Monday, September 24, 2007

Neil Young - On the Beach

Neil Young continued his anti-commercial ways on 1974's On the Beach. The album has some terrific high points, but lacks the consistency of Time Fades Away for one obvious reason: Young once again chooses to work without a steady band. Just as he had established a solid performing rapport with the Stray Gators, he abandoned them for yet another album of shifting permutations of friends, studio pros and guest stars behind him.

Which is not to say that Beach is a bad album; it's better than good, it's very good. But given the sometimes hesitant performances of his sidemen, one can't help but wonder what could have been.

The album opens with "Walk On", which is a story within itself. After the Gold Rush's "Southern Man", a scathing indictment of southern racial history which remains one of Young's best-known electric guitar rave-ups, had inspired a response from pride-of-the-South country rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Sweet Home Alabama," one of Skynyrd's best-known songs, contains the verse:

Well I heard Mr. Young sing about us

Yeah i heard old Neil put it down

I hope Neil Young can remember

A southern man don't need him around anyhow

"Walk On" begins with the lines

I hear some people been talkin' me down

Bring up my name, pass it 'round

Is this pop music's longest running non-hiphop dis war? Might be, but Young seems to be calling for a truce on "Walk On". Too bad they couldn't keep it going for a few more albums. Incidentally, following the tragic 1977 plane crash that killed Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant and several other band members, Young is said to have remarked that he'd rather play "Sweet Home Alabama" than "Southern Man" any day (he hasn't).

As for the rest of the album, side one searches for an identity, while side two settles into a somewhat unsatisfying one. The real lost gem here is "Revolution Blues," an urgent and powerful number dominated by the drumming of the Band's Levon Helm. Helm is a curious figure in rock history. While his drum technique is nothing special on the surface, it's instantly recognisable all the same. Listen to "Revolution Blues", then listen to Mercury Rev's "Opus 40," recorded exactly one quarter-century later. On both songs, Helm's unmistakeable drumming sets the tone. On the latter song, the drumming alters the mood of the song completely following its dramatic intro, imbuing the song with an unmistakable sense of Americana.

On side two of Beach Young finds a groove and settles into it, perhaps too comfortably. "Motion Pictures" is the shortest track, and indicative of the soporific mood throughout. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful song, but the performance lacks energy, as do many of Beach's longer tracks.

Still, all in all a fine album, and a curious gap in Young's release schedule. Like Time, the album remained out of print on domestic CD until this decade. Unlike Time, however, Young chose not to ignore Beach on Decade; the compilation includes "Walk On" and, in a curious and pleasant surprise, "For the Turnstiles". Greatest Hits, on the other hand, ignores Beach entirely. Eleven of its sixteen tracks are drawn from albums I've covered already; depending on how well you know Young's catalog from here on out, you can probably guess the other five.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Revolution Blues" and "Motion Pictures"

UPDATE: Mercury Rev - "Opus 40"

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Weekend video - Neil Young solo

Found a fantastic video of Neil Young live on the BBC from 1971. It's about a half-hour long. His voice sounds amazing throughout.

The opening rendition of "Out On the Weekend" kills the version on Harvest. He introduces "Old Man" as a new song, so I guess all the Harvest stuff was new here. There's even a few songs from Time Fades Away, which was still two years from being recorded, let alone released. My guess is the audience hadn't heard most of the songs he played.

Also, his between-songs banter is rather amusing, in particular the comments about advertising on American television.

Thanks to the Other Side for the heads up on this one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Neil Young - Time Fades Away

Following the immense success of Harvest, Young, as is his wont, made an abrupt left turn. He would do this numerous times throughout his career but, this being the follow-up to his most successful album, it would remain the most (in)famous.

And, characteristically, Time fades Away is one of his finest albums. This is the album on which the Stray Gators transform from an ad hoc collection of studio players into a real band. Recorded live at various stops on the Harvest tour, the album is a collection of new songs played with unfakeable spontaneity by a band that had just learned them. The album is loose, lively, sloppy, passionate and urgent: in short, everything Harvest isn't.

