Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tonight's The Night

As much of a mood piece as it is a rock album, Tonight's the Night is a raw, ragged hangover of a record, an expression of grief for the dearly departed (Specifically, the drug related deaths of Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. And, perhaps, more generally for the loss of innocence of Neil's generation, the end of the hippie era). Recorded in 1973, but shelved by the record label until 1975 because they felt (rightly) that it was not a suitable commercial follow-up to Harvest, Tonight's the Night is the most perfect fusion of content and form in Neil's entire career. A series of boozy-sounding rockers ruminating on drugs and death, the songs are performed in a deliberately roughshod and off-kilter manner. Neil and his backup band often sound slightly out of sync, out of time, or off key. The guitar work is soulful but sloppy. Neil voice strains for notes he can't hit. Sometimes he just speaks the verses, as if he's too worn out to sing.

The result is an album of unbelievable emotional power, one whose broken down sound matches its broken down emotions. I could see how someone might listen to this album and think it sounded like a bad performance; it sorta sounds like last call at Hell's grungiest dive bar. But the roughness is a purposeful aesthetic choice. There is a moment in the chorus of"Mellow My Mind" where Neil flat out can not hit the notes in the song, and his voice pathetically cracks, that is one of the most painfully beautiful things I have heard in my life. The album is even somewhat self-referential about it: "Borrowed Tune" is literally what its title suggests, as Neil steals the melody from "Lady Jane" and croons "I'm singin' this borrowed tune/I took from the Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/Too wasted to write my own."

I'm making this album sound like a chore, but it's not. It's rough and a little difficult, but it's still a great rock album of genuine pleasures. Neil's and Nils Lofgren's solos on "Speakin' Out" might be the most awesome in all of Neil's discography. The album has a certain bar band verve to it that gives the album an ass-kicking drive, even when the material is depressing. Or "New Mama," for instance, is such a beautiful song, that even if its message is a downer (I've never been sure) it redeems its own sadness.

Still, in the strung-out, melancholy world of Tonight's the Night, even a relatively playful song, like the ode-to-drunk-driving "Roll Another Number (For the Road)," comes with loaded lyrics ("I'm not going back to Woodstock for a while/Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie smile/I'm a million miles away"). And its a bitter irony indeed that the album's one honest-to-goodness fun song is a live recording from 1970 of "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown"... written and sung by the late Danny Whitten.

Rating: A +, Neil's masterpiece.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Time Fades Away

Sounds like it was the tour from hell. Neil was on a massive tour promoting the massively successful Harvest. He was uncomfortable with the level of success he had achieved. Danny Whitten had died from a heroin overdose, and Neil felt responsible (he had fired Whitten from Crazy Horse because his addiction was negatively impacting the band). He was beaten down from life on the road and from the perils of fame. So what's a guy to do but cobble together a live album of unreleased, unpolished, deliberately non-commercial songs as a sort of thumb in the eye of mainstream success?

I believe Neil has been on record as calling this both one of his worst albums, yet also a very accurate record of what he was going through at the time. I agree with half of that sentiment. Time Fades Away is rough and ramshackle, a gritty album by a man feeling beat down by life. It also happens to have a lot of great songs on it, which are only improved by the raw, scabrous recordings captured within.

Perhaps I'm biased. Times Fades Away is something of a lost classic with a mythic status, because it has never been released on CD. It shares many aesthetic qualities with my favorite Neil Young album. It is possible that I have inflated the album's importance in my mind. But I don't think so. I think Neil has underrated this album because of its negative personal associations. It comes from one of the most prolific, and certainly all-around strongest period of his career, and I think it stands tall with (or only slightly below) his other great albums of this era.

