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.


Blogger Macky Olé said...

Do you know anything about the alternate MTV Unplugged album? Apparantly Neil did two Unplugged shows and one of them did not make the cut. I know this show had quite a few different songs including a killer version of "Fuckin' Up," which sounds great in the low-key setting. I can't find much about the session via Google, but I'm sure it would be a great boot to track down.

Also - love the Pocahontas on Unplugged. Great harmonica solo on that one.

8:56 AM, February 15, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

I know nothing definitive about a 2nd show. I did read somewhere that Neil "retaped" many of the songs for "Unplugged". Apparently, according to the story I saw, he was NOT satisfied with the way many of the songs came out the first time around, and replayed them. So, they're still live recordings (no overdubs), but "do-overs". I wish I could find that story again, I'd give you the link. I'm not sure which songs he deemed "unworthy" in their 1st incarnations, or if the story is even true. However, I would KILL to hear an acoustic version of "Fuckin' Up"!!!

9:41 AM, February 15, 2006  

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