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"

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