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"

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