Monday, May 31, 2010

Ragged Glory (with Crazy Horse)

So if the commercial and critical success of Freedom helped bring Neil back into the spotlight, the other major event that pulled him from the fringes was the rise of grunge music, a genre whose fuzzy, less-polished hard rock sound owed more than a little to Neil & the Horse. It's not for nothing that he's since been dubbed "The Godfather of Grunge." With groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam acknowledging their debt to him, Neil found himself going from a pariah of the industry to something of an elder statesman to a vibrant new genre. And the irony is that, by releasing a relatively unadventurous throwback album, he released his most modern-sounding album in a good decade. Because pop music had finally caught up with him.

Ragged Glory is your proverbial latter-day Crazy Horse album: all fuzz-heavy, mid-tempo rock songs that doggedly chug along anywhere from under three minutes up to ten, depending on how much jamming Neil and co. embark on. The uninitiated may find the album repetitive and overlong, what with its relatively simple songwriting and production, stylistic uniformity and extended, indulgent track lengths. Horse fans, however, will understand that its not about tightly crafted pop tunes, it's about setting a tone and exploring the riff. The magic happens when Neil scribbles in the margins.

I won't lie, back in the day I had mostly dismissed Ragged Glory as too one-note. No surprise, coming back to it for "Journey Through the Past," I realized just how good that one note is. It's chock-full of catchy, hard rockin' jam songs; to name a few, "Country Home," "Love to Burn," "Over and Over," "Love and Only Love," and "White Line" are all minor classics. The album's one slightly experimental track, "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" isn't entirely successful, but its aesthetic will later be successfully used on a very interesting cover version of a classic folk song on the live album Weld. Ragged Glory is now my vote for the best, late-era Crazy Horse studio album, one that captures their noise and energy nearly as well as one of their live albums.

Rating: B +. Did I mention that there's a song called "Fuckin' Up"? That's got to be worth a few points right there.


The conventional wisdom on Freedom is that it represented a return to form for Neil Young, after nearly a decade of bizarre, alienating experimental albums. The album's sound was something closer to his folk and hard-rock style of yore, with a bit of variety in the songwriting, as opposed to the monolithically-focused-on-one-specific-genre style several of his 80's albums had pursued. By beginning and ending with an acoustic and an electric version of the same song (in this case "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World," Neil's classic anti-Bush Sr. anthem), Freedom seemed to deliberately recall Rust Never Sleeps, an album he similarly released near the end of a decade that signaled a creative rebirth and rejuvenation.

So that's the official story, and I think there's a lot of truth to it. But perhaps overlooked is the fact that Freedom doesn't exactly entirely turn its back on he preceding decade, instead incorporating some of the lessons learned from his experiments. Listeners don't always notice it, because the songs are built on solid, catchy, accessible folk rock foundations. You don't necessarily hear it upon first listen, but it features a dense, if subtle, layering of keyboards and sound effects on songs like "Don't Cry" that's not miles away from Life or Trans. The difference here is that they aren't foregrounded. That's not to mention the somewhat This Note's For You-esque brass section on "Someday," or an oddball cover of the 60's hit "On Broadway" that might have felt at home on Everybody's Rockin' if it wasn't quirkier and better than anything on that album.

Of course, what most folks will agree on is that Freedom features songwriting that is stronger and more consistent than any of his other 80's releases (except, arguably, Trans... although I know I'd be in the minority making that case). The best is probably "Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Part I)," a sprawling, 9-minute, lyric-driven jam that takes a serio-comic look at America, each verse essentially a different short story. My favorite verse follows a cop who gets fed up with all the indignities he suffers, and quits to become a drug dealer, ending with "I get paid by a ten-year-old/He says he looks up to me/There's still crime in the city/But it's good to be free."

So, yes, Freedom is, in my esteem, one of Neil's must-own classics; multiformed and adventurous yet accessible and, perhaps contradictorily, something of a throwback. From the Harvest-esque folk of "Hangin' on a Limb" and "The Ways of Love," to the Latin-flavored "Eldorado," to the off-beat hard rock of "No More," this is a diversified collection of excellent songs that rarely flags and, uh, you know... keeps on rockin'. In the free world.

Rating: A -. Sorry about that last part. I had to.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Dream (as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

The primary appeal for listeners when a band reunites after many years apart is not to hear where the musicians are now. Rather, it's a more nostalgic interest; the desire to relive past experiences. So I'm not really sure what CSNY were thinking when they reunited, not to make a throw-back folk-rock album, but a generic, overproduced, let's throw in too many horns and keyboards and process every single note in production to the point that all life is taken out of the music, 80's rock album. It's got the stink of Long May You Run's uncontroversial, unchallenging adult-contempo verve, but with fewer of that album's redeeming features. This is likely because, looking at the production credits, American Dream appears to be less CSNY and more The Stills-Young Band featuring Special Guest Graham Nash and a half-assed cameo by David Crosby.

I know I'm probably sounding like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, after professing amusement at Landing On Water's similarly overwrought production. To be fair to CSNY, they were probably aiming for Peter Gabriel-quality production, but the final result sounds more like Starship than anything else. Sometimes the over-tracked gloss smooths over the more risible elements of the album, in that some of my laughter was affectionate and not derisive. But the production also has the effect of highlighting the worst aspects of each musician: Young, the misguided experimenter; Stills, the soulless technician; Nash, the unashamed cornball; Crosby, the worthless, fat, piece of shit whose minimal contributions seem like a sure sign that his presence was commercially inspired rather than artistically.

The worst parts of American Dream are pretty dire. Stills' "Drivin' Thunder" is mindbogglingly stupid, Neil's "The Old House" is a ridiculously on-the-nose weepie ("This old house was built on dreams... and tomorrow morning a man from the bank is gonna come and take it all away"). The nadir is probably Crosby's obnoxiously maudlin, naval-gazing "Compass," detailing his history of substance abuse with lyrics like "I have flown the frantic flight of the bat-wing," and "I have seized death's door handle"; he manages to raise self-pity to the level of self-aggrandizement.