This is the first album of the so-called "Ditch Trilogy," the start of his dark period, and it works as something as curious transition. It still has some of the trappings of Harvest (like the ever present pedal steel), but it sounds like someone took that album, got it drunk, slapped it around for a few minutes and then threw it on stage with its amp turned up to 11. There's a beauty to the music here, not just in ballads like "Love in Mind" and "Journey Through the Past," but in hard rock numbers like the bluesy title track, or the defiant "Don't Be Denied." Only the beauty is buried under a layer of hurt and exhaustion. It's all capped off by the nearly 9-minute "Last Dance," whose seemingly positive lyrics are negated by Neil's tortured howls of "no, no, no" (and eventually, as he drags the song out, to the more surreal, amusing cries of "negative, negative, negative!"). It's a potent combination: an energetic rock album by a man who sounds like he doesn't have any energy left in him.

Rating: A -


Here it is, the best-selling album of 1972. With its slickly produced, slightly country-infused sound, complete with an omnipresent pedal steel and backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, Harvest represents Neil Young at his most commercially palatable. So I could see why a Neil Young enthusiast might not rank this one up with Neil's best work, arguing that it shows less of his idiosyncrasies or his eclectic range of influences. But, come on, this hypothetical fan I just invented is a joyless asshole. Harvest is pop music at its finest.

From the opening guitar and harmonica notes of "Out on the Weekend," the album establishes a rousing folk-rock sound that is often catchy and upbeat, but with a twinge of wistfulness. The album will always be best remembered for its big hits "Heart of Gold" (a song admittedly overplayed to the point that it has become somewhat more difficult to appreciate) and "Old Man," and a good portion of the album sounds like those songs: fun and lively, but thoughtful. Take for example "Alabama," a song that mines similar material to "Southern Man," but with less self-seriousness and something more of a wink and nod.

Now, just because this was the most audience-friendly album Neil had released up until this point, doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of his offbeat individuality present. "A Man Needs a Maid" is almost embarrassingly confessional (and possibly misogynistic), as Neil fantasizes about finding "someone to keep my house clean/fix my meals, and go away." (Those lyrics almost sound like a joke, but the song is dead serious, complete with apocalyptic orchestra cues). "The Needle and the Damage Done" is a beautiful and affecting song about friends lost to drug addiction. And for sheer oddness, you can't beat "There's a World," a piano and orchestra number with lyrics that sound vaguely spiritual, but the final effect is more spooky than anything else.

So the massive success of this album would, in part, abruptly turn Neil towards his dark, "Ditch Trilogy" period: a deliberate effort to reject his mainstream popularity that would produce my all-time favorite Neil Young album. Yet that doesn't mean that I don't also cherish the clean, crisp, fun country/folk/rock/pop of Harvest. And even if this album opened a few doors for Neil that he may have preferred stay closed, there's a joy inherent in this album that's lacking in his next few releases. And I know that joy never died, because Neil would return to this sound/style at least twice, for two of best later-period albums. But we'll get to those later.

Rating : A

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Live At Massey Hall 1971

Another live album from the Archive series, this one gives us what might be the first peek at Neil Young's dark period. It's only been three years since Sugar Mountain, but what a difference those years made. If he came off on that album as a goofy, affable stoner, he seems closer to a burn-out on Live at Massey Hall. Now, I don't know for sure that drugs had anything to do with it, but he does seem a little worn out, be it from that, or from life on the road, or health issues (he mentions having trouble bending over at one point.) He still jabbers good naturedly with the audience a bit, trying make a few funny jokes, but he's just as likely to ramble on about nothing or mumble semi-coherently. It's a solo performance, with Neil either on acoustic guitar or piano for all the songs, and there's an ineffable sense of melancholy over many of the performances.

I know I'm making this album sound like a dour slog, but in truth it's actually probably the best live release in the archive series. These are beautiful, haunting performances of some of his best songs from this era. With the exception of a rousing version of "Dance, Dance, Dance," these songs are stripped of pretenses, exposing the sensitive nerves beneath. We've heard stellar acoustic versions of "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down By the River" before, but who would have guessed that "Ohio" would work as soulful ballad?

