Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Neil and the Shocking Pinks - Everybody's Rockin'

Fittingly enough for Hallowe'en, Shelf Life presents Neil in his goofiest costume since his Buffalo Springfield-era "Hollywood cowboy" look. After completely baffling his fans by going all futuristic, Neil Young turned around and created yet another incarnation, this time reaching back further into the past than he ever had before. Everybody's Rockin' consists of ten short tracks of straight-up old school rockabilly.

To Young's credit, he goes for it all the way, even adopting an authentic wardrobe and hairstyle for the album's packaging and videos. He rechristens the band Neil and the Shocking Pinks and credits them on the cover, making them the first band other than Crazy Horse to receive that honour. And rather than padding the experiment with leftovers from other albums, his nine originals here all fit the album's narrow archetype to a T. The details are all there, from the lyrics to the guitar sounds to the backing vocals.

And therein lies the problem: Young brings nothing new to the table here, failing to putting his own spin on the style. That leaves Rockin' as little more than a dress-up party with nothing of lasting substance.

His cover of "Mystery Train", which sounds just like the original, highlights the lack of imagination here. Sure, Young pulls it off, but so what? Go back and listen to a Crazy Horse raver like "Sedan Delivery" or "Drive Back". Wouldn't you rather hear that band covering "Mystery Train"? At least they'd put their own spin on it. Or what about covering some other song in this chosen style? On his last album Young had turned "Mr. Soul" into an electro-dirge. Why not do "Barstool Blues" or "Homegrown" as a doo-wop number? It might be awful, but at least he'd be trying something different.

Rockin' isn't an outright terrible album; if you like old-time rock n' roll it's a reasonable facsimile, but it's ultimately pointless. And while I don't for a moment doubt Young's sincerity in the project and love for the the music to which it pays tribute, he can't help but sound kind of funny. And cheesy. It's a decent album if you don't listen too hard, but on closer inspection it's a disappointing failure. The fact that Young skips over it entirely on Lucky Thirteen shows that he knows it, too.

The opener is a promising enough start, but the album doesn't really get much better (or change much) from there. "Payola Blues", a rant about corrupt radio programmers dedicated to Alan Freed, manages the neat trick of being simultaneously topical and nostalgic. It's also notable for its amusing backing vocal line: "Casssh-a-wadda-wadda". But unlike Trans, there aren't really any overlooked treasures here, just a bunch of fair-to-middling tunes.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil and the Shocking Pinks - "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes" and "Payola Blues"... hey, that rhymes.

NOTE: Looks like this one's fallen out of print as well. No great loss there. If you're interested, Amazon "stocks" it as an mp3 download, but I've never bought a music download from Amazon, so I can't vouch for their choice of bitrate, have no idea if they use DRM, etc.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Neil Young - Trans

This is where things get really weird. In 1982, Neil Young had a brand new record contract with a new label (Geffen), and kicked things off with his most inscrutable album to date, in hindsight perhaps the most challenging of his career.

The standard Young story generally holds that he went really nuts in the 80s, releasing a string of unlistenable genre experiments. This reputation is based almost entirely on Trans. Yes, he followed it up with a rockabilly album and a country album, but those are simply retro role-playing. Trans stands alone in Young's entire catalogue as the one time he attempted to make music from the future, not the past. While generally content to simply sound like himself, the album represents his first attempt to create a new sound since his work with Jack Nitzsche in the late 60s. Trans, believe it or not, is Young's Kid A.

The album, if you've never heard it, is Young's attempt to adopt electronic sounds. Many of the songs feature programmed drums and synthesizers. The lyrics are about technology, computers, robots. Young feeds his voice through a vocoder, at times tweaking it to such extremes that his voice is rendered incomprehensible, the sounds barely even recognizable as words.

Young makes the album's themes explicit right in the artwork. The front cover depicts two cars passing on a road that stretches into the horizon. On the right a 50s-era Cadillac with big ol' tailfins passes a hitchhiking Neil, shabby clothes on his back and a pair of bongo drums at his feet. On the right a futuristic car opens its gull-wing door to pick up what looks like a robot or hologram hitchhiking the other way. Behind Young grow grass and trees; behind the computerised guy rises a futuristic fantasy cityscape. The image on the back (sorry, couldn't find one online) is even more explicit: a human heart, with some of the vessels and chambers opened up to reveal wires and circuitry.

I actually only picked this one up recently, and was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. I'd always heard that the album was little more than an amusing curiosity, but it's actually very listenable. Not quite a triumph, but a solid effort. Whether or not one actually likes the overall robo-Neil sound of it, the album is at the very least an admirable experiment. Plenty of artists from Young's generation were trying to "update" their sounds in the early 80s by slathering a lot of cheesy synths and gated snares over the same tired songs, mostly in a transparently desperate attempt to stay relevant and keep selling records. Young, on the other hand, immersed himself in new music-making technology and wrote songs contemplating it. Trans is a lot of things, but it's certainly not blandly commercial.

Now for the bad. As is his occasionally frustrating wont, Young filled out the the record with older songs he'd had kicking around for a while. While this practice made albums like American Stars 'N Bars and Hawks & Doves sound inconsistent and somewhat watered down, on Trans it's a complete disaster. The opening track(!) is a nifty uptempo country-rock number complete with bongos and slide guitar called "A Little Thing Called Love". It's a cute little toe-tapper, but has no place on this album. Young opens side two with a similarly incongruous song and closes with a lengthy jam that sounds like Santana.