It's not all bad. Talent still abounds. C, S & N harmonize well together, and there are some catchy tunes and pretty melodies to be found. Stills can still rock and Nash can still write cheesy-but-effective ballads. I've been hard on Crosby in this post, but his other song, "Nighttime for the Generals," isn't half-bad.

On the Neil side of things, he supplies a few thoroughly acceptable songs (the playful title track, the pleasant ballads "Name of Love" and "Feel Your Love"), but no classics, either. And frankly, I think he has to shoulder most of the blame for the album's shortcomings; its his participation that makes this a reunion and not just another of the sporadically released CSN albums. He wrote or co-wrote and takes lead vocals on half the songs, and has his fingerprints all over the rest. That makes him the greatest contributor out of the quartet by far, and likely the mastermind of the whole project.

American Dream rarely rises above decent and frequently dips far below. I don't like to speculate too much about artists' motives when making an album, and maybe I'm being glib and unfair by saying this, but the feeling I get is that everyone left their "A" material at home, and went into the studio trying to score a commercial success by taking their well-known brand and giving it a deliberately inoffensive, mainstream sound. And then they all went back to making music they actually cared about.

Rating: C -

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lucky Thirteen

One thing Neil has proven himself adept at is presenting his history the way he wants it to be seen. The reason his compilation album Decade (which I didn't cover because I inexplicably don't own it) is such a classic is because it's not just a bunch of his singles slapped together, but a varied collection of hits, deep cuts, b-sides, alternate mixes, and previously unreleased material that form a more rich conception of what "best of" really means. Last year he released Vol. 1 of his massive (and perennially delayed) Archive Series, and it similarly reframes his early years.

He attempted a similar feat on Lucky Thirteen, which was released in 1993 but compiles material from 1982's Trans through 1988's This Note's For You, which as we've discussed is easily the most bizarre, most disparaged period of his career. So not only does he pluck out some of the best songs from several critically maligned albums ("Transformer Man," "Once an Angel," "Hippie Dream," "Mideast Vacation"), but several previously unreleased songs as well. The best of the unearthed tunes might be "Depression Blues," a country song from the original Old Ways (sidetrack: the Old Ways that I wrote up previously was actually the second album he recorded with that name; previously he had recorded a different country album filled with different material of the same name that's never been officially released) where his attempt at blue-collar storytelling is actually somewhat successful.

The most telling thing about Lucky Thirteen is that it contains none of the actual tracks from either Everybody's Rockin' or This Note's For You. There's an extended, much improved, live jam version of "This Note's For You," and, more interestingly, a handful of live performances of Neil with The Shocking Pinks and The Bluenotes playing new songs that never appeared on any prior releases. None of them are lost classics by any stretch of the imagination, but the performances have a lot more vitality and personalty than anything on the actual albums he released with those bands.

Neil does a great job of highlighting the fact that he actually had a lot of great material during a supposed creative low point, but he also (unavoidably) highlights how schizophrenic this era was for him. There are many excellent songs on Lucky Thirteen, but it suffers as an album because of how jarring its transitions are. The tracks are sequenced chronologically, so it goes from electronica to country to rockabilly back to country to new wave to Crazy Horse/electronica hybrid to heavy-on-the-horn-section blues rock. There is absolutely no flow to it.

Rating: B -. Maybe it plays better now in the iTunes era of shuffled playlists, but doesn't exactly work as a cohesive whole.

This Note's For You (with The Bluenotes)

The reason that Crazy Horse is the perfect backing band for Neil Young isn't because they are a polished group of pros (they're not), but because they match his noisy, sweaty, jangly, hard-rock aesthetic. Neil, as a guitarist, is neither a professional nor a virtuoso; what he did (that so many other guitarists did not) was forge a unique personal style that, what it lacked in technicality, it gained in emotional resonance. And Crazy Horse were just the right group of raw, unvarnished musicians to back-up Neil's impromptu guitar wailings.

Which is why This Note's For You, a jazzy/bluesy/R&Bish rock album is a bad fit for Neil, not entirely unlike Old Ways. Neil assembled the Bluenotes, a stalwart horn section made up of pros, and mostly they serve to clash awkwardly with their frontman. Neil doesn't have the chops or the polish to play this kind of material with this kind of band; it's like crème brûlée topped with Strawberry Marshmallow Fluff and Nerds.

The songs alternate between upbeat R&B/Rock songs (that all essentially sound the same) and slower, more atmospheric jazzy tunes (that all essentially sound the same). I would categorize the album as "very inconsistent," but what sets This Note's For You apart from other inconsistent Neil Young albums is that, as opposed to being a mix of good and bad songs, this is a collection of mediocre-to-bad songs that all have standout moments. So I might be moved by a horn crescendo on "Can't Believe Your Lyin'," or a line or two of "Life in the City," or think parts of "Ten Men Workin'" are fun, but none of them are entirely successful as songs. Of all the tracks, I would say only "Twilight" evokes the proper mood, holds up as a piece of songwriting and doesn't have any glaring flaws.

The album has an anti-commercialism slant to it, and is probably most famous for the video for its title track, which poked fun at popular music, had a scene where a Michael Jackson lookalike caught fire, and was temporarily pulled from MTV when Jackson's lawyers threatened to sue. But if this minor controversy lent the song a vague air of danger at the time, its not apparent when heard today. Now, the song sounds surprisingly tepid, and its presumably in-your-face attack on commercialism in music boils down to little more than a list of companies who weren't sponsoring Neil ("Ain't singin' for Pepsi/Ain't singin' for Coke" etc. etc. and so on).

Rating C - . An interesting but largely unsuccessful collection of contradictions.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Life (with Crazy Horse)

The final album of the Geffen Era, Life finds Neil at a strange intersection, with one foot planted in the synth driven sound of Landing on Water, and one in the old school hard rock stylings of Crazy Horse. On paper it seems like a jarring combination, but it works surprisingly well, thanks to some (relative to Neil's previous album) understated production, and good old-fashioned sturdy songwriting.