The delightful irony of this album is that more than half of the songs he performs are songs the audience would have never heard before, many of which would end up on 1972's Harvest. So I'm willing to bet the audience, while still enjoying an obviously great concert, was a little disappointed they didn't get hear more of their favorite songs, unaware that many of these songs would go on to be their favorites. And there's no way they could have guessed that these songs, in this mellow, intimate context, would later comprise his most successful, most commercially friendly album. Judging from the performances on Live at Massey Hall, you'd think the songs were from Neil's dark, depressing "Ditch Trilogy" era.

Harvest is (spoiler alert) one of Neil's all-time great albums, but it's great hearing some of those songs liberated from that album's warm, slick production. He does a version of "Heart of Gold" on piano (somewhat awkwardly mashed-up with "A Man Needs a Maid") that makes it sound like a downbeat ballad, and not the classic rock staple that it would become. Other highlights include an earlier (superior?) version of "See the Sky About to Rain," and the first appearances of the great "Love in Mind" and "Journey Through the Past."

(Side note: The album includes not just one, but two extended bits where the audience applauds and screams for an encore. Seems a little self-congratulatory to leave that in.)

(Side note 2: Neil's Canadian accent is unusually thick on this album. Make of that what you will.)

Rating: B +

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

4 Way Street (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

At a gargantuan hour and fifty minutes, this expanded re-release of a 1971 CSNY live album might be too much of a good thing. I tend to be a fan of listening to good albums straight through, but 4 Way Street is overlong and a little shapeless, and thus a bit of a chore to sit through, despite a preponderance of good songs.

The real treat here is that this album came after all four members had released successful solo albums. So they each sprinkle in some of their solo material, and all for the better. Not only do they play some songs together, but they do some solo performances as well. This is especially good news for Neil fans, as it means we get a few choice solo acoustic performances. The version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" on this one makes a strong case that it should have been an acoustic song to begin with. Neil also does a medley of "The Loner," "Cinnamon Girl," and "Down By the River" that transitions awkwardly but shines during the individual songs.

Still, it's all a little overstuffed and maybe a little self-congratulatory. And I appreciate that they threw a few rocks songs on here so it's not all mellow, but "Southern Man" and "Carry On" aren't exactly songs that beg to be stretched out into 14 minute jam sessions, no matter how good some of the jamming is.

Rating : B- , more enjoyable for the individual parts than for the whole.

Monday, April 19, 2010

After The Gold Rush

If I had to recommend one Neil Young album as the best entry point into his discography, I might have to go for After The Gold Rush. Not just because it's a great album, but because it works as a nice sampler of Neil's predominate musical styles. Harvest, being his most popular album with some of his best known songs, seems like a more likely candidate for an introductory album. But I dunno, it's maybe a little too set in its way; it picks a folk rock sound with a slight country twinge and mainly sticks with it. It doesn't give you a sense of variety. After The Gold Rush gives you not only some pretty folk-y tunes ("Tell Me Why") and a classic, blistering hard rock jam ("Southern Man"), but also some melodic rock songs that split the difference ("When You Dance You Can Really Love"). You get weepy ballads ("Birds"), upbeat party songs ("Till the Morning Comes"), even an offbeat piano number with horn solos and oddball lyrics about Mother Nature and space ships (the title song). (Side note: is "After the Gold Rush" perhaps the first song to address Neil's environmental concerns? It will become an important theme on several later releases.)

This is the album that Neil Young should have been: an eclectic, supremely satisfying rock album that draws on a large number of Neil's influences. After the relatively pared down sound of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, this one has a far more layered, rich production. Unlike his debut, however, he doesn't overdo it with effects or throw in unnecessary instruments or vocal tracks; every song is produced and arranged in a manner that suits it perfectly (well, "Birds" lays it on a little thick in the chorus, but I forgive it.)

Front to back, there is not a weak song on here. It's not his best known album with his best known songs, but that doesn't stop it from being fucking classic.

