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"

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