The major difference between Life and Landing On Water is that one is synth-based, and the other is synth-enriched. Most or all of the songs on Landing were very much based around the electronic contributions; the synthesizers were often the dominant instrument and contributed to the melody as well as the rhythm. Life, on the other hand, was (if I am not mistaken) recorded from live Crazy Horse rock 'n roll performances, with many of the keyboard tracks more subtly added in the studio. The synths are used, for better or for worse, to spice things up; even a mellow, almost folksy throwback tune like "Long Walk Home" has a layer of synth-horn fuzz and sound effects.

The obvious classic here is the opening track "Mideast Vacation," a moody, surreal, and hilarious parody of American jingoism, with choice lyrics like "I was Rambo in the disco/I was shooting to the beat/When they burned me in effigy/My vacation was complete." Neil must have been trying to make amends for his (perceived?) support of Reagan on Hawks & Doves, because the next two songs, "Long Walk Home" and "Around the World" are further critiques of America's foreign policy.

What's cool here is that Life is both unmistakably 80's, while still being something of a throwback. So you'll get a song like "Cryin' Eyes," which with its bass-heavy riff makes me think of The Cure, but then there's also an 8-minute song about Incas ("Inca Queen"), in case you were worried that he had abandoned that kind of shit. The Crazy Horse vibe is still present, especially on "Prisoners of Rock 'n Roll," a song whose defiant chorus ("That's why we don't want to be good!") more or less perfectly sums up the band's aesthetic and finally brings Neil's feud with David Geffen from subtext to text. Hmm, and now that I think about it, is probably a retro-active explanation for why he recorded Everybody's Rockin'.

For some reason, I really latched onto Life back in college, and considered it Neil's under-appreciated classic. I no longer think it holds up with his best work, as there a few too many weak links (for example "We Never Danced," which aims for hauntingly beautiful and lands at dull instead). But it's solid as hell, more eclectic than most Crazy Horse albums, resting nicely between his old sound and his new experiments, and also gives the first indications that his experimental phase was starting to wind down.

Rating: B

Landing On Water

I said a few posts back that Trans was Neil's most 80's-est solo album, but I lied. That (dubious?) distinction belongs to Landing On Water, an album that seems at least partially inspired by the synth-heavy new wave of the time. I referred to Trans as "what 1981 Neil Young thought 2001 would sound like." This one is more like what 1986 Neil thought 1983 sounded like. Gone are the sci-fi elements and vocodor vocals of Trans, but the album is similarly dense with synthesizers (including the ubiquitous synth slap-bass), and has plenty of other 80's signifiers as well: extensive overproduction such that every note is tracked, cleaned up, and processed within an inch of its life; some vague rumblings about the social issues of the time ("People On the Street"); a choir of children singing some of the more dramatic choruses ("Violent Side" and "Touch the Night"). Shit, Neil even name drops Max Headroom in one song. Neil's sensibility is definitely present, but the production and style of the album sounds not so much like his customary folk rock, and more like Tears for Fears' The Hurting.

See, I like Tears For Fears though. God damn it, this wasn't the way this was supposed to go. I wasn't supposed to like this one. I was already mentally writing the post in my head. I was going to point to Landing On Water as the definitive example of a failed Neil Young experimentation, an exploration of 80's recording techniques and perhaps a misguided attempt at sounding current. I'd then go on to praise him for trying new things but conclude that the final result just doesn't work. But then I went and listened to the damn thing and realized that, yup, as has been the leitmotif of "Journey Through the Past," I actually liked it more than I realized.

I don't know, guys. I recognize that the glossy production smooths over some of Neil's rough edges that would best remain rough, and drains away some of the jangly energy of his performance. I know it all sounds a little cheesy and dated. But unlike with Old Ways, I don't think the genre Neil is operating in this time strips his voice from him, and I think he acquits himself well.

And there's a sort of purposefulness to his sound as well. The album is lyrically dark, often focusing on personal woes, societal woes, and the transition into a newer, bleaker era. Neil sings about having to "control your violent side," says that "They all try to help me/but I can't see the light" on the ominously titled "I've Got a Problem," and tells the listener "Don't tell me hard luck stories/And I won't tell you mine." Most pointedly, he seems to directly criticize CSNY on "Hippie Dream," referencing "Wooden Ships" in the chorus ("But the wooden ships/Were just a hippie dream/Capsized in excess/If you know what I mean"). The synths not only add a vaguely Depeche Mode-ian gloomy atmosphere, but represent a deliberate break with his past, the death of the "hippie dream."

I swear, I'm trying to be critical. But I'm also not going to be unduly hard on something just for the sake of variety. It's not a great album, but I like Landing On Water. It's sonically experimental, lyrically provocative and reasonably well-crafted. And yes, I do enjoy the novelty of hearing Neil embrace his inner Prince and track on a bunch of synthesized bass.

Rating: B -

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Old Ways

Neil yet again zags when you think he's going to zig, this time releasing a straight-up, old-fashioned country album. Of course, Neil always had a little country in him, but the operative word there is "little." It was never his predominant style, just a flavor he threw in every now and again. There is some strong songwriting here and there on Old Ways, but what I'm getting at is that it has some serious conceptual flaws. I just don't think Neil is well suited to country music.

This probably explains all the ringers on the album, most notably Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings providing vocals. Neil just doesn't sound very country, and I think the rigid format of the genre stifles his uniqueness. The album is overproduced and corny in places, but worse its at times generic. There's no essential Neil Young-ness to "California Sunset" or his cover of "The Wayward Wind." When he tries to be more of himself, say on the bizarre, kinda cool "Mifits," a quirky orchestral number with stream-of-conscious lyrics about outer space, Kennedy, Mohammed Ali, and see-through hookers, the result sticks out like a sore thumb. On the upside, at least he doesn't resort to irony like on Everybody's Rockin'. (Well, not too much anyway. That Jew's Harp does seem awfully conspicuous on "Get Back to the Country.")

