
6. Horseshoe Man (3:59)
7. Red Sun (2:46)
8. Distant Camera (4:06)
9. Razor Love (6:29)
10. Without Rings (3:42)

One thing is for certain: this is one of Neil’s quietest, most unassuming albums. It also has a very personal, even intimate, feel. The album is “dedicated to Pegi,” and it is largely a collection of sweet love songs. On one level, it functions almost like a “Thinking of You” greeting card to his wife. Pity the rest of us poor bastards who have to rely on Hallmark. At the same time, it also seems to offer some autobiographical glimpses into Neil’s soul, although perhaps not as many as PRAIRIE WIND (with its numerous references to Neil’s father, something I forgot to mention in my previous post).

This is not an ostentatious show of youthful affection, but rather a subtle but clear indication of a wiser, more mature, deeper love. The album seems to me to be very cohesive, particularly in light of the fact that many of these songs date back to at least 1998, with a couple dating all the way back to the '80s. Also remarkable is that some of the songs originally planned to be included were pilfered for the CSNY reunion LOOKING FORWARD (1999), and thus required replacement. I suppose it’s the simplicity of the mellow, folk-rock style, and the timelessness of love as a musical theme that hold the album together.

I must preface my brief song-by-song recap by saying that, unlike many diehard Neil fans, I have never heard him perform any of these songs live in concert. Thus, I brought absolutely no preconceptions to this album. Well, except that I always start with the presumption that I will like any Neil Young album. My main goal then is to determine to what degree I like each one.

“Good To See You” opens things up in an upbeat manner. Neil plays GREAT acoustic guitar and gives a nice vocal performance as well (“I’m the suitcase in your hallway/I’m the footsteps on your floor/When I’m looking down on you/I feel like I know what my life is for”). The title track is next, and it’s a beautiful love song. In my opinion, Neil’s vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica are perfect. In fact, they’re “better than silver and gold” (I’m so damn clever…sorry). This one dates back to the early '80s, so many fans already had a favorite version of it. Like I said before, this is the only version I’ve heard, and I’d say it’s pretty damned near perfect.

“Daddy Went Walkin’” sounds like an old folk tune with a little country foot stompin’ for good measure. It might be a little John-Denver-Thank-God-I'm-A-Country-Boy-ish for some people, but it brings a smile to my face (“Brown leather boots/And an old straw hat/Daddy's getting wood/With the barnyard cat/Got a little dirty/But that's all right/Hey now, hey now”), even while dealing with the subject of divorce (which evokes more than its fair share of my own childhood memories).

“Buffalo Springfield Again” features Neil reflecting fondly on one of his old bands (“But I'd just like to play/For the fun we had”). “The Great Divide” is likely the most overtly country song on the album, and features some good lyrical imagery warning of the dire possibilities of a relationship grown cold (“In the canyons of the great divide/Familiar places that we can run and hide/Are filled with strangers/Walking in our houses alone”).

“Horseshoe Man” is a relatively slow, pretty song that ends with Neil repeatedly informing us “Love, I don't know about love”. (Well, damn, Neil, you’ve been singing about it for 40 years. You’d think you would’ve reached that conclusion a little sooner!) “Red Sun” is one of my favorites here. The ladies offer some great backing vocals, and it’s just a cool song musically as well, with kind of an Irish flair towards the very end (Listen to the last 60 seconds and you’ll hear what I mean).

“Distant Camera” features a guitar part that really puts me in the mind of “Old Man” in places, especially when Ben Keith joins in. The line “All I want is a song of love” also recalls that classic song’s “I need someone to love me the whole day through”. This is a great song in my humble opinion.

“Razor Love” is another song that dates back to the '80s. Accordingly, I’m certain its release here came with all sorts of expectations on the part of many fans. No strings attached for me though (“It’s a razor love/That cuts clean through”), and I think it’s a fantastic song.

The closer is “Without Rings”, and it features Neil using an ultra-cool deep voice. This vocal delivery is somewhat reminiscent of “Ambulance Blues” from ON THE BEACH (1974). When Neil sings “Angel without wings/Owner without things/Sharpshooter without rings around you” I’m oddly reminded of “I guess I'll call it sickness gone/It's hard to say the meaning of this song” from “Ambulance Blues”. I’ve read some negative commentary on the line “My software's not compatible with you”. Regardless of what you think of that, I think the follow-up “But this I can't deny/I know that you can fly/'Cause I'm here on the ground without you” more than makes up for any potential lyrical deficiency.

Bottom line: On the surface, this is a very simple little album that would make suitable background music in even the mellowest of settings. However, I think if you are willing and able to listen a bit closer, you’ll find there’s a lot lurking under that surface. It’s really hard for me to group this one with other Neil albums, even primarily acoustic ones. As I indicated earlier, I think this is definitely among his quietest, most introspective albums. Unless you are ONLY a fan of Neil’s louder stuff (mainly with Crazy Horse), I can’t see how you wouldn’t like this disc. I just cringe any time I see it referred to as a throwaway, or as in the recent Rolling Stone with Neil on the cover (Jan. 26, 2006), a “twee country-rock album”. I think that's selling it way, way short.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Aneurysm?! We Don't Need No Stinking Aneurysm

By now, I'm sure most Neil Young fans are aware of his recent bout with a rather large, Florida-shaped cerebral aneurysm (yes, that means "in his brain"). Hey, the guy had a little brain surgery scheduled, but it wasn't until a few days later. So, he did what most of us would do. He flew to Nashville and then wrote and recorded an incredible album. Now, with the opening of the movie "Heart of Gold", which documents Neil performing this material live (also in Nashville), I figured I'd go ahead and weigh in on PRAIRIE WIND (2005).

