When he said 'The trick of disaster', was he referring to Everybody's Rockin'?
Dear ol' Neil - guitar teacher's worst nightmare, hopeless hippie leftover, amateur filmmaker of amateurish films, famous epileptic, unabashed model train enthusiast, abashed rock opera revivalist, antique car collector, unloved synthesizer pioneer, grower of fine porkchop sideburns, former heartthrob, former grunge Godfather, former Canadian, former pothead, champion of disabled kids. For a dude that's no doubt been down more roads and hit more dead ends than the populations of most small countries, he sure really ain't changed all that much from back when he was the tall creep in Buffalo Springfield with the fringed jacket plucking harmonics on 'For What It's Worth'. From the late-60's, Neil's retained a surprising amount - he's still got the same guitar (probably the raunchiest 1957 Gibson Custom ever produced, an unruly little bitch called Black Beauty with a draconian Bigsby wang bar that's been just about worn down to a nubby over the years), the same amp (one particular favorite out of 400-some-odd Fender Deluxes Neil owns that he uses almost exclusively), the same band (Crazy Horse, though he doesn't always play with 'em), the same hairstyle, and most likely wearing the same pair of socks. The man, at heart, is an artistic traditionalist, but he's a traditionalist for one particular nexus of time and space in the late 60's when everything seemed possible. Because of this, his basic touchstones are pretty obvious - folk music, Hendrix-y riff rock, and a cross in between thereof, but he's still able to spin them off in whatever direction he likes, from quiet MOR wuss music like Comes a Time all the way over to extended near-ambient not-so-nearly-listenable feedback marathons (Arc), and even excursions into synth-pop, trad R&B, plasticky 80's slick rock, punk, and rockabilly. (By the way, most of the oddball styles I just listed happened in the 80's, when Neil was working for record company that expected him to churn out easily accessible 'Neil Young-y' records. Just goes to show what you'll get when you think you know what kind of albums he should make better than he does himself. For the most part, you get absolute shit, but we'll discuss that later on.) For the most part, though, Neil Young's career (and most people's perception of it) revolves around the sound he gets when playing his style of electric rock music on his Gibson through his Deluxe backed by the three beer buddies in Crazy Horse. It's ur-rock, deliberate, slow, and astonishingly simple, but as awesomely powerful and effective as a tidal wave. It's the rock band equivalent of a steam-powered locomotive (as opposed to, say, Roxy Music's Concorde jet, Husker Du's screaming road bike, or Kansas's broken tricycle), and just about as Luddite when you get right down to it. Neil's concerts (of which I have been a happy attendee) are simply festivals of chaos, 'noise sculpturing' to a degree where at certain points it actually feels like the locomotive might actually be dropping on you rather than simply screaming past. There's something to be said for virtuosity (of which Neil and his gang have none, at least in the traditional sense - hell, the drummer plays the exact same goddamn fucking drum figure in each and every song), there's something to be said for subtlety (of which Neil actually has quite a lot of, though it's hard for the average person to pick it out at 100 dB), and there's something to be said for writing songs with more than three or four open chords played at 75 bpm, but there's also something to be said for Neil's way of doing things, where things are real, they're made of wood, and they bleed when cut.
Of course, when yer dealing with three chords and an asshole, or three fingers and the truth, or however the fuck that's supposed to go, you run the risk of crossing the line between simple and simplistic, mesmerizing and simply boring as all living motherfuck. The same three chords that hold the audience in sway for 15 minute versions of 'Cortez the Killer' can also make for a self-indulgent mess when not given the full 'genius' treatment that Neil is able, on occasion, to give. His lighter fare is even more dicey - consider that his most successful album is MOR El Lay AM radio rock better suited to asspucker ripoffs like America (the band, not the country), and even some of his better received acoustic-y albums seem to leave the balls at the door. Sometimes, especially since everyone started being all reverent to him again in the early 90's, Young has fallen into the trap of 'acting like Neil' rather than actually 'being Neil', and his albums have suffered characteristically, degenerating into predictability and sad adherence to form and expectation. Luckily, of the course of his career he's shown just as tenacious an ability to rebound by taking a stylistic left turn so jarring and unexpected a Azerbaijani cab driver with Tourrette's syndrome would be proud. One thing's for sure - Neil rarely does the same thing twice in a row, so if you don't like what he's doing now, you can just wait a few years and he'll have ditched his band and begun chasing down a completely different set of ideas. Good ol' Neil.
Still, though, with Neil as with Bob Dylan, it's not really about the music anyway. Well, it is a little bit more about the music with Neil, since does have a characteristic set of styles while Dylan seemed to grab whatever was at hand at the time, but for the most part if Neil had spent the last 35 years rhyming 'change' with 'rearrange', you'd be busily reading a 5-page intro essay about some other random Canadian instead. Like Morley Safer. Or Pamela Anderson's right calf (the only part of her not purchased and installed in America). Or the guy who polishes Santa's sleigh. Though Young absolutely deserves comparisons with Dylan in terms of songwriting, he's never been the crazy professor that Dylan was at his most memorable. Young is more personal, more open, and more potentially embarrassing, while Dylan seems to come holding a sort of message he wants to pass on. With Neil, it could be anything - the man 'ruminates' a lot more than Dylan does, whether it's wondering how trees don't fall down when the Earth spins to asking if your band has begun to rust, he's just a lot less poetic about it. Sure, like Dylan, Young has his share of complete embarrassments, but over a career that's nearly as long as the Man himself, he's got a much higher batting average, if fewer home runs. Neil Young just simply does not have a string of shitty albums anywhere in his career....Dylan spent twenty years trying to dig himself out from under Blood on the Tracks and Desire.
Neil Young, born in some godforsaken place called Canada where people enjoy drinking beer with flavor, eating bacon, and not shooting each other, started playing in rock bands as a teenager in the early 60's, worshipping local idol Randy Bachman and picking out Ventures tunes to play at high school dances and tractor pulls and god knows what else people do in Winnipeg. (Watch cows mate? Dig random frozen townspeople from beneath snowdrifts? Wish they were dead?) One of his more successful early bands was Toronto's Mynah Birds, incidentally starring a certain future certified Badass Motherfucker who would later be called Rick James, and then Rick James, Bitch (I heard he was called just Bitch for a period of time, but that was during his incarceration on unlawful imprisonment charges). The Mynah Birds were perched (Oh Christ AM I HOT TODAY!!) for breakout success in about 1965 or so, but James was a fugitive from the law (having gone AWOL from the US Army), and they ended up busting apart before making any splash (as in a POOP SPLASH! Like from a BIRD!! Who POOP in little slimy PUDDLES!! Birds, you see!! LIKE A MYNAH BIRD!! AHHHHH!! I AM the KING OF THE BELLY GUFFAW I A
I'm not funny at all. Just let me sit here with my gallon of coffee to waste away the remaining six hours of my stupid workday. I should be modeling wastewater emissions, but instead I'm writing a Neil Young intro, which probably no one except for you want me to do. My bosses sure don't. My wife, uh uh. Neil? Probably could give a shit, but would probably have gotten pissed off I didn't call him first and ask exactly how I should do it. But I write this page for YOU, sirs and madam, for the READERS who worship me and call me douchebag on unsettlingly frequent occasion. That and the free blowjobs I get from the whores Chris Willie Williams always hires to come down in Las Vegas at the Web Reviewers Community convention every year.
Anyhow, Neil somehow made his way to California via the Canuck version of the wetback program, bought himself an old hearse, and met up with Stephen Stills and some other fine young chaps to form the Buffalo Springfield in 1966. The Springsteen grabbed some big chart numbers over their short career, and Neil became a well-known fixture of the burgeoning El Lay hipster scene, mostly for his frequent on-stage epileptic fits that made everyone think he was on heavy drugs all the time. After pretty much blowing off the last BS album in 1968, he launched into his solo career by recording Neil Young, which really wasn't much. Later in 1969 he pretty much fell into a bear trap of destiny by picking up his famous Black Beauty, meeting up with Crazy Horse to record the blazing Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and joining buddy Stills onstage at Woodstock for the first-ever performance of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. From about 1970 to 1972, Neil was inescapable. He scored major chart singles and massive-selling albums with superduper gate receipt champs CSNY, recorded hugely successful solo albums both prime (After the Gold Rush) and second-rate (Harvest), and even got in on a Number One single of his own with 'Heart of Gold', which proved nothing except that Neil could, in fact, do anything if he wanted to, even record banal nursery rhymes best suited for craptactular vomit-singers like Linda Rondstadt and have them sell bazillions.
Still, late 1972 marked a substantial change in Neil's outlook. Hippie coverboy fame hadn't suited him as well as it had his less steadfast bandmates in CSNY, and the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry from heroin overdoses had cemented it - Neil had 'spent too long in the middle of the road' and proceeded to 'veer into the ditch' for a good few years. Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and, especially Tonight's the Night are the sound of Neil tearing his heart from his chest, wringing it out, and placing it back again. Compared to the death of two friends, fame and fortune and smiles and light just didn't seem so important anymore. After pulling himself out of his emotional Dresden, he spent a few years in the late 70's retracing some old ground (the Nowhere-esque Zuma, the countrified American Stars 'n' Bars and Comes a Time, and the triple LP compilation Decade) before ending the decade with a controversial but highly appropriate (and successful) embracing of punk rock with the Rust Never Sleeps LP and concert.
So far we've seen Young's 'Golden Boy' early phase (1969-1972) and his 'lost and found' period (1973-1979). It was around this time that Neil quit Reprise, joined David Geffen's label, and started his even-more-bizarre What the Motherfuck? period (1980-1988). Neil went from a wild, poorly conceived shift to Reaganism (Hawks and Doves) to a tossed-off rocker (Re-ac-tor) to a techno album (Trans) to a rockabilly album (Everybody's Rockin' (Except Whomever Is Listening To This Album)), to more dumb rockers (Landing on Water, Life) to pure hardcore country (Old Ways), to R&B (This Note's For You). Hearing the albums, any normal person might think Neil had come completely unglued. In fact, he had, for several reasons. First off, he had decided to devote more time to his home life, especially in the 1981-82 period when he was spending every waking hour attempting to train his young son who had been born with cerebral palsey (a few years later he had another son with the same problem) to do minimal activities. Re-ac-tor was simply a tossoff recorded in the short periods of free time during this period, and Trans turns out to be Neil's attempt to understand how his child must see the world. Of course, Sir Geffen, later the man who encouraged Guns 'n' Roses to cover 'Sympathy for the Devil', inadvertently causing millions to turn away from rock and roll music forever, wasn't having none of this nonsense, so by about 1983 he was demanding that Neil return to 'form' (considering Neil's 'form' includes stuff as pop-hooky and easily accessible as Tonight's the Night and Time Fades Away, this demand becomes even funnier), and suing him for breach of contract when he answered by recording Old Ways, an album mostly attractive to livestock and Amish people who don't own record players. Geffen and Neil finally split in 1988, which Neil celebrated by smoking an enormous spliff and Geffen celebrated by sacrificing another one of his high-priestesses' first born children and eating the entrails.
Neil's fourth period, begun in 1989 with the release of Freedom and continuing right up until sometime around 1999 or so bears a lot closer resemblance to his late 70's work recorded over and over again than anything else. Sure, compared to the snarky malarkey he passed off as a recording career in the 1980's, solid albums like Harvest Moon and Ragged Glory were the mutt's nuts, but in an age where he had been elevated to a sort of Bob Dylan crossed with Tony Iommi, revered by hippies, new traditionalists, and headbangers alike (not to mention being worshipped by the likes of Pearl Jam, which I suppose is like the guy who draws Garfield telling Picasso he likes his stuff), he had quite obviously begun to repeat himself. By the late 90's he had finally clinched it - his Crazy Horse shtick had gotten stale (Road Rock, Year of the Horse, Broken Arrow, Year of the Horse, and, umm....Year of the Horse), his acoustic stuff was duller than a Mormon Super Bowl party (pass the Smarties, wouldya John? And by the way, have I told you how great your lawn looks?), CSNY was a sad joke (Looking Forward), and he had even descended into the same sort of right-leaning bullshit the minute a Bush started stammering in the White House again.