Of course, I'm not really a fan of the genre, so I could just be an asshole here. But my understanding of the appeal of country is that the most important element is in the lyrics. Most country music I'm familiar with is heavy on storytelling. The lyrics tend to be very literal and directly appeal to the emotions. Neil, in my esteem, has rarely been good at literalism. His lyrics tend to be personal and a little obscure, and his attempts here to change his style are mixed.

Probably my favorite song on Old Ways is "Once an Angel," a pretty simple, sweet love song ("Once an angel/Always an angel/You're as close to heaven/As I'll ever be") that plays to Neil's strengths. There are definitely some clever lines spread around the album ("The economy was so bad/I had to lay myself off"); too often, though, Neil fails to connect, resulting in an overabundance of tedium. Or, I hate to say it, outright cornball sentimentality, as on "My Boy," a painfully earnest song about his son that kind of makes me want to gag every time I hear it.

To reiterate, there is some tight craftsmanship on several of the songs. There is definitely a sense of fun here, particularly in the Jennings and Nelson duets. But I have to admit that I'm not a fan of the general aesthetics of country music, and although Neil pens several memorable melodies, the genre muffles a lot of his best attributes. This is not a bad album by any means, it's pleasant and catchy, and in fact probably better all-around than I previously gave it credit for. Yet the clashing of his personal style and the conventions of country music makes it one of his less successful experiments from this era.

Rating: C +

(Side note: Unless I make some more purchases, this post officially puts me past the halfway point of "Journey Through the Past." Huzzah!)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Everybody's Rockin' (with The Shocking Pinks)

Second only to Trans in radical weirdness, there is only one rational explanation I've heard heard that justifies the existence of Everybody's Rockin': that the album was something of a tossed-off "fuck you" to David Geffen, head of the record label that Neil was currently on, who had been very vocally complaining that Neil's last two albums had been bad and noncommercial, demanding that Neil release a "rock and roll" album. How else to explain a short, half-assed, seemingly ironic collection of corny rockabilly numbers, about half of which are cover songs?

I just don't get it, man. I can appreciate that Neil was perhaps, much like in his "Ditch Trilogy" era, deliberately shunning mainstream success with confounding, off-putting material. But the difference is, you know, Tonight's the Night is a masterpiece, and Everybody's Rockin' seems like little more than an elaborate goof.

The way I see it, there are two approaches to making a throwback album like this. You either do it ironically, which really would only be amusing for one song and not for an entire album, or you do put your heart in it and try to do it right, corniness be damned. Problem is, I think Neil attempts some sort of combination of the two. At it's best, during some of the cover songs, Neil maybe captures some of the fun and joy of a genre of music that I'm frankly not very fond of. But then he goes and (lovingly?) overdoes it, tracking on a bunch of ridiculous "Ohh-laa-laa" backing vocals and what not, playing up the cheese factor.

Then, on his original tracks, he tends to lay the irony on thick in the lyrics in such a manner that a 50's musician would never do, signaling the album's inexplicably undeniable 80's-ness. Be it the sexual innuendo of "Kinda Fonda Wanda" ("Kinda fonda Wanda/Cuz Wanda always wanna wanna wanna..."), or the silly political allusions of the title track ("When Ronnie and Nancy do the bop on the lawn/They're rockin' in the White House all night long"), the album often shows itself to be the flip side of Trans; the retro and modern elements clash instead of complimenting each other. Even "Payola Blues," a catchy song which better integrates these elements, kinda blows it with its cornball "cash-u-wanna-wanna, cash-u-wanna-wanna" backing vocals.

Perhaps most unforgivable is the album's frankly shitty production, which further suggests that it was rushed to completion with little thought. There's a weird muffled, cheap, echo-y effect on everything, especially the drums and the lead vocals, that makes the entire album sound like it was recorded inside someone's coat closet, or something.

So, of all of Neil's albums, this was the one that I suspected I might actually give an "F." But in giving it a fresh listen, god damn it, I have to admit that I caught myself smiling at "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes," and a few other bright spots. It's a stupid, stupid fucking album that may or may not be a practical joke on Neil's record label, but I'd be a cold-hearted man not to admit that it is a little fun in its own way... even if the fun is only mild amusement at its stupid, stupid fucking premise.

Rating: D+

Monday, May 17, 2010


The 1980's were a strange time for Neil Young, an era that found Neil often abandoning his classic folk rock sound in favor of experimentation with different genres, instruments, and production techniques. These experiments would sometimes strike gold, but more often lead to inexplicable oddities that alienated much of his fan base. Trans was Neil's most extreme experimentation: an electronic album, densely layered with synthesizers and drum machines. More drastically, Neil used a vocodor on many of the songs, so that they sound sort of like they are being sung by a computer. I'm sure by my description alone, you can already tell whether Trans was a success, or a confounding anomaly.

Which is to say that you obviously have the good taste to understand that Trans is fucking awesome.

Trans is the strangest, most experimental, most oddball, goofiest, corniest, craziest, 80's-est album in Neil's long, storied catalog. It is just the god-damnest thing you've ever heard, in a good way: a bizarre combination of hard rock, electronica, and science fiction, continuing Neil's obsession with transportation from Re-ac-tor. Heard today, it sounds equal parts futuristic and retro; it was what 1981 Neil Young thought 2001 would sound like.

First and foremost, the important and overlooked thing about Trans is just how strong the songwriting is. Even without all the weird electronic trappings, I believe that most of these songs would hold up as straightforward rock songs, based on their lyrics and melodies. And actually, "Little Thing Called Love" and "Hold Onto Your Love" are pretty standard Neil love songs, and "Like an Inca" a classic Neil hard rock epic, just with more keyboards layered in. And even cooler, Neil does an electronic remake of "Mr. Soul," which has the rare distinction of being a crappy song in its original version, yet pretty awesome in the multiple reworked versions he's released. The Trans version is probably my favorite.