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was lucky enough to witness Neil's amazing performance at FarmAid 2005, which included a couple of the songs from this album. In any event, I really enjoy listening to PRAIRIE WIND, and also watching the bonus DVD, which shows Neil and the gang in the studio recording this album. All the songs are Neil originals:

The Painter (4:36)
No Wonder (5:46)
Falling Off The Face Of The Earth (3:35)
Far From Home (3:47)
It’s A Dream (6:32)
Prairie Wind (7:35)
Here For You (4:32)
This Old Guitar (5:33)
He Was The King (6:09)
When God Made Me (4:06)

"The Painter" is an amazing opener, with Neil strumming the acoustic guitar, and good, old Ben Keith providing the key accompaniment. When Neil sings "If you follow every dream/You might get lost", it could be a warning, or it could just be an explanation of the many musical changes in Neil's career.

Neil adds both electric & acoustic guitar on "No Wonder", with its haunting melody recalling great folk rock tunes of the past. There are more people singing backing vocals on this song than I care to list. But, they sound great. This is followed by the very quiet introspection of "Falling Off The Face Of The Earth", which is a a wonderfully mellow tune.

The bluesy romp "Far From Home" picks up the pace, with the horns adding a great touch to Neil's spirited harmonica playing. Neil slows it back down as he plays piano on "It's A Dream". The string accompaniment here is done in a relatively understated way. I almost never think strings are necessary, but I can definitely live with them here. The lyrics "And I hold you if you've had a bad dream/And I hope it never comes true" remind me somewhat of the incredible lines "I was thinking about what a friend had said/I was hoping it was a lie" from "After The Gold Rush".

Neil moves back to acoustic guitar and harmonica for the title track. The organ and horns add nice sound, along with the great backing vocals on the chorus. This is definitely a new "classic" Neil tune, in my humble opinion. "Here For You" is a nice, quiet, acoustic love song, with Neil adding some harmonica and Ben Keith adding his typically excellent sound as well. Again with the strings, but they're not too oppressive for me here either.

"This Old Guitar" is a quiet, sentimental ode to Neil's guitar. I really can't find a way to write about this song without making it sound ridiculous, other than to say it's not as ridiculous as the concept might initially seem. It's far from an essential tune to the album, in my opinion. However, I definitely do not think it's a bad song either.

"He Was The King" is an Elvis tribute that has drawn more than a little bile from some critics, who have basically complained along the lines of "we don't need another song about Elvis being the king". It's a fair criticism, I suppose. However, this song is also a cool, harmless little up-tempo number that I happen to like. So, for future live performances, I'm offering Neil some substitute lyrics to appease these critics:

The last time I saw John Holmes
He was sticking it in a hot chick's @ss
She was begging for him to stop
But he kept goin'...hard and fast
Ahhh he was the king

The album closes with "When God Made Me", which is a song that has caused some controversy and consternation. Some compare it to John Lennon's "Imagine". I'm not too caught up in all this hype. I like the song, and here's my take. I think Neil asks us to reflect on our own spirituality, and how we approach our daily lives, and whether or not our spirituality (or professed spirituality) is truly reflected in our approach to everyday life. That's all.

Bottom line: I think the passage of time will show that this is a very good to great album. Every time I listen, I enjoy it as much or more than I did the previous listen (and I started off liking it the 1st time). For those who enjoyed HARVEST MOON (1992), it's almost unimaginable that you would not enjoy PRAIRIE WIND.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tinley Park, "Southern Man", and some random thoughts

I've listened to PRAIRIE WIND several times lately, and also watched the bonus DVD that came with it. (It's pretty cool just watching Neil and the others recording in the studio.) I'll write a full post on this album soon (Monday?). Right now, I'm at work on a Saturday morning (a big project is kicking my @ss).

I just thought I'd throw out a few random thoughts. Mainly, listening to PRAIRIE WIND, I was reminded of my introduction to a couple of these songs ("When God Made Me" and "This Old Guitar"), which was at the 20th Anniversary FarmAid show at Tinley Park (southern 'burbs of Chicago) on Sunday, September 18, 2005. What an amazing day! It was warm and sunny (of course, I got burned because I was too stupid to bring sunscreen). I was totally oblivious to the fact that Neil would be releasing a new album just 2 days later. (As I've said in previous posts, I really was out of the loop for several years. I just lost track of Neil, and music in general.)

It was a looooooooooooooong day, but there was a ton of good music (Wilco, Buddy Guy, Los Lonely Boys, and MANY more). Of course, a sizable chunk of the crowd (mainly the teenyboppers and frat boys) cleared out after Dave Matthews finished. Mellencamp sounded good (It is "Mellencamp", right? You know, like "Hammer" was shortened from "MC Hammer". I mean, I know he was John Cougar. Then he was John "Cougar" Mellencamp. Then he was John Mellencamp. Did he get all the way down to just "Mellencamp"? No? Well, he should. It's easier.)

Anyway, when Neil came out, he opened with "Walking to New Orleans", complete with The Fisk University Jubilee Singers (I think that's what they were called?) on background vocals. I had seen Neil do this song on that Hurricane Katrina benefit/televised special. Typical Neil...everybody else was trying to get the hell out of New Orleans, and here he was "Walking to New Orleans". (Maybe he meant it like LL Cool J's "Going Back To Cali", which has that "Hmmmm. I don't think so" line.) Not my favorite Neil selection (no offense to Fats Domino, whose rescue from Katrina likely inspired Neil's choice, although that's just an educated guess) to be honest. But, then...

...the Earth itself was rocked off its f-cking axis, my man! Neil launched into a blistering version of "Southern Man" that was a performance for the ages. If the entire previous 12 hours had been filled with Perry Como music piped through the sound system, it wouldn't have mattered. That one song would've made the entire trip worth it in a BIG WAY! (The fact that the rest of the day had been so cool was just icing on the cake.) Neil worked out some ferocious aggression on the solos he played during "Southern Man". Awe-inspiring.

It leads me to this thought: Why doesn't "Southern Man" ever end up on any of his live albums? "Like A Hurricane", "Hey Hey, My My" and "Cortez The Killer" have been on multiple live albums. Never "Southern Man"...odd. And, before someone throws CSNY's 4 WAY STREET at me, I'll qualify myself: that was CSNY, and more importantly, it was way the f-ck back in 1971!!!

Well, I better get to work. Just thought I'd throw that out there. By the way, for a great post (by Thrasher) on Neil at FarmAid 2005, click here.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Museum of Natural History: I Love the '80s Exhibit?

