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.


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