But even the weirder songs stand tall as pieces of pop songcraft. There's the dark, satirical, hard rock sci-fi of "Computer Age" and "We R in Control" ("We control the TV sky/We control the FBI"), or the apparently sexbot-themed oddness of the awesome, epic "Sample and Hold." There's also, I suspect, signs of something more personal. The general consensus about Trans is that, if it wasn't a major misstep, then it's an elaborate goof on electronic music. I don't think so. I've read that Neil began experimenting with the vocodor as a way of communicating with his son, who has cerebral palsy, because his son was more responsive to its sounds. I don't think its too great of a stretch to surmise that very vocodor-y "Transformer Man," a non-traditionally beautiful song, addresses this ("Transformer man/Unlock the secrets/Let us throw off the chains/That hold you down").

And of course, you can't ignore the production, which may be the most overly elaborate, absurdly atmospheric on all of Neil's albums. Its often overkill, but in the best possible sense; Neil uses his dense wall of synths to underline every emotion, and every crescendo. I think this may be what has rubbed so many people wrong; it's not just how fucking out-there this album is, but how momentous this album tries to sound in pursuit of its (modestly silly) ambitions. For those folks, this album must seem like an unprecedented disaster. But for those select few of us who dig its idiosyncratic style, Trans is something of a secret classic.

Rating: A -

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Re-ac-tor (with Crazy Horse)

Re-ac-tor, I think officially the first album of Neil's weird, all-over-the-map experimental 80's faze, is many things: the first proper guitar rock album he had made since Everybody Knows This is Nowhere; the first album to establish what I think of as the modern era Crazy Horse sound (straightforward hard rock, heavy on the soloing, rough around the edges, all songs performed at about the same tempo); and an oddball experiment in both hard rock minimalism and maximalism.

To be honest, I returned to Re-ac-tor expecting an amusing triviality, a little piece of quirk better than some of he stuff he put out in this era, but nothing special in and of itself. Probably in the C+ range. Turns out I totally forgot how kickass it is; it's one of the most pleasingly offbeat and playful albums in a period of great inconsistency.

The album's minimalism is best expressed in the song "T-Bone," where Neil solos over the same riff for 9-minutes, and the only lyrics are "Got mashed potato!/Ain't got no t-bone!", repeated ad nauseum. It sounds obnoxious when I describe it, but the repetition is kinda of infectious, and it has a certain uncompromising commitment to its own ridiculousness that elevates it.

The maximalism is best expressed in the closing track "Shots." Layered thick with synthesizers, sound effects, and guitar effects (Neil makes his guitar sound like a machine gun), the song is fitting as the last track, as it clearly points the way to the kind of electronic experimentation he'd soon be doing on Trans. It doesn't go that far down the rabbit hole, though, and still fits into the guitar rock template of the rest of the album.

Re-ac-tor presents its mission statement in its opening track ("You were born to rock/You will never be an opera star!"), and never lets up with the rocking for its entire 40-minutes. From evoking the sound of a train in the awesome, chug-a-lugging riff from "Southern Pacific," to making weird car sound effects with his mouth on "Rapid Transit," what's obvious is that Neil was having fuckloads of fun. It's experimental, but in a playful way and not a challenging one, a collection of 8 superior hard rock songs that finds Crazy Horse steadily, reliably blasting their way through songs hi-and-lo-fi, and all the while Neil makes his guitar squeal in that special way that only he knows how.

Rating: B +

Hawks & Doves

One of Neil's piecemeal albums, this 1980 release is split up into two halves: four acoustic numbers ("Doves"), and five country/rock songs ("Hawks"). At the time of its release, it was somewhat controversial for its supposed support of right-wing values, but as experienced in 2010, I'm not sure much of a political message comes across. Even if the "Hawks" half has some rah-rah, pro-America patriotism (kinda weird for a Canadian).

Like Zuma after the "Ditch Trilogy," Hawks & Doves is a refreshingly minor and straightforward followup to the portentousness of Rust Never Sleeps. This is not the strongest collection of songs Neil ever released, but it is one of the catchiest, particularly on the "Hawks" side. The five songs on that half are all short, sweet, upbeat, and, it must be said, very repetitive. Yet something about the repetition works in the album's favor; the songs have a sense of familiarity that is warm and inviting. These songs are slight, but speak to the power of good, simple pop music: there's the sappy love song "Stayin' Power", the sublimely goofy "Union Man" (which pauses in the middle so Neil can pretend to conduct a local meeting of the "A F of M"), even a more overtly "political" song like "Comin' Apart a Every Nail" is rather generalized and doesn't require much contemplation.

And, I have to say it, the title song, which is the most unabashedly patriotic song on the entire album, works on its own corny terms. Neil belts out "Got rock 'n roll/Got country music playin'/If you hate us/You just don't know what you're sayin'," over some tasty guitar licks, all while the back-up singers cry "USA! USA!" God, I just want to blast that shit at a Fourth of July barbecue.

The album achieves an almost perfection at times in its simple-ism and fun, but if there's one thing that drags it down a bit, its the nearly 8-minute "The Old Homestead," in my humble asshole's opinion one of the worst songs Neil ever wrote. Seemingly, it's a stab at writing a Bob Dylan-esque folk epic with obscure, surreal lyrics. Dylan himself didn't pull it off successfully all the time (I consider the lyrics of "Ballad of a Thin Man" to be some of the worst, ever), and Neil flounders when he reaches for this sort of thing. What you're left with is a long, droning song that never moves or climaxes, communicates nothing and doesn't even build atmosphere.

Neil was on the cusp of the 80's, which was going to turn out to be his strangest, most experimental, least consistent era. But except for some weirdness in "Lost in Space," Hawks & Doves doesn't really point towards this era, so much as it makes a fitting (temporary) swan song for the countrified folk/rock sound of Harvest, American Stars 'n Bars and Comes a Time.

Rating: B +

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Live Rust (with Crazy Horse)

This live album has probably had some of the air deflated out of it by the Archive Series releases that have been coming out the last few years. I bet what was so fucking cool about this album in 1979 was that, despite the fact that the name might lead the listener to expect mostly songs from Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust is an excellent mix of Neil songs from his entire career up until that point. This was not Neil's first live solo album, but it was his first live album that consisted mainly of previously released, popular songs (as opposed to the all-new material on Time Fades Away).