So naturally, the album was out of print for years. When I was discovering Young's catalog in college, this was part of an egregious gap in the CD timeline. No bother if you're a consumer of used vinyl (as was I), but confounding all the same. The album wasn't released domestically on CD until 1999.

It's easy to see why Time didn't sell: it's defiantly anti-commercial. Missed notes and dropped beats abound; the band sound drunk on most of the tracks. And yet that's what makes the performances so great, and what makes this a quintessential (non-Crazy Horse) Neil Young album. This is everything one's ever loved about Young distilled into one glorious mess.

What's strangest about the album's long-time absence from the marketplace is that three of the eight songs have lent their titles to other key elements in the Young canon. "Journey Thru[sic] the Past" was the title of an early live documentary (on which the spelling is corrected to "Through") and accompanying soundtrack album assembled by Young himself. "Don't Be Denied" is the title of a 1993 book which, before the release of Jimmy McDonough's Shakey, served as the de facto definitive biography of Young. And "The Bridge" is the name of the school for physically disabled children founded by Young in the 80s, as well as a Young tribute album whose proceeds were donated to said school.

And yet the album is completely ignored by both Decade and Greatest Hits. In other words, if you're a casual Neil Young fan, many of the albums titles will sound familiar, but none of the songs will.

When choosing tracks for this post, I ran into the opposite problem I faced with Harvest: whereas that album has some average songs and is well-represented on compilations, Time's songs are largely unknown and all of them are great. No exaggeration. I was going to post all three cited above, but "Journey" and "Bridge" are both solo piano ballads, and one will suffice as a representation of the album's sound. "Denied" makes it in a walk, plus I'll go with the title track, one of Young's finest songs. It's his entry in the "Subterranean Homesick Blues"/"It's the End Of the World As We know It"/"We Didn't Start the Fire" genre of non-stop jumble-of-images lyric writing, with some vicious piano work by Jack Nitzsche. I've seen Yo La Tengo cover it more than once and would have loved to post a bootleg of that but I can't find one, so I 'll settle for the original. Believe me, "Yonder Stands the Sinner" and "LA" made this a tough choice.

Just buy this one, trust me. If you're at all interested in Neil Young, you need this album.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Time Fades Away", "Don't Be Denied" and "The Bridge"

Note: That Amazon link seems to indicate that this album has fallen out of print again! Are you fucking kidding me? What is this world coming to?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Neil Young - Harvest

While Young's tenure with Crosby, Stills & Nash had already placed him on rock's A-list, 1972's Harvest was his most successful outing yet, and made him a reluctant superstar. The single "Heart Of Gold" went to number one, unusual for an artist known mostly for album sales, and the album sold platinum several times over.

It's a good album, but not a great one, not as strong as either the one that preceded it or followed it, and if not for its commercial success would probably be regarded as one of his lesser efforts from the era. However, its sales alone make it an essential piece of the Neil Young canon (it's the subject of a 331/3 volume), and it demands scrutiny.

The standard tale of the album's circumstances is that Young threw out his back and recorded the album wearing a brace, leaving him unable to play the electric guitar and creating the album's downtempo vibe by necessity. Though the story is undermined by the back cover photo of a studio session that shows Young upright and plugged in, the relaxed nature of most of the tracks lends it some credence. But the band is probably just as responsible for the mellow mood. Unlike After the Gold Rush, on which Young relied on a rotating cast of session players, for Harvest he hastily assembled yet another backing band, this one dubbed the Stray Gators.

The problem is that much of the album is too mellow, both in the performance and the relatively unchallenging songwriting. Side one, in particular, is dominated by songs so slow the band sounds as thought they may fall asleep midway through. There are some strong melodies, most notably the title track and "Heart Of Gold", but only Ben Kieth's tasty slide work saves the side-closing "Are You Ready For the Country?" (a live staple for years to come, and a good one I might add) from complete torpor.