Yup indeedy, things looked mighty bleak there for a while, but Neil's quite possibly begun to bounce back in the last few years, starting with the sheer oddball idea of a rock opera stage show with Crazy Horse about the New Media Reality called Greendale. Huh. I hope it works out and 10 years from now I'm revising this section to describe the fifth Neil phase, that of the cranky old fart who refuses to shut the hell up already. Let's hope, huh?
I guess, in summary, that I'd like you to take a few things away from this intro - first, I do know a bit more about him than some of the people I write about, since I've been a fan for damn near half my life, especially after seeing him give one of the best-ever live performances I've ever seen anywhere by anybody on an episode of Saturday Night Live one night in 1989. Also, I'm a BIG fan of certain Neil Young albums, especially some that a lot of folks don't necessarily like, and find others that a lot of people enjoy to be dreadfully bland, so you'll hopefully get a slightly different take on his work than from some places. Lastly, and most importantl
[ERROR 313: Disk Is Full][Microsoft Word Has Encountered an Error and will now shut down.][That's enough about Neil Young, already, ya long-winded arsehole!]
Capn's Note: There's probably not an Aethiest's chance in Georgia for me to finish reviewin' all of Neil's gazillion and a half releases all at one time, but I'll give it a shot. I DO like the guy ya know. When I get sick of him, I'll stop and do somebody else.
- Reprise 1969
Young was one of those kind of guys who came out of the late 60's that rock critics would later like to call 'Wunderkinds' when they had finished polishing the inside of Jackson Browne's rectal cavity with their tongues, guys who did more than just plucked another blues chord sequence in their bands, instead giving whacked out attempts at Cinemascope Beatle psychedelia like Neil had done on 'Broken Arrow' or 'Mr. Soul' on Buffalo Springfield Again. Neil had been 'the interesting one' in the Springfield, and as such had gotten a wacky idea that he wasn't, in fact, just another whiny-voiced displaced folkie rhythm guitar player with a poor interface between the left and right hemispheres of his brain. Indeed, by 1969 I suppose he thought he was fit to bust out in a solo career full of songs featuring acre after acre of earnest folkie big Chord strumming and rent-an-orchestras, so he sat down with his middlebrow producer and his rilly-rilly important batch of songs and his studio full of absolute strangers to record an album as a trial balloon to see if the whore-bitch would float or not.
Me? I happen to respond to Neil Young with a resounding, jaw-snapping yawn of epic proportions. 'The Loner' is a shot upside the head of silvery, watery guitar fuzz and Bruce Banner/Hulk mood shifts, and 'The Old Laughing Lady' is like the jazzier parts of 'Broken Arrow' all wrapped up tight in one neat, fragile package, and 'The Last Train to Tulsa' is a rambling jackknife of a Dylan emulation, 9:30 of Neil letting his invective fly and his frayed ends peek out for a little bit. 'Tulsa' isn't a great tune by any stretch, and any normal person would be bored to tears by such a huge amount of melodically challenged blathering, but in the context of this highly mannered, overthought album, I think it's damned welcome. It begs the question, however, of why anyone would EVER want to take a train to Tulsa anyway, considering the place is full of only fast food restaurants, former oil company workers unemployed since 1987, and future sorority girls at the University of Oklahoma. You know, all things being equal, I'd rather be in Arkansas.
The rest just about stinks. Half the time, Neil sounds like he's trying out for the Good Time Nashville Sequined Nudie Country Ballad Revue, and the other half he sounds like he's passed out under the board while the Love Unlimited Orchestra plays warm-ups in the background. For one thing, there are an unprecedented two soundtracky instrumentals on here ('The Emperor of Wyoming' and the way too-presumptuous 'Excerpt From the Ballad of Boot Hill', continuing his tendency on this album to champion authentic-sounding locales most people wouldn't want to be caught dead in in real life), when, I dunno, ZERO would've sufficed nicely. Neil may have been in a Ventures cover band back in the day, but there ain't nothin' close to a 'Walk, Don't Run' or even a 'Wabash Cannonball' on here. This sawing of violins and whatever sure ain't anything substantial...this is orchestral manoevers in the dork, thank you very much.
The remainder is gloppy, overwrought ballads and whatever, stuff he'd really never attempt again in the same way. Believe me, that's a good thing. This is most definitely not a 'secret vein of gold' in Neil's career, buried in the place least likely to be found here on his debut. It's lazy, underwritten shit that relies overmuch on the post-John Wesley Harding hippie misnomer that anything with country overtones on it was somehow deliciously 'real', even when the most jaded, freak-despising rednecks in Nashville were doing much the same thing year in and year out. Lemme tell you, whether it's 'Here We Are In the Years' or 'I've Loved Her So Long', the business that comprises the part of this album I've not yet mentioned is absolute pig slop. What had happened to the cracked little kid that had recorded all those songs on Again, anyway? When did he turn into Donovan crossed with Poco? Luckily for mouth-breathers like myself, not even Neil much likes this kind of music very much, and would return just a few months later with the real Neil Young debut album.
Capn's Final Word: Another one of those albums that would have been forgotten thirty minutes after it was released if it didn't have the name of a superstar on it. 80% of it is no different than the kind of underconsidered, overproduced crud that so many other A&R darlings release every year.
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Andrew J. Your Rating: C
Any Short Comments?: This is a pretty Shakey start for Neil. Two good songs The Loner & I've Been Waiting For You.No sign from this lp of what was to come from Young in the Seventies.
Neil Young has one hell of a bullshit detector, and the motherfucker must've been ticking like Katherine Hepburn on a Ritalin jag after he realized what a pile of slop he'd released as his debut. As a result of his shame, he went out and found what may qualify as the most brontosauran classic rock band of all time, narrowly edging out the likes of BTO or Foghat because those guys could actually play. Okay, so Crazy Horse can play, too. I don't want you to get the idea that they're incompetent or anything. It's just that they're a complete gang of rabid Neanderthals, banging rocks together in an attempt to channel the lost spirits of Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Hank Senior, all in equal measure. Luckily, they swing like an upper-middle-class bourgeois on half a tab of X, falling far enough behind the beat to beg the question as to their sobriety. Crazy Horse, much like Neil's voice itself, is no doubt an acquired taste....it takes some intestinal fortitude to handle the very crudeness and vulgarity of it all, especially if you're approaching them from the relative safety of a Beatles or even one of Neil's more restrained albums like After the Gold Rush.
I don't expect everyone to love this album, but that doesn't mean I can't do it just the same. There's seven songs, three gut-slugging rockers (two of which hover in the 9-10 minute range) and four fairly reasonable country-rockers. Many listeners tend to gush over the rockers and completely discount the country tunes, but I think that's a fairly big mistake. They say the two sides sound like they don't mix, and outside of a general air of barren despair, they don't. But that's just fine with me. I happen to like the contrast between the dim, grimy on-edge fuzzfests and the twoinky country tunes. 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' is southern pride rock four years early, and coming from a dude for whom 'south' means anything warmer than Detroit. This is also probably the most lighthearted tune on here, mostly lent to the goofball 'la la la, la la la laaaaah!' background thingies from the Horsies. 'Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)' is sung as a duet with a female singer (could that be the Robin Lane listed in the credits? I don't really know, and I really don't think I can trust Wilson and Allroy to tell me the truth on the matter), and while the two chords and stately pace might bore some folks out of their britches, I think it's meditative, and I find it heartbreaking. The same goes even more for the violin-weeping reel (waltz? softshoe? God knows...all I can say is that it's in 3/4 if I'm a day over 3 years old) 'Running Dry', on which Neil controrts his voice into the sound of a man being marched to the gallows and the band warbles on an understated, windblown chord or two. This is the sound of the real nowhere, a place where the Horse doesn't need to scream (whinny?) to be heard deeply. I'm also able to enjoy half-hour modal jam workouts by the Grateful Dead, so let's just say your mileage may vary. And don't trust the subtitle of 'Round and Round' one bit. Only 'The Losing End' feels like a partial effort, a straight-up country-tonker that adds little to the overall picture here. This is also the reason this album can't get an A+ grade. I still enjoy the crap out of it, but honesty is honesty and a chink in the armor is a chink in the armor. I refuse to give ground on 'Round and Round' being brilliant, but I'll offer this one up for evisceration if I must. Take that, Nashville.
That being said, I can totally understand someone really only enjoying the rockers here, and I can even understand someone not digging the two long ones, you know, if they're big Devo fans or something like that. I have confidence in you, though, to be able to shift into the Young mindset after a careful listen or three, appreciating the fact that though the famous guitar anti-solo on 'Cinnamon Girl' is not, in fact, one note played over and over again. Rather, it's a multitude of notes, each played uniquely, that just happen to be the same tone. I mean, I hate to sound pretentious and all that, but if you can't dig the fact that this is not in any way just a 'one note solo' meant to tweak the noses of the Jimmy Pages of the world, and you can't feel the tension rising in the mounting distortion, you may as well just pick up Decade and be done with it. Of course, I could also accept as an alternate correct answer the fact that this song is actually quite funky with all those off-beat handclaps, or you're just a terminal tube overdrive junkie who needs a fix. But to say it's just 'dumb rock' is not just missing the point, it's doing a little golf-spike tap dance on my music appreciation nerve.
I can't really draw too many tangible parallels between 'Cinnamon Girl' and 'Down By The River' and 'Cowgirl In the Sand' except that the same desperation that went into those three-dozen-or-so notes gets played out over a much longer period of time. 'River' is especially creepy, the line following the title of the song in the triumphant-sounding chorus being, of course "...I shot my baby", begging the question of whether that's why the narrator is "here all alone". Hrm. Whatever...I just sit back and let Neil's stinging leads play off rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten's brilliant stabs and the rhythm section's James Brown at quarter-speed minimalist funk and thank the gentlemen for pretty much teaching me how to play guitar with this tune. 'Cowgirl' is both more messy, more 'action packed', and yet somehow more romantic with it's sweet, sweet harmonies. Hey, did you know Crazy Horse used to be a vocal R&B band? Yup. Then they turned hippie, started taking bunches of drugs, and began to sound like a Gibson Explorer ground up in a wood chipper while still plugged in to the house PA...but they never really lost their knack for harmonies as long as Danny Whitten kept them together. Cool, eh? Their ensemble playing is less intimate than on 'River', but this is a more traditionally melodic song. It's something about 'your band beginning to rust' or something like that, which becomes a pretty snazzy game when you start playing the Where Did Neil Say That Before? game some more albums down the line.
Anyway, this album, to me, is just about one of the best things Neil has done without slashing open a vein first, and somehow he's never sounded quite this at ease with Crazy Horse ever again. Sure, he's as relaxed as a dick in Pussytown on most of his other records, but here he sounds positively telepathic. Perhaps it was old Whitten and his skunky, junkie ways that made this album roll off the lips as well as it does, and the world is a worse place for not having more of him with Neil rather than the much less inspired Frank Sampedro who took over for the man in the mid-70's. This is a dark, bleak masterpiece, and one of the places where I can sure say that I may be in the vast minority for enjoying damn near every second without much reservation.
Capn's Final Word: Considering what came directly before and after this, you have to wonder if there was something in the air when Neil hooked up with the Horse for the first time.
