Thursday, July 15, 2010

Journey Through the Past, Mission Accomplished...

... Sort of.

With the posting of my Fork in the Road, I have officially reached the end of my massive, 55-ish Neil Young album collection and thus the end of this project. Except that during these last three months, I incidentally ended up picking up a few Neil albums that I didn't cover (the third Buffalo Springfield album, Vol. 1 of the Neil Young Archives, Decade, some other random things) that I should probably address. I'm a little burned out, so I won't be getting to them right away, but I hope to pepper them in over the next month or so.

And if I'm feeling up to it I may, as an addendum to this whole project, post about a few tangentially connected items... including a non-Neil Crazy Horse album, a Stephen Stills solo album and a few other ideas I have. The idea would be to review them on their own merits, but also evaluate/compare them from a Neil-centric perspective as well.

I'd also like to get back to writing about movies on this blog (my original intention with it), so I'll try to carve out some time for that soon.

Fork in the Road

See, Living With War, this is how you do a political album. Fork in the Road is charmingly offbeat in its subject matter, inspired by Lincvolt, Neil Young's Lincoln Continental which he had modified to run on alternative energy. He uses this as a jumping off point mainly to talk about environmental issues, although he does touch on a few other topics. What helps Fork succeed where War sometimes faltered is both the general tone of the lyrics (more playful, hopeful, and thoughtful), and notably stronger songwriting. Oh, and it rocks harder.

I've always questioned the usefulness of rigidly specific political art. Does its subject matter date the material and make it irrelevant a few years down the line? Does the artist perhaps have a further obligation to make the work connect on other levels beyond its literal subject matter? One thing I admire about this album is its acknowledgment of these issues. On "Just Singing a Song," Neil says "You can sing about change/While you're making your own/You can be what you try to say/While the big wheel rolls/Just singing a song won't change the world."

Neil doesn't opt for any Crazy Horse-ian long-winded jams, but the album is heavy on groovy riffs. He brags about his electric car and celebrates life on the open road in the two opening tracks, "When World's Collide" and "Fuel Line," both bluesy hard rock tunes. That's essentially the predominant tone for most of the album, but he strays in a few places. The second to last song, "Light a Candle," is an acoustic ballad; the tone it strikes is a little melancholy, but the lyrics are consistent with Fork's forwarding looking, optimistic message ("Instead of cursin' the darkness/Light a candle for where we're goin'/There's somethin' ahead worth lookin' for").

My favorite song is probably "Cough Up the Bucks," presumably about the financial crisis. It's a little darker and more bitter than the other songs, but also a little more humorous, and the lyrics mainly consist of Neil repeating the title over and over anyway. What makes the song awesome is the music. My words will be deficient in trying to explain the quirkiness of the main riff, but I'll give it a shot: its a catchy hard rock riff seemingly made up of guitar harmonics, distortion and (I'm making up this term because I don't know how to describe it) "muffing" the strings with his hand, and not exactly playing any identifiable chords or notes. And it sounds sweet.

The only really low point on Fork in the Road is "Johnny Magic ," a tribute to the mechanic who put together Lincvolt. It's a little too peppy and corny for my tastes, and features some obnoxious backup singers piping in with "Johnny Magic! Johnny Magic!" incessantly in the background. Plus, every time I read the song's title, it makes me think of the crappy Tears For Fears song "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," and then I have two stupid songs stuck in my head.

Will Fork end up like Living With War in a few years and feel irrelevant? I don't know. Right now, a little over a year after its release, with the whole horrible BP spill bullshit going on, it feels even more relevant than before. We'll see if it holds up. The album and title song's central metaphor says it all; we're at a crossroads and now's the time to make the right choices. And if we make those choices, this album could be a quaint antique in a few years. In which case, maybe irrelevancy would be a good thing.

Rating: B +

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chrome Dreams II

You might be wondering right now, "What happened to Chrome Dreams I?" In a not atypical bout of perverseness on Neil's part, Chrome Dreams II is the sequel to an album he recorded in the 70's... and never released.

You can chalk this one up as yet another in a long, varied, seemingly endless line of Neil Young albums that I didn't recognize as being pretty good until now. It's the kind of album Neil doesn't actually release too often, especially in the later years of his career. Usually, he picks a style/genre for an album and sticks with it, but Chrome Dreams II is fairly diverse, probably the most so since Freedom's release nearly 20 years earlier. It gives you mellow acoustic ballads ("Beautiful Bluebird"), Everybody Knows This is Nowhere-esque classic rock jams ("Spirit Road"), Crazy Horse-style garage rock ("Dirty Old Man"), Are You Passionate?-like soul, and even an oddball piano diddley with a choir of children singing backup ("The Way").

In fact, the album's best song, "Ordinary People," an epic 18-minute rocker (possibly his longest studio track ever) with a backup horn section, was originally written This Note's For You era... shocking, because of how vastly superior this song is to anything on that album. Why Neil didn't release it then, I'll never know, but it's one of his all-time best. It cycles repeatedly through, I believe, only 2 different chord progressions and one horn line, plugging in multiple guitar and sax solos. Each verse is essentially a self-contained short story, with no more of a specific common theme than "people," and lord knows how he remembers all of the lyrics, because there are lots of them. It's hard to pick a favorite verse, but for some reason I'm really fond of the part where he sings about "Downtown people/Tryin' to make their way to work/Nose to the stone people/Some are saints, and some are jerks." Not as good but still memorable is "No Hidden Path," itself 14 minutes long. Together with "Ordinary People," the two songs make up nearly half of the album.

Save "Ordinary People," there isn't much great material on the album, but what I failed to acknowledge until now is that most of it is solid, good. There's not really a weak link on the album, even if there's only one classic track. I very much enjoyed listening through it a few times for this project, and have no idea why I was so dismissive of it back in 2007. The best I can guess is that Neil has many great albums, that it's hard to recognize the positive qualities of an album that's simply "good."