Worse, the flow is broken up in the middle by "A Man Needs a Maid", the triumphant return of Jack Nitzsche's orchestral charts. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, the performance is beautiful and the lyrics painfully honest, but the song is flawed. For one thing, the parts don't quite fit together melodically; Young seems to have taken pieces from several work-in-progress songs and tacked them on as bridges. For another, the production is woefully overblown. Whereas on "Expecting To Fly" Nitzsche tastefully underscored Young's song with subtle touches, "Maid" is the sound of Nitzsche's ego run amok.

But it's the very sound of restraint compared to the album's second LSO collaboration. While side two of Harvest breaks out of the monotony of the first side, it's marred by "There's a World", with its portentous kettle drums and harp swirls.

The rest of the side is certainly an improvement over the first. It opens with "Old Man", one of Young's most affecting meditations on aging. Near the end, Young goes it alone for the spare, aching "The Needle and the Damage Done", a desperate plea to Crazy Horse bandmate and friend Danny Whitten to escape his crushing addiction to heroin. Contrary to popular belief, the song is not a memorial; it was written and recorded before Whitten's overdose less than a year later.

Young breaks out the electric and the band picks up the pace toward the album's close. The closer, "Words", is a fine song, but the band meanders, and, unlike the rave-ups on Gold Rush, the performance lacks direction towards the end. It's a big part of the reason Harvest is Exhibit A for anyone arguing that Young isn't half as good without Crazy Horse (untrue, by the way).

The biggest problem with Harvest, ironically for an album so subdued, might be Young's ego. With Gold Rush, Young had proved he could piece together a great album without the help of a steady backing line-up or single producer. Harvest credits three production teams and was recorded at four different locations, and the results betray the scattershot approach with their overall inconsistency.

Given that Harvest has fewer highlights than other Young albums of the period but, due to its commercial stature, has been picked dry for compilations, finding a lesser-known gem is tough. Decade features five of the album's ten tracks, and the shorter Greatest Hits includes three (all overlapping). So I went with "Alabama", one of the electric numbers on side two. The song continues Young's obsession with Americana, lamenting the burden of shameful history in an extension of the previous album's "Southern Man".

Buy it... on vinyl... or hey, check this out.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Alabama"

Monday, September 17, 2007

Neil Young - After the Gold Rush

Young never planned on staying with Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even while playing with them, he continued working on his next solo album, which hit stores while he was on the road with CSNY.

After the Gold Rush was the album on which Young truly came into his own as a solo artist. While Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is every bit as good in its own way, much of the credit has to go to Crazy Horse; it's a band album. Gold Rush is a solo album. Which is not to say that Young plays everything. But instead of a single backing band, here he utilises a variety of sidemen (including all three members of the Horse) in different combinations throughout the album. And it still sounds like the vision of a single artist.

The songwriting shows similar growth and confidence. Whereas the variety of styles employed on his debut make him sound inconsistent and uncertain, here he moves effortlessly from all-out rockers to trad-folk country to tender balladry and still manages to produce a cohesive work.

Young was in peak form here; his work from this period is so consistently strong that while these albums tend to weigh heavily in compilations, there are still plenty of strong tracks left out that could just as easily have made it. Gold Rush places three on Decade and Greatest Hits. The title track and "Southern Man" are obviously indispensable, but "I Believe In You", while excellent, could easily have been replaced by a half-dozen others. Greatest Hits contains "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" in its stead, a song made more famous in the early 90s by St. Etienne's terrific dance-pop cover version.

"Tell Me Why" opens the album by immediately announcing that this will not be Everybody Knows, Pt. II, a habit Young would continue throughout his career when following a particularly successful album. Surprisingly, it's Young's first solo acoustic track on a studio album, though he had already been playing full acoustic sets during his tours with Crazy Horse. It also reveals a lesser-known secret about Young as a musician: he's actually a highly skilled guitarist. Though known for his primitive electric soloing, that style is an affectation. On acoustic, he always lets his technique shine through. Both this track and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" display a rapidly developing melodic sense, as well as a distinctive lyrical style combining vivid imagery with more abstract musings on self-doubt and aging (the latter being a dominant theme in Young's lyrics from day one).