LANDING ON WATER (1986) was the fourth of five albums (not including compilations) that Neil made for Geffen Records. It featured a new and different musical line-up: Neil Young (Lead guitar, synthesizer, vocals), Steve Jordan (Drums, synthesizer, vocals), and Danny Kortchmar (Guitar, synthesizer, vocals). Even the San Francisco Boys Chorus appears on two songs (“Violent Side” and “Touch The Night”)! What, no one on Bass? I guess the synthesizers take care of that well enough.

All the songs were written by Neil Young:

Weight Of The World (3:40)
Violent Side (4:22)
Hippie Dream (4:11)
Bad News Beat (3:18)
Touch The Night (4:30)
People On The Street (4:33)
Hard Luck Stories (4:06)
I Got A Problem (3:16)
Pressure (2:46)
Drifter (5:05)

Neil was hailed in a 1986 Rolling Stone review for having “committed himself to a sound that's truly new.” The reviewer wrote about this album’s use of technology being superior to that of TRANS (1982), in that it’s mixed in with Neil’s “garage” sound, whereas TRANS tried “to go high tech.” Of course, he also described TRANS, EVERYBODY’S ROCKIN’(1983), and OLD WAYS (1985) as “just dalliances,” while openly embracing LANDING ON WATER. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. So, I’ll just say that this album feels, twenty years later, every bit as much like a museum piece as any of those other three. If anything, LANDING ON WATER, and its follow-up, LIFE (1987) sound more like “dalliances” now than OLD WAYS at least. Much of Neil’s subsequent work is more descended from country music than from any technology (“garage” or otherwise). And, his '90s work with Crazy Horse seemed to build from LIVE RUST and RE*AC*TOR, bypassing LANDING ON WATER and LIFE altogether. Or, maybe it’s just me.

Having said all that, I enjoy a trip to the museum at least as much as the average guy. Accordingly, LANDING ON WATER is a fun listen for me…occasionally. The fun begins with “Weight Of The World”. This song sounds like it could’ve drawn some influence from “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” (or some other damn song Yes recorded on their “90125” album). Except for here, Neil has met the girl who’s allowed him to drop “the weight of the world” (hence, no more lonely heart for him). “Violent Side” is next, where Neil fights to “control the violent side” (OK, the song is a bit more lyrically inventive than I’ve just indicated). His guitar soloing is fairly cool here. But, some day, I’d like to find out the true story behind the decision to have the SF Boys Chorus sing in the background. A creepy synthesizer sound effect would’ve done the trick.

“Hippie Dream” is a song I like, particularly because I like to interpret the line “But the wooden ships/Were just a hippie dream” as a verbal slap at David Crosby and Stephen Stills (co-authors of the song “Wooden Ships”). And, I like the lyrics “And the wooden ships/Are a hippie dream/Capsized in excess/If you know what I mean” as a lampooning of Crosby’s inordinately huge ass (R.I.P.).

“Bad News Beat” might be the catchiest tune on the album. At the same time, lyrically, it’s all about losing a woman to another man, then having to hear about it from everyone (“I’ve got an eye in the sky/Taking pictures that I don’t want to see”). “Touch The Night” is the only song I have even a vague recollection of getting any airplay at the time. It’s somewhat danceable, in a heavy, plodding, '80s, white-boy way (yes, I know Steve Jordan isn’t white).

“People On The Street” is in the basic musical mold of “Touch The Night”, but with an attempt at socially-conscious lyrics (“From the alley scene/Comes a muffled scream/And the siren wails/While the system fails”). It’s no “Rockin’ In The Free World”, or even “Life In The City”. So, does it anticipate those songs? Or, does it just highlight how much better a song Neil could’ve made this had he cared too? I suppose each listener must judge for him/herself.

Now, the opening chunk-chunk-chunk of “Hard Luck Stories” seems as if it could, with a quick chord change, morph into “Rockin’ In The Free World”. But, alas, it fades into synth sound. The drums are still pounding, but perhaps not quite as in-your-face as most of the other songs. Neil’s vocal delivery is a pseudo-rap in places. The chorus of “Don’t tell me hard luck stories/And I won’t tell you mine” is as inane as any he’s ever written & sung. This song is not my favorite, in case I’m being unclear.

“I Got A Problem” features a drumbeat that feels like an assault. Neil sings “Me and my shadow are so in despair/’Cause we keep hurtin’ someone who cares” and wails away on stinging guitar, especially towards the very end. “Pressure” features more AK-47 drumming, and lyrics about the oppressiveness of daily life, with a reference to “Max Headroom”. Finally, “Drifter” feels like an attempt at a quasi-futuristic re-make of “The Loner”, but with mixed results at best (for example, Neil’s guitar soloing is cool, but the synth overlaying it leaves a bit to be desired).

When Neil compiled LUCKY THIRTEEN (1993), he included two songs from this album: “Hippie Dream” and “Pressure”. I suppose that would give you the flavor. I’ve read where someone described this album as “Neil imitates The Cars”. Personally, I’m more reminded of '80s “Yes”, but only in places. I’ve also read where this album has been labeled as one of Neil’s “least essential,” and I can’t disagree.

Bottom line: Am I glad I have it? Sure. How often will I ever listen to it again? It’s hard to say…maybe I’ll grab it the next time I feel like going to the museum.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

“Green Onions” Spook The Horse

Obviously, I have very little sense of timing. ARE YOU PASSIONATE? (2002) certainly would’ve been the most logical choice as the subject of my Valentine’s Day post, especially since I have not seen the movie “Heart of Gold” yet. But, alas, another opportunity slips through my fingers. So, here I sit, two days late.

In any event, this album features 3/4 of Booker T. & The MG’s [Booker T. Jones – organ, vibes and vocal; “Duck” Dunn – bass (& vocal on “Differently”); Steve Potts – drums, bongos and tambourine; Missing is guitarist Steve Cropper]. They were the session band for Stax Records in the '60s, and had a great instrumental hit themselves with “Green Onions” in 1962. (Additionally, Neil toured with them in 1993.)

