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.


Blogger Macky Olé said...

This is one of my favorite Neil discs ever. I love it. It's just so subtley gorgeous in places and the lyrics are amazingly upbeat throughout until he plunges the listener in to darkness during the last cut, "Without Rings." I just love how everysong is about love and family and then he closes with a line like "Sharpshooter without rings around you."

I would slap anyone who called this a throwaway. Hell, I'll take it over Goldrush, On the Beach, Old Ways or any of the other psuedo-acoustic Neil records (minus Harvest). This disc is an instant classic (4.5 to 5 stars) in my opinion.

2:01 PM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Amen, brother.

Not sure if you had a chance to check the link, but I almost crapped when I saw that RS article, with the "The Best Neil Young You've Never Heard" inset. This "Rob Sheffield" guy included "Razor Love" from S&G, with these comments: "This much-beloved ballad has been bootlegged since the mid-Eighties. So, naturally, when Young decided to make it available, he buried it at the end of a twee country-rock album. This is why fans treasure bootlegs."

I totally agree that "Razor Love" is an excellent song. I just can't believe how this guy completely dismisses the rest of the album.

4:03 PM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Macky Olé said...

Intersting 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.

Top 5 classic rock albums coming one of these days.

1:22 PM, February 22, 2006  

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