The problem is, in 2010, superior live versions of many of these songs have shown up on other releases. Kinda steals the thunder. In 1979, I would guess it was a thrill to hear these live versions of "Sugar Mountain," "I Am a Child," "After the Gold Rush," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Cinnamon Girl," etc., but nowadays you'd be better off checking out the versions on the archive series, or from the MTV Unplugged version, and so on. On the other hand, the performance of "Tonight's the Night" here holds up pretty strong, and "Like a Hurricane" is an improvement over the album version.

So maybe some of the performances are not the best/most/polished/most soulful live versions available. In particular, Neil's voice lacks its usual punch on much of the album. Perhaps it's not the great, essential album it once seemed, but I think there's enough strong material on here to warrant serious attention. I've mentioned before that one of the joys of live Neil Young albums is the way you'll hear a reworked version of a song you maybe never cared for much in the past, and suddenly it will click and you'll realize what an awesome song it is. I think the winner for "Best Redemption" on Live Rust is the upbeat, rockin' version of "The Loner," which was originally a middling little jam on his self-titled album, that later showed up in a respectable acoustic version on 4 Way Street. Now, given the Crazy Horse treatment, it kicks all sorts of ass.

Though lacking in the poignancy and intimacy of some of his best live albums, I'd say the main strength of the album is the joy of performance it exudes. Even songs I'm not normally crazy about, like "Sedan Delivery," benefit from the live energy. There isn't any goofy small talk like on Sugar Mountain, but there are a couple of odd little interludes (one part where he pretends like its raining, a bit where he talks about how he'll buy an electric guitar when he gets famous, and so forth). Most fun are some of the vocal flourishes that Neil and Crazy Horse throw in here and there, for instance when, during the finale of "Cortez the Killer," everybody adopts inexplicable (Jamaican?) accents: "He came dancin' across de water, man!"

The other fun part of a Neil Young live album is that you usually find a few lesser known, neglected songs thrown in for good measure. I noted earlier that many of the songs can be found on other live albums, but keep in mind that that is somewhat counterbalanced by the presence of "Lotta Love," and a solo version of "Comes a Time."

Rating: B

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rust Never Sleeps (with Crazy Horse)

Comes a Time is a great album, but unlike some of Neil's other classics, there's nothing challenging or controversial about it. At the time it came out, I can imagine that it could have seemed boring, or worse, like a sell-out to some people. Rust Never Sleeps may have been an attempt on Neil's part to fight against claims of irrelevance. He regained some of the darkness, some of the danger, from the "Ditch Trilogy."

Rust Never Sleeps was given to me as a gift by my father when I was in high school, and while I was familiar with Neil's music, it was the first album of his I actually owned. It's often considered to be one of Neil's finest, and I think in a lot of ways that reputation has lead to my not fully appreciating it over the years. I could never see past the flaws (and it certainly has many) to the depth of its artistic achievements.

The album has an interesting structure that starts with solo acoustic songs, moves to some folk-rock numbers before transitioning into some of Neil's noisiest hard rock performances. I believe this is a deliberate statement... it is Neil trying to show some sense of progression from his folk/pop of the past, and point towards the future. It's obvious that punk rock was on his mind; the opening and closing tracks, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," (sort of acoustic and electric evil doppelgangers of each other) proclaim "this is the story of Johnny Rotten." More famously, Neil sings "It's better to burn out/Than to fade away." Neil was only in his mid-30's, and already he was becoming a dinosaur. But he wasn't giving up without a fight.

The earlier, acoustic half of the album perhaps over-indulges in Neil's obsession with Native Americans, and his ideas of some sort of perfect, peaceful society in nature. There's a song called "Pocahontas," and all sorts of lyrics in the first half like "I could live inside a teepee/I could die in penthouse 35," "Burned my credit card for fuel," "In a long and hurried flight from the white man," and so on. Yet there is a real poetry to some of it that I was previously not receptive towards. "Thrasher," for example, is in the tradition of longish, rambling Neil songs that never really build or climax musically, but draw power from their lyrics ("I searched out my companions/Who were lost in crystal canyons/When the aimless blade of science/Slashed the pearly gates").

The most glaring problem with the album may be that, while the heavier, punk influenced material is more daring and forward thinking than the folkie stuff, the second half of the album isn't as strong. "Powderfinger" and "Hey Hey, My My" are excellent, but I've never really cared too much for "Welfare Mothers" or "Sedan Delivery." I suppose they are reasonably catchy, and I like their noise-and-feedback-as-art aesthetic, but they seem slight and silly, sticking out on an album that often feels fraught with self-importance.

Song for song, this is not one of Neil's strongest albums. However, it's far more ambitious than his 4 previous albums, and at its best works as a powerful piece of self-reflection and examination. I prefer the sturdy craftsmanship of Comes a Time, but for all its faults, Rust Never Sleeps is the more interesting, lyrically mature album. I was having trouble assigning it a rating; it's probably in the "A" range for ambition and soul, but more like "B-" for execution and consistency. The clincher for me was "Sail Away," a folksy ballad that would feel right at home on Comes a Time, smack dab in the middle of this odd album, that is one of my favorite songs Neil has ever written. And therein lies the contradiction of Rust Never Sleeps: it's not a great album, but illustrates much of what is great about Neil Young.

Rating: B +

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Comes A Time

Comes a Time may be Neil's best album as a songwriter. His most purely folk effort (with just a pinch of bluegrass and rock), it is ten songs long, nine of which he wrote, six or seven of which are perfect pop songs. Or close enough to it. These are some of his best crafted, best structured songs, with some of his strongest melodies, all with maximum emotional impact.

It's clear at this point that Neil had steered himself away from the misery that inspired the Tonight's the Night era. Comes a Time more or less entirely consists of upbeat songs and ballads; it is not challenging or difficult in any manner. The songs are all pleasant, pretty and catchy. The longest song isn't even five minutes, so there are none of his monster jam sessions or rambling solo acoustic oddities. It's as straightforward of an album as he ever released. And I think that's its greatest strength.