These guys basically pioneered the Stax sound, and to a great extent helped define “Memphis Soul”. As I mentioned in my previous post on THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU, I’m more of a back-alley kind of guy when it comes to blues. So, I’m far from an expert on old soul music. Accordingly, I’m not going to be able to pontificate on which rhythms were lifted from which old songs to create these 11 “new” songs. Sorry if that disappoints anyone, and you can click here for that type of thing. However, there is no doubting these guys have the ultimate credibility in this genre, and their playing provides Neil excellent support on this project.

All the songs were written by Neil Young:

You’re My Girl (4:43)
Mr. Disappointment (5:24)
Differently (6:03)
Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me) (6:03)
Let’s Roll (5:53)
Are You Passionate? (5:11)
Goin’ Home (8:47)
When I Hold You In My Arms (4:43)
Be With You (3:34)
Two Old Friends (6:15)
She’s A Healer (9:10)

This album stumbles out of the gate a bit in my estimation. “You’re My Girl” and “Mr. Disappointment” are both catchy enough musically, and Neil’s guitar work is ultra-cool. However, on the former, his singing seems to be a bit beyond its upper limit (read: high and whiny). You know how his falsetto on “After the Gold Rush” is brilliant, and fits that amazing song perfectly? Well, this isn’t the case here, in my humble opinion. It doesn’t really even sound like a falsetto, just out-of-range high. “Mr. Disappointment” features Neil growling along in some sort of pseudo-Louis Armstrong/Tom Waits voice that doesn’t quite cut it for me either. Then, suddenly he breaks into the way-too-high-pitched thing again. Odd. Anyway, I really like his guitar on these songs, but not his vocal performance.

The disc seemingly hits its stride on the 3rd song, “Differently”. It has a great, bluesy guitar intro, and the vocals are comfortably in Neil’s range. Did I mention the guitar was great? I did? Excellent. “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me)” is another strong entry, with soulful blues guitar once again, and good vocals by Neil and company. Then, things hit another snag on “Let’s Roll”.

From the opening cell phone sound effects, to the hackneyed, not-very-catchy guitar riff, it’s immediately clear that this song is no latter-day “Ohio”. Neil and fans, please believe me when I say that I appreciate the sentiment. But, this is among my least favorite Neil tunes ever. I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about this one. But, when I read what Mike “Expecting 2 Fly” Cordova had to say about it (“Musically, it's a relatively uninteresting song and it has some lyrics that are troubling. But the theme of support for the passenger uprising against the terrorists was at some level admirable. I wanted so much to like this song more than I do. Fortunately, most of AYP? sounds nothing like Let's Roll.”), I thought he summed it up just about perfectly. So, there you have it: at least 2 huge Neil fans that would rather “Let’s Roll” had never rolled.

Thankfully, the title track offers a good recovery. Slow and aching, Neil’s guitar is oozing soul and his vocal delivery is right on. “Are You Passionate?” The question answers itself here. Neil even throws in an unexpected few seconds of feedback at the very end, opening the door to the lone appearance of Crazy Horse, “Goin’ Home”. Neil, Poncho, Billy and Ralph play a great, grinder of a tune, with lyrics about “Custer”, “Indians”, “battleground”, “downtown”, “assorted slimes”, etc. Is this a post-modern “Cortez the Killer”? Perhaps not, but it is a very satisfying listen to me. Interestingly, this song ends as abruptly as any Crazy Horse song ever has (and, poof…they’re gone again).

The album finishes stronger than it started. “When I Hold You In My Arms” is a good, bluesy tune. “Be With You” is an upbeat, soulful number. This one sounds to me to be the most likely candidate for a hit single, especially had it been released in the mid-'60s. “Two Old Friends” is slow and soulful with shades of gospel (“Oh Lord there’s so much hate/In a world where we’re from another place/Show me how to be like you”) and more great, blues guitar from Neil. Finally, “She’s A Healer” is a grand finale, at least in this setting (“Way out on the prairie/Back where the wheat fields grow/I stop to slap plastic at an Esso station/About a thousand miles from my destination” and “All I got is a broken heart/And I don’t try to hide it/When I play my guitar”).

I feel obligated to note here the odd coincidence that this album followed THIS NOTE'S FOR YOU by 14 years, just as NOTE'S had followed ON THE BEACH by 14 years. Apparently, Neil will be due for another blues (or overtly "blues-influenced") album in the year 2016. That would be sweet, as he would be coming off his 70th birthday, a veritable B.B. King. (Actually, B.B. King is 80 years old! That's even better, because damn, doesn't the thought of having Neil around for at least 20 more years make you smile?) Anyway, the moods of these three albums are all different. Whereas NOTE'S would've been played at the party, I think ARE YOU PASSIONATE? was Neil's attempt at what you would play for the girl you brought home from the party. (ON THE BEACH would be the one you played for yourself after you went home from the party alone because either your best friend or your worst enemy went home with the girl you had your eye on.)

Bottom line: Like Mike said about “Let’s Roll”, I, haahnster, wanted so much to like this album more than I do. Neil’s guitar work is really cool, and for the most part unlike anything else he’s done outside of THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU. However, he tries to stretch himself a bit too much vocally on the first two songs, and should’ve omitted the out-of-place “Let’s Roll”, which is basically a dud. He also could’ve saved “Goin’ Home” for the next Crazy Horse project (if there ever is one), even though I like it. I guess my true “bottom line” on this one is that it’s decent background music, but who knows when I’ll reach for it again. (Maybe that's proof that I'm not a very romantic guy?)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Neil Young’s Bluenotes, Spuds MacKenzie and Me

OK, so it’s not as catchy a line as “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me”, but it’s the best I could do with limited time. THIS NOTE'S FOR YOU (1988) marked Neil Young's return to Reprise Records, and was released two days before my 18th birthday. It also marked another "genre effort", as people tend to call many of Neil's '80s albums. This time it was "blues" (not dirty, corner of the bar, slide guitar blues, but rather jazzy, prominent horn section blues). As the lower right hand corner of the back of the album cover proclaimed, this was “the dawn of power swing”.