Young also shows growing confidence as a band leader, particularly on "When You Dance", a driving rocker that continues to make set lists on Crazy Horse tours. While the song starts out with a fairly conventional structure, by the end Young lets the band really cut loose, particularly the piano player. Still, as wild as they get (start the song over just after it ends and check out how much the tempo speeds up during the performance), Young is always in control. I think it's Nils Lofgren on piano, by the way, but that's just a guess. Also, the album credits both Crazy Horse's Billy Talbott and CSNY's Greg Reeves with bass; this is clearly a Crazy Horse-style track, but I think that might be Reeves on bass.

Incidentally, I've also posted the Flaming Lips' rendition of the album's title track, just because I think it's awesome and I love the Lips. They re-vamp it entirely and make it their own but, despite skipping the first verse, still manage to stay true to the original's mix of exhaustion and hope. It's from a surprisingly strong Neil Young tribute album called The Bridge. I might post a few other tracks from it as the weeks roll on. No promises.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Tell Me Why", "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and "When You Dance, I Can Really Love"

Bonus (not from vinyl): The Flaming Lips - "After the Gold Rush"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Weekend video - CSNY

No idea when this one's from nor why CSNY were spending precious television time on a Crazy Horse tune, but this is a killer performance. Interesting to note that Young lets Stills take most of the solo. After about a minute he steps and shows the kid how it's done. Killer organ work by Nash, too.

By the way, that's Reeves and Taylor on bass and drums.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young and Stephen Stills each went solo, but Stills soon hooked up with former Byrds resident weirdo David Crosby and guitarist Graham Nash of English power-popsters the Hollies to form the appropriately-named Crosby, Stills & Nash. The trio recorded a decent album of middling suburban ex-hippie folk rock that sold approximately one trillion bazillion copies, and made the group even bigger stars than they already were, and arguably kick-started the unfortunate supergroup trend that continues to this day.

I'm not certain when Young began playing with them, but he was with them at Woodstock, which was their second public appearance as a group. Shortly thereafter he began touring with them, and Crosby, Stills & Nash eventually became Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. According to Young's biography, the trio basically had to beg the reluctant Young to join up with them, which, if true, demonstrates their immense regard for his talent. Young had two average-selling solo albums to his credit; CSN were enormous stars.

The fact that they included an obscure Young original in their Woodstock set list speaks volumes. I have no idea where the song came from, and I don't believe it ever appeared on any of Young's albums. Still, he was able to get the band to agree to play it, and it turns up on the concert's soundtrack album. It's a pleasant enough little pop song, and sounds closer to the style one associates with Woodstock-era bands than most of Young's output at the time.

If you haven't listened to the Woodstock album recently, you're depriving yourself of hours of lousy recordings of mediocre performances by such luminaries of rock history as Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald and Sha-Na-Na. Actually, that's a little harsh; there are some decent cuts on it, but the recording quality is pretty uniformly bad. It's worth hearing once, I suppose, but for the most part it's little more than a reminder that Woodstock's towering place in the history of its era is more for cultural reasons than musical. It's worth noting, incidentally, that CSN's vocals were reportedly so off-key that the group re-recorded some of them in the studio.

Following a tour, the newly-augmented band recorded an album. Déjà vu is terrific, an underrated classic and a model of democratic efficiency. Each member contributes two songs, plus one more collaboration between Stills and Young, and Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock". Young reportedly exercised a great deal of control over the sessions, often strong-arming the others into bending to his will, so it's tempting to credit Young with making the album as good as it is, but I think that's way too easy. There had to be plenty of pride-swallowing by all involved, Young included, to produce an album this lean. Truth be told, I think the secret weapon here is the rhythm section of Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves, whose tight, propulsive drive carries some of the weaker songs.

But beneath that, the foundation of this album, and what really makes it great, is the songwriting. All four members make the most of their alloted space, and the results range from decent-but-listenable to out-and-out great. Nash's "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" are easily the best-known of the bunch, having been used on numerous television commercials for things like homeowner's insurance in the 1980s, when much of the Woodstock generation was pushing forty. They're a little corny, but they hold up pretty well. Stills's "Carry On" is a strong opener; Crosby's "I Almost Cut My Hair" is a stone(r) classic.