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After the Gold Rush
- Reprise 1970
This is the return of Neil 'the Golden Boy' Young, the New Dylan, the West Coast El Lay songwriter with the marginal dark side who hung out with Linda Rondstadt and James Taylor and other highfalootin' lowlifes such as these who crawled around Laurel Canyon. Hell, around this time Neil was dating a bonafide movie starlet, as if his name was That Pretentious Fucker From Coldplay or something like that. Yup, Neil was out to Conquer the World between 1970 and 1972, to take the inspirational jet fuel that the quickie with Crazy Horse gave him (the Horse is the band here, too, but outside of 'Southern Man' and a couple of others, ya coulda fooled me) and use it to shoot his way across the universe with C, S, and N, in the meantime recording one of his still most well-respected albums of all time, After the Goldrush. Unlike Neil Young, this is more of a legitimate acousticky singer-songwriter album than a product of too much stoned study of Earnest Tubb records, and many people find comfort in that. In fact, I'd say that for a lot of people who were young wusses in the early 70's, this and Harvest (and Déjà vu) are Neil Young, and the rest is a bunch of stupid, useless fucking around. And who's to argue? He sings with feeling! He keeps the whining to a minimum! There are legitimate love songs on here! Oh, gosh, but it does kick the Don Cheadle out of James Taylor or the early Eagles, and for that I'm a thankful man.
It's just that too damn much of it sounds like the aural version of a Hallmark card, especially coming from Neil. Let me explain...Neil's melodies have always been sing-songy, almost like children's tunes, especially his acoustic stuff. That hasn't changed in the thirty-five years since the release of this record and I doubt it ever really will. The thing is, his messages and atmospheres are usually a little more resilient than the plastic coffeehouse pastiches played out on 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', the ridiculously tossed-off 'Til the Morning Comes', 'Tell Me Why' or 'I Believe In You', songs that lack any sort of bite outside of a couple of minor chords (always gently strummed...gently, gently, gentlemen...) thrown in here and there to make sure it doesn't sound too much like a campfire singalong. His cover of Don Gibson's 'Oh Lonesome Me' has so much more weight ('flirting with all the boyssss...with her charms...') than the rest of these sapfests it makes me wonder about Neil's motives. Was he, by playing all these twee love songs, warming up for what he was sure to be a huge jackpot album and tour with CSN?
Don't take it that just because the song is quiet, therefore I don't like it. I think the title track demands complete attention, Neil's impressionistic circusfreak lyrics belying absolute clarity of intention ('I was hoping for replacement when the sun burst through the sky'), and, probably most of all, a feeling of weight. The best song on the album? The slightly harder acoustic mugging of 'Don't Let It Bring You Down', best described as a cynical punch in the stomach. The title is used less as a form of encouragement than an admonishment of silly empathy. It's as if he's telling you 'the dead man lying by the side of the road' or 'the sirens wailing' never concern you unless they inconvenience you anyway, so you shouldn't, for God's sake, attempt to empathize. 'It's only castles burning', so pass on by and return to your safe worldview as soon as possible. At least, that's what I feel from this song. The simple fact that you might feel something completely different is testament to the brilliance of it. There is a sad number of places on the rest of this record where that sort of complexity of message simply isn't there.
One of those is 'Southern Man', which I find to be quite interesting (if godawful ugly) musically and melodically, but dangerously sensationalist lyrically. If you don't know, this is the infamous 'screaming and bullwhips cracking' anti-lynching tirade from ol' Neil, executing (no pun intended, seriously) the firey, raging night-time vibe brilliantly, but still giving the subject sort of a monster-movie treatment. Coming from an obvious outsider like Neil, it's understandable why Ronnie Van Zandt might take offence at this kind of slam. Then again, you could ask how some of those black folks felt about the situation IF THEY HADN'T BEEN MURDERED BY WHITE PEOPLE. Okay, I'll just call it a bit too acidic and manipulative and call it even. The other side of the coin, the heavy but accessible 'When You Dance I Can Really Love' is a standard Crazy Horse 'upbeat rocker', something they'd begin to manufacture in bulk by the mid-70's. They never put the same amount of attention to the melodies in these kinds of songs as they did their 'epics', but this is still a hooky little fucker, and in the midst of more dreary acoustic crud like 'Birds', I'm happy it's here.
I suppose I'm just a little perplexed by this album and the heaps of praise it usually gets. Is it because Neil does, at least on paper, a lot of different things here? He does social commentary, he does love songs, he does some silliness (and 'Cripple Creek Ferry' ain't nuthin' but that), he does acerbic rock and he does smooth 'n' easy singer songwriter. I buy roughly half of it, and think that most of the people who score this near-perfectly are following along with the tide. To me, the gulf between the melodically pleasant but absolutely shallow ones and the deep, thoughtful ones is a little too wide to call it one of his best works. It's also just too cleaaannnnn for me to get much chewin' out of. Gimme some gristle, Neil.
Capn's Final Word: Neil needs to be grounded to be any good, and right about now he was so right for the times that no one realised he wasn't at his best.
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- Reprise 1972
People have been calling this beigist stinkheap a classic for so long now, some of us have started to believe it. Don't fucking do it, too - the critics knew this was lame in 1972 (the Creem review of it was yet another classic), and anyone with two ears and any familiarity at all with the true classics in Neil's catalogue will be able to tell Harvest is the product of a man who'd gladly sold himself out for the big bucks the middle of the road promised. This one, more that anything, feels like the album Neil owed to all the folks who bought into the hugely popular CSNY/After the Gold Rush Happy Hippy Early 70's Smilefest that Neil was an integral part of - the veritable flipside both of the artistic, imagined darkness of Nowhere and the real-life rollercoaster that would be soon coming. The main thrust behind this album appears to be No Sharp Corners - just smooth, easy goin' down, fizzy, low-carb, water-filtered, ultralight, sugar-free folk-pop from here Til Tuesday, and not one single ugly blonde insufferable lesbian songwriter anywhere to be seen. The first goddamn line of the album is 'I think I'll buy a pick up and take it down to L.A.', played over a Cuntry-tippity tap strum thingy identical to that which would sustain James Taylor through most of the 1970's and 1980's. It's also just about absolutely fucking identical to the sound on the hit 'Heart of Gold' that I'm assuming you've heard, except without the lead line. Get used to it, because a large part of the rest of the album follows this same formula - Neil alternates between preaching laid-backedness to the choir and watering down some of his previous ideas until they pack as much bite as a lukewarm glass of milk. We'll get back to the lazy-hippie message in a minute, but first I want to ask what the hell he was trying to get away with on 'Alabama'. Recorded with a completely underutilized CSN band, this song steals liberally from the riff of 'Southern Man' while delivering an offensively patronizing message that the 'Cadillac' of Alabama has 'a wheel in the ditch and one on the track ', because 'the white folks tie white ropes while the banjos play' and that the solution is to 'shake hands and be friends' or something else dumbfuck like that. Now, we've already heard what Neil had to say about the South on 'Southern Man', which got by on the sinister, mass hysteria atmosphere. This one is simply a nag, a simpering whine from Neil that two years hasn't healed the damage he so helpfully pointed out just two years before. Either that, or the man was just plain flat out of ideas and didn't want to use the formula for 'Heart of Gold' a sixth time on the same album. He delivers a similarly ridiculous 'universalist' message (thanks, George) on the unacceptably cheap electric jam 'Words', consisting of yet more preaching by our boy about racism and hate while his band the Stray Gators attempts one of the least successful country waltzes I've ever heard. Oddly enough, this never seems to be mentioned as one of Neil's sloppiest songs ever, something the band barely makes it through without disintegrating into a fuming pile of subatomic particles. Neil does his best to snap it to pieces himself, as he gives out one of his most deconstructed (i.e. incompetent) guitar solos ever.
Anyway, let's not get too far off track here. Neil's main message on Harvest is assuredly not one of blubbering social commentary. It's nothing more than laziness. Neil sings of lazy love ('Heart of Gold'), lazy sex ('Harvest' with its 'dream up dream up, let me fill your cup, with the promise of a man' being one of the least exciting suggestive lines I've ever encountered), lazy hippie pastoral fantasies ('Are You Ready For The Country'), lazy doped-up pseudo-philosophy (the vomitessent 'There's a World'), all presented over music somewhere between the Carpenters and the second Eagles album - gentle strumming, baby-la-la melodies, and a highly obvious lack of balls. Sure, 'Gold' has a nice melody, but you know what it is? It's giving the people the easily hummable, 'weighty' sounding music that they wish Bob Dylan would have been doing at the same time, rather than that New Morning nonsense. '...and I'm gettin' old' Christ, Neil, did you have to pull out such an obvious 'clincher' line like that? I suppose it would've been more true to life, if less 'artistic' (not to mention less rhythmic) to say 'I keep-a-searchin' for a heart of gold...and I'm gettin' horny' instead. 'Old Man' is nearly just as manipulative, as if Neil decided to sit down and make a profound statement, and 'old man, look at my life, I'm a lot like you were' was the best he could come up with. Lord knows this is also pretty much the same goddamn tune as 'Heart of Gold', so therefore people recognized it, liked it, and let it hit the Top 40, thus proving to me the world is being run by the same people who barely passed 9th grade health class because 'shower and brush your teeth' was too hard a fucking concept for them to wrap their minds around.
There are exactly two interesting things on the album - one of them is good, but would be improves upon later, and the other is merely weird. The one and only moment that rings true on the entire record is the anti-smack 'Needle and the Damage Done', sort of a mini-intro to the real-life torture chamber of the next three years of Neil's life, before he even knew he was going to live it. It's gentle enough to be taken easily by the same people who thought the rest of this album was just grand, but there's something very disturbing and true about the line 'milk blood to keep...from...run-ning out. Ladies and creditors - your highlight of the evening.
The other one is 'A Man Needs A Maid', really not more than a 'woman done me wrong' song with the added lines advertising for domestic help, but orchestrated out the frig-hole by the London Days Of Future Passed Orchestra to the point that it sounds like it's about something more than just that. It's really not (and his cop-out line 'to live a love, you've got to give a love'), but for some reason I feel compelled to listen to it whenever it comes on. Maybe I am just hoping, a little, tiny bit, that this is going to be the one time the orchestra falls over and crushes our overpuffed hero right in the middle of one of his looooong notes - a mercy killing. But it is not to be.
Listen, this album is listenable, or else it wouldn't have ended up beigifying the shelves of so many people in the early 1970's (though, to think about it, being unlistenable in the Seventies didn't stop that dykey horse impressionist Carly Simon). Some of the acoustic picking is quite nice. It's just that not only does Neil tone down his melodies to appeal to people who probably need help putting the record on the turntable, as he did on Gold Rush, he dumbs down his lyrics in the same way, then insists on presenting them with a sort of weeping Messiah condescension. This Neil would've ground himself down out of sheer insincerity, been ground up and spat out by the music establishment like so many Jackson Brownes or Bob Denvers. You know, I really don't like to wish death on people, especially ones that have done well for rock 'n' roll like Danny Whitten did...but perhaps one of the best things to happen to Neil Young was when his former guitar player sailed out on the Horse with No Name.
Capn's Final Word: Well, Neil, thanks but no thanks. I don't like California, I don't wanna live in the country, and if life was really as bland and uneventful as you make it out to be on this record, I'd have done a little damage with a needle a long time ago.
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WahlstrЖm Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: What the fuck??
This is brilliant!
Listen to the fucking record!!!!!!!
This album is so beautiful!
The only songs thats only ok is Are you ready for the country and There's a world.
The rest is amazing, Neil's best ever!
Any Short Comments?: This album is great! The ONLY song that I don't like is A Man Needs A Maid, which you seem to enjoy so much. I also really like Are You Ready For The Country and Alabama.
(Capn's Response: How many John Denver albums y'own, Naz?)
Through the Past
- Reprise 1973.
