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.


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