Young's "Helpless" would become one of his better-known songs, but the other, "Country Girl", gets lost in the shuffle, and it's his most ambitious composition since his work with Jack Nitzsche. It's actually billed as a three-part suite; the "chapters" are titled:

  1. Whiskey Boot Hill
  2. Down, Down, Down
  3. "Country Girl" (I Think You're Pretty) [punctuation sic]

The song starts out mournful and uncertain, the melodrama deepened by the somewhat pompous production. By the end the song swells to an epic finale, complete with an organ part that threatens to drown out the rest of the song.

Following the overwhelming success of the album, the band ceased their temporary ego-checking and embarked on a bloated victory tour, complete with multiple sold-out dates all over North America, mind-numbingly directionless jam sessions, and the requisite double live album to commemorate the events. 4 Way Street is, with the exception of a few scattered tracks, nearly unlistenable. Thirteen minute version of "Southern Man" sound tempting? It did to me, but I can't sit through it. Taylor and Reeves are not on the album, by the way, and the rhythm section is noticeably inferior. Crazy Horse they're not.

I wanted to post something just for completeness sake, so I've chosen "Ohio" because it's a great song and the performance is one of the least-awful on the album. But for the most part 4 Way is the sound of egos run rampant and fans eating it up, the product of the worst excesses of rock superstardom in the 1970s. No wonder punk happened.

Young knew it, too. Following the tour he quit the group vowing never to work with them until they all went to rehab. The other three, it should be noted, were widely known to consume inhuman volumes of cocaine. Many industry insiders frequently referred to the band by the nickname "the Frozen Noses". No doubt, Young was also tired of sharing the spotlight; he has, after all, a bloated ego of his own.

In an interesting footnote to the CSNY era, David Crosby did finally drag his walrus-lookin' ass through rehab in the 1980s after receiving a new liver. Young kept his word from so many years ago, which is how he got roped into the forgettable American Dream album. He made yet another album with the group several years ago; I've never heard it.

Buy Déjà vu... on vinyl.

Buy Woodstock... on vinyl.

[Don't] buy 4 Way Street... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Sea of Madness" (live), "Country Girl" and "Ohio" (live)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

In stark contrast to Young's first album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (released about four months later) presents the fully-formed vision of a mature artist who has suddenly come into his own. The reason can be stated in two words: Crazy Horse. Rather than building the songs out of overdubs recorded by session musicians, on Everybody Knows Young is simply jamming with the band, and it's the first album to bear an unmistakable Neil Young sound.

The story of Crazy Horse is really the story of rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten, a tragic figure who weighs heavily in Young's history. His heroin overdose in 1972 would cast a shadow over much of Young's work throughout the 1970s.

The group started out as an L.A. doo-wop quartet called Danny and the Memories, who released one 45 that flopped. The band moved to Frisco, picked up instruments, started taking drugs and jamming. They picked up a few more members and released an obscure album as the Rockets.

When Young heard them, he picked out Whitten, along with rhythm section Ralph Molina and Billy Talbott, to play as his backing band and effectively broke up the Rockets. The track "Running Dry (Requiem For the Rockets)" from Everybody Knows is essentially his musical apology to the band's other members. I thought about posting that track for that reason, but it's not a great song, and there are plenty of better ones to be had.

Everybody Knows is one of the most revered albums in Young's catalog. The biggest step forward here is that the band allow Young to open up the arrangements and stretch out on guitar. The lengthy solos for which Young would become famous begin here, on "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand", both of which hover around the ten-minute mark, both of which appear on Decade and even the single-disc Greatest Hits in their entirely, and both of which would become concert staples for years to come.

At the shorter end of the track-length spectrum lies the three-minute pop gem "Cinnamon Girl" with its famous one-note guitar solo, also well-known. But the album's so strong that even with more than half its running time on multiple compilations, there's still lesser known gems to be found. "The Losing End" is one of my favourites on the album, mostly for its combination of a strong power-pop melody with a swinging country beat. Check out the harmony vocals on the chorus as well; I'm fairly certain that's Whitten.

