Friday, November 9, 2007

Neil Young & the Bluenotes - This Note's For You

Neil Young was released from his Geffen contract after five albums. The experience could only have been described as a disappointment for both sides. He signed once again with Reprise, his original label, and announced his return to form with... another genre exercise. Credited to Neil Young & the Bluenotes, 1988's This Note's For You is Neil Goes R&B, complete with old fashioned song structures and a full horn section. As with Everybody's Rockin' and Old Ways, all the details are in place.

The difference? This Note is excellent. Seriously! Surprisingly enough, the style fits Young like a glove, raising the question as to why he hadn't tried this sooner.

The album actually gets off to a slow start; the first two songs seem a bit awkward, as though Young is grappling with how exactly to approach his newly-chosen whim, and don't bode well for what follows. Then suddenly, after a pleasantly jazzy ballad, the album really starts to swing. "Life In the City" sounds like the real deal: a swingin' big-band jump blues. The rhythm section stomps, the horns blare, the song is terrific.

The album proceeds to alternate between ballads and rave-ups, and both are equally effective. "Hey Hey" is in the same vein as "Life In the City", but with more elaborate showcase moments for the guitar and the horns, as well as funnier lyrics. "Twilight" is quiet but hardly subdued; the menacing horns and drums threaten to erupt at any moment, but never do. Lucky Thirteen closes with this album's title track (for obvious reasons) and includes a live rarity with the same band, but otherwise ignores the album.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young and the Bluenotes - "Twilight" and "Hey Hey"

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Life

And finally, after four messy albums of genre experiments both old and new, Crazy Horse is back! The triumphant return of the Horse! Sort of.

1987's Life saw Neil Young reunited with his favourite backing band for what should have been a welcome return to form. Instead, he remained mired in trendy 80s production tricks, squandering some fine songwriting on an album filled with gated snares and extraneous synths.

I know I've been fairly charitable thus far to Young's 80s output in these posts, trying to find the good points in each of his whims no matter how misguided. The best I can come up with here is that he made an intentionally bad album and titled it Life. So, y'know, Life sucks. Get it? OK I got nothin'.

Seriously, this album stinks. It's a Crazy Horse album in name only, i.e., the backing band is all there, but this is really just another 80s Neil Young album, only this time without any attempt to mimic a particular style. Instead it's just a generic rock record with bad production. Oh, and to make matters worse, it's also a Crazy Horse album with no extended guitar workouts. The less said about it the better.

So quickly then: Lucky Thirteen includes opener "Mideast Vacation" and "Around the World". Who cares. Neither is particularly good, but both have halfway decent guitar leads, which may have been why Young decided ten years later that they were worthy of inclusion on an anthology of this era.

The two songs I've posted here are both ballads, which isn't really representative of the album as a whole, but they're both good songs. "Long Walk Home", in fact, is an excellent song, easily the album's best, but the production tries its best to ruin it. I don't even mind the cannon fire sound effects, but those synths? Give me a break. Still, a great song shines through, and this is one of the finest ones Young wrote all decade. Listen to the writing overcome the production; you just can't kill a great song.

"When Your Lonely Heart Breaks" is, similarly, a touching song marred by way too much reverb, but the lead guitar work demands some attention, especially considering the paucity of it throughout the rest of the album. The solo is nicely understated. In a way, it's so spare as to sound like nothing he'd recorded before. Beautiful.

Everybody's Rockin' and Landing On Water may have seemed more embarrassing on the surface, but to my mind the sheer generic sound of Life makes it the worst Young album of the era. Thankfully, he would sink no lower. The reconvening of Crazy Horse was, as it would later turn out, a harbinger of better times ahead. Not that you'd know it here.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - "Long Walk Home" and "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks"

Monday, November 5, 2007

Neil Young - Landing On Water

By the middle of the 80s, Neil Young had undergone such an extreme personal and artistic transformation that his younger 60s incarnation would barely have recognised himself. Not only had his musical output found him wandering in a creative wilderness for several years, but his political views had turned 180 degrees. He went so far as to praise the administrative policies of liberal nightmare Ronald Reagan. He had become a landed middle-aged rich guy, and embraced the politics of the rich, as was the style of the day.

Both musically and lyrically, 1986's Landing On Water stands out in Young's catalog as most clearly a product of the 80s. While his three prior records had explored other styles both past and present, Landing was the first Young album since... I guess Harvest to sound like whatever else was on the radio at the time. And whereas in Harvest's day Young was at the forefront of creating that particular sound, by Landing he was simply following trends.

But having said all that, I was surprised to find that, overall, if taken on its own terms, the album is not terrible. Before re-listening to it a few times in order to write this post, my recollections of the few listens I had given Landing in the past were that it was utter shit, but it's not that bad. It's not especially memorable, and certainly pales within the standards of the Young canon, but as a standalone 80s rock album it's... passable. And has a few fine moments.