“The Volume Dealers”, Neil Young & Niko Bolas, produced this album. It features these musicians: Neil Young (Guitar & Vocals), Chad Cromwell (Drums), Rick (the bass player) Rosas (Bass), Frank (Pancho) Sampedro (Keyboards), Steve Lawrence (Lead Tenor Saxophone), Ben Keith (Alto Saxophone), Larry Cragg (Baritone Saxophone), Claude Cailliet (Trombone), John Fumo (Trumpet), Tom Bray (Trumpet). [Before you even ask, I have no answer for why "Poncho" is spelled "Pancho" on this album; but, it's spelled that way everywhere it appears on this record.]

All the songs were written by Neil Young:

Side One
Ten Men Working (6:27)
This Note’s For You (2:04)
Coupe De Ville (4:16)
Life In The City (3:13)
Twilight (5:55)
Side Two
Married Man (2:35)
Sunny Inside (2:34)
Can’t Believe Your Lyin’ (2:56)
Hey Hey (3:02)
One Thing (6:02)

Both sides feature the same basic pattern: two up-tempo songs, followed by a slower song, then another up-tempo number, and finishing with another slower song. In his “allmusic” review, William Ruhlmann opines that “Young's watery tenor just didn't cut it” on the faster-paced tunes (he would have preferred Wilson Pickett…well, duh). But, he says, “Young's singing was effective” on the bluesy ballads. He further states, “The album earned much better reviews than Young had gotten lately, largely because critics tend to stand in awe of the blues in whatever form it appears.” I’ll have to think about that for a minute (haahnster cues the toilet flushing sound effect).

Here’s my take. I own more than a few “blues” records. I’ll have to admit that most of them, outside of the Blues Brothers (haahnster pauses to wink and smile), do not feature horn sections. I’m more of a Hound Dog Taylor (a slide guitar genius, R.I.P.) kind of guy. But, to my relatively untrained ear, THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU sounds pretty damned good. Is it “authentic”? I suppose I don’t have the energy to argue. I do know this: Neil plays an amazing blues guitar that expresses the total spectrum of emotion. That’s more than “authentic” enough for me.

Some have also criticized Neil’s lyrics on this album as banal. Let’s explore. “Ten Men Workin’” is pure party music. Sure, there’s no new lyrical ground broken here (“Well, we work all day/Then we work all night/We got to keep you dancin'/Gotta make you feel alright”), but it’s fun nonetheless. Next, the title track is pure Neil, and hilarious as an anti-endorsement anthem (“Ain't singin' for Miller/Don't sing for Bud/I won't sing for politicians/Ain't singin' for Spuds/This note's for you”). [haahnster note: The video for this song, which lampooned corporate rock, advertising/sponsorship, and particularly Michael Jackson, was initially “banned” by MTV. However, it eventually made it on their airwaves, and was ultimately named Best Video of the Year for 1989.] This one should be reissued as a single with “Piece of Crap” (from SLEEPS WITH ANGELS) as the flipside.

“Coupe De Ville” begins with these lyrics, “I got a coupe de ville/I got a bed in the house/Where you once lived/I had a few cheap thrills/But they cost me a lot more/Than I could give.” It sure sounds like “blues” to me. Now, for another example of pure, Neil Young songwriting, look no further than “Life In The City” (“People sleepin' on the sidewalks/On a rainy day/Families livin' under freeways/It's the American way/Starvin' in the city/While the farm goes to seed/Murder in the home/And crime on the streets/Don't that trouble you brother?/Don't that trouble you pal?/Don't that trouble you sister?/Well, that's life in the city”). This great song lyrically anticipates both “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Crime In The City”, two other great songs that would follow on FREEDOM (1989).

Now, admittedly, “Twilight”, “Married Man”, “Sunny Inside” and “Can’t Believe Your Lyin’” are fairly standard blues songs, lyrically. To me, though, “blues” is all about feeling. And, in my opinion, the feeling is there. “Hey Hey” has some Neil touches (“Get off of that couch/Turn off that MTV/Get off of that couch/Turn off your MTV/Hey hey, my woman looks good to me”). Good thing they didn’t ask MTV to play a video for that one! Finally, “One Thing” has enough feeling (“You know a body feels empty/With no love inside/Yeah, a body feels empty/With no love at all”) to get my endorsement.

In Neil’s first 20 or so years of making solo albums (up to 1988), his most overtly “bluesy” album had been, in my opinion, ON THE BEACH (1974). But most of the songs on that album were clearly “blues-influenced” rock, as opposed to "blues". So, you might ask, was THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU a sequel to ON THE BEACH? I’d say no. However, it might be a “prequel”, but done 14 years later (the George Lucas/Star Wars method of storytelling). That is, NOTE’S shows the type of blues roots that, having been fully internalized in Neil’s youth, might have contributed somewhat to the musical style of ON THE BEACH.

Don’t get me wrong. The mood is totally different. The up-tempo numbers on NOTE’S are great party music, and even the slower numbers don’t bring the mood down too far. By contrast, playing ON THE BEACH at a party would likely lead to the guests asking for harder drugs. I love the pure catharsis of ON THE BEACH (it’s one of my favorite Neil albums). But, aside from “Walk On” perhaps, it’s not really suited for inspiring a large group of people to have a fun, carefree time. It’s more of a lying-on-the-dorm-room-floor-at-4AM-wondering-why-you-haven’t-studied-for-your-9AM-final-exam type of album (although, if singing along to Neil’s performance on the song “For The Turnstiles” can’t convince you that the rest of the world can go f-ck themselves, then I suppose you and I just don’t understand each other). In any event, I will offer this opinion: THIS NOTE’S FOR YOU is a very good, fun listen.

Bottom line: If this is a “genre” album, then that’s OK with me. I like this album quite a bit, and would gladly reach for it when I want a fun listen, or when I want to help prove to someone what a grossly underrated guitarist Neil is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Neil "pulls the plug" on MTV

Sorry for the unoriginal pun in the title of this post. It's just about inevitable that the title of any post about any artist's "Unplugged" album is going to be a corny pun. So, rather than fight that seemingly irresistible urge, I just picked one and moved on.