This is a little known and little needed soundtrack to one of the movies Neil has made (and, most likely, viewed) all by himself periodically throughout his career. He's got several others, by the way, including something called Human Highway that was filmed in the ridiculous early Eighties with some actual real-life actors, and of course the DVD of the Greendale stage show just came out a few months back. I've just read, courtesy of a highly questionable review on the Internet Movie Dung Beetle, that Journey Through the Past was made up of the usual sorts of tour-film nonsense (lots of footage from the bus window on the highway, rehearsals, no groupies), plus some predictably weird 'sequences' no doubt made as sort of proto-music videos. Hey, remember those? Remember how they used to have different ones? That was before they decided to downsize in the late 90's and just have one to fit all the songs that would ever come out forever more. It made it a lot easier on MTV, since they can just show one single video interspersed between 45 minutes of ads for ringtones and panty liners, then go back to 23 1/4 hours of reality shows about 18 year old college girls with brains the size of Grape Nuts. Lucky for us, the video they chose was a rap video with lots of cars and black girl butt wiggling and not the strawberry-eating scene from Journey Through the Past.
Anyway, since I've never seen the movie and most likely never will (if I haven't seen the Rolling Stones' classic Cocksucker Blues, there ain't a Mr. Mister of a chance I'm going to track down this snorefest.), I'll just concentrate on the album none of you will ever listen to anyway. I mean, unless you use Soulseek, then you can pick up all those long out-of-print albums you see for $35 each in the pickpocket used record shops downtown, for free. All you have to do is give up the jacket art, the liner notes, and any dried bongwater stains you might've purchased at Christ, You're Desperate Record Shop down next to the welfare office.
Actually, Journey isn't a truly awful try at a live career retrospective considering Neil'd really just had 6 years of recording under his belt at the time he put this out and he'd spent the year hanging out with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There's a very generous, Kids Are Alright-sounding set of two and a half inclusions by the Buffalo Springfield - including a snippet of 'For What It's Worth' that bursts gloriously into 'Mr. Soul' from a TV performance and one of those Stephen Stills-sung tunes 'Rock and Roll Women'. From there we focus exclusively on the 1970-72-era pinup-era Neil, with not one mention from either of his first two albums, and not one lousy thing that sounds like Crazy Horse. I guess you give the people what they want, and in 1972 they wanted to hear more nasty, out-of-tune live versions of 'Ohio' and 'Southern Man', and rehearsals of Harvest material, all recorded with the CSN. The rehearsal stuff, especially the predictably nauseating 'Words' and 'Alabama', proves that these songs were conceived sketchily at best, often not much more than a couple of piano chords and a set of lyrics that repeat themselves a zillion times. This being a soundtrack, don't be surprised to hear a bunch of kids singing 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart', some crashing surf that makes me want to pee, a marching band, or what sounds like a meeting of the VFW doing 'America the Beautful'. Neil was an odd dude, and right about now he felt like he could absolutely do no wrong.
I want to make a point right about here - though my grades for the sellout-era Neil Young records might indicate you shouldn't try to hear them, I really think you should track them down if you have any respect for historical context, especially as regards his next three releases. I think it's crucial for any fan of Neil's body of work to hear what his audience expected out of him (and hear the evidence of how far he was to fall) when he went on the Harvest tour and proceeded to unravel himself into a quivering pile of tequila-soaked spaghetti in front of everybody (you'll get more of the story in the next review). See, without hearing Harvest, it's hard to gauge the devastating blow that an album like Tonight's the Night really had (or really would have had, had it come out in 1973 when it was supposed to) Just check 'em out of the library, or something. Pick 'em up in the cheapo 'Nice Price' bins you see around the Best Buy or whatever. Just for, you know, yer intellectual development. And all that nonsense.
Capn's Final Word: Just don't go looking for this double album, f'r the day you find it in a Best Buy is the day that Hell opens up and swallows all the Fundamentalist religious nuts for good.
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Time Fades Away
- Reprise 1973
Okay, so following Booger Harvest's stupor-inducing success, Neil was in major demand as a concert draw in the absence of another bank account-stuffing CSNY tour, so he planned to get out there with his Stray Gators band, the folks no doubt expecting a nice evening beginning with a little 'Old Man', perhaps a swing through 'Sugar Mountain', and then hitting an orgasmic, fluid-spritzing climax with a barnburner rendition of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. You know, music for aging hippies who need to be home by 10:30 so they can be well-rested for another day at the investment firm the next day. See, the '70-72 era Neil was probably best remembered as a well-mannered, freshly shampooed acoustic artist who was sort of equivalent to Elton John before he got weird, singing 'Your Song' on the Dick Cavett show or whatever - an earnest troubadour who fed people's desperate desire to believe that rock 'n' roll could finally separate itself from its chaotic, teenage hormone roots and become buttoned-down and acceptable amongst mixed company.
Imagine what the reaction was when Neil, sauced beyond comprehension, cracked-voiced, and screaming obscenities at his sidemen, came stumbling out to play a set of some of the sloppiest, nastiest country rock ever pumped out of a Fender Tweed. Not only that, he was playing a bunch of new songs no one could sing along with and feel good about. I guess that'll teach you to try and mount a tour just a couple of months after one of your best friends laid himself on a slab with a hot dose. Looking at the Spring 1973 tour setlists, you can see the increasing self-immolation. At first, we have a generally acceptable list of tunes, but as time goes by the worms begin to make inroads, marching into the setlists like squatters into a secluded mansion - 'L.A.', 'Last Dance', 'New Mama'. There's also shocking returns of some of the more dark moments of Neil's back catalogue - 'The Loner', 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere', and...God's knees! 'Last Trip to Tulsa'. Can you imagine the sound of the air being sucked out of the arena as Neil began the ten minute wrist-slasher trip through the stream-of-consciousness asylum of that one? Must've been pretty close to what it would sound like if you drilled a hole in our beloved president's brain casing.
Anyway, the Gators felt they hadn't signed on to perform the soundtrack to Neil's public breakdown, and they began to resist, sometimes right out in front of everybody. As a result of the bad vibes, free-flowing alcohol, and dissatisfied audiences, the concerts were reported to be extremely ragged, especially towards the end of the tour when it was clear Neil no longer wanted a single goddamn thing to do with Harvest. It was part of Neil's delicious newfound sincerity that when it was all over he packaged together a bunch of recordings of the new songs and put them out in a live album called Time Fades Away. This album is the first step to rehabilitating a person who's experienced a violent reaction to the fakeness and insufferable Jesus-complexes of the Harvest era. The first step of recovery is to admit that the country rock of Harvest was some of the fakest, sissiest bullshit El Lay pandering ever put to vinyl by an artist who should've known better, and to sit down and listen to the barreling honky tonk of the title track to Time Fades Away, which ol' Hank himself woulda been proud of. The song also namechecks '14 junkies, too week to work' amongst other highly Highway 61-y creeps and characters that would now populate Neil's songs en masse, though instead of a downer tune, this one makes those fucking dopers get up and dance. Dance like their bones were on fire. The same thing happens on 'Yonder Stands the Sinner', seemingly included to show just how far out of whack Neil's voice could get and still command the stage - here he plays the role of a sort of manic storyteller, a Spike Jones on the box while the Gators play it fast and loose and rocking. Another great party tune. Who said these shows were downers?
The pensive ballads on this album is a lot closer to the Harvest way of doing things, but they add a certain uncertainty and insecurity that got crowded out of that album by Neil acting like Jesus crossed with Woody Guthrie. Stylistically, this is never more apparent than on 'Journey Through the Past', a solo-with-piano tune that seems to tell all of the folks who were sure to be disappointed in Neil's reckless veer towards self-destruction that he needed to do this to remain healthy. This is symbolized in the idea of 'getting back to Canada on a journey through the past'. He mentions his frostbitten home several times throughout the album, during the darkly nostalgic 'Don't Be Denied' when he recalls moving to Winnipeg after his father left the family (I can't remember if this actually happened or not, but Neil was from Winnipeg), and in 'Time Fades Away' where he remembers spending his days in Canada 'in a haze'. There's also several references to leaving home, or returning home from somewhere else, obliquely referring to breakups (which, again, might refer to movie star Carrie Snodgress, who I think Neil broke up with around this time.) On 'The Bridge', another solo piano vocal, he makes a desperate plea that 'we'll build it now' wile admitting that 'The bridge was falling' all along. Compared to the peaches-and-light love songs off of his last two albums, this kind of thing might not be much of a pick-me-up, but it sure makes for compulsory listening.
My favorite two songs on the album are (as predictably as a Brittany Murphy flick) the two darkest and hardest rocking - the sarcastic 'L.A.' and 'Last Dance'. 'L.A.' is probably the best of all, brilliantly combining the upbeat funk of 'Time Fades Away' with one of those complete rhythmic breakdowns into free-space on the chorus that always make my Jimmy jump. This plays as a sort of anti-'Out On the Weekend', where the idyllic hippie El Lay turns into a 'city in the smog' where the 'valley is sucked into cracks in the earth' and every smile is a fake one. Goddamn...how Neil was able to capture the sort of end-of-the-earth blitzed-out crackpot vibe of California so well is beyond me. I suppose the man lived there long enough to figure it out, but man...this is real songwriting. The closing 'Last Dance', one of the few songs on here where the presence of Graham Nash and David Crosby in the backing band is audible (they signed on to help Neil's fading voice and tattered nerves halfway through the tour), is even more insane. Here, instead of the craziness being a city that can't admit it isn't perfect, it's a jived-up Neil telling himself 'it's time to get up, it's time to work, it's time to work' as if he's willing himself through it. The sorrow is so thick you can taste it on this one, which makes up for the rambling lack of true melody or structure. It's like plugging into a bug planted in Neil's skull.
Neil himself calls Time Fades Away 'too uncomfortable' and one of his worst-ever albums. He seems to have purposefully left it in the past as a sort of snapshot of the disarray his psyche and career were in during the spring 1973 tour, which, as the consummate artist, he was very interested in capturing at the time - he never reissued it on CD, didn't put any of it on his Decade retrospective, and, as far as I can tell, never plays anything from it in concert. The odd thing is that, while Time Fades Away is far from being a smooth listen, it's not nearly as harrowing as Tonight's the Night, recorded later in the year. He seems to have retained, at least temporarily, the restraint to release an album that wasn't quite as dark as his soul was, at least on the surface. Digging out all the worms is the fun part of this album, and makes it an integral part of any Neil Young collection.
Capn's Final Word: Neil's stop-motion cinematography of his slippage into cavernous places, at distorted, two-step tempo. After the Harvest, after the Goldrush, comes the heartbreak and the dark, dark winter. Hallelujah.
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Tonight's the Night
- Reprise 1975.
If Time Fades Away was a document of a process, namely Neil's desperate attempt to reconcile his grief, hold together a difficult tour, and keep true to his artistic vision while his viewpoint was changing faster than Bruce Banner standing in line at the DMV, Tonight's the Night is a snapshot of the bottom, seemingly recorded in a single bad night with similarly grieving buddies (Crazy Horse, who had watched their leader pound himself into oblivion before hot-dosing on smack bought with his severance check, and had lost a very likeable young dude who packed up their amps named Bill Berry) and waaaay too much cheap liquor. Everything about this album seems fit to perplex, to grip, to advertise by whispering in your ear very clearly that this is an album about real stuff, experienced by real people, who really bleed. The album cover is a live shot of Neil dressed in a cheap, white suit coat and cheaper huge sunglasses, his face fleshy and beard sleazy, raising his crooked finger as if to say 'Sorry, waitress, I think you brought me the wrong order. I asked for the handful of downers and the bottle of Jose Cuervo, remember?'. The record jacket sleeve itself is a sight to behold - soaked in black ink, a fuzzy sort of blotter paper instead of the slick posterboard stock they usually put on vinyl records. On the band photo, a caption is reserved for Danny Whitten below an empty space. There's a bizarre letter in the liner notes addressed to Waterface next to a picture of Roy Orbison. The sticker in the center of the LP is black instead of Reprise peach, and FOR MOTHERFUCK'S SAKE THERE ARE LINER NOTES IN DUTCH!!!?!? Why the JUMPING HOPPED UP CHRIST are the LINER NOTES IN DUTCH? Please take my advice and find the vinyl. For chrissakes, find the vinyl.