Rating: A

Friday, April 16, 2010

So Far (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

This compilation of material (5 songs from Deja Vu, 4 from Crosby, Stills & Nash, and 2 from a single) is a nice tribute to the enjoyable, pretty, pleasant dullness of the group's overall sound. The best non-Neil song not already on Deja Vu is beloved 7 1/2 minute classic "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," and let's be honest with ourselves: even that song is about 6 1/2 minutes of likable blandness and one minute of an awesome finale. If you're looking for a CSN introduction, this is a better place to start than their self-titled album, although you're still better off with Deja Vu. It would be a much better compilation if they had included "Carry On," but you'll still enjoy it beginning to end. Well, except for the dry heaves you'll get from the lyrics to "Helplessly Hoping." ("They are 1 person/ they are 2 alone/they are 3 together/ they are 4 each other." Ick.)

The best reason to check this out is because it includes Neil's consummate protest anthem "Ohio." The problem with a lot of political music is that, for the same reason it seems timely and powerful and relevant when it first comes out, it seems dated and obsolete when heard way down the line. But "Ohio" is just so fucking awesome that you'll barely give this a thought; you'll be too busy pumping your fist in the air.

Rating: C +, I think a better song selection could have been made to highlight the group's unique talents.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Déjà Vu (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

I can only imagine how weird this seemed to music fans at the time. Yes, Neil Young and Stephen Stills had been in Buffalo Springfield together, so there was likely some chemistry between them. But otherwise, why would the mellow folk-rock trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash, known for their agreeable vocal harmonies, want to join forces with a guy who sings like he's Kermit the Frog receiving testicular electrocution? Perhaps they were hoping that Neil would be missing ingredient that would take their sound to a whole new level. The truth is, however, that Déjà Vu essentially sounds like a CSN album with two Neil Young songs randomly stuck into the middle.

Be that as it may, it's still a surprisingly good folk rock album. Neil contributes "Helpless," a pretty and evocative tribute to his homeland, and the absurdly titled "Country Girl: Whiskey Boot Hill/Down, Down, Down/Country Girl (I Think You're Pretty)," a sort of segmented folk rock suite that's not entirely dissimilar to "Broken Arrow." Neither is a timeless classic, but both are good, especially "Helpless," with its palpable sense of longing ("And in my mind, I still need a place to go/All my changes were there.")

As for the C, S & N portions of the album, my favorite track is by far the opener: Stills' "Carry On," a spirited folk rock number that takes a pleasantly surprising turn for the psychedelic midway through. The album is reasonably consistent, and I would say its main flaw is that its frequently amiable but rarely seems vital. Even songs I really like, for example Nash's "Teach Your Children" or "Our House" are very pleasant but also kinda boring. Their rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" is surprisingly rocking, but a lot of the album is lacking in energy. And Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" is just fucking stupid, I don't care if it's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. So I'd say overall you're left with a consistent, enjoyable album. For old people.

Rating: B -

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Live at the Fillmore East (with Crazy Horse)

This live album, released more recently as part of the Archive Series but recorded in 1970, makes as strong of an argument you'll find for Crazy Horse as a live band. They were still young, fresh and polished, and Danny Whitten was still alive, so they sound more like a tight group of pros and less like the luckiest bar band in the world, as they will on later releases. Neil and co. go on some extended jams here, stretching "Down By the River" out to 12 minutes, and "Cowgirl in the Sand" into a whopping 16 minute colossus. But it never feels draggy or aimless, the album never flags in energy and always feels like it's driving forward.

When I was young, I had some sort of inexplicable bias against live albums. My thinking was, I guess, that live albums had neither the energy/electricity of actually watching a live performance, nor the polish and production of a studio album. And maybe that's true for shitty bands; I've certainly heard live albums where the songs sound just like they do on the album, only worse. But I've come to realize that the joy of a Neil Young live album is that his songs aren't dead, they are still breathing. Neil is constantly reworking his songs for a live audience; turning heavy songs acoustic, or turning mellow songs into hard rockers. And barring that, he's still going to explore the songs, no matter how many times he's played them. I'm listening to his solo for "Cowgirl in the Sand" as I write this, and I can hear him finding new ground, new avenues or ideas in the song he maybe hadn't explored before.

In addition to some excellent live versions of songs from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, you get the very good "Winterlong" and "Wonderin'," and best of all is a rousing version of Witten's "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown," an edited version of which Neil will later use on Tonight's the Night.