Recorded at Universal Studios in Los Angeles on February 7, 1993, Neil Young UNPLUGGED was released June 15th of that year. Now, any appearance by an artist with (at that time) 25+ years of songwriting and recording history, is destined to be met with many different expectations by many different people. I will say here that it would be unreasonable to expect that an “Unplugged” performance by an artist that has done many entire tours as a solo acoustic act could possibly have a comparable career impact to that of a band such as Nirvana (after all, Nirvana was known purely as a “grunge” band, and had a very limited recording history and catalog prior to their “Unplugged” appearance). Yes, “Unplugged” was a watershed moment for the group Nirvana (further exaggerated by the death of Kurt Cobain), in a way that it couldn’t possibly have been for Neil Young. But, so what?

Here’s the song line-up on UNPLUGGED:

1. The Old Laughing Lady (5:15) 2. Mr. Soul (3:54) 3. World On A String (3:02) 4. Pocahontas (5:06) 5. Stringman (4:01) 6. Like A Hurricane (4:44) 7. The Needle And The Damage Done (2:52) 8. Helpless (5:48) 9. Harvest Moon (5:20) 10. Transformer Man (3:36) 11. Unknown Legend (4:47) 12. Look Out For My Love (5:57) 13. Long May You Run (5:22) 14. From Hank To Hendrix (5:51)

The musical credits are as follows: Nils Lofgren (vocals, guitar, autoharp, accordion), Astrid Young (vocals), Nicolette Larson (vocals), Ben Keith (dobro), Spooner Oldham (piano, pump organ), Tim Drummond (bass guitar), Oscar Butterworth (drums), Larry Cragg (broom on “Harvest Moon”), and of course, Neil Young (lead vocal, guitar, harmonica, piano, pump organ). However, Neil performs the first seven songs solo. The last seven songs feature the accompanying band.

There are other ways to divide this set. For example, there are six songs that Neil had previously selected for his retrospective compilation DECADE (1977). This means there are eight songs that were not on DECADE (of course, some of these songs were not even written by 1977). There are also some songs that are incredibly similar to the originally released versions, and others that are fairly dramatically rearranged.

Incidentally, I’ve seen some negative things written about this album that dwelled on the inclusion of (gasp!) three songs from HARVEST MOON (1992). So, let me see, A) Neil played a live show 3 months after releasing an album; B) of the 14 songs performed, he included three songs from this brand new album; C) these three songs were reproduced beautifully live, and were incredibly faithful to the album versions, and D) the result of this was negative criticism of Neil?!!?! So, at this point, Neil was being accused, in essence, of not being enigmatic enough!

“The Old Laughing Lady” is a stripped-down version of the tune from NEIL YOUNG (1969), previously included on DECADE. I really like that Neil did this song solo acoustic, and did not save it for the second half of the show with the female backing vocals, even though the original does feature female backing vocals rather prominently. “Mr. Soul” is presented in a subdued, solo acoustic (with harmonica) fashion. It’s interesting enough, but I do miss the angry edge that was in the vocals on the original. However, this version does nothing to disprove my long-standing theory that the mere existence of the song “Mr. Soul” renders the entire catalog of the band America irrelevant.

“World On A String” and “Pocahontas” are great inclusions for Neil fans, as they had not been included on either of his live albums released up to that point (although “Pocahontas” later appeared on YEAR OF THE HORSE in 1997). This raises an interesting hypothetical question: Had I been at this "Unplugged" taping, would Neil’s singing of “Aurora Borealis…” (the opening line of “Pocahontas”) caused me to uncontrollably holler like a drunken buffoon? [One possible answer: Yes, but I would’ve fit right in with this crowd.]

“Stringman” is a great bonus, as this tune, although written in 1976, was previously unreleased. This is followed by an interesting contrast in the handling of two of Neil’s more ubiquitous songs, “Like A Hurricane” and “The Needle And The Damage Done” (the former had already appeared on AMERICAN STARS 'N BARS, DECADE, LIVE RUST and WELD; the latter had already appeared on HARVEST, DECADE, and LIVE RUST). “Like A Hurricane” here is performed solo by Neil on pump organ, giving the song an altogether different feel, which is quite interesting (unfortunately, a Neanderthal like me really misses the incredible electric guitar solos). “The Needle And The Damage Done”, on the other hand, is performed in the same way as always. And, that way of performing is best described by adverbs such as “brilliantly”, “wonderfully”, and “flawlessly”.

The second half features the three HARVEST MOON songs, as well as the CSNY tune “Helpless” and the Stills-Young Band tune “Long May You Run”. All five of these are more or less faithful to the originals, and very well done. “Look Out For My Love” feels somewhat slower than the COMES A TIME original version. I really like the feedback effect on the original (the Neanderthal in me pops up again), but this is certainly a good version as well. The truly different arrangement in the second half is on “Transformer Man” from TRANS. Gone are the vocoders, replaced by pure Neil, and great harmony vocals from the ladies. It makes for a very interesting rendering. However, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to hear this song again, in any version, without picturing Neil & Nils doing their bizarre dance act from IN BERLIN (see my post from February 13, 2006).

Bottom line: This is a good collection of songs, with a little something for everyone. I think it works as an interesting retrospective, but with a healthy dose of re-envisioned tunes. It also works as a good live album in support of HARVEST MOON. It’s not necessarily an album I’d reach for with the same enthusiasm as EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE. And, it’s certainly no LIVE RUST. However, it’s a welcome addition to the collection of the avid Neil enthusiast. And, it could also serve as a decent introduction to Neil novices. But, please let me know if you think I'm being too easy on this one.

Monday, February 13, 2006


I just had to take a break from my Neil Young album review project to tell you about this excellent video discovery. I happened upon this one on Saturday, and just HAD to purchase it (shhhhhh...don't tell my wife). If you're like me, and have been really out of touch with musical developments for the last 5 years or more, then you might not be aware that our friends at Rhino have released a DVD version of NEIL YOUNG IN BERLIN (aka BERLIN). The street date on the DVD was March 27, 2001, just to tell you how long it's been since I paid attention (at least, until last month, when I started paying attention again).