In a way one could argue that these songs function in juxtaposition to the others, highlighting the contrast between old and new, yesterday and today, analogue and digital. Even the lyrics are innocuous and sentimental. But they don't work that way. They just don't work, period, and keep Trans from being the flawed masterpiece it could have been.

Where the contrast really works is within the songs themselves: the way the electric rhythm guitar in the intro to "Sample and Hold" sounds so imperfect and human next to the artificial synth sounds. The vocal in "Transformer Man" is processed beyond recognition, and yet sings the album's most touching and tender melody. Young even recreates one of his earliest songs, Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul", a song about the difficulty of maintaining artistic integrity in the face of commerce. Here he renders it stiff and mechanical, adding yet another layer of irony to the title.

Young has said that many of the songs were inspired by his efforts to communicate with his son, whose severe cerebral palsy limits his speech to such a degree that he needs computers and machines to express himself. Many of the lyrics detail a struggle to maintain control and remain human in a world of machines: "I feel like more than just a number," he sings in "Computer Age". Elsewhere, "You're a transformer man/Power in your hand".

As far as posting tracks here goes, starting with this album we are within the the range of a new compilation. In 1993 Geffen released Lucky Thirteen, a retrospective of the Geffen years compiled by Young himself. The album begins with the excellent "Sample and Hold" and "Transformer Man", so those are out. "Computer Age" is neatly representative of the album as a whole: strong melody, solid guitar playing that fits in nicely with the song's electro elements, and heavy vocoder abuse. Also, when Young recorded his MTV Unplugged set in 1995, he reversed what he'd done to "Mr. Soul" and turned an electronic song into an acoustic one. The performance shows how well the songwriting shines through without the digital decorations. Note the two or three lunatics in the audience who applaud in recognition at the opening line while the rest of the crowd wonders what the hell song this is. Sonic Youth did the same thing to "Computer Age" on the tribute album The Bridge; interesting, although it doesn't hold up through the transition quite as well as "Transformer Man" does.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Computer Age"

Bonus (not from vinyl): Neil Young - "Transformer Man (live)" and Sonic Youth - "Computer Age"

NOTE: This thing is out of print AGAIN?!? Are you fucking kidding me? Come ON, Geffen! Let it go!

Friday, October 26, 2007

"Mr. Soul"

Okay, quick interlude here before I get to the Geffen years. Hawks & Doves and Re•Ac•Tor aren't really the start of Young's next phase, they're in-between albums he made while trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. I'm sure of this. It's appropriate that we start in on the really weird shit on Monday.

So today I'm going to post a bunch of different versions of "Mr. Soul", one of Young's earliest songs and one he has revisited and reworked many times throughout his career. The song's instrumental hook (lifted from the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction") and vocal melody are both easily recognised, but also simple enough to be endlessly adaptable. The somewhat inscrutable lyrics seem to be a wary rumination on the pressures of fame, a common subject for Young in his early years.

Young wrote the song in 1967 and presented it to Buffalo Springfield with the intent that it be the lead single from the band's forthcoming second album. The band rejected it as a single on the grounds that it sounded too much like "Satisfaction", making it the lead-off track on the album instead and selecting one of Stephen Stills's compositions as the single.

Young seems to have devoted quite a lot of energy over the years to proving that "Mr. Soul" is a more lasting and resilient composition than "Bluebird". Actually that's probably not his primary motive in revisiting the song as much as he has, but don't think it hasn't crossed his mind. The perceived slight was one of the first of many that would drive Young to leave the band several times over the following eighteen months or so.

The original version of the song is short and quick, driven by Dewey Martin's insistent snare beat. The multiple lead guitar tracks make the first sonic impression before the main riff comes in, and the vocals begin soon after. Even with the band's energetic performance, the song's dark tone proves impossible to mask.

Posted below is an alternate take of the version that appears on Again, the only notable difference being the guitar solos in the middle. I found this version online somewhere, and have no idea where it's from. The box set I assume, but I can't say for sure.

Buffalo Springfield - "Mr. Soul (non-LP version)"

Young first revisited the song just a couple years later with Crosby, Stills & Nash. This recording is purportedly from a rehearsal session preparing the band for their Woodstock appearance. Here Young attempts to slow it down and draw out some of the song's paranoia, but the new rhythm feels forced. The vocals drag and some of their power is lost. Still, his willingness to take a song that works quite well as it is and risk diluting its power by playing it in a different style is telling, especially at this early stage. No idea where this is from by the way, it's just another one I found online.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - "Mr. Soul (Woodstock rehearsal)"

And um... I don't want to get too into Trans right now because I'm going to cover it in detail on Monday. Call this a teaser. This is the extended mix, presumably from a 12" single, of Young's most radical reimagining of one of his own songs yet.