Rating: B

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (with Crazy Horse)

Neil Young's first great album, and perhaps not coincidentally his first album with Crazy Horse as his backup band. First and foremost, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is an ass-kicking guitar-rock album. Now, Neil is not some sort of technical virtuoso guitar genius, but he's one of my favorite electric guitarists none-the-less. It's like with his voice; he's created a unique, original sound that while not necessarily impressive on a technical level, blows you away on with its expressiveness. (As a side note, his acoustic guitar playing sounds considerably more polished). More simply put, the motherfucker will blow you away with his ferocity. The crazy, blistering squeals and screams he tortures out of his guitar occasionally border on abstraction, with Crazy Horse dutifully chugging away behind him. The 9-minute "Down By the River" may be the apex of their rocking-out, with its epic guitar solos that sound kind of like Neil was trying to jam as many different notes into the song as possible.

So Neil embraces hard rock and finally makes an album that you'd want to shake your ass to. But that's not the only improvement. I realized going back to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere how solid the production is. Unlike the needlessly over-textured sound of Neil Young, this album sounds clean and stripped down. Nothing is getting between the listener and the songs, and it is some great songwriting indeed. You can also clearly isolate each instrument in the mix, which helped me further appreciate the album's emphasis on riffing and exploring.

If I'm giving the impression that this album is some sort of shapeless jam session, that's just not the case. The songwriting is across-the-board excellent, from the nostalgic title track, to the to the playfully downbeat "The Losing End," to the rousing 10 minute finale "Cowgirl in the Sand." And it's not all hard rock, either: "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is one of Neil's most beautiful ballads.

Rating: A-

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968

A solo, acoustic live album recorded in 1968 and released in 2008 as part of the Archive Series, Sugar Mountain gives us a very soulful, intimate and entertaining look at Neil, as he plays some selections from his solo album and his work with Buffalo Springfield. The result is a far more powerful document of this era in his career than his debut album, in part because his vocals sound more confident, and in part because most of these songs sound better pared down. Not unlike Billy Corgan, another favorite songwriter of mine, Neil has sometimes obscured great songwriting with overboard production antics or ineffective aesthetic choices. Sugar Mountain rectifies some of the mistakes of his early era. Done acoustically, "Mr. Soul" no longer sounds like a ripoff of "Satisfaction." "Out of My Mind" sounds like a Neil song for the first time. "The Old Laughing Lady," without the silly overproduction, finally sounds beautiful and haunting.

Between almost every song, Neil chats/bullshits a little bit with audience, talking about his songwriting process, telling Buffalo Springfield anecdotes, opining about his overabundance of downer songs, launching into a non-sequitur about working at a book store while high on black beauties. His goofy, offbeat, rambling stories are charming and often hilarious... the first time you listen to this album. After that, you're likely to be scrambling for the skip button every 3 minutes so you can just get to the frickin' music already. You might want to put it on your iPod with all the talking tracks removed.

But whatever points I might dock Sugar Mountain are redeemed by its 11th track. "Birds," a short, poetic break-up song (that would eventually show up on After the Gold Rush in an excellent, if somewhat overblown, studio version) performed live here is simply one of the most beautiful things Neil has ever released.

Rating: B

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Neil Young (Self-titled album)

Neil Young's first solo album is solid, if something of an inauspicious debut for someone with such a great, long, diverse career ahead of him. He's definitely thrown off the shackles of Buffalo Springfield and is starting to sound more like the Neil we know and love. He's got his first official epic, complete with lyrics about Indians and shit like that, the 9 1/2 minute "Last Trip to Tulsa." Even though he was still a young man, lyrics in songs like "Here We Are in the Years" are more wistful and have a better sense of life lived, his love songs seem less sappy, and he's got a good break-up song, "What Did You Do to My Life," to boot ("It isn't fair that I should/wake up at dawn/and not find you there.")

