Monday, March 13, 2006

Who The #%^&* Needs Studio Tricks?!?

Of course, in my humble opinion, the title of this post is a rhetorical question. The "answer", that is so obvious it need not be spoken, is "certainly not Neil Young"! EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE (1969) was the follow-up to Neil's self-titled debut album. While his debut was a fine effort, it suffered in many places from what I would term "over-production". Luckily for everyone involved in rock music, Neil pulled one of his famous, abrupt changes in direction.

As the story goes, he "discovered" a little-known band called "The Rockets", renamed them "Crazy Horse", and dragged them into the studio as his back-up band. Two weeks later, this masterpiece was finished. Heck, according to the liner notes in DECADE, Neil wrote both "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" on the same afternoon, while he was in bed with a 103-degree fever. I've even read elsewhere that "Cinnamon Girl" was written that day too. Maybe it's time to revisit the "creative outbursts" theme, and narrow it down to "most amazing day" of songwriting ever!

Side One starts with "Cinnamon Girl", which is one of Neil's all-time classics, and heavily played on "classic rock" radio stations. This is Exhibit A from this LP of how no one plays guitar like Neil Young (except for the thousands of people who try to play guitar like Neil Young). I could go on and on about how great a song this is to hear when you're driving down the highway, or how much amazing sound is crammed into less than 3 minutes.

Next up is the title track. This song is among Neil's most overlooked, in my oh-so-humble opinion. It's seminal alt-country with stinging lead guitar runs. I think it's fantastic, and deserves way more attention than it gets. "Round & Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a much slower song. It's a really cool song for someone in just the right mood. In the context of the album, it serves to soften the listener up "for the kill" of the song that follows.

"Down By The River" closes out the 1st side with nearly 9 minutes of proto-grunge guitar. This is certainly another fine (perhaps the finest) example of Neil being Neil. I've read his guitar-playing described as "idiosyncratic". I think the soloing here is unique in rock music history. It just has a sound all its own. And, as Neil has been quoted, "One note will do." Then, of course, there are the homicidal lyrics, which I have neither the time nor the energy to delve into right now.

Side Two opens with "(When You're On) The Losing End", which definitely features the more country-rock side of Neil, and is a very, very good song in its own right. "Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets)" has a slow, haunting pace, and features one screeching violin. If I'm in a certain mood (which usually coincides with being too drunk, depressed, and/or exhausted to get up and move the needle to the next song), I find this song to be sheer brilliance. More often than not, however, it might as well be 5:30 of fingernails on a chalkboard, because I'm going to skip it to get to Cowgirl.

The closer is "Cowgirl In The Sand", which is among the most flabbergastingly excellent songs ever recorded! To even describe it here, in my pitiful fashion, would be a tremendous disservice to the song. It must be heard to be believed. I'll admit that when I first bought this album (10th or 11th grade), I would have said, without hesitation, that "Down By The River" was better than "Cowgirl In The Sand". Now, I'm not so sure that ANYTHING is better than "Cowgirl In The Sand". In fact, the question of which is "better" is a silly one. And, isn't that part of what makes blogging fun? So, feel free to comment on which song is better and why.

Bottom line: This is one of my all-time favorite albums. I love it. It starts with a kick, eases back, then gives you an extended gut-punch to end Side One. It starts heart-broken on Side Two, turns to the surreal, and emerges with a devastating, 10-minute-long groin-kick to finish you off completely.

PS - This is among Neil's best-selling albums ever. However, apparently, it did not sell immediately. It was after CSNY (DEJA VU, "Ohio") topped the charts in 1970, which helped Neil's AFTER THE GOLD RUSH (1970) sell hugely, that many people went back and discovered Neil's other work from 1969. I always knew those CSN boys served a higher purpose.


Blogger rabidt said...

I'll take the bait on which track is better (though I have to put this disclaimer: I love them both) - I'll give the edge to "Down By the River." The guitar interplay between Neil and Danny Whitten is so detailed and yet so tight. This is what Danny Whitten should be remembered for first - his name should not be synonymous with "the CH guitarist who died from drugs", but "the guy who played amazing rhythm/lead guitar tradeoffs with Neil" on this amazing album. And, while "Cowgirl" certainly is an excellent example, "DBTR" is where this interplay was perfected, and it has never been equalled. (If it has been equalled, please let me know where!) I find myself hanging on every phrase of both guitars when I lisen to this - still finding new joys in it after hearing it many times. As I understand, the "Archives" box is supposed to include a DVD of Crazy Horse from this era - I can't wait to see it. Would love to see Whitten work his magic.

Good call on how the title track is underrated. Brilliant song that doesn't leap to mind when I think of the top Neil tracks, but it deserves to be right up there. Perhaps it's over-shadowed by the epics on this album due to it's brevity. No excuse in any case.

10:57 AM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head, as they say. I fully acknowledge that it is a matter of opinion only (i.e., no "right" answer). I, too, preface by saying I love them both.

I think you've hit the heart of it, though, which is the interplay between the two guitars. Something about that interaction in "Down By The River" has always grabbed me. Honestly, if asked to rate the songs, I would give them both a perfect 10. And, there are times when I might be in the mood to go straight to "Cowgirl...". However, I still like D.B.T.R just a shade better.

I suppose it's because I don't actually play guitar myself that I tend to second-guess my own opinions about guitar work. In the end though, I still think it's all about gut feel. I wasted enough of my youth listening to people explain why Joe Satriani, etc. were the greatest guitarists, while secretly thinking to myself, "OK, but it leaves me feeling hollow."

12:38 PM, March 14, 2006  

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