Neil Young - "Mr. Soul (extended dance remix)"

Following his comeback in the early 90s, Young went through a period in which he revisited his entire body of work several times. He toured with Crazy Horse (and got another double-live album out of it in the process), as a solo artist, and with Booker T and the MGs, all in the space of a few years, each time playing setlists that spanned his career. "Mr. Soul" turned up in a new incarnation on each of those tours, usually in a menacing, bluesy form. The version below is from 1993's MTV Unplugged album, which boasts an impressively diverse set list and some intense, arresting performances. This is the slowest and sparest of all the versions of "Mr. Soul" from that era, and certainly the most powerful. Here Young seems to have finally achieved the ominous tone he may have been aiming for way back at that Woodstock rehearsal. Or maybe he's just getting old.

Neil Young - "Mr. Soul (acoustic)"

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Re•Ac•Tor

Another year, another Neil Young album. In 1981 Young once again reconvened the Horse for a bunch of rousing electric jams. Remember what I wrote about Zuma? About Crazy Horse becoming a comfort zone for Young when he doesn't feel like taking any risks? Re•Ac•Tor is where that trend reaches its nadir.

It's the final album on a contract with a label Young would subsequently leave, and man, it shows. Even the album art is uninspired. Whereas Hawks & Doves at least had Young trying on a new persona, Re•Ac•Tor is old news, start to finish.

The album opens with Young poking fun at his own singing voice in "Opera Star": "You were born to rock/You'll never be an opera star". Cute, but kind of forgettable. Which in a way, makes it a perfect opener in that it sets the table for the rest of the album.

Song after song drifts by, none leaving much of an impression. There are no interludes, no outside musicians, just Neil and the Horse rocking away on every track. Even the Horse sound tired and bored. On a pair of longer numbers they hardly vary at all over the course of nine minutes or so. Young could just as easily have taped the band riffing for about thrity seconds, then jammed over a loop to his heart's content; it wouldn't have sounded much different. "T-Bone" at least has some interesting guitar effects (someone gave Young a flanger for Christmas, apparently) to distinguish it, but the pointless lyrics make clear the track is a throwaway. "Shots" has some cool gunfire sound effects and a haunting message, but again the endless riffing goes nowhere.

I had to post something, and the rhythm on "Southern Pacific" is kind of infectious, so that one gets the call. It's actually a pretty good song, but it's the type of song that would be a lesser number on a better Young album, the kind you could point to and say, "Wow, even the filler is good on this album." When it's one of the best songs on the record you're not looking at a very good record. It's telling that none of these songs ever turn up in Young's later set lists.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Southern Pacific"

Monday, October 22, 2007

Neil Young - Hawks & Doves

Today we officially begin Neil Young's difficult years. Fittingly, it's the start of the 80s. Not that he got weird right at the start of the decade; he released a couple of mediocre albums to run out his Reprise contract before his notorious Geffen years. We're also at a point between the reach of the major compilations, so nothing from the next couple of albums turns up anywhere else.

Young didn't miss a beat chronologically, releasing Hawks & Doves in late 1980, same year as Live Rust. But some of the songs date from several years earlier, which gives side one an inconsistent feel.

Hawks is yet another one of those Young albums with a clear delineation between the two sides. Here, side one is filled with quiet, personal songs, opening with two older songs: the barely-there ballad "Little Wing" and the seven-minute "The Old Homestead", the lyrics for which include parts for multiple characters. The album's finest song is at the end of the side, a haunting solo acoustic number entitled "Captain Kennedy". The lyrics tell a vague and troubling tale in a similar vein as "Powderfinger", while the music showcases Young's fingerpicking skills. One of his best songs of the era, but nothing else on the record matches it.

Side two brings out the band, first for a schmaltzy country number entitled "Stayin' Power", then for a series of patriotic blue collar workin' man anthems. "Union Man" is the weirdest of the bunch. It starts out espousing pride in organised labour before the song turns into a dramatised union meeting chaired by Young. A member proposes that everyone be issued bumper stickers that say "Live music is better". The members approve, the motion is passed, the song is lame.

"Comin' Apart At Every Nail" is a decent working-man's lament about struggling to get by. It's not great, I'm just posting it to include something from side two, and it's fairly representative of the overall sound. It's no "Livin' On a Prayer", though, and that's saying something.

The side closes with the album's title track, notable for the repeated chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." in the chorus. In this day and age, it's hard not to be cynical about overt displays of patriotism, but Young is still an Old Left liberal here; it would be a few years before he would begin publicly praising noted union-buster Ronald Reagan. Still, there's just something awkward and forced about the tone of all of the songs. Maybe it's because he's Canadian.

The music doesn't do much to buoy the bland songwriting. Young's guitar playing is noticeably different than it's been before, with a much cleaner sound than his previous electric work, but most of it gets buried under backing vocals and fiddles. Considering the high quality of Young's previous pair of new albums, Hawks can only be seen as a major disappointment.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Captain Kennedy" and "Comin' Apart At Every Nail"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Weekend video: Neil Young, Crazy Horse... and Devo

I haven't posted a weekend video in a while and man, Neil Young's got some gems out there. First up: Journey Through the Past, Young's 1972 autobio-doc. As I montioned before, it's near-impossible to find, but somebody posted the opening credits and first seven minutes or so on the redoubtable YouTube. I believe this is Young's first use of his alter-ego Bernard Shakey, who usually turns up on film projects.