The songs were recorded live in concert at Deutschlandhalle in West Berlin on the last show of a European tour. The date was October 19, 1982, and Neil was backed by The Trans Band (Neil Young - vocals, guitar, keyboards, vocoder; Ben Keith - pedal steel guitar, slide guitar, keyboards, vocals; Nils Lofgren - guitar, accordion, keyboards, vocals, vocoder; Joe Lala - percussion; Bruce Palmer - bass; Larry Cragg - banjo; Ralph Molina - drums, vocals; Joel Bernstein - vocoder,synclavier).

According to the set list on the Sugar Mountian website, only about 1/2 of the songs played at the show are on the DVD. Here they are, as listed (times are my approximations of when crowd noise would be faded out on a live album):
  1. Cinnamon Girl (3:30)
  2. Computer Age (4:55)
  3. Little Thing Called Love (3:42)
  4. Old Man (3:28)
  5. Needle and the Damage Done (2:21)
  6. After the Gold Rush (4:00)
  7. Transformer Man (3:45)
  8. Sample and Hold (6:08)
  9. Hurricane (8:20)
  10. Hey Hey My My (5:05)
  11. Berlin (6:20) [haahnster note: aka "After Berlin"]

The classics are performed extremely well. Neil's voice sounds great, and the energy level is very high on "Cinnamon Girl" and "Old Man". "The Needle and the Damage Done" is excellent as always. While Neil is setting up at the piano for "After the Gold Rush", he asks the crowd (in English, of course), "Are you having a good time tonight?" And after getting some response, he adds, "That makes two of us." Then, he proceeds to hammer out a brilliant version of this song, of course updating the lyrics to say "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1980s/We've got Mother Nature on the run in the 1980s". Neil's guitar solos on "Like a Hurricane" will kick you squarely in the balls, and the perfect follow-up version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" is excellent.

Neil introduces each of the new songs (4 of which would be released two months later on TRANS). You might recall my initial post was on this album. I said the following about "Little Thing Called Love": "a Neil original not to be confused with the Queen song 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. This is a fairly straight-ahead rock song with cool slide guitar work." Let me tell you, when you watch Ben Keith play live, the slide work will knock you on your ass.

The other three songs from TRANS employ the use of vocoders. If anyone ever doubted Neil's sincerity in this musical experiment, they should watch this DVD. The guy was out there doing it for all the world to see. "Computer Age" is represented very well here. "Transformer Man" is looped on tape, with Neil and Nils both providing live vocals (through vocoders) and dancing some sort of bizarre pantomime. It's a sight to behold. And, as I said in my TRANS review, "Sample and Hold" is probably the quintessential song, as far as representing the TRANS sound.

The encore, as shown on the DVD, is "Berlin" which is otherwise unreleased. Neil introduces it as follows: "OK, we're going to do a song for you. Thanks a lot for bringing us back. We appreciate it. We're going to do one. We've never done this one yet. We've never made it all the way through this one yet. This is brand new. So...What are we doing? Remember that one we were doing? That's the one. With the change to 'A'." Then, they proceed to absolutely rock out. Neil plays an incredible lead guitar part that is somewhat reminiscent of "Like a Hurricane". Click here for the lyrics, as posted on Hyper Rust.

Bottom line: This one is available at an affordable price, and would be an excellent addition to anyone's DVD collection. It has enough Neil classics to serve as an introduction. It also captures the TRANS era better than I ever would have expected. I couldn't be happier with this purchase.

Friday, February 10, 2006

"It's alright, ma. It's LIFE and LIFE only."

After reading through some of the stuff on Thrasher's Wheat, I figured I'd mix things up a bit by borrowing a Bob Dylan lyric for the title of this post. (It seems some fans have concocted a sort of bizarre rivalry between Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Check it out here.)

In any event, the subject for today is LIFE (1987). I'm not talking about a grand, philosophical discussion. I'm simply talking about my least favorite album that Neil recorded with Crazy Horse. This album was his fifth and final release on Geffen (not including compilations). In many ways, it would seem that Neil viewed this fulfilment of his contracual obligation almost as a release from prison. [It was pointed out to me that there are 5 "hash marks" (you know, 4 vertical lines, and then a fifth diagonal line drawn across them) right below the cover photo of Neil jamming on guitar. Then, if you'll notice, there are two out-of-focus hands that appear to be wrapped around what could easily be construed as prison bars.]

Here’s the song line-up on LIFE:

Side One
Mideast Vacation (4:21)
Long Walk Home (4:56)
Around the World (5:26)
Inca Queen (7:56)
Side Two
Too Lonely (2:48)
Prisoners of Rock 'n' Roll (3:12)
Cryin' Eyes (2:52)
When Your Lonely Heart Breaks (5:16)
We Never Danced (3:37)

"Mideast Vacation" features some fairly bizarre lyrics about family vacations and terrorism (e.g., "They chanted 'Death to America'/I was feelin' like a fight" and "When they burned me in effigy/My vacation was complete"). "Long Walk Home" has a harmonica intro and is basically piano-based, but with crazy explosion sound effects. I suppose they support the lyrics, which include the lines "Giant guns rage" and "From Vietnam to old Beirut". However, they're a bit overdone, perhaps?

"Around the World" is a more upbeat rocker that then shifts into a very mid-'80s mode that eventually gives way to some noisy guitar, then switches back into the mid-'80s mode again and finally descends into vocal effects (and other crazy sound effects) at the end. "Inca Queen" is very '80s keyboard-based with jungle sound effects abounding (to imagine the sound effects on this song, think "Bungle in the Jungle" by Jethro Tull, but more in quantity and less realistic in quality).