I mean, Jesus. Holy crap. Those who feel the vibe right about now just from reading the factual description of this thing, and aren't just people who pop this one nonchalantly into their plastic Yamaguchi CD player with plastic speakers playing plastic notes like just another Pez out of the Superman head may want to make sure they're prepared before entering herein. There has been so much pussy-assed whining about how 'raw' and 'unmelodic' this album is, complaining that Neil sounds 'drunk' and the think is filled with 'unmemorable' songs, it makes me doubt the credibility of those who share the Internet with me. I mean, some of their complaints are as obvious as the nose on Sara Michelle Gellar's face - of course Neil's drunk. He even makes clear reference to it in the liner notes. The whole band was. It's an Irish wake, fer fuck's sake! The simple fact that Neil was willing to share this very painful and personal time with us is worth some praise. I almost wanted to give him some kind words for appearing so human after the deaths of his former bandmate and roadie, publicly hashing out his grief in a disturbing but ultimately healthy manner, but then I asked myself a question - why is it that it's so goddamn rare to see rock 'n' rollers to act like human beings when faced with something as final and non-negotiable as the death of a friend? Why should Neil be praised for being one of the few artists that dared to express sadness at the loss of some friends? The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead hardly even batted an eye when key, founding members of their bands checked out early (hell, in the case of the Dead it almost became a sick ritual for their piano players). When John Lennon was horrifically murdered, the best George Harrison could come up with was the disgustingly flip 'All Those Years Ago'. Listen, I'm trying not to judge here - I don't claim to know how these deaths affected any of these people behind closed doors. It's just that Tonight's the Night is such a unique album in so many long years of rock 'n' roll deaths, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that most rock 'n' rollers aren't really mature enough to deal with issues like these, at least not using their most powerful tool of self-expression, their artwork.
Anyhow, it's not like I'm saying it's going to be pretty. Tonight's the Night is, in some places, nearly unlistenably rough. Notes aren't cracked, they're obliterated into little shards that are then gathered up and tossed at the control board. Most of the songs are written, performed, recorded, and mixed so crudely they belie the truth - this was a drunken jam on some half-written tunes Neil dashed out on the darker sections of the Time Fades Away tour, snipped and cello-taped into the approximate shape of a record album and then presented to Reprise records with a demonic grin. It's also a near-relentless bummer of an album, with tempos ranging from suicidal ballads ('Borrowed Tune') to stoned dirges masquerading as rock 'n' roll tunes ('Lookout Joe', 'World on a String'). Hell, the one truly upbeat song on the entire fucking thing is an old live recording of the savage rocker 'Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown' featuring the dead Whitten himself singing sickeningly prescient lines like 'sure enough they'll be selling stuff when the moon begins to rise'. Yuppers, in retrospect, there's absolutely no question as to why Reprise decided to pass on this album when it was first finished in '73. No question at all. These people are in the business of selling records, not assisting in artistic suicide, and it wasn't too many record companies that had the cojones to put something like this out on the heels of a good-time happy-face party platter like Time Fades Away.
I think the music on this album is absolutely brilliant, even if the 'melodies' are 'underdeveloped'. Holy motherfuck! Does every album need to be Pet Sounds, or what? Yeah. That's it right on the fucking hammerhead - this album is the anti-Smile. While Smile was an album about keeping a happy face when, in fact, your brain is being hollowed out like a rotten willow tree by the creeping insanity that is holding sway over your personality. Tonight's the Night is about that moment when you hit the absolute rock-phosphorescent fucking lobster bottom, dead wasted and 'trying to put the keys in your ignition' and realizing that, yeah, tomorrow it'll get a little bit better, and then the day after that it'll still hurt like a fireplace stake through your abdomen, but you'll still move on. You'll keep 'mellowing your mind' until the sorrow becomes just another part of you and stops being a cancer on your face. What is the sound of this dead sea trench dark space? It sure as hell ain't orchestras and six part harmonies, that's fer fuckiing tootin'. It's sighing steel guitars, lead vocals so out front you can almost smell Neil's stinkin' breath, nasty guitar breaks, and songs about desolate desert towns and kids who love their Econoline vans.
I feel like doing any of the usual song analyses here is just gonna cheapen the experience of this album, so I ain't gonna go down that road today. You really ought to just listen for yourself. Just keep in mind that two of my favorite albums are recordings as dense and superficially repulsive as Exile on Main St. and Fun House, and I'm a very strong believer, almost a fanatic, of feel, texture, and effect over technical perfection. One thing that I would like to point out is the topography of the album, where the first side is just pain, pain, pain, a descent down the spiral, with the title track being the opening topic of conversation ('Hey, remember how Bruce used to pick up my guitar and try to sing? Man, that was funny, you know? He couldn't sing one fucking bit'), 'Downtown' being the poisonous memory that keeps popping back in your head ('Why didn't we help Danny? Why'd we just push him out of the band like he was trash? Why didn't we read the signs earlier?'), and the bottom coming with 'Mellow My Mind', 'Roll Another Number'. Then, as the second side progresses, there's a subtle shift towards the cautiously optimistic - he finds solace in a place where no one cares who he is ('Albequerque'), and finally feels strong enough to face his feelings completely ('Tired Eyes', featuring the sharpest words of the entire album: 'So you say he tried to do his best but he could not. Tell me more, tell me more...I mean, was he a heavy doper.....or was he just a loser. He was a friend of yours.'). Then it's back to Bruce Berry. But this time it's not just a display of easy pity. It's a celebration. Bruce Berry was a working man. He sang a song in a shakey, shakey voice. Yes, he fucking well did. So does Neil. So does everybody. Bruce Berry, goddamn it. Bruce Berry.
Capn's Final Word: Soaked in black ink, but it may as well be blood and tears.
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Capn's Note: I'm aware that this is chronologically incorrect based on date of release. However, this was recorded before On the Beach, and should be placed here because of its importance to Neil's biography. Now lay off, ya anal-retentive jizzwad.
email@example.com Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: Wow. That's probably the best damn Tonight's the Night review I've read. Too many people tend to dwell on the aesthetics of drunkenness (I played "Mellow My Mind" for a friend a couple of weeks ago, and his response was, "man, that singing's not even ARTSITICALLY bad; that's just BAD.") and miss the bigger picture when they discuss this album. I'm a massive Neil fan, and Tonight's the Night has been my favorite of his since the first time I heard it. It's the greatest album ever made for playing alone in a darkened house late at night, and it never once has failed to give me chills, even with the numerous times I've heard it. Hell, I even did a graphic design project for school a couple of years ago illustrating the surreal "It was a town like Florida in the 50s" hang-glider dream bit in the record liner notes.
I may, to put it mildly, disagree pretty strongly with a couple of your Neil reviews up until this point (well, Gold Rush, anyway, and I think you were a little too harsh on Harvest; come on, it's not THAT shallow), but I thought you fucking nailed this album. Right on.
Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: I just listened to this for the first time...this is my first Neil Young album. I can't do it justice other than the fact that it is more than gorgeous despite the fact that Neil obliterates high notes at times. Wow.
Brent Evans firstname.lastname@example.org Your Rating: A+
Any Short Comments?: This is a rare peek into a grieving soul and it's a dark sight indeed.The first time an Irish wake was translated into rock'n'roll.Neil & the Horse are fluffing notes and their voices are cracking. . .and they don't give a damn! A few years ago,when I went to see 'Jerry Maguire' and 'World On A String' came on just as Jerry's world was collapsing, a big grin spread across my face and I thought "What a perfectly fitting song". So what if it sounds raw and undrproduced; that's the point. A perfect send off for Bruce and Danny.
On the Beach -
The third and last (chronologically by date of recording, anyway) of the 'Ditch Trilogy', Beach shows Neil well on the road to recovery after the bottom-falling-out freefall of the last two albums, but still desolate and unapproachable, unwilling to begin remaking the walls of 'I'm okay, you're okay' pretense that crashed down so magnificently on Time Fades Away. In reality, this was the next release following Time Fades Away, leaving the rejected Tonight's the Night to languish on Neil's tape deck for another year until he could be convinced to try to release it again. As it was taken at the time, it was still clear that something not quite right was going on with Neil, but without Tonight to fill in the gap in the story it was up to people to speculate that he was on drugs or burnt out or was simply bent on releasing what they perceived as mediocre evasions of the inevitable big-sales Harvest followup. People got the story straight a year later with the release of Night, but this one became quite a mystery over the years since it was never re-released on CD (or, as far as I know, on cassette either) until just a few years ago. I had to once again track down a semi-rare vinyl copy (I think I actually have two copies now, but I'm not selling either one so don't ask) to satisfy my itching curiosity regarding what has since been elevated from 'What the hell kind of tuneless, whiny crap is this?' to the status of a minor classic among Neil's work. It was well worth it, and this is, in my mind, one of the truest, most complex and intriguing of Neil's works.
The first impression you'll get of this one is that, after two records that sounded about as professional as a finger-puppet version of The Godfather, Neil finally gets to record an album that sounds decent - he's not more sauced up than a rack of spare ribs, for one thing. Stylistically, he's sorta in limbo, halfway between the blaring country rock of Time Fades Away and some of his more moderate rock numbers on After the Gold Rush. At times it almost sounds like he's got members of the Allman Brothers backing him up ('Walk On'), and at other times the arrangements are so spare it almost sounds like a home recording ('Ambulance Blues'). Still, describing Neil's style is like doing color commentary at a tiddlywinks tournament, kinda pointless and extremely repetitive, so I'll just stick to his lyrical themes here. 'Walk On' makes a point to announce Neil's ongoing recovery, acknowledging the fact that 'some people been talking me down', but admitting that 'you can't change how they feel' (usually considered an oblique reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Hope Neil Young will remember' line in 'Sweet Home Alabama', but I think it could probably apply to anyone who gave him scathing press on the Time Fades Away tour of the previous year). Later on, he makes reference to his sense of alienation from the rest of the world of the rich and fabulous through apocalyptic symbolism on 'Revolution Blues', especially on the line where he threatens to 'kill 'em in their cars'. Heh heh. Gotta love Neil...he sees bloody fountains and ten million dune buggies comin' down the mountain. I could stand another five minutes of this kind of razor-sharp attack on the kind of people who Neil used to aspire to be just a few years before, but Neil's got other ideas. His alienation can be exciting, but it can also be dead lonely, as the cottony dark blues ballad 'On the Beach' makes clear. He's afraid his problems ('meaningless, but that don't make them go away') have caused his fans and friends to forget about him ('the world keeps turning - hope it don't turn away'). He needs a return to normalcy, and on probably the most confessional ever of his 9-minute-plus solo whinefests (in a good way, mind, but let's be honest right here and call a spade a spade. He's whining.), he talks himself into giving himself a break, beginning with a bittersweet recollection of his early days touring 'in those old folkie days', but then snapping out of it by saying 'an ambulance can only go so fast, it's easy to get buried in the past'. We've got two references here for the trivia archivists out there who aren't too busy staring at train schedules and alphabetizing their collection of Mork and Mindy trading cards - Neil famously drove an old ambulance when he first came to Los Angeles in the mid-60's, and he's twisting the title of 'Journey Through the Past' from Time Fades Away. A friend tells him that he's just 'pissin in the wind' with this self-pity trip he's been on, which, at least in the perception of most people in the mid-70's, was right on. Neil had pissed away much of his fanbase, many of his friends, and a whole lot of goodwill from his peers, who had begun to see him as 'difficult'. But since his friend 'has a different story for every set of eyes, how can he remember who he's talking to?', Neil 'knows it ain't me, and hopes it isn't you'. The first bit of the wall of pretense has been put back up, and we know that Neil's on the road back home again.