The film opens with a scene of Young and posse walking in to a radio station, presumably for an interview. Young banters with the DJ for a bit, and the film fades into that Buffalo Springfield TV performance I posted a few weeks ago. The clip cuts off just as the band switches to "Mr. Soul".

Kind of reminds me of Radiohead's Meeting People Is Easy movie: very little context, just disorienting shots of the tedium of promotional work. It certainly makes me interested in seeing the movie; anybody got a copy?

Shakey's next film venture, to my knowledge, was a concert film of the same show as the Live Rust album, entitled Rust Never Sleeps. I was going to post a video from that movie (and found this while searching for it; I think that's Dutch), but you can find that anywhere. I also stumbled on this clip of Young and the Horse playing "Hurricane" in 1976. I think this might be the same footage Jim Jarmusch used toward the end of his Neil Young doc The Year of the Horse, which would make this Young-directed footage as well. Er, Shakey-directed. It's clearly a professional shoot and a multi-camera edit, so it's no bootleg.

"Hurricane" is my personal favourite of the long-form Crazy Horse numbers because of the way Young uses it as a launching pad for so much melodic exploration. The bluesy tonal wails of "Down By the River" are all well and good, but I think it's when he's building on the possibilities of a simple scale that Young really soars as a soloist. Compare that to this version from his famous Berlin concert in 1982. Sure, the 80s seem to have infected his backing band a bit, but once Young gets into the solo it still sounds like classic Neil, and he has yet to exhaust the song's potential.

In fact, screw it: here's the Rust Never Sleeps version as well. There's just no end to what he can do with this one song. He's even been known to play it at his solo shows on an organ. Far out, man.

But oh yeah, I was talking about Young as a filmmaker. Not always so hot. He wrote, directed and self-financed a narrative film in the early 80s called Human Highway which went unreleased until about ten years ago. It stars Young, a bunch of his aging-hippie neighbors from Laurel Canyon (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) and Devo in an incomprehensible technicolour fantasia about... nuclear weapons. And... stuff. Young discovered Devo pretty early on in their career and gave them one of their early breaks. Here he incorporates their song "Worried Man" into his movie as a big production number.

Did you make it all the way through? Almost unwatchable, isn't it? Actually, the only good scene is towards the end, when Young and Tamblyn are dancing on shovels. The song is reprised elsewhere in the film in a performance by the spuds themselves.

Incidentally, wanna see something really weird? At the end of this clip, a segment from a short biographical TV special about Young, there's footage of Young and Devo rocking "My My Hey Hey". Totally awesome. If anyone knows where I can find the clip in it's entirety, hook me up.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Live Rust

In hindsight, Neil Young released Decade two years too early. While his next two studio albums may have seemed like the start of a brilliant second act at the time, they were really the grand finale of Young's first act, one quiet, one loud, end of the decade. Young followed the release of Rust Never Sleeps with an obligatory curtain call: the double-live LP.

Seeing as it contains songs from the previous two albums and an evenly-distributed sampling of older favourites, Live Rust could arguably be viewed as the definitive summary of Young's 70s work. I say it's not, because it's not nearly as comprehensive as Decade and all played with the same backing band, but to each his own.

Actually, as self-congratulatory double-live albums go, Live Rust is pretty strong. Side one is all acoustic tracks, most of them not radically re-worked, but the harmonica parts on "Comes a Time" are particularly good. Side two consists of lean electric numbers, with one more acoustic interlude ("Needle"). Here things get a bit more interesting as we get to hear a few non-Crazy Horse tracks get amped up by the pummeling Horse. "The Loner", in particular, benefits from this treatment, and is transformed from a studio-crafted pop song into a full-throttle garage stomper. Listen to Young attack those string charts, turning the melodies into snarling guitar leads.

The album starts to drag a bit on the second record, as Young hauls out the warhorses ("Cortez", "Hurricane") and begins to stretch out. It's always nice to hear a couple of those played for as long as Young likes, but "Tonight's the Night" doesn't need to be seven minutes long. And without the subtle touches like Everybody Knows's mournful fiddle lines or momentum shifters like Zuma's acoustic numbers, Crazy Horse starts to sound the same over the course of two records.

The biggest complaint I have about Live Rust, solid though it may be, is the woefully unimaginative setlist. The album contains sixteen songs. Four are from Rust Never Sleeps (including both versions of the album's signature track). Two are from the previous album. Fine, they're the most recent releases. Of the remaining ten songs, nine appear on Decade. Only "When You Dance" (which, by the way, is terrific here) could qualify as a lesser-known song. I mean, I guess the album's supposed to function as a de facto live greatest hits set, so fine. But still, this is a guy who'd already released two entire albums of live recordings of songs the audience had never heard before. Young was known for filling out his sets with all manner of forgotten album tracks and unreleased gems. I have a bootleg of a show from 1976 that includes a song that would later turn up on Ragged Glory, which came out fourteen years later.

I'm not saying he should have filled Live Rust with unknown numbers; that's not the point of the album. Just that, since he had already celebrated his best known work on Decade only two years earlier, why not throw a few more curve balls on the double-live album? I love "Cinnamon Girl" as much as the next Young fan, but I'd much rather hear a version of, say, "World On a String" or "Yonder Stands the Sinner".