I almost feel that I can't say much about this album. All I can do is list its songs and proclaim that they are great. I'm not even sure I can pick a favorite. I'll think maybe that I prefer the sublime, compact "Lotta Love," but then I'll hear the opening fiddle line of the title track and change my mind. I'll be moved by "Already One" ("We're already one/Now only time can come between us"), then I'll wonder if, in fact, "Peace of Mind" is the superior, sadder break-up song ("It's hard to face/that open space/You know it takes a long, long time").

Shit, even what is clearly Comes a Time's worst song, "Motorcycle Mama," has grown on me considerably. It's a silly attempt at evoking some sort of soulful, badass blues-rock vibe with a corny hook ("Motorcycle mama, won't you lay your big spike down?"). And yet... it commits so completely to its stupid premise that it brings a smile to my face every time. Doesn't hurt that it's real catchy, either.

Neil does an interesting thing, and ends an album of original songs with a cover of "Four Strong Winds." It's a little ballsy too, considering that Neil (rightly) regards it as one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written. It's a lot to live up to, but Comes a Time earns it, and "Four Strong Winds" is the perfect, beautiful, wistful sendoff to a beautiful, wistful album.

Rating: A

American Stars 'n Bars

Neil Young is the kind of musician that's constantly writing and recording material, much of which can go unused for years. So his albums aren't always a document of what he was doing at the time; frequently they can be cobbled together from material new and old, as he dusts off songs he wrote years ago, or recorded for another album and didn't use. American Star 'n Bars is something of a patchwork album (in fact, although its a solo album, "Like a Hurricane" and "Homegrown" were both recorded with Crazy Horse), but a fairly consistent one where the songs fit together well.

Whether intentional or not, Neil had shifted himself back towards the mainstream with his last few albums. American Stars 'n Bars is in some ways a return to country-flavored folk/rock sound of Harvest (complete with pedal steel and backup vocals by Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt), but with an agreeable amount of bristliness creeping around the edges. The material is mostly upbeat and even kind of fun, but the recording isn't overly glossy, and there's a little darkness in the lyrics.

Take for example "Hey Babe," for my money one of the best, and catchiest, love songs Neil ever wrote. Its sentiment "I know that all things pass/Let's try to make this last," is, to me, beautiful; few love songs acknowledge love's impermanence while still celebrating it.

Not necessarily my favorite song, but probably the album's greatest artist achievement is "Will to Love," a 7-minute solo acoustic number with a strange, complex, atmospheric production and mysterious lyrics that uses salmon swimming upstream for a metaphor about... something. The real treat of the song, which doesn't really dramatically climax in any way but rather sustain a downbeat mood, is unpacking all sounds layered into the background (there's a lot of cracking noises that make me think of a camp fire, subtle guitars and drums, and a lot of ambient noise). It could have just been another rambling "Last Trip to Tulsa," but the production elevates it to a spooky, spiritual level.

Also along for the ride are a song about fucking your neighbor's wife ("Saddle Up the Palomino"), some rousing country tunes ("Hold Back the Tears," "Bite the Bullet") and one of Neil's patented 8-minute hard-rock jam sessions ("Like a Hurricane"), albiet one of the few that might actually overstay its welcome a bit.

Also, Neil is a Canadian. What up with the title of this album? Is he paying tribute to American music, or is it some sort of criticism, or what?

Rating: B

Okay, I know, I know. I made a big deal at the outset about grading on a curve, yet I've barely given anything below a "B." I'm sorry. I swear I thought American Stars 'n Bars was going to be a "C" album, until I revisited it and realized that it had a lot of excellent songs that I under-appreciated. I'm fairly certain once we get to the 80's we'll be dipping into some lower grades, but so far I've been blown away by just how excellent Neil's music was for so long. I have to follow my heart, and my heart is telling me that most of the albums have been very good.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long May You Run (as a member of the Stills-Young Band)

For reasons I can't quite articulate, Long May You Run has been the most difficult album so far for me to hash out. I'm looking over the track list as I type this, and I enjoy nearly all the songs on the album. Yet when I try to rank it up against the other albums I've gone through for Journey Through the Past, I feel less enthusiastic about it. Let's try to break down why this might be.

First, the good. On paper, it's a no-brainer that I should enjoy the Stills-Young Band. Take CSNY, give it a hard shake so the weaker links fall off. Neil and Stephen Stills, both around the heights of their careers at this point, compliment each other in an interesting way. They share a similar rock-n-roll-with-eclectic-influences aesthetic, but Stills is all professionalism, smooth vocals and guitar chops, and Neil is a ragged, screaming madman who sounds like he's beating his guitar to death (comparatively). Although at times it does sound like two solo albums shuffled together, Stills adds a little polish to Neil's sound, and Neil adds a little soul to Stills's. I especially like the way their voices sound together when one sings backup for the other, it's a compelling combination of sweet and sour.

On the downside, and I don't want to place the blame on Stills, the album as a whole is a little too glossy and slickly produced, smoothing over too many of Neil's rough edges. As is to be expected, I like Neil's songs more than Stills's (he is simply the better songwriter, in my opinion), but there's not enough of his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies on Long May You Run. It's some of Neil's most sleek, commercial material ever... which means you get a lot of strong, catchy, hummable melodies (especially "Midnight on the Bay" and "Ocean Girl"), but the lyrics are often generic, feel-good nonsense ("In the jungle land/With the sea and the sand/Can I meet you there?/We'll be drinking bananas/From long tall glasses/In the open air." What is this, a fucking late-80's Beach Boys song?), and the songs don't stick with you for long. It's like Chinese food: delicious, but you're hungry again a half hour later.

That may be the main problem with the album, which has made me reluctant to rate it: it's frequently good but almost never great. Even a relatively bad Neil Young album tends to have flashes of genius, but those moments are largely absent here. The major exception is the title track, an ode to a broken down car that manages to be both hilarious and oddly poignant (sample lyrics: "It was back in Blind River in 1962/When I last saw you alive/But we missed that shift/On the long decline.") If it's not an all-time classic, it at least brushes up against greatness.