The initial warning signs are right on the back cover: only three musicians (including Young) are credited, the lists of instruments for each all include synthesizer, and there's no bassist. At least there's a real drummer (Steve Jordan, incidentally, making his first appearance on a Young record here, would go on to drum for and produce several Keith Richards solo albums and to produce one of my favourite major label alt-rock albums of the pre-Nirvana era). The opening track seems to confirm one's worst fears: dated synths, awful canned drum effects, guitar a mere afterthought. It's the 80s alright. Young gets points for stylistic consistency here, and for embracing this style wholeheartedly, but yeah, the whole album sounds like that.

Which is what you need to get past to appreciate the album's admittedly few good points. There's some decent songwriting buried under the questionable production. "Weight of the World" and "Hard Luck Stories", in particular, could potentially benefit from a less digital makeover. And on two tracks Young uses the San Francisco Boys Chorus to fine effect, a welcome curve ball in the monochromatic production.

Fortunately, Lucky Thirteen doesn't use up the album's best song, so I can post it here: "Violent Side" is a fine example of both points mentioned above: well-written song, nice use of the choir. I'm also posting "Hard Luck Stories" because it has the most immediately accessible melody on the album, and I like the way it clashes with the lyrics. Hate that fake-ass slap bass that opens it, but you take the highlights where you can on an album like this. Is it catchy or irritating? You decide.

One track Young did include on Lucky Thirteen (along with the somewhat generic hard-rocker "Pressure"), curiously, stands as his most outspoken rejection of his past, a full-fledged refutation of the ideals of the 60s. "Hippie Dream" is simultaneously angry and wistfully nostalgic. "Take my advice/Don't listen to me," he begins. The refrain opens "But the wooden ships/Were a hippie dream", a fairly transparent reference. Towards the end, he explains his turn from the communalism of the 60s to the individualism of the 80s:

Just because it's over for you

Don't mean it's over for me

It's a victory for the heart

Every time the music starts

The dream is over, but I've still got my music (and, um, untold riches, by the way) to keep me going, he says. You? You're on your own. But he knows "It's so ugly/So ugly" and says so as the song ends. It took Young a little longer to figure it out than most, but when he did, he embraced it with a vengeance.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Violent Side" and "Hard Luck Stories"

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Neil Young - Old Ways

This is supposed to be Friday's post; sorry it's a bit late, I've been swamped at work. Hopefully I'll be back on track Monday.

Following the artistic cul-de-sac of Everybody's Rockin', Young continued his playacting ways, this time in a style that suits him a bit better: country. But unlike side one of American Stars 'n Bars, on which Young mined country music's past on his own terms, 1985's Old Ways is pure minstrelsy. Once again, Young strives to create as authentic a product as possible and winds up draining his own voice from the music.

This time around he recorded the album in Tennessee (plus one track each in Austin and somewhere in California: near Bakersfield, perhaps?). The back cover (which is laid out just like a generic 80s country album) lists an absurdly comprehensive who's-who of Nashville talent in the credits: Spooner Oldham, Pig Robbins, Waylon Jennings, even Bela Fleck to name just a few. But whereas one might expect Young to creatively thrive this setting, he sounds out of place in a room full of slick session pros. Old Ways is closest in spirit to the back-to-Nashville experiments of postmodern tricksters like Will Oldham or Ween, and it doesn't seem to fit Young. Like Everybody's Rockin', it sounds just like the real thing on the surface, but lacks substance in the details.

After a decent albiet string-heavy cover of country chestnut "The Wayward Wind" to set the mood, Young immediately begins laying on the corn nice and thick. "Get Back to the COuntry" features a prominent fiddle ensemble between each verse interrupted by an occasional jew's harp. Hyuck, hyuck. Plus wildly predictable lyrics about rediscovering a simpler style (backed, of course, by one of the largest backing ensembles of his career, and certainly the most high-priced talent).

At one point Young seems to express doubts about the exercise: the chorus of the title track admits, "Old ways/Can be a ball and chain". This sentiment would go on to inform (and mar) his next couple of albums, but for now he keeps it straight country the whole way through. To his credit, at least he bothered writing a whole album in this style, rather than padding it out with older outtakes, but most of the songs aren't especially good.

Lucky Thirteen includes the heartbreaking ballad "Once an Angel", far and away the album's best song, as well as the forgettable closer "Where Is the Highway Tonight?" "Are There Anymore Real Cowboys?" is another eye-rollingly corny example of Young trying way to hard, but it includes a guest spot from Willie Nelson, who rules, so that earns it a nod for this post. "My Boy" is another fine ballad, this time sung from the perspective of a father watching his son grow up and wishing the experience could last forever. A bit maudlin, perhaps, but very touching nonetheless.

Buy it... on vinyl... chump.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" and "My Boy"