Okay, enough bitching. As far as double-live albums go, it is pretty strong overall. And, in hindsight, it would stand as an end-of-an-era summation before Young took some rather strange creative turns. Starting Monday I'll get into Young's sometimes bizarre, occasionally awful eighties material, with which he regularly taunted and tested the loyalties of both his audience and, most notoriously, his label.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Comes a Time [live]" and Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "The Loner [live]"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Neil Young - Journey Through the Past and Decade

Got in late Monday so I skipped doing a post, but that's okay. My plan was to go over some compilations this week before moving on, and these two can be covered together.

Neil Young's first attempt to anthologise his own work resulted in the 1972 film Journey Through the Past and its accompanying soundtrack album. The film was poorly reviewed and lost to history (if you can find a copy you're one up on me). The album, however, while also poorly reviewed, continues to haunt the world's used record bins to this day.

I acquired a copy recently and was surprised to find just how bad it really is. The packaging, while attractively designed, offers little in the way of liner notes, so I have no idea who's playing on most of the tracks. As for the music, it's mostly a hodgepodge of live tracks, rehearsals and studio outtakes. There's a lengthy version of "Alabama" in which the band stops halfway through to discuss the backing vocal arrangement. There's an interminable version of "Words" that takes up the entirety of side three and ends abruptly after fifteen-odd minutes of aimless guitar noodling, as though the band simply got tired and stopped playing.

The record itself is also an object lesson in the danger of buying mail-order used vinyl. The seller was upfront about the record's deteriorating condition, but still managed to understate it a bit; side four is physically caked with debris, and quite literally unplayable. No matter; nothing I could actually hear is worth posting. One song here, "Soldier", turns up on Decade, none on Greatest Hits.

Incidentally, I posted a video a couple weeks back of the Springfield on some TV show playing "For What It's Worth" and "Mr. Soul". That same performance appears here and, presumably, in the movie as well. I know it's the same one because the album opens with audio of the show's host making the same lame joke.

Moving ahead five years, Young responded to his first real creative rut by assembling Decade, a triple-LP career retrospective with a generous helping of standout tracks from each of his albums and a few previously unreleased cuts sprinkled throughout for good measure. You can quibble about some of the individual song selections (indeed, that's been the whole point of these last couple months of posts), but the overall quality is undeniable. This set was my first exposure to Young back in high school, and remains highly recommended as an introduction to his music. I think it remains one of the best compilations ever released by any single artist.

Since my aim here has been to post tracks that don't appear on Decade or other comps, I can't really post anything, right? Besides, I don't have this on vinyl; it's on CD. I considered replacing it just to post a few of the rarities (you can find it for $10 without looking too hard), but decided it wasn't really worth it. Instead, I'll post some covers of some of the rarities.

Of the 35 tracks on Decade, seven don't appear on any of the albums I've covered here thus far. One of them, CSNY's "Ohio", appears on that band's first best-of album, So Far, leaving six actual rarities.

  • "Down To the Wire", a demo recorded with an early line-up of Buffalo Springfield. Young sounds hesitant and the arrangement is a bit haphazard, but it's decent.

  • "Sugar Mountain" is a touching acoustic song about fading youth that Young claims to have written on his nineteenth birthday. The song continues to appear in Young's solo set lists and remains one of his best-loved classics.

  • "Winterlong" had been kicking around for years, turning up in Crazy Horse set lists as early as 1970. It's three minutes of pure pop heaven, and would have fit perfectly on Zuma. I've posted the Pixies fairly straightforward version of the song from The Bridge because Black Francis and Kim Deal's vocal harmonies fit the song so perfectly.

  • "Deep Forbidden Lake" is a simple acoustic meditation. Pleasant but undistinguished.

  • "Love Is a Rose" is a simple and beautiful love song, another real lost classic. It was also a big hit for Linda Ronstadt, whose version I've posted here.

  • "Campaigner" is another solo acoustic number, famous for its line about a mystical place "where even Richard Nixon has got soul."

Buy Journey Through the Past... on vinyl.

Buy Decade... on vinyl.

Buy The Bridge... on vinyl.

Buy Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Linda Ronstadt - "Love Is a Rose"

Not from vinyl: Pixies - "Winterlong"

Friday, October 12, 2007

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps

And the hits don't stop. Rather than following his comeback Comes a Time with an acoustic tour befitting the album's style, Neil Young once again swung a hard left in 1979. He reconvened Crazy Horse and mounted an arena tour of half-solo/half-electric sets with a song list filled with new material. He then compiled live performances from said tour of said new material, and released his best-known and most widely-celebrated album since Harvest.

Rust Never Sleeps is one of those albums that carries such an overwhelming reputation that the album itself becomes slightly obscured beneath the weight of its own mythology. Its two most often-discussed artistic devices were both tricks Young had used before: a concert recording of new songs (Time Fades Away), and opening and closing the album with different versions of the same song (Tonight's the Night). In this case, the two versions represent the stark contrast of the albums sides: side one is solo acoustic, side two is the Horse with the gain knobs dimed. They also provide a sense of cohesion to what would otherwise seem like two separate EPs.