I've also posted a couple of Whitten rarities below. The Memories track is pretty much straightforward doo-wop, and probably sounded retro when it came out. The Rockets track is the opening cut from their lone album, and showcases the same sort of loose, shambling charm Whitten would later bring to a couple of Young-less Crazy Horse LPs.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young with Crazy Horse - "The Losing End (When You're On)"

Bonus (not from vinyl):

Danny and the Memories - "Can't Help Loving That Girl Of Mine"

The Rockets - "Hole In My Pocket"

Monday, September 10, 2007

Neil Young

Neil Young's self-titled solo debut sticks out like a sore thumb in his catalog. There are two instrumentals, elaborate overdubs, brief pop songs and noextended guitar workouts. In short, nothing one would come to associate with a typical Neil Young album. The album also lacks coherence and clear direction, and basically sounds like an artist with an overabundance of ideas and little idea of how to filter them properly.

The album opens with a breezy instrumental country song that, to my knowledge is one of only two instrumental songs in Young's catalog (excepting Arc in its entirety). The other, which opens side two, is written and arranged by Jack Nitzsche. I don't think Young even plays on it.

The closing number, "Last Trip To Tulsa", is a nine-and-a-half minute acoustic epic with no guitar solos whatsoever. Young's elliptical lyrics seems like an effort to emulate the more oblique musings of Bob Dylan songs like "Tombstone Blues" or "115th Dream". It doesn't work. I considered posting it here for sheer curiosity value, but, as I mentioned previously, it's nine-and-a-half minutes long and not very good.

"The Loner" and "The Old Laughing Lady" represent the album on Decade; nothing made the cut for Greatest Hits. "I've Been Waiting For You" is in the same vein as "The Loner", a brief and powerful sixties-pop number with gobs of organ swirls and some fierce guitar tones.

"I've Loved Her So Long" is another Jack Nitzsche collaboration (Nitzsche produced three of the album's cuts, including his own aforementioned one) and is the real find here. Rather than overloading the track with strings as on "Expecting To Fly" and later tracks, here Nitzsche uses a chorus of female voices to give the song its lush textures. Young's voice sounds terrific here; while he's best known for the nails-on-chalkboard whine he employs for his louder electric rave-ups, he has a gentler sound he uses for quiet numbers that sounds lovely, particularly on the early ballads.

Incidentally, this track led to the first real sound quality dilemma I've faced since starting this blog. I record all of the songs from records in my own collection and actually rather like the vinyl sounds in some of them, but here it's a bit much. The combination of the track's unusually low mastering volume (it's noticeably quieter than the other songs on the album, even at its peak) and the advanced state of deterioration of my copy makes for an almost unlistenable aural soup. I boosted the level more than 200% in SoundForge, so the song becomes audible over the vinyl pops, but that makes said pops create digital peaks in the level.

So I'm posting it anyway, best I can do. I considered posting a digital version as well, but figured that kind of goes against the point of this blog; the version I listen to sounds like that, so there it is. If you want a better sounding version of this one song, by all means, grab it on iTunes. It's just a buck.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "I've Been Waiting For You" and "I've Loved Her So Long"

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Weekend video: Buffalo Springfield

I found a pretty cool TV performance by the Springfield here. They start out with a verse from "For What It's Worth" then suddenly shift into "Mr. Soul". I thought at first they might be lip-synching because the sound is so close to the record, but Young's solo is definitely live.

I couldn't figure out why the bass player is sitting at the front of the stage with his back to the crowd. So the band can all be in a circle? Then it occured to me that's probably not Palmer, who missed appearances due to drug busts more than once during the band's brief history. Is the band trying to hide their replacement bassist?

Also, I have no idea who that host is.

Man, some 60s fashions seem so strange now, beyond just dated. A double-breasted suit and a cowboy hat? That doesn't look like a relic from another era, it looks like it's from another planet.