Rating: B

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

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

Seeing as this is the final CSNY album I will be blogging about for "Journey Through the Past," perhaps I should say a few words. If you've looked through this whole massive, nearly finished project, then you've noticed that CSNY albums tend to be rated lower than Neil Young's solo albums. It's not so much that I actively dislike Crosby, Stills or Nash (well, maybe Crosby a little, but all three have made music I enjoy). It's more that I don't like them nearly as much as Neil, and I feel like he doesn't really collaborate well with them. There are some excellent Neil Young songs on the CSNY albums, but they tend to make up some of his most mainstream, least interesting, least experimental material. When he teams up with these guys, it seems to be more for the combined star power than for any sense that they push him into new creative territory.

On the other hand, I think CSN are wonderful performers, especially their vocals, and they make a great back-up band for Neil. During the 3 months I've been working on this, I bit the bullet and purchased Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 (which I may eventually do a retroactive post about, or at least about the Live at the Riverboat album included in it). One of the greatest pleasures on it, no lie, are the live versions of CSNY playing Neil's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "Tell Me Why." CSNs lovely harmonies layer perfectly under Neil's music.

So I feel a little ambivalent about Déjà Vu Live, which should more accurately be called Living With War Live, plus a few random Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. The performances are most definitely superior to the original studio versions, but I'm still not crazy about all the songs. The performances of good songs like "Living With War" and "After the Garden" are possibly their best versions, but two of that album's better songs ("The Restless Consumer" and "Flags of Freedom") are missing, while all the crappy ones are present and accounted for. The CSN songs on the album are solid enough (good performances of Nash's "Military Madness," Stills' "For What It's Worth," and Crosby's "What Are Their Names?"), but nothing essential, as the songs were selected more for their political content than their classic-ness.

With a better track listing, this could have shaped up as one of CSNY's best. As it stands, its an album of excellent performances of inconsistent material.

Rating: C +

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Living With War - In the Beginning

What a difference production can make. Essentially the live studio tracks from Living With War, minus the 100-strong choir, the stripped down sound of In the Beginning significantly changes the tone of the album. The lack of the choir; the grungy, less polished sound; and especially Neil's frail, Tonight's the Night-esque straining-for-the-notes vocals... it makes the album sound personal, intimate, and like its coming from a place of passion moreso than self-righteousness.

The material is still inconsistent, the lyrics still make it too much of a relic. "Let's Impeach the President" will always be an obnoxiously smug song, no matter how its played. But the good songs (especially "After the Garden," "Living With War," and "Flags of Freedom") are even better now, and this is by far the preferable of the two albums.

Rating: C +

Living With War

So back in 2006, Neil Young made a protest album about how much he didn't like George W. Bush. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but Living With War falls victim to the pitfalls common to political music. The most obvious of which is how, only 4 years later, the album is dated to the point of irrelevance. We're living in Barack Obama's America now, so the specificity of some of these songs is distracting; they serve no function outside of their original context. I suppose there's value as historical documentation, but it's difficult to get worked up over the criticisms that don't apply any more.

The other major flaw with the album is the tone of smugness and self-righteousness that infects some of the songs, which is not an attractive quality in music. This primarily manifests itself in the lyrics. Personally, I think political music works best when it comes from a place of passion, or dark humor, or hope. But gloating condescension and moral superiority just make the artist sound a little assholish.

My least favorite song is "Let's Impeach the President," where Neil offers the bon mot "Thank god he's cracking down on steroids/Since he sold his old baseball team." To be honest, though, what really rubs me wrong about the song is Neil's use of "let's" and "we" and "our" and other inclusive terms when, despite the fact that he's lived here for many years, he's not a US citizen. I don't mind a Canadian insulting our president, but I don't think he should be including himself in the "let's." He scoffs about "the days of Mission Accomplished" on "Shock and Aww." He insists that "The people have spoken/You might not like what they said/But they weren't joking" on "The Restless Consumer." And on "Looking For a Leader" I feel that he starts to pander, saying the next president could be "a woman, or a black man after all," a line that only exists to get applause. (Not to mention, why no shout-out to Jews, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims and the countless other minorities who have never held America's highest office?)

Problems extend to the music itself. The album was cranked out pretty quickly, and there's a Greendale-like sense of the music being subordinate to the lyrics. The overall sound of the album is Crazy Horse-esque midtempo rock, with the welcome occasional addition of a trumpet. Okay, but then Neil decided to go ahead and record a 100-person choir singing backup for all of the songs. Even ignoring the fact that it adds to the album's sometimes self-righteous tone (as it's, I can only assume, supposed to be the voice of America joining Neil in speakin' out), it just sounds like shit. It doesn't match the album's grungy, low-fi sound, and is awkwardly layered in under all the fuzz. It has the grating quality of one of those Kidz Bop albums they always used to show commercials for on TV; tuneless, homogenized and obnoxious.

The album does shine on a few occasions, usually when Neil gets less specific and tries to process things poetically and personally (as I've mentioned many times before, I tend to think he should stick to writing inward). The album's opener, "After the Garden," is a catchy and effective cautionary tale about the post-apocalyptic world we may be living in if we don't take better care of the planet. On "Flags of Freedom," Neil sings "Have you seen the flags of freedom?/What color are they now?/Do you think that you believe in yours/More than they do theirs somehow?", a powerful sentiment that seems both more timeless and generalized, and a little more thoughtful and nuanced than many of the other lyrics on the album. The best song, by far, is the title track, a beautiful and moving song about the emotional toll of war that is so eloquent in its antiwar message that it, frankly, makes the rest of the album seem pointless.

Rating: C