The album has come to be viewed as one of Young's loud, electric triumphs, but it's quite the opposite. Not only is half the album not electric at all, but the electric side isn't that great. While side one showcases some of Young's most audacious lyricism to date, side two is about half filler. Granted, the guitar tones are incredible, easily Young's most abrasive sounds to date. But two of the four songs don't hold up well at all; how "Welfare Mothers" continues to slip into Crazy Horse set lists to this day is beyond me.

The enduring strength of the record is in the songwriting on side one. The few simple couplets in "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of the Blue)" contribute further to the album's reputation as Young's supposed response to punk, but the rest of the songs don't bear that out. The next three contain some of the most sophisticated and inscutable lyrics of Young's career. I've posted "Thrasher" because it has my favourite melody of the three, but they each contain a fascinating melange of imagery and allusion.

So after a few down years and a subsequent best-of, Young returns to form with what seems to be a mature album of MOR ballads, then turns arround and reminds everyone that, oh yeah, when he feels like it, he can write on par with the likes of Springsteen, Van Morrison, even Dylan. And on top of that, he pads out the rest of the album with electric jams, just so, if you're not paying attention, you might miss the good stuff.

Which is not to say side two is bad, just overrated. "Powderfinger" is the exception, one of Young's finest combinations of powerful songwriting and soaring guitar leads. Check out the lyrics: Where'd the boat come from? Did the kid shoot them? Did they shot him? I've never figured it out; Here's an interesting attempt if you're up for it.

Then there's a couple of clunkers and the other title track (sort of), notable primarily for the freakish guitar sounds Neil gets out his poor suffering amp. All quite listenable, but a pretty high degree of filler for an album considered an unimpeachable classic. Greatest Hits, of course, gives you the electric version of the hit, and no hint of what lies on side one. Go figure.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Thrasher" and Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Powderfinger"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Neil Young - Comes a Time

Following 1977's half-finished country experiment American Stars 'n Bars (which, I neglected to mention in the last post, has a fantastic cover), Neil Young released Decade, a ten-year (duh) career overview complete with rare tracks and inscrutable liner notes. The three-record set is often credited as an early example of the rarity-filled box sets that would become de rigueur in the CD era, but at the time it would have simply been viewed as a particularly generous greatest hits package. And when does an artist trot out the greatest hits?

Let's look for a moment at Young's past several years. Following the big commercial breakthrough (Harvest) he released three defiantly anti-commercial albums that established him as a Serious Artist. Then, he re-grouped his favourite backing band for a crowd-pleaser (Zuma); re-connected with the other creative force from his first band (Stephen Stills) for a lackluster reunion album of sorts, and padded out an unfinished album with studio leftovers. Given that lead-up, a greatest hits album might have seemed like an admission of defeat: my best years are behind me, let's take a look back.

With that context in mind, is 1978's Comes a Time a triumphant return to form or the first late-period album by a mature artist past his prime? Both, and neither, sort of.

From a commercial standpoint Comes a Time can be viewed as the long-awaited follow-up to Harvest: a mostly acoustic folk-based album of easy soft-rock. From an artistic standpoint, it's in the same vein as Zuma: a strong album employing a previously-explored style; solid, but nothing new.

It's neither because the details don't fit either paradigm. The liner notes credit no fewer than nineteen studio musicians, more than Young had ever employed on a single album by a long shot. The arrangements are occasionally frustrating, and Young seems to be challenging the listener as subtly as possible with sudden stops and other odd rhythmic shifts.

The album opens with a theme played several times over before the song actually starts, and the song pauses several times to repeat it. "Look Out For My Love" pauses after the first chorus for Young to announce his emotional vulnerability as nakedly as possible. "Peace Of Mind" is a love ballad with an achingly beautiful melody, but again the arrangement refuses to let the listener settle into a steady rhythm. Side two opens with "Human Highway" (the title of Young's strange, long-unreleased narrative film), which seems to revisit "Walk On"'s theme of burying the hatchet. Even on this one, the tempo in the chorus continuously shifts from half-time to double-time, refusing to grant the listener an easy tune.

They're all good songs, but none are great, which made it difficult to pick songs for this post; nothing jumps out as a great lost classic. If anything, that's a testament to the overall cohesion of the songs: you can't just cherry-pick the hits here; it's an album. In a larger sense, the album can't be fully appreciated without an understanding of this point in Young's career. Staring in the face of obsolescence, he created an unabashedly commercial album while still challenging the listener. It's not one of his best from a pure musical standpoint, but it's a triumph nonetheless.

We're past the reach of Decade now, but Greatest Hits includes the title track. The album also contains "Lotta Love", a cover version of which became the defining hit of backing vocalist Nicolette Larson's career. I suppose I could have posted that. But instead, here's a version by Dinosaur Jr. from the tribute album The Bridge. As should be obvious from listening to his work, Dinosaur frontman J. Mascis is one of Young's biggest fans. And so, given the opportunity to pay tribute to his hero, he chose one of Young's most inoffensive MOR hits and urinated all over it. Enjoy!

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Look Out For My Love", "Peace Of Mind" and "Human Highway"

Bonus (not from vinyl): Dinosaur Jr. ft. Artie "Are You Ready" Sinatra - "Lotta Love"

Monday, October 8, 2007

Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars

Neil Young followed up the abysmal Stills-Young Band record with a new solo album a year later; considered together, the two albums must have hinted at a worrying trend: was Young running out of ideas?