There are problems in the performance and production of the album, however. I'm sure I'll talk about this more in future posts, but I love Neil's voice despite the fact that he is not what you would traditionally consider a good singer. But like Bob Dylan before him and Kurt Cobain after, he knows how to write for his offbeat vocal style, and how to use his voice as a powerful expressive tool. He can kick your ass to the curb on a hard rocker, and he can wrench your soul on one of his ballads. The problem with Neil Young is that it sounds like he's holding back on a lot of the tracks; he's best when he gives it 110%, really belting that shit out, and here it's more like he's trying to be tastefully understated. It's kind of dull.

Later in his career, Neil will make some serious, often successful experiments in the production of his albums. Here, he overdoes it in a few places. The worst is "The Old Laughing Lady," which piles on shuffling drums, organs, soulful back-up singers and funky bass over what should be a stripped down acoustic song and turns it into a big mess. I never liked the song, until years later I heard a solo acoustic performance of it and realized how powerful the songwriting was. This is true of a few other songs on this album, and will actually turn into something of a trend in his career: songs improving when he reworks them for live performances.

Enough with the negative, there are still several places on the album where all these elements come together perfectly, and you get a no-shit-for-real great song like "I've Been Waiting For You," which jazzes up a haunting tune with some slick, well-layered (maybe vaguely trippy?) production. I don't spin this one as much as the classic Neil albums that were soon coming, but I've probably underrated it in the past.

Rating: C+, great things are coming soon.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Buffalo Springfield Again (as a member of Buffalo Springfield)

So in a sense, Buffalo Springfield Again marks an improvement for the band. It rocks a little harder, feels a little more distinct, draws a little more from different genres for a more eclectic sound. "Bluebird" is a pretty sweet song with some awesome acoustic guitar jammin', and "Sad Memory" is an extremely pleasant little ballad.

But as a Neil Young fan, this is a major disappointment. Neil only wrote 3 songs on this one, and there aren't exactly any timeless classics amongst them. "Mr. Soul" is a mildly rocking tune, but also an aimless, derivative drone, and "Expecting to Fly" is a passable ballad, but morose and overlong. Only the 6 minute, ambitious, experimental "Broken Arrow," with its weird interludes (breaking into "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at one point) and layered soundscapes really holds up to analysis. You can hear that Neil is further developing his sound, and starting to show signs of the iconoclast songwriter that he'll someday become... but he just ain't there yet.

Rating: C -

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Buffalo Springfield (as a member of Buffalo Springfield)

The biggest problem with Buffalo Springfield's self-titled album is its lack of identity. With the exception of Stephen Stills' zeitgeist-y classic "For What It's Worth," the songs are indistinguishable from any other generic, Beatles-esque, mid-60's pop-rock group. You could put it on for your folks and tell them its The Zombies or Paul Revere & the Raiders, or whatever, and nobody would bat an eye.

Be that as it may, there are several enjoyable, well-crafted, slightly dopey (sample lyric: "so if you want someone to love you/pretty baby, I'm your guy") generic Beatles-esque, mid-60's pop-rock songs on Buffalo Springfield. Neil wrote five of the twelve tracks, and it's no surprise that I prefer most of them to Stills' tracks. Neil's songs don't show much evidence of his unique style or ambition, but in a weird way it lends interest to them. It's kind of amusing to hear Neil adjusting his style (or perhaps having his style adjusted by others?) to sound more like what was popular at the time. He only gets to sing two of his songs, likely because his voice wasn't nearly as, uh, (how shall I put this?) commercial as Richie Furay's. Turns out that Mr. Young does a pretty good job writing this kind of music. They don't quite sound like Neil Young songs, but "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" and "Flying On the Ground is Wrong" are pretty catchy. And damn if "Out of My Mind" isn't a beautiful song that I never really appreciated until now.

Rating: C+. It's good, but there's something happening here, and what it is ain't exactly clear. Yet.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Journey Through the Past: Reviewing My Neil Young Collection

I am a big Neil Young fan. In fact, he may be my favorite songwriter of all-time. Billy Corgan might give him a run for his money, and Warren Zevon has been swiftly moving up my list since I got into him a year or two ago, but Neil's prolificness makes him hard to beat.