That wraps up Young's Buffalo Springfield period. Here's Young, many years later, looking back on what a time it was. Is that Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Buffalo Springfield - Last Time Around

Buffalo Springfield fell apart after the release of Again, working sporadically on individual members' tracks in the studio and playing concerts with incomplete lineups. Bassist Bruce Palmer was deported to Canada following a drug bust and replaced by Jim Messina (later of Loggins and fame). Follwoing the break-up, Messina and Richie Furay put together a final studio album from extant finished songs. Here Neil Young's contributions are down to two songs and a co-writing cerdit on one of Furay's.

Not only were his contributions dwindling, but his style seems to be regressing. "On the Way Home" is a solid tune, but sounds like the straightforward folk-rock the other members had been producing. The song could just as easily have been written by Stephen Stills. "I Am a Child" is a bit more interesting due the haunting minor-key shifts in the verse melody, but it still sounds like the same strain of west coast country-rock Furay had been exploring as his own writing developed.

Furthermore, I can't find my own copy of it. I'm not even sure if I ever owned it, though I'm pretty sure I know most of the songs on the track list. So the tracks posted here aren't even from vinyl. Bit of an underwhelming end to the first week, but Young was just getting started, and would bounce back strong upon going solo. I'll get into his debut on Monday.

Buy it... (tempting, I know) on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Buffalo Springfield - "On the Way Home" and "I Am a Child"

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Buffalo Springfield Again

By the time Buffalo Springfield's second album was released, Neil Young had already quit the band once (forcing them to play part of a tour without him), and would do so again shortly after its release. One listen to the album, widely considered the band's best, and the creative differences become quite clear. Richie Furay had begun contributing songs of his own, leaving room for fewer from Young and Stephen Stills. Stills and Furay's songs are clearly of a piece: tight, catchy California folk-rock, solid but hardly groundbreaking.

Young, on the other hand, had recorded "Mr. Soul" with the band, but had it rejected by the others as a single. He retreated, began working on his own, and produced two more songs that sound completely out of place on the album, like the work of another band entirely.

"Expecting To Fly" (the lyrics are said to have been inspired by a wheelchair-bound friend who had been a passenger in a car that drove off a cliff) is, from a songwriting perspective, a direct progression from the first album's "Out Of My Mind". The arrangement, however, is unprecedented, and is largely the work of producer Jack Nitzsche. Nitzsche had already established a name for himself in the industry through his arrangement work for Phil Spector (including "Be My Baby" and the legendary "River Deep – Mountain High"), and would go on to build one of popular music's most astounding résumés. Though he has been referred to as "the Yoko Ono of Buffalo Springfield", this was the only Springfield track on which he worked. Young and Nitzsche would go on to maintain a tumultuous and sporadically collaborative relationship over the next couple of decades.

While my intent for these posts is to present lesser-known Young tracks from each album, his songs on Again are all fairly well-known (all three appear on Decade), so I'm going with "Expecting" here because it's my personal favourite. At least until the long-rumoured acoustic demo of "Broken Arrow" surfaces. To make up for the lack of Young material, I've included a few Jack Nitzsche items of interest here. The first, "The Lonely Surfer", was Nitzsche's first solo single for a recording contract he signed in 1963 on the basis of his arranging work. The charming and aptly-titled single made the top 40, but the subsequent album didn't fare as well, and Nitzsche set aside the idea of a solo recording career for the time being. The second is the fourth movement of a classical symphony Nitzsche recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. It's pleasant and professional, though unspectacular, and seems to point to a career direction in which Nitzsche would head in the coming years: film scoring.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Buffalo Springfield - "Expecting To Fly"

Bonus (not from vinyl): Jack Nitzsche - "The Lonely Surfer" and "St. Giles Cripplegate No. 4 (For Mori)"

Monday, September 3, 2007

Buffalo Springfield

Grab a seat, kids; it's time to learn about Neil Young. Young was probably my "favourite ever" in college, i.e., back when it would occur to me to rank those sort of things. I'm going to spend the next several weeks posting a lesser-known track or two from every Young album I own until they run out (I'm pretty sure I'm complete through the early 80s). Take notes. I don't have any Mynah Birds records, so we'll start with Young's Buffalo Springfield years, which is appropriate since the band recorded three albums.