Not that 1977's American Stars 'n Bars is a bad record; it's actually pretty good, better than I remembered. But it's more a hodgepodge than a real album.

Side one, recorded that year, is credited to Neil Young, Crazy Horse and the Bullets. That's the Horse on rhythm, Stray Gator Ben Kieth on steel, Carole Mayedo on violin, and Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson on vocals. The side opens with "The Old Country Waltz" which, with its prominent fiddle lead and tear-in-my-beer lyrics, seems to announce the album's direction: Neil goes straight old-fashioned country, Nashville-style. The next three tracks bear that out quite nicely before the side closes with a change-up on "Bite the Bullet", a terrific Horse-y rave-up.

Setting aside whatever misgivings one might have towards artists indulging in genre exercises on the downside of their careers, the music is pretty good, and Young pulls off the style quite handily. The problem is that he didn't pull off enough to fill an album.

Side two is filled out with assorted leftovers from three different sessions over the previous three years. Not that this stuff is without merit: "Like a Hurricane" joins the canon of extended guitar workouts, and may be his finest yet. But "Star of Bethlehem" is pure filler, easily the most forgettable track on Decade; I've listened to it a few times today and still couldn't hum it for you right now. "Will To Love" is a seven-minute acoustic meditation on salmon swimming upstream to spawn; interesting, but way too weird (and long) to take seriously. The album closes with "Homegrown", a pleasant pro-farmer/pro-pot giggler that remains an occasional encore number for Horse shows. Cute, but surely lesser Young.

So what happened here? Side one makes a fine EP, but why didn't Young record a full country album with the Bullets? Conflicts with the musicians? Or did he simply run out of songs? Stars is certainly an enjoyable listen, but if you were a Young fan in 1977, you had to wonder if his peak years were coming to a close.

I don't get why Decade ignores side one, by the way. Considering that it's intended as a comprehensive overview of all of his stylistic twists and turns from the period, why ignore his brief country phase? Granted, "Like a Hurricane" is essential (it even makes the cut as one of only five post-Harvest tracks on 2004's Greatest Hits), but he couldn't have picked one of the country numbers over "Star of Bethlehem"?

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young, Crazy Horse and the Bullets - "The Old Country Waltz" and "Bite the Bullet"

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Stills-Young Band - Long May You Run

Oh, Neil. What the hell happened here, man?

After vowing not to record another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album until the other three went through rehab, Young nonetheless continued to work with each one periodically; they turn up as guest vocalists in one permutation or another on most of Young's 70s albums. So I'm sure it seemed like a big deal, if not a total surprise, when the work of the Stills-Young Band surfaced. That is, until one heard the results.

The Stills-Young Band consisted of its two namesakes and a bunch of slick L.A. session pros. None of these guys were from Young's circle of regulars; presumably they were players with whom Stills had worked. Stills and Young trade off songs throughout the album, back and forth. Young's bear the distinct traces of a lack of effort, toss-offs deemed unworthy of his own albums, perhaps, while Stills's contributions border on unlistenable.

I actually hadn't listened to the album in many years before pulling it out to write this post; I remembered liking the breezy title track (Young's; it closes out Decade), thinking the Stills tracks were a bit bland, and not remembering the rest of the Young tracks. Upon further review, the album is awful, and has no clear competition as the worst album Young released during the decade. It may even rank as his worst album ever which, if you heard much of his 80s output, is really saying something.

First off, Young's songs aren't even that good to begin with, but whereas Crazy Horse can sometimes elevate less-than-stellar songwriting through passionate performance, most of these songs sound even worse being played by a bunch of soulless studio hacks. Oh sure, the guys are pros, and there's not a note out of place on the album, but is that really what you want Neil Young to sound like?

As for the Stills numbers... wow. This guy really fell off. The songs veer from faux-blues to faux-Latin and are consistently terrible. The lyrics, the vocals, the arrangements: awful. I have to imagine that Young got roped into doing this record and was contractually bound up before he had a chance to hear the new songs Stills was working on.

Out of Young's five songs, there's the aforementioned title track, which is nice, and one more halfway-decent song: "Let It Shine", which opens side two. The performance has a shambling warmth absent from most of the album; it sounds as though Young deliberately kept the band up all night in order to record them sounding tired. And the song itself is interesting as it's the only Young song I know of that flirts stylistically with gospel, a style in which, not surprisingly, the simplicity and sincerity seem to suit Young quite well.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: The Stills-Young Band - "Let It Shine"

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Neil Young with Crazy Horse - Zuma

Having at last worked through his devastation over the addictions and deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry and taken his audience on a (to say the least) difficult musical journey over the course of his last several albums, Young reformed Crazy Horse with newcomer Frank "Pancho" Sampedro on guitar and released his most accessible album since Harvest: 1975's Zuma. It's billed as being by Neil Young with Crazy Horse, the first time Young shared billing on the cover since Everybody Knows.

There are a couple of tracks with other musicians (including Crosby, Stills & Nash on the album's closer "Through My Sails"), but for most of the album it's just Neil and the Horse. The familiarity of the musicians contributes to the relaxed and confident tone of the album's performances. Playing with Crazy Horse also seems to have inspired Young to stretch out on guitar for the first time in a while, and side two's lengthy centerpiece "Cortez the Killer" soon joined the list of live staples.