Of course, it took the man 9-something minutes to get there, but I think the trip was worth it if you've been paying attention to the real-life story all along. He's backed with only a lightly stummed acoustic, a bass every once in awhile, a mournful violin, some tambourine shakes, and Neil's mouth harp, but it's hypnotic to me, even when Dylan in similar situations was damned boring. Perhaps it's because Neil seems to be talking about real feelings and observations filtered through his personal 'wordmill', and Dylan was just spinning out poetry about stuff he saw on television on songs like 'Desolation Row'. I dunno. I recognize that there is no way that Neil could've written a song like this had Dylan never done it first, but in my opinion Neil took this song form far and away from the limitations of it's first rendition.
There are other songs on the record, ones not expressedly about Neil and his problems, so if you're getting a little sick of the everlasting drama that has been packed into the last few records, you get a bit of a reprieve. The marvelously gentle 'See the Sky About to Rain' would've been a huge hit had it been on a CSNY album (though isn't that 'silver fiddle' line another self-reference about his whole racism jag of the Harvest period? Dammit...you simply can't gat away from the Neil on this record.) 'For the Turnstiles' used to be my favorite of the entire record, a savage attack on the greed of the record industry and those who dare to hitch their wagon to it and stuff backed with a Dobro and a banjo and Neil in most riveting voice, but then I realized that 'Vampire Blues' was an absolute first for the man - a legitimate blues song about the oil industry that rolls easy but cuts deep. Of the whole album, only 'Motion Pictures' feels a bit lazy, kind of like a lame early working version of 'Ambulance Blues' that it resembles very, very closely. By putting it on the album right before 'Ambulance', you really get a 14-minute self-pity party, which may be too much for anyone not sitting here with their brain fully enmeshed in Neil Young-isms. Yeah, hell, it was a big blunder, and the album would've been better off without this damn song. There. You get an A and not an A+ and this dude with the first reader comment can get fucked.
Capn's Final Word: On the way back, but still too honest not to be gripping.
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Brent Evans email@example.com Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: Finally got to hear this album last year when it appeared on CD for the first time.Your comments are spot on.This is Young with an edge;swiping at rock commercialism,the oil crisis,Nixon and and his own marriage.I would've killed to have seen Crosby's face when he heard the completed 'Revolution Blues'track . . .he lived in Laurel Canyon at the time!Underatted gem here,folks. Your Email (optional):
- Reprise 1975
When the first line on your album is 'Don't cry no years 'round me', it doesn't take a Pakistani PhD candidate to figure out that Neil Young is now sick and bloody tired of feeling bummed out and alienated. As a result, Zuma is an almost freakishly 'healthy' sounding record, all bright eyes and big chords recorded with pristine clarity with his pals in Crazy Horse. Danny Whitten was replaced by Frank Sampedro, who's prime attribute appears to be a complete willingness to play the same chord progression the same goddamn way for as long as Neil demands him to. The 'foil' that Whitten represented for Neil is now missing from Crazy Horse (and, incidentally, most of Neil's bands from here on out), meaning that the conversational exchanges of Double Secret Decoder Ring information between the two guitarists that were so persuasive on Nowhere are now gone forever, and it's Neil's show. Besides a few sad detours into synth-rock in the depths of the 80's, the Crazy Horse sound will pretty much not develop any further from what's presented here, meaning that something like 'Danger Bird' played back to back from a random track off Broken Arrow, recorded two decades later, will sound frighteningly similar to each other. I guess that's a comfort, knowing exactly how one of Neil's albums is going to sound at any moment, but it's also a bit of a curse - how the hell are we supposed to prove we haven't heard some of this shit before? I sure as hell can't remember how each and every one of Neil's grindingly slow distorto-symphonies goes from here on out, and I seriously doubt Neil can, either. You get your new NYWCH album, you pop it open, and 90% of the time it sounds derived from Zuma...mark my words.
Not that I'm not gonna keep trying in my own lame and highly self-derivative way to describe the tiny differences between each one, in case you were wondering. Neil's now got a formula he likes with Crazy Horse - sometimes it works wonders (Rust Never Sleeps, which has just enough play in the formula to make it sound completely unique) and sometimes it's just deadly dull. Zuma, outside of the classic 'Cortez the Killer', is full of what I'll call Neil Standards, hicky, enjoyable, but imminently forgettable country-inflected hard rockers that were probably dashed off by ol' Neil during a particularly extensive trip to the crapper. Few, if any of the songs on Zuma are what I would call bad (though 'Stupid Girl' takes the somewhat questionable approach of a man telling his woman she's an idiot, then telling a fish how beautiful it is, and back again, as if he's had to drag his wife along on a fishing trip and she just dropped one of his prize rods into the lake.), but some of 'em sure come off as a little dimwitted. 'Don't Cry No Tears' is almost disgustingly upbeat with an all-American Fourth of July Barbecue Mary Lou-with-her-red-plaid-sundress-sure-looks-nice kind of thing, as is the harmlessly country 'Lookin' for a Lover'. Did two years of relative peace and quiet for Neil turn him into John Denver or what? I guess I'm happy that Neil is, but I still would like a little more teeth in my songwriting than a lot of the side-dishes on Zuma give me.
I'm totally all for the darker tunes, though. 'Danger Bird' is a desperate wail somewhat like an On the Beach tune might have sounded, had On the Beach had a tune that was really, truly about a bird and not just some handy-dandy metaphor for dead roadies or CSNY or whatever. The fuzzed-over lead line at the end of the verse does make this song for me, as does the poison guitar tone and slow crescendo before the chorus of the Southern rock-y 'Drive Back'. Moments, ladies and gentlemen, without those moments, this would have been a bland sonofagun. But the moments are here...some of them seven and a half minutes long: 'Cortez the Killer' is the undeniable classic, and really the only truly understandable reason to spend the necessary money on this record. This is the longest space Neil's allowed himself to stretch out with since 'Southern Man' (though, truly, 'Cortez' is the bastard son of 'Down By the River' and not that rabble-rousing piece of agit-prop), and he takes every last opportunity to flash his peculiar lead chops, from the way he noodles around on the melody for the first few minutes of the song to some of the 'magic teardop' effects that hit towards the end. Lyrically, Neil has one of his increasingly common 'fever-dream' moments where he seems to completely immerse himself in an alternate time and place - this time it's the Aztecs (for whom 'hate was just a legend', which is about equally laughable statement as saying the British Empire 'was a just and peaceful place'...just because they didn't have guns didn't mean they didn't go around killing each other all the time. They didn't get all the good places to build their temples out of being good dressers, y'know.), who face off against Cortez and, umm...well, I heard they didn't do so great. Isn't that right? Can anybody shed some more light on this for me? And while you're at it, tell me how that whole Communism thing I was hearing so much about is working out. Anyway, in stark contrast to Neil's other long-burn anthem from this period, 'Like a Hurricane', Neil keeps his solos lyrical and understated, but never loses our attention. When he sings that Cortez 'came dancin' across the water', the confusion and wonder of the natives is right there for us to taste. Just magic shit, Jeeves.
Capn's Final Word: Neil sets himself back on the track that'll keep him within the lines, but there is one flight of fancy that makes it more than just another NY album.
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American Stars 'n' Bars
- Reprise 1977
Everyone always likes to tell you what a nasty hodgepodge this album is, some of it recorded circa 1974 as part of a country-only album called Homegrown that was rejected in favor of Tonight's the Night (which, in turn, was rejected in favor of On the Beach, which was similarly rejected by record buyers who had too many fucking Carly Simon albums to buy that year), some of it randomly selected outtakes and whatnots from as far back as 1973. Yeah, it's waayyy messy, but the country parts aren't really much more far-out than Zuma plus 'Turkey In the Straw' fiddles, the same sort of harmlessly idiotic faux-boy Cowboy rock that the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Neil's old buddies in Poco were also trundling out throughout the roots-challenged Seventies. It seems this shaky genre rested on three types of songs - the 'boy I love the country' tunes (of which Neil's 'Out on the Weekend' and 'Are You Ready For the Country?' are very good examples, if a mite bit overstuffed with liquid dogshit), the 'I'm sleeping with someone's woman and I think that guy's trying to kill me' tunes ('Saddle Up the Palomino'), and the 'I just wanna tell you groovy hombres this one thing: smokin' weed is...wait, what was I going to say?' tunes like Neil's rather ridiculous 'Homegrown'. I guess making this kind of music is loads of good fun for those involved, getting to play drunken Nashville for a couple of weeks and calling it an album, and God knows mediocre examples of these kinds of songs like the ones here aren't particularly hard to write (hell, with all the formulas that C&W has at its disposal, they just about write themselves), and it's not really all that taxing to listen to if you have a decent tolerance for rednecky music at all. But be forewarned - this is not at all the quality of, say, the Flying Burrito Brothers or latter-day Byrds stuff people always compare country-rock albums with. 'Bite the Bullet' is a pretty great example of how to do hick-rock right (A: jam balls-out, keep the fiddle swingin'), and, um...'Homegrown' makes Neil sound like he's lost a good three or four hundred million brain cells due to an unfortunate indiscretion with a bottle of low-quality mouthwash. Most of them in the nerve centers of his cortex that dictate GOOD TASTE, that is.
Nobody really remembers (much less mentions) much of this album besides how great 'Like a Hurricaine' and how unlistenable 'Will to Love' are, anyway, so why should I go climbing out on a teetery limb and do what's never been done? Eh? Boy, is that 'Will to Love' ridiculous, or what? Besides, what chowderhead keeps cracking his bubble gum near the microphone all the time, anyway? I hear this one's about salmon spawning, which is slightly less poisonous a topic for a seven minute song than spending an equal amount of time praising Nazi interior decorating techniques, but only just a little smidge. I wonder if Neil's imagining he's the same fish as in 'Stupid Girl' from Zuma? Considering that Neil admits out loud that sometimes he 'rambles on until all of his friends are gone', maybe he realizes what a waste of time this song is for most people. I guess all that 'flapping my fins' really got those pecs lookin' tight, or else Neil wouldn't have called himself 'beautiful' like he did. Gawd. If anyone ever approaches you and offers you a dinner for two to listen to 'Will to Love' or Arc in their entirety, all I can say is 'BBBRRRRRRZZZZZZZZ-AAAA-wonngggggGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!!! *bap bap bap* FFUUNNZZZHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!'
Not 'Like a Hurricane', though. I'm not nearly in love with this massive Neil classic as I am with some of his others (I think the melody line, especially during the verse, is more than a little bit hokey), but I sure do like the way he just heads right out there to the edge of his soloing displays with so little fear. My theory is that all of the bleeding-artery guts that Neil put into his 1973-74 work got internalized, his lyrics got changed from the starkly personal to the symbolic and imagined, and that all of his true self got directed into his guitar playing. To listen to him solo on this thing live is to watch a man possessed by all the demons of his past - each solo builds with more and more rolling feedback as the traditional technique falls completely into the trash heap. Notes just cascade upon each other. Hell, I suppose he wanted to feel 'blown away' by this love, and that's what he goes and does. If there was ever a Neil Young song that really didn't need the melody or the words to get it's point across, it's this one.
Capn's Final Word: Imminently forgettable, except for the parts that aren't. Besides 'Hurricane', and the fact that Crazy Horse aren't really on it, probably most distinguishable by the fact that there's a woman's crotch on the cover.
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Comes a Time
- Reprise 1978
Ummm....better than Harvest by a hair-thin margin', yeah, but that's as far as I'm going with this thing, and no matter what extremities you twist and snap, I'm not budging more than that. Of course, when it came out everyone who'd ignored Neil for the preceding six years pissed all over themselves about the fact that this was finally the desperately awaited sequel to Horny - quiet, reasonably tuneful El Lay folkie pop for old long-past-sold-out hippies who like to hear every single last word on a record album and not have any of them longer than two syllables. As no surprise to anyone whatsoever, it sold more FAR more than anything since that overrated hunk of reject Pinto seatcovers and helped once again to return Neil to the favor of the mainstream. Except by 1978, he'd built a population of fans devoted to his rock albums, replacing the sissies that couldn't sit through On the Beach, so the stink of sellout isn't really an issue on this one. Rather than a truly calculated attempt at scoring some nosh, I say that Neil's mid/late 70's redneck mini-obsession he'd been on since Zuma was finally playing itself out in one resounding Denim Bang with this album. Take this as Stars 'n' Bars minus the goofy fun, the tempos, and the electric guitars, or better take this as Harvest without the Jesus complex. Or just take it, because I promise I'm not going to have much use for it after this review is done.