In his nearly 45 year recording career, Neil Young has released an overwhelming wealth of material. Being a fan, this means that I own an overwhelming number of his albums. And what happens when one owns so much material by one artist, especially an artist that, shall we say, hasn't always been consistent, is that one establishes favorite albums that one returns to more often, at the neglect of others. Heck, I bet I listen to Neil more than any other musician, yet there are albums of his I haven't heard in years. Of course, as I grow older, my tastes evolve, and now I'm left wondering if I've ignored or written off classic Neil Young albums that didn't deserve it.

So here's the idea. I am going to round up my Neil Young collection and start from the beginning. I am going to listen to each album (likely a few times each) in chronological order, and post a mini review of each one on here. I won't necessarily do any detailed analysis, but I will make a serious effort to reappraise each one of his albums, make a personal assessment of each. At the end of each post, I will assign the album a letter grade.

I am calling it "Journey Through The Past" because it is the name of a Neil song that seems appropriate to this project.

Now, a few notes on this.

For one, I own a shitload of Neil Young music, but it is by no means complete. For example, I don't own all the Buffalo Springfield albums, or all of his live albums, and I definitely didn't shell out $500 cash money for his exhaustive Archive Blu Ray set that came out last year. I may use this project as an excuse to fill in a few gaps in my collection, but there will still be some exclusions. I think you'll agree that my collection is close enough to complete, and I'd rather not spend all my time and money trying to track down a copy of Eldorado, or the soundtrack from Dead Man, or a bootleg of Chrome Dreams, or whatever.

Next, when I say I'm going through the collection chronologically, I mean that I'm going to post the albums in the approximate order that the music was recorded. So this means something like Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968 is going to show up fairly early on the list, even though it was released in 2008. This is in an effort to show a sense of progression through Neil's career. Now, there are a lot of ins and outs and what-have-yous in Neil's discography, with albums sometimes being released in different order than they were recorded, and albums being made up of material from different time periods, and etc etc etc. I'm not going to bust my ass researching this too hard, so I'm sure I'll screw the order up at some point. But it should be pretty close.

Further, I'm not Wikipedia, and I haven't spent much time researching the life of Neil Young. So I'm not planning on spending too much time on context, or anecdotes or anything like that. The posts will simply be my reaction to, and assessment of, the albums.

As for the letter grades, it dawns on me that being a huge fan of the music I'll be writing about, my reviews are going to tend to skew positive. I'm a big enough fan that I tend to see the positive even in some of his worst albums. I realize the grades are going to seem meaningless if almost everything gets an A or a B. So I'm going to try to grade on a bit of a curve to spread the grades out a bit. The breakdown will work out to something like this:

A: Great album.

B: Good to Very Good album.

C: Worthwhile.

D: Not So Worthwhile. (Unless you're a big fan like me and want to hear everything).

F: Just Flat Out Shitty.

So an album receiving a C or C+ would still be a recommendation on this scale, it just means that the album isn't as crucial as an A or B. I may write a few words after a letter grade if I think it requires clarification or qualification.

(Now, the question remains if I will have the nerve to give an "F" to a Neil Young album. There may be a contender or two, we'll see.)

I'm hoping to post about Buffalo Springfield in the next day or two, but I haven't heard it in a long time and may need more time to reabsorb it. I'm hoping to post at least 5 a week, though that may be optimistic. I'll adjust expectations accordingly.

I hope this is a worthwhile endeavor, not just as an opportunity for me to reevaluate the largest single chunk of my music collection, but for anybody who happens to come across this and has a passing interest in Neil's music. But even if it turns out to be a waste of time, at least it will keep this blog from dying.

Here we go. From Buffalo Springfield's 1966 self-titled debut, all the way through 2009's Fork in the Road.

Some Updates Before Embarking On a Large Project

Hi everybody, just thought I'd throw a few random thoughts on here since I haven't updated in a while.