Young also delivers his most hummable batch of melodies since... maybe ever. Tracks like "Don't Cry No Tears" and "Barstool Blues" are downright power-pop, albiet with breezy California-country-rock rhythms underneath.

The result is one of Young's most easily likeable albums of the era. With so many great songs and such strong playing, it seems nitpicky to focus on any flaws. And yet...

The flip side of Young's confident performances with a long-familiar backing band is that Young seems to have settled into a comfort zone with Crazy Horse. He knows he can rattle off six-minute guitar solos in his sleep, and that his fans will eat it up. And the flip side of the album's accessibility is that it's completely unchallenging.

So, fine, it's not Time Fades Away, that doesn't mean it's a bad album, it's one of the best of the era. If anything, the album demonstrates that Young was on such a hot streak in the mid-1970s that even his lesser efforts resulted in all-time classics. The guy just couldn't go wrong at this point. But it's worth noting because in later years, Crazy Horse has become something of a crutch for Young. When he doesn't have any particularly strong ideas, he knows he can always book an arena tour, trot out the same set list, and the fans will still turn out in droves to hear one more fifteen-minute version of "Down By the River". Hey, don't get me wrong, I could listen to the guy solo all day. But it's the diversity of his catalogue and his continued refusal to follow an easy path to commercial success that make Young such a special artist. Zuma is a terrific album, but it's nothing you haven't heard before.

Having said that, there are actually a lot of songs on it you may not have heard before. Surprisingly for such a strong set of short, hummable pop songs, only the epic "Cortez" makes it on Decade, and none of them made the cut for Greatest Hits. "Don't Cry No Tears" is the opener, and sets the tone for side one. Side two is a little darker, and "Stupid Girl" introduces the shift quite effectively with what I think might be some of Young's finest lead guitar work. His mastery of melodic phrasing is on display more prominently here than anywhere else on the album (even "Cortez"), or on most of his other albums for that matter.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young with Crazy Horse - "Don't Cry No Tears" and "Stupid Girl"

Monday, October 1, 2007

Neil Young - Tonight's the Night

So I was out of town all last week; I'll be back on schedule starting today. Also, I finally put that Mercury Rev track up on last week's post.

Which brings us to Tonight's the Night, and if you thought he'd lost his mind for the last two, wait'll you hear this one. The songs were recorded haphazardly in various studios with at least three backing bands, including a new one Young dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers. Granted the memberships overlap quite a bit, but the album still has a larger supporting cast than any Young album before it. The album's Wikipedia page is well worth reading for an introductory overview. And yet, astoundingly, Young managed to create one of the most cohesive records of his career.

The secret, of course, is the subject matter. Whereas other albums find Young drifting lyrically from topic to topic, on Tonight he has only one thing on his mind: drugs, and the drug induced deaths of his friends. Following Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten's passing in 1972, longtime roadie Bruce Berry overdosed and died a year later. While not every song deals with them directly, an air of mourning and exhaustion hangs over every song.

The album opens and closes with two different versions of the title track (a trick Young would repeat more than once on subsequent albums), a half-hearted attempt at a rave-up with lyrics that bluntly memorialise Berry. The band sounds too tired and dispirited to rock out. And yet it's this very shortcoming, be it an unwillingness or inability to muster up much energy, that gives the song its harrowing power. The mood carried through the rest of the album, regardless of who's playing. But unlike Harvest's more somnolent moments, the band(s) still manages to swing. They kick up a little dust now and then ("World on a String", "Roll Another Number"), other times sound as though they may simply give up at any moment and stop playing mid-song ("Speakin' Out", "Tired Eyes").

Young's performances speak volumes; never before or since has an artist managed to convey so much emotion because he basically mails it in, not in spite of it. He barely even solos, letting Ben Kieth, Nils Lofgren and even, in the form of an old concert recording, Whitten take the lead. And in doing so, Young created the ultimate 3 a.m., empty-bottle-of-Jack album of all time. You almost can't listen to it in daylight.

Decade includes the opening version of the title track (renamed "Tonight's the Night, Part 1") and the aptly-named "Tired Eyes"; Greatest Hits ignores the album completely. It's tricky to pick songs off here, though, because they're all good (seriously; Tonight doesn't have a weak track; arguably some filler, but good filler, if you know what I mean), but most of them won't make any sense out of context. "Mellow My Mind" is one of the album's sleepy tracks, and closes out side one nicely. "Lookout Joe" is a rocker (relatively speaking), and one of the few tracks that actually can strand on its own outside its context. Note that both tracks have basically the same ending.

Interestingly, I work with one of the guitarists from longtime New York RnR lifers the Snakes. They're currently working on a year-long project in which they get together once a month and record one song from Tonight. In order. Presumably they did "New Mama" last week. Spaghetti let me listen to a few of the tracks and pick one to post. "Roll Another Number" was the clear winner for its long, lazy intro and inspired vocal performance. As in all the best cover versions, the band managed to stay true to the spirit of the original while making the song their own.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Mellow My Mind" and "Lookout Joe"

Bonus (not from vinyl): The Snakes - "Roll Another Number"

NOTE: Did you click on the vinyl link above? Amazon carries it! On vinyl! I didn't even know they had any vinyl.