So how do I rate this one? I would say most of the songs are in the B/B+ range, but some of the aesthetic choices rub me wrong, and it never seems as unique or essential as Neil Young's best music. It kind of seems like it could have just as easily been a Fleetwood Mac album, or any other random group from that era. Where does that leave us?

Rating: B-

(My apologies to Stephen Stills for barely even paying his half of the album lip service. All of his songs here are good. I especially like "Black Coral," although "Make Love To You" puts an image in my mind I would have been happier without.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Zuma (with Crazy Horse)

From the opening notes of "Don't Cry No Tears," it's clear that Neil had turned a corner with Zuma. The choppy, raw style of the previous three albums was gone, and in its place... something closer to an honest to goodness rock/pop album. "Old true love ain't too hard to see," Neil sings." Don't cry no tears around me." The time for mourning is over.

It must be said right off the bat that Zuma is a far less ambitious than his prior three records. For some, it will be a let down that this album has no greater goal than to rock out and slip in a few love songs. But for me, it's a welcome return to Neil's songwriting craftsmanship. The ditch trilogy was often rough sounding (Time Fades Away and Tonight's the Night) or had a tendency to ramble on without structure (I'm looking at you, On the Beach). Zuma is far less polished than something like Harvest, but still mainly features tightly crafted, cleanly recorded rock 'n roll tunes, suitable for mass consumption.

Overall, its an eclectic record, but less adventurous than his best work. It can rock pretty hard (epic jam "Danger Bird" seems like a return to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere guitar rock, the down and dirty "Drive Back" has one of Neil's most badass riffs ever), bust out a smooth ballad ("Pardon My Heart" and album closer "Through My Sails" are both beautiful), and still has time for some good old fashioned catchy pop tunes ("Lookin' For a Love" is agreeably bouncy, although the lyrics are awkwardly literal in places.)

On the downside, "Stupid Girl" is on the whiny and grating side of things. And "Barstool Blues" sounds so god damned much like an electric version of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" (only not as good) that it borders on plagiarism.

There's one reason, however, that Zuma's status as a classic album will be preserved: "Cortez the Killer," perhaps the quintessential Neil Young jam song. It's 7 1/2 minutes long, it's only 3 chords, it has several verses but no chorus, and is probably 70% guitar solo. It may be the first Neil song to really dive into his obsession with indigenous American cultures, telling the story of Hernan Cortes's conquering of the Aztecs. Of course, in Neil's version the Aztecs represent some sort of perfect state of existence, uncorrupted until Cortes's arrival; it's a little corny, but damn if the lyrics aren't evocative as all heck ("He came dancing across the water/With his galleons and guns/Looking for a new world/In that palace in the sun"). It is one of the all-time best songs with a misspelled titled not written by Prince.

Rating: B. Slight compared to his prior few albums, but agreeably (sometimes even perfectly) so.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On The Beach

This whole "Journey Through the Past" project was inspired by On the Beach. Released before, but recorded after Tonight's the Night, On the Beach is the third installment of the so-called "Ditch Trilogy," the darkest period in Neil Young's career. It is held by some as a masterpiece on par with Tonight's the Night. By all accounts, I should love this album, yet I listened to it 4 or 5 times in college, dismissed it as a boring mediocrity, and hadn't listened to it since. If you asked me just a month or so ago to rate it, I would have probably given it a "C-." But it caught my eye recently while flipping through my iTunes, and I wondered if maybe I gave it another listen, all these years later, I'd have a new found appreciation for it. And, presto change-o, the idea for this whole project came to me.

Going back to the album, I can understand why I originally wrote it off. It does not contain much of what you would consider craftsmanship in the song writing. Although the first two tracks (the surprisingly kinda upbeat "Walk On," and "See the Sky About to Rain," a song Neil had been kicking around live for a while) are tightly structured pop songs, but the rest of the album stretches out into weirdness. Most of the songs pick a tone, stick with it, and drone on for a while, not really peaking or climaxing or moving much in one way or another. The lyrics are often strange and meandering, enigmatic, more like on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited than on a typical Neil Young album. No offense to Dylan, but I want Neil to sound like Neil, not like someone else.

Yet, what I never realized before is that, in its best moments, On the Beach captures the same sort of beautiful melancholy that defined the Ditch Trilogy. It's far more polished than either Time Fades Away or Tonight's the Night, but reaches for the same dark emotions, albeit in a more mellow fashion. The offbeat, rambling lyrics work surprisingly well, at least as weirdness, as in the apparently Charles Manson inspired "Revolution Blues" ("I hear that Laurel Canyon/Is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers/And I'll kill them in their cars"). The album's greatest achievements are its two longest songs, which both find delicate grooves and let them play out. "Ambulance Blues" is a strange, stream-of-conscious run through the dark themes Neil had been exploring on these albums, and it has an almost humorous self-awareness about itself and the album's seeming lack of direction ("It's hard to say the meaning of this song," Neil admits during one verse). And the title song is haunting, with Neil addressing his depression and his lack of comfortableness with his fame head-on ("I need a crowd of people/But I can't face them day to day/Though my problems are meaningless/That don't make them go away." That's some dark shit.). It's got some killer guitar solos, too.

Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to tell anecdotes, but I had to pass this one along. According to Wikipedia, Neil and the other musicians ingested large quantities of "honey slides," a concoction of weed and honey, during the recording of the album. Even if that's bullshit, it's a pretty good description for how the album sounds.

I don't love On the Beach and don't think it holds up to other great albums he released in this era. There are a few too many duds on it ("For the Turnstiles" and "Vampire Blues" don't do much for me, and I greatly prefer the earlier, live, solo version of "See the Sky About to Rain"). But I'm glad I went back to it. I appreciated it far more now that I did 4 or 5 years ago. There are moments of transcendent, but painful, beauty that helps it rise above some of its shortcomings.

Rating: B -