Springfield's formation is one of the most oft-repeated legends of 60s-rock history; I'll run through it here once more. Stephen Stills had met Young years before, but they lost touch. Young drove down from Canada to Los Angeles in a hearse, hoping to find his fortune in the music business. Stuck in a typical LA traffic jam, Stills spied a hearse, thought it might be Young, walked over to see. It was indeed Young, they started a band, history etc.

Buffalo Springfield jumped right into the industry hype machine and became a widely celebrated act for a brief period before breaking up. It was a classic case of too many talented songwriters in one band. Lennon-McCartney, Mould-Hart, Kember-Pierce; you know the drill. They remain celebrated as one of the 60s great coulda-been stories, a band that released a few solid albums but seemed capable of so much more.

Their first, self-titled album is the sound of a young band searching for an identity. Folk-y chord changes and vocal harmonies mingle awkwardly with crude psychedelic guitar effects. Young is credited with composing five of the album's twlve cuts (Stills supplies the other seven) but, curiously, sings only two. The other three are sung by future Poco frontman Richie Furay. It's easy to picture Young being nudged out of the vocal booth due to his, shall we say, unconventional singing chops, but in hindsight he seems rather savvy in in his selection of keepers. "Burned" and "Out Of My Mind" are among the album's most memorable cuts, while the other three are rather pedestrian folk-rock cuts that he may have been more than happy to surrender. Of the three, only "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" made it into Young's later set lists; the other two he seems happy to let go.

Of those, "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong" is the keeper, an MOR soft-rock cut with a marvelous minor-chord change at the start of the chorus. But that bridge, ugh, what a wet blanket. It's followed immediately by "Burned", one of Young's best early tunes, which he says in the liner notes to Decade was his first studio vocal performance, one which he took a handful of uppers to get himself ready for.

The truly revelatory find here is "Out Of My Mind", a flawed but intriguing track that points the way to his subsequent late-60s work. It's not a great song, but it's an interesting experiment that shows Young was more than just a folkie with an amp. The sweeping, dramatic chord changes (in particular the E major chord at the beginning of the song and each verse) reveal a restless creative mind drawing influence from a pool far wider than that of the average LA folk musician of the era. Young's remaining work in the late 60s, through his first solo album, would find him exploring a majestic, orchestral sound to which he would never return despite the many stylistic transformations he would explore throughout his career. And it all begins here.

It's interesting to note the lines

All I hear are screams

From outside the limousine

Young seems to be complaining about the alienating effects of fame before he even became famous. This from an artist who was well known for his retreat from the public eye in the 80s, when many of his generational peers were cashing in.

Ironically enough, the guitar solo in "Out Of My Mind" is awful. It's not even clear if Young actually played it, but I'll bet he did. Oh well, at the very least one can argue that the simple follow-the-melody-line format inspired Kurt Cobain.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Buffalo Springfield - "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong" and "Out Of My Mind"

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Weekend video: Spacemen 3

So, as interesting and occasionally excellent as Kember's post-Spacemen work has been, it's pretty obvious that his early work was best. He clearly dominated the band, and they were glorious. Jason Pierce, by contrast, struggled to find a voice in those days, tentatively exploring the possibilities of gospel music's uplifting power, then fully realised that vision after the band split up. Not that I'm giving Kember total cerdit for the 3's glorious sound, mind you. I'm just saying he peaked earlier.

Speaking of peaking, drop a tab and watch this slice of awesomeness. I'm closing out Kember week with an incredible two-part video of "Suicide", a frequent closing number on Spacemen set lists. This is actually a relatively short version, clocking in at under 20 minutes, but that doesn't make it wny less incredible. Can you imagine experiencing this in person?

The second half should come up as a suggested "Related Videos" link in the Flash box after the first half finishes; if it doesn't, click here. Then, if you're still conscious, watch the whole thing again.

Well, September's here at last, which means school's in, suckers. Neil Young's on the Shelf for the next couple of months, at least until I run out of records. The semester starts Monday with Buffalo Springfield week. Grab a seat and take notes.