"Too Lonely" is very upbeat, and more guitar-driven (there's even a guitar break in the mddle that recalls the Stones' "Satisfaction" in an odd little way). "Prisoners of Rock 'n' Roll" contains obvious slaps at Geffen ("We never listen to the record company man/They try to change us and ruin our band" and "We don't wanna be watered down/Takin' orders from record company clowns"), but with the hilariously self-deprecating chorus "That's why we don't wanna be good/That's why we don't wanna be good/We're prisoners of rock and roll".

"Cryin' Eyes" is fairly fast-paced with heavy guitar sound. "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks" has a slow, plodding drumbeat and what sounds to me like a ton of synthesizer sound. There is a decent, dare I even say "bluesy", guitar solo that adds an interesting twist. But, then there is an echo effect on some of Neil's lead vocals that's somewhat cheesy. "We Never Danced" has slow, relatively pretty keyboards, but really odd effects on the backing vocals.

"Mideast Vacation" and "Around the World" later appeared on LUCKY THIRTEEN (1993). I'll have to check to find out if they appeared as original, or alternate versions. "Prisoners of Rock 'n' Roll" and "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks" later appeared live on YEAR OF THE HORSE (1997). I'll be interested to find out how they were handled live, as compared to the studio versions.

Bottom line: It's clearly my least favorite album Neil has made with Crazy Horse. There are some interesting songs here. So, it's not completely awful. (Heck, if you could get it on vinyl as a "cut-out" for 99 cents at a Venture store-closing sale like I did way back when, I'd definitely encourage picking it up.) It just has a general overuse of effects (such as echo) for my taste, and is basically stuck in the mid-'80s. It seems to mark an awkward end to an awkward peiod in Neil's career, the "Geffen era".

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"The economy was getting so bad I had to lay myself off"

The title of this post is actually a lyric from the title track of OLD WAYS (1985). Apparently, the album was actually recorded in 1983. However, Geffen had no interest in releasing a country album by Neil Young at that time (or any other, probably). As the story goes, Neil was asked to make a “rock and roll” album instead. Naturally, he gave them EVERYBODY’S ROCKIN’ (1983). It would seem that move did not help his relationship with his label! (Some people just have no sense of humor when it comes to the business of making money.) Eventually, after some serious arguing, OLD WAYS was released in 1985.

In any event, here are the songs:

The Wayward Wind (3:13)
Get Back to the Country (2:51)
Are There Any More Real Cowboys? (3:04)
Once an Angel (3:56)
Misfits (5:07)
California Sunset (2:57)
Old Ways (3:08)
My Boy (3:37)
Bound for Glory (5:48)
Where is the Highway Tonight? (3:03)

Two of country music’s heaviest hitters in the late '70s/early '80s make guest appearances: Willie Nelson appears on one song, and Waylon Jennings appears on six songs. It is often stated that these guys helped give Neil "credibility" in the country music world. What I do know is this: this is a country album. I mean, pure freakin' country. My stepfather used to listen to Waylon & Willie albums (when they used to record together) when I was a young kid. My father took me with him to see Willie Nelson perform live on two separate occasions (I was probably 10 years old the first time and 12 the second time). So, although I'm not much of a country music fan, I know it when I hear it. OLD WAYS sounds like '70s country (i.e., not quite Hank Williams, Sr., but certainly not Hank Williams, Jr.).

"The Wayward Wind" is a country standard, written by Stan Lebowsky and Herbert Newman. Waylon plays electric guitar. Neil plays acoustic, and sings duet with Denise Draper (sounds more than a bit like Dolly Parton). "Get Back to the Country" is an upbeat number, and includes these lyrics, "When I was a younger man/Got lucky with a rock 'n' roll band/Struck gold in Hollywood/All that time I knew I would/Get back to the country/Back where it all began". It's good-natured enough, although many listeners will be annoyed by the constant "boing-boing-boing" of the Jew's Harp.

Neil asks "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" with Willie Nelson ("Not the one that's snortin' cocaine/When the honky-tonk's all closed/But the one that prays for more rain/Heaven knows/That the good feed brings the money/And the money buys the clothes/Not the diamond sequins shining on TV/But the kind the working cowboy really needs").

"Once an Angel" is a bit twangy for my tastes (Again, I'm far from the world's biggest country fan). "Misfits" is rather slow, plodding, and heavy on the strings (another of my less-favorite features). "California Sunset" is a decent tune.

"Old Ways" is twangy, but upbeat and good-natured ("It's hard to teach a dinosaur a new trick/Lately I've been finding out/I'm set in my ways/Old ways, can be your ball and chain"). "My Boy" struck me as somewhat maudlin at first. However, after several listens, I've really warmed up to it. Neil plays banjo, electric guitar, and harmonica on this mellow, sweet tune. "Why are you growin' up so fast/My boy?/Oh, you'd better take your time/Why are you growin' up so fast/My son?" When taken in the context of Neil's sons' disabilities, this one is a downright country tear-jerker.

Waylon reappears to help close out the album with "Bound for Glory" and "Where is the Highway Tonight?". The former is the story of a man who leaves his wife and two kids to run off with a woman he picked up hitchhiking. The latter seems to tell the story of a man who's stepped out on his woman before, been forgiven and taken back, promised to be faithful, yet still hears the "haunting melody" calling him back to the highway.

Bottom line: My wife, who is much more of a country music fan than I (though she tends to newer, Garth Brooks-and-beyond-style country), overheard me listening to OLD WAYS. She inquired, "What's up with this old-school country?" I explained it was part of my personal Neil Young re-discovery project. Her follow-up question was, "This is Neil Young?!?" My response was a nod of the head, to which she replied, "Wow. He really sounds good at whatever he does." I think that speaks for itself. Just remember, before buying OLD WAYS, that it is a COUNTRY MUSIC ALBUM (Have I mentioned that yet?). Don't come crying to me later that it doesn't sound like Crazy Horse Neil.

PS - I read a rumor that Neil added a lot of production and instrumentation to these songs during the time he was trying to get it released. I'm not sure if that's true or not. However, if it is true, then I'd like to hear the original versions. Also, the lyric that follows the lyric used as the title of this post: "Well, working was a habit I had/So I kept showin' up anyway/Then one day things turned around/I got my back pay/Old ways comin' through again".