I caught Steve McQueen's (no, not that Steve McQueen) Hunger, an excellent film that I likely would have included on my belated best of 2009 list if I had seen it in time. (Or maybe not. It did screen in limited release in the US in December '08, but didn't become available on home video until this year. Either way its a newish movie worth discussion.) The film is a harrowing account of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, the first half detailing prison life leading up to the strike (both the IRA prisoners and the guards), the second half focusing, in grueling detail, on IRA member Bobby Sands' (played by Michael Fassbender) slow, grotesque death from self-imposed starvation. Amongst other things, the film boasts some very impressive long takes, for example a brutal, extended beat-down of prisoners by the guards, and a bravura 17-minute unbroken shot of Sands consulting/verbally sparring with a priest about his hunger strike. Fassbender, after his small but awesome role in Inglourious Basterds and now this, has shot up the the top of my list of actors to look out for.

The best new film I've seen so far this year might be the Korean drama/thriller Mother. I enjoyed Bong Joon-Ho's Memories of Murder, but was seriously underwhelmed by his beloved The Host. After Mother, I'm finally seeing what the big deal is. Bong's film is strange and idiosyncratic, yet confidently crafted, building suspense with Hitchcockian precision while deepening the story and characters in supremely powerful and unexpected ways. The story involves an overprotective mother whose retarded, 20's-ish son is arrested for murdering a young girl; she believes her son is innocent and takes it upon herself to find the real killer. It's perhaps not a surprise to see how far she is willing to go to protect her son, but what her actions slowly reveal about not only herself, her son and their relationship, but about the victim as well, elevates the film from a great thriller to a complex, heartbreaking tragedy. At time's the film's oddball sense of humor seems to undercut its seriousness and mysteriousness, but then again this kind of impressionist, no-holding-back filmmaking seems to be a common trait in Korean cinema. Best to sit back and marvel at the wide range of notes Bong successfully hits than to nitpick the few he doesn't.

Also currently in theaters is Atom Egoyan's criminally underrated Chloe, a mysterious, fascinating, erotic melodrama with vague thriller elements, which is being misconstrued by a lot of critics as a tawdry Hollywood thriller in the Fatal Attraction vein. (Jonathan Rosenbaum works up a good, brief defense of the film here.) Julianne Moore (on a roll with another excellent performance after last year's A Single Man, and still gorgeous even as she's pushing 50) stars as a woman who suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of having an affair, so she hires an escort (Amanda Seyfried, also very good in this and blindingly, white-hot sexy to boot) to make a pass at him and see if he succumbs. Yes, this could be the stuff of high camp, but as with his (also underrated) Where the Truth Lies, Egoyan brings his mysterious, dreamy touch and precise visual style to the material, cutting through the mechanics of the plot so that the film turns more on the personalities and inner lives of the characters. The film is far more linear than most of his work, and I believe it marks the first time he's worked from a screenplay that he didn't write, but he still returns to his favorite themes (intellectual sexuality, voyeurism and the unearthing of buried secrets) with aplomb. I did not realize it at the time, but Chloe is a remake of a French film called Nathalie... starring Fanny Ardant, Gerard Depardieu, and Emmanuelle Beart in the Moore, Neeson and Seyfried roles. I may have to check that one out soon.

Also in the underrated camp is last year's The Invention of Lying. We've been spoiled by some great comedies in the last few years, and Invention isn't nearly as heavy on laughs as, say, Superbad, but I can't remember the last time I saw a comedy that was so pointed and purposeful. It's not a great film, but its much better than I was lead to believe. What starts out as a more typical comedy with an amusing gimmick (a world where everyone always tells the truth, disrupted when Ricky Gervais begins telling lies) becomes a bold religious satire, essentially positing that religion wouldn't exist in a world without lies, that it is a lie we tell to make ourselves feel good. More broadly, though, the film observes that lies are necessary in crafting a better world. The film is both touching and deeply cynical, often in the same breath.

Finally, as I mentioned in the title, I will be starting a long project on this blog soon that will likely take a month or two to finish. It is not movie-related. I hope to have an introductory post up this week.