The major crime here is one of unrelenting tedium - this is one motherstuffer of a beige-boring album. This one is so boring (All together now: 'HOW BORING IS IT, RYAN?') Heh! This one is so boring that the Sensory Depravation Chamber Manufacturing Company called to complain that Neil was putting them out of business. It's so boring that sex with Anne Bates is starting to look like a viable alternative. It's so boring it makes the Tax Code look like Tropic of Capricorn. Hardy. Har. Oh, gosh, that was almost as fun as spending all weekend studying for my EIT exam I'm having next Saturday. Eight hours of engineering problems I was too drunk to learn when I was actually in college, sitting next to a bunch of people who just got finished studying this shit in school. I'm imagining a barrel. The barrel is full of monkeys. Upon further inspection, each and every one of those monkeys is crocheting handkerchiefs and talking about the potato salad at last week's church picnic. Nothing goes right for me anymore since I started reviewing this godforsaken Gobi desert of a record album, dammit.
God, if pressed, I'll say it ain't all bad. It's just really not for me. Old people who've lost their ability to produce their own sex hormones would probably love it. The good side is that Neil comes across genial enough, and even pulls one or two good lines over before the thing is done (the 'It's a wonder tall trees aren't layin' down' on the title track is just childish-profound enough to be charming), and almost none of it is offensive at all. Just boring, that's all. Backup singer Nicolette Larson (who sounds a lot like Grateful Dead backup singer Donna Jean Godchaux from the same era) took 'Lotta Love' to the Top 10, but Neil's version is a sad snooze in comparison to her slick slice, and 'Motorcycle Mama' is a roadhouse rockin' Stars 'n' Bars escapee that fits in here about as well as Ralph Nader at a ExxonMobil shareholder's meeting. The rest is just a pile of rocks that sounds like it meant very little to Neil, no matter how much he turns up the 'Sincerity' knob on his vocal tracks. Hell, he might've actually passed for the Golden Boy of '72 if some of these songs had a little bit more of a beat and he put on his Jesus pose a little more. I suppose that's it - despite being a lengthy stretch of completely uninteresting lite C&W balladeering, the fact that Neil lays off the Messiah bit automatically makes this a more worthy record album than Harvest ever was. Just don't ask that I pay attention, eh?
Capn's Final Word: Just ol' Neil doin' what the old farts like best. He's refreshingly modest, but that's about the only thing that's fresh here.
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Rust Never Sleeps
- Reprise 1979
Jesus, I'm just happy this isn't another country album. The fact that it's one of Neil's most clearly thought-out, brilliant collection of memorable songs is a bonus the likes of which I haven't had since I rented a car in Memphis that one time and found that half-pound bag of pure heroin and a loaded Glock in the glove box. Not really. Actually, it was a Collective Soul CD, which I never have listened to, but I hear they make their jewel boxes out of materials that, when properly rolled, ignited, and inhaled, will FUCK YOU UP!! At least the 14 year old next door who spends all day huffing D-Con and smashing up old children's aspirins and snorting them told me so.
Lawdy, but after so long wandering the wilderness he started to resemble an Ewok, Neil's finally found his Purpose: he identifies with punk rock. Hmm. About two years late, and only half of the album is even rock 'n' roll at all, but I'll buy it. The man was mentioned as an influence by John ('Decomposed') Lydon (alongside more predictable and boring names like Captain Beefheart and Iggy Pop), and never really got swept up in that whole reactionary 'disco sucks' dinosaur rock thing that caused a minor furor among the faithful in the late 70's, and his complete disregard for the consequences of his musical actions played well to the four or five people in the punk rock ranks who had heard of him. Most of all, I think Neil was just happy to be playing heavy with the Crazy Horse again after too long in cowpoke land. And who can blame him? Not that playing 30-odd takes of 'Homegrown' to get 'just the right sound' in the studio doesn't seem like a lot of fun to me, but still...
Rust really isn't much of a concept album as is it a very well-designed architecture of songs that happen to be split down the middle between the acoustic ones and the (live) electric ones. The title track concerns itself with the whole idea of the death of rock 'n' roll and the perspective of one of those who hasn't 'burned out' or 'faded away'. If anything, it's expressive fear and defensive denial that rock 'n' roll can ever die, as if that's precisely what is happening and few people are trying to do anything about it. He mentions Elvis and Johnny Rotten, but the song really isn't about either one of them or their respective 'deaths' (both the literal and the figurative...I guess Neil didn't have much faith in PIL, either)...it's about rock and roll the machine, man. Of course, repeating the song in a charged-up electric version to end the album begs comparisons to 'Tonight's the Night' and somewhat cheaply gains the album a bit of respectability by comparison, but I also thing that it's a highly effective way of punctuating the album-long crescendo that makes this record special. Neil is showing how folk can become folk-rock can become rock can become monster bone-snapping Titan noise and not lose a single shred of its sincerity or impact, as if he's teaching his wussier fans how to bang their heads one lesson at a time. See, to Neil, 'burning out' is taking chances that don't work, and 'fading away' is running over the same old ground until the wheels fall off. There's nothing here about suicide, nothing about that bullshit rock star early death romanticism (Neil Young would be the last person to look to for something like that...didn't Tonight's the Night make that clear enough?), and nothing that says Neil isn't completely game for trying to keep rock 'n' roll alive, even if it's all by his lonesome.
Another very notable thing about this album is that there really is not a single bad song on it. I feel that this A+ isn't quite the same level as the fist-in-the-gut A+ of Tonight's the Night, but on the other hand it's really difficult for me to find any sort of fault with this album to give it an A. I simply love all of these songs. The acoustic tracks on Side One are some of his best-ever, simply. I can't remember him producing songs like this since, Jesus, Gold Rush? Imagine less-preachy 'After the Goldrush's, benefiting from Neil's fierce new unpretentiousness and lack of necessity for 'weight'. If a song about a harvest (a real harvest, not a cheap come-on Harvest harvest) isn't affecting enough for you, if you need him to spell out 'NATURE IS GOOD!' in boldfaced letters, stick with Peter, Paul, and Mary. His child-like flights of imagination are given reign and respond by spinning off some of his most charming and delicate texts ever - he smokes weed with an alien (it's not stupid), he traces the hard-wired bitter memories of a Native American from a flight from the marauding white men to sitting with Marlon Brando and discussing the Astrodome, and he listens in on the story of a scared teenager attempting to fend off an enemy patrol boat bearing down on his house. Neil makes all of these stories so inviting (and in the case of 'Powderfinger', downright suspenseful) that there's little to be done but to listen in and follow along. So he's using the same tempos, chords, and drumbeats that he's done since Zuma and long before...I don't fucking care! Tell me what happens to the 'boy left there to the thinkin'! Give me more randy mental pictures of screwing Pocahontas underneath the full moon!
About the same time the narratives run out, the Horse warms up (making 'Powderfinger' probably the best song on here, since it has the entire package) and we begin to figure out what Neil's take on punk rock is. Nope, no songs about the Queen or sniffing Carbona, but I think the idea of a song whose hookline goes 'Welfare mothers make better lovers!.. DIII-VOR---CEEEEE!' is plenty perverse enough to put a smile on even the most jaded punk rocker. Oh yeah, the tubes are hot and crackling, and the riffs are right there with it. 'Welfare Mothers' is an absolute goonball circus, but 'Sedan Delivery' is the peak of the electric work here - half forcebeat headbanging and partly halfspeed mosh tempo that recall the best, darkest, and most desolate moments of On the Beach. Gotta get away...gotta get away...he sure loves Sedan Delivery, but he may as well be talking about acting as a Mob hitman or working as one of Satan's henchmen for as close as the apocalypse appears to be on these last few sides.
If you've read the book (like the one that prefaces these reviews), the story gets way shaky from here on for about ten years, but Rust Never Sleeps achieved a major victory for Neil at the time. He solidified his base (with the possible exception of some of his lightest-weight fans) with an album that showed nearly his entire stylistic range, built a bridge to the cutting edge, and even the critics were finally all on the same page. At the time, Neil had made an album that it seemed like not very many of the dinosaurs were able to make any longer, one that pointed ahead with wide-eyed wonder and cast an eye backwards with the perspective of 15 years in the game. It seemed like he could do anything. Well, we'll soon see that wasn't the case, but it's nice to dream anyhow.
Capn's Final Word: If Neil's point with this album was to announce his intention to change and not to rust away, he does that with absolute genius. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of classic songs, that's all.
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- Reprise 1980
Hey, did I ever mention to you that most of Rust Never Sleeps was recorded live, ala Time Fades Away? Yeah, except for the few places where there's audible cheering (the opening 'Hey Hey My My', f'r instance), it's not at all obvious that it is. Well, that's all remedied with the double album super mondo Sam's Club 64-roll pack of Live Rust, Neil's first career retrospective 'normal' double live album, eschewing the now predictable weirdness of 'live' albums like Journey and TFA. This one follows him on probably his most famous tour ever, the 'big amplifier tour' with the humongoid stage props and the Neil sleeping on the 50-foot tall Fender Amp and the Jawas (called 'Road-eyes' by Neil, but fuck 'im...they're Jawas or you can call me the president of the Barbars Streisand fan club) and whatever else he could come up with to crack up his audience. It doesn't take much to do it when most of them are more doped up than a minor league designated hitter, ya know. In 1979, Neil coulda just come out and said into the microphone really loud - 'BOOGA BOOGA!!' and half of his audience would've fainted, or begun crying and rocking back and forth in the foetal position. Drugs may or may not kill, ladies and gentlemen, but they DO make you act like a member of a Moonie colony that hasn't met their flower sales quota for the month.
The performance here kinda leaves me sayin' 'eh'. Sure, I love most of these songs like I love the memory of the first time I touched a girl's naked breast, and there's a monster charge I get out of hearing the sequence of 'Sedan Delivery', 'Powderfinger', 'Cortez the Killer', 'Cinnamon Girl', and 'Like a Hurricaine' all conveniently collected in the same location, but I also feel that a lot of these songs have been done better in previous incarnations. Neil pulls an old Dylan/Grateful Dead trick out of his hat by performing the opening part of this concert alone with his acoustic like it was 1971 and his name was Graham Taylor Crosby-Croce and he was a doughy, base-addicted English pussy with a strong resemblance to Gene Shalit crossed with Mario the Plumber. I've never been the biggest fan of 'Sugar Mountain' (though it's hard to argue with lines like "Now you say you're leavin' home/'Cause you want to be alone./Ain't it funny how you feel/When you're findin' out it's real?", especially if you're deaf and blind, which Neil apparently was when he laid this turd on his lyric notebook and decided to call it a single). He makes reference to wanting to get an electric guitar when he 'grows up', reinforcing the notion that he's this innocent little kid with his little kid pajamas, his 'I Am a Child' and ''Comes a Time', two songs that are about as un-jaded and wide-eyed innocent as is conceivable. Later on, Neil shifts towards more 'mature' lyrics (still hokey and precociously child-like, though), like 'After the Goldrush' and 'My My Hey Hey' as he begins his 'adolescence', until finally Crazy Horse comes out and all hell breaks loose in a hail of randomly placed power chords and constantly abused crash cymbals. Adulthood, I gather. Or, at least, latter adolescence when you think you're God and everyone else thinks you're a self-obsessed twit.
