Sunday, May 9, 2010

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.

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