I suppose the gradual shift towards electrification and chaos over the course of the show is intended to illustrate Neil's growth from being a 'childlike', primarily acoustic artist early in his solo career to being a more refined, more electric one later on, or maybe his advancement towards rock 'n' roll as being the savior, or something like that. Whatever he's saying, his stock is put in Crazy Horse and the redemptive powers of rocking asses and kicking rolls, and that's right where it belongs. Man, I don't want to say I've doubted Neil's commitment to diamond-hard rock music over the years, but I will say I've had my problems with some of his 'detours' (Harvest, Comes a Time), and will continue to do so over the next several years of his career. Whatever it is, I think that the Rust material was all performed better on the original album, 'Sedan Delivery' sounding waaay darker and more tastily apocalyptic, and the Paris-is-burning-and-Neil's-amp-doesn't-look-so-good-itself garbage junkyard tone on 'My My Hey Hey' is smoothed out to neutrality. Bummer. 'Cortez' and 'Hurricane' are both well done, but not so different from their studio versions to make much difference. The highlight for me? The forgotten gem off Gold Rush,. 'When You Dance (I Can Really Love)' gets reintroduced as a sort of highlight...good thinkin', Neil!
Capn's Final Word: Neil does double, which works for people allergic to buying either the exhaustive but arcane Decade or the long and expensive Weld set.
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Hawks and Doves
- Reprise 1980
If the exceedingly high quality and reassuring message of Rust lulled you into a false sense of security re: Neil's tendency to fuck up whenever he's dones something people really like, I'd suggest waking yourselves right the fuck back up again, because just the very next year Neil was shooting off into another ill-advised u-turn, flying off the well-paved main road into Nowheresville, bumping into more dead ends than Ms. Pac Man with a busted joystick (Q. Is it at all perverse to you, in any way, that a Ms. Pac Man arcade game would still have a joystick installed on it? Wouldn't a track ball or two have been more accurate? And what about Gorf? What kind of control scheme would we need to properly represent his reproductive anatomy? Would it involve overcooked strands of angel hair spaghetti? Wait, wait...don't answer that. Just let me dream.) The reasons for this are a little bit more complicated than the usual 'he's completely incompetent and egotistical and thinks people should buy whatever crap he decides to sling out of the shops". First off, the man had had a very demanding decade, wrapping up with a huge and tactically nightmarish live tour, and probably needed a break, but was hemmed in by a one album per year deal with Reprise that tethered him to the grindstone. Moreover, Neil and his new wife had given birth to a son with some fairly severe physical problems (cerebral palsy, I think), and Neil was spending most of his waking hours attempting to teach his boy the most basic of things, like talking. It put his career, as is completely understandable given the circumstances, into the backseat while he cared for his son.
Certainly, Neil didn't help matters himself, though. Somehow he'd gotten on a major Republican jag around the time of the 1980 election, supporting Ronald Reagan and getting unproportionally stretched out of shape by the seemingly innocuous fact that Carter had promised to give the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians. Jesus, man! I guess Neil Young had never heard that we'd installed a railroad...IN 1851!! That and we have these cool new things called highways. I'm sure he's been down one himself, quite possibly in his big stupid tour bus. Panama Canal? Good lord, Neil...you hitch yourself to the campaign of one of the biggest Fascist phonies in American history because of some crap-ass jungle land with a hundred-year-old ditch dug through the middle of it? I can only hope you showed a lot more sensitivity and consideration after the 9/11 thing happened. Yup. Neil never has to resort to bullshit macho when he doesn't have to.
Hawks and Doves was the tiny little nowhere album that stuck its bland little head out at the time this whole shitstorm was rolling in off the left coast. It's not quite 30 minutes long, and a quarter of that time is given over to 'The Old Homestead', which of all things is an On the Beach-era outtake about Crosby, Stills, and Nash with a melody ripped off from Blind Faith's 'Can't Find My Way Home'. It's almost totally incomprehensible (except for the part where he namechecks Crazy Horse and references CSN's jealousy of Neil's time with them), but it sounds like a more fleshed out version of 'Last Trip to Tulsa' or 'Ambulance Blues', and is sung in that inimitable 1974 threadbare Neil voice I love so damn much. The closest tracks to this one in quality are the ultra-Dylany 'Captain Kennedy', which seems torn straight from Times They Are A-Changin', minor arpeggios and muffled footstomps and all, and the absolutely pleasant 'Lost In Space', which seems like it belongs to a time halfway between Comes a Time's earnest acoustic well-manneredness and the first side of Rust's whacked out, subtle brilliance.
Side two, hoo Nelly, tear off yer band-aid and pull up yer droopin' ass trousers, because Neil's on a redneck tear, baby, and he don't want no shiftless lazy-boys in his sight. He's a Workin' Man, Standin' Up for Family Values and America's Peace Through Strength, Keepin' the World Safe for White Folks Who Don't Get On the Welfare Line, and Not Questionin' What the Former Actor in the Black Hair Slick Is Tellin' Ya. And this man? He likes his songs hickier than an octopus's girlfriend. Twang twang, dowink! Side one is pretty normal for Neil, but if you take a look at the lyrics for side 2 you might think Neil's gone and turned in his long hair and sunglasses for John Deere cap, overalls, and shitkicker boots. He's just about campaigning for Reagan on anti-'malaise' songs like 'Come Apart at Every Nail' and 'Coastline'. Two lines seem to pretty much define this honestly creepy set of songs - 'We don't back down from no trouble, we do get up early in the mornin'', as if Neil's gone and made himself a truck driver or something, and secondly, a line so sad, so typical, and so telling of Neil's mindset at the time that I'll end the review with it...half of this album is pretty okay-ish, but I really do think this is all you need to know about the second half of this thing...
Capn's Final Word: "I don't have nothin' to say...but I love the USA!!'
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- Reprise 1981
Neil admits he was extremely distracted during the recording of this record, his last for Reprise. He was spending literally every hour of his day performing this highly painful, extremely difficult therapy regimen with his son, operating under the somewhat ominous assertion that if he were to ever stop, all of their progress would be lost and they'd have to start back at the beginning again. So if Neil was to put out what amounts to his second toss-off in a row, I can totally understand his reasons why. He never toured behind Re-ac-tor, hardly ever refers to it, and God knows if you can still buy it nowadays. Still, the calling of an unpaid online album reviewer is a lonely one, and I tracked down both a vinyl and MP3 copy of this album just for your benefit. Ahhh, crap...it's really not that bad, it's just extremely rough and underwritten, as if he had a couple of evenings free to be with the Crazy Horse and decided he'd have to crank out his new album in as short a time as possible or risk forfeiting some of Geffen's signing bonus. They certainly don't sound like they spent any time together arranging or rehearsing this crap before slapping it down on tape, anyway. Still, it's all a matter of intent, and Neil's intent with this album was just to have a bit of a break from his heartbreaking home situation, earn his keep for the year, and maybe have a laugh or two in the process. As far as that goes, Re-act-tor is just fine. I even like the 9-plus-minute funk breakdown 'T-Bone', wherein Neil decrys the practices of the meat processing industry through the use of sloppy feedback and mashed pertaters, and I think the opening 'Opera Star' has one of the better riffs I've heard outta this guy (it also has Crazy Horse going 'ho ho ho hooo ha-hooooo!!' in stupid, high pitched falsettos, but still...a riff's a riff, ain't it?). I suppose outside of the highly audible 'stupid bits' and a performance and mix so raunchy they make Traci Lords look like Tracy Gold, most of these songs are actually pretty frigging great for newfangled Crazy Horse standards. Neil just has the ability to dash off just about anything, grind it through the Crazy Horse mill, and have something listenably crunchy come out the other end -there's one about crappy Japanese cars, one about trains ('Southern Pacific', which sounds more train-like than 'Locomotive Breath' ever did), and one at the end that's supposed to actually be serious or something. If that's the case, I ask...why did he put all of those doofball sound effects all over it, anyway? In my opinion, he was just simply having too good a time cranking it with his band to convincingly put over a straight-faced tune.
Capn's Final Word: Re-ac-tor's not gonna convert anybody, and some of it sounds right-out stupid, but I still think it's a great time and one of Neil's better 80's albums.
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Trans has long been regarded as some sort of archetype of the 'alien abduction' album - something so far out of character stylistically as to sound as if not only has the real Neil Young been abducted by aliens, he's now beaming down the new songs he's written using the satellite transmitter dish embedded deep in the recesses of his colon. It's hard for me to imagine the look of shock on new boss David Geffen's face when Neil, his high-profile, high-priced new client, brought him his new album and told him it was a bit 'synth-heavy'. Synth-heavy ain't the word, gentle friends. This thing is about as synthesized as you can get. In fact, just about everything that could have been processed got processed - the drums, the guitars, Neil's voice - all wigged out beyond comprehension by a battery of whizzers and twizzlers and doohickeys and things that go 'BWOINGG!' in the night. First off, don't expect to understand a single thing the Vocoder-ed Neil is saying...he's singing from behind a wall of filters so thick I heard one of the custom-built jobs was actually called the 'Low-Pass Dewhiner Especiale', just fer our pal. Makes him sound...well, highly Un-Neil Young-ish, it does. This album is far beyond simple 'synth-pop' like the Human League did...this is a veritable Zen meditation on pre-processed pop music, circa 1983. The man gets far further into the concept of the role of computers in the modern world than I've heard from anybody outside of Radiohead's OK Computer, which came out almost 15 years later, and this from a self-professed Luddite who seemed to be completely immune from this kind of thing. I think it's interesting that about the time that all the other dino-rockers that comprised Neil's peers were dabbling clumsily with synthesizers and heavily inorganic production techniques, Young dove in head first, got it mostly out of his system, and spent the next couple of years making roots albums at the farthest possible opposite extreme of technology.
Moreover, Trans is pop music, far more poppy and melodically accessible than anything Neil's done since Harvest, and maybe ever. This time around, it's a good thing. His songwriting shows an uncharacteristic gentleness this time around, from the sweet entreaty to his disabled son Ben on 'Transformer Man' to the 'gonna take a lotta erm...processing power' pro-computer love fantasy of 'Sample and Hold'. Yeah, some of it's a bit hokey with all this techno-talk, but I'd say if you were to replace the R2-NY track with some fey British Bryan Ferry-worshipping fag, a good half of these tracks coulda become hits back in the dank days of the early 80's. Hell, Haircut 100 had a career, didn't they? Their songs all sounded like some Tom Jones wannabe gargling cottage cheese over a backing provided by an industrial microwave oven filled with little armored frogs, and they did okay. Why, pray tell, can't Neil?
I also appreciate that I can identify Neil's songwriting signature on most of this stuff, and that his sensibilities haven't been dulled by the technology, they've been enhanced. 'We R In Control', for example, is fucking chilling - a computer voice chanting 'we control the FBI...we control the TV set....we will prevail and perform our functions....'. Holy bejeezus! And a year before Terminator came out, too! 'Sample and Hold' gives a convincing case for the idea of computers needing personal contact, or people using computers needing personal contact, or the fact that the Internet would become the largest and most powerful boon to people's bizarre sex fetishes since the invention of leather restraining straps by the Spartans in the 5th Century B.C.. Hey! Did you know that Spartan boys training to be officers in their army were partnered up with a full-grown male 'mentor', and essentially made to be his wife for ten years? Nice perversion action their, Spartans! So next time someone complains that there's a misconception that Greek men are all faggier than a SoHo wallpaper salesman, or says proudly they're a Michigan State alum, just bring this little factoid out of your bag of tricks and watch the hilarity ensue. Or just duck, because I heard Greeks can deliver a pretty considerable limp-wristed bitch-slap as long as they don't have a large male reproductive organ thrusting between their greased buttocks.
Also, contrary to popular belief, they're actually are electric guitars on this album, and there are even a couple of reassuringly kindhearted 'normal' tracks ('Hold Onto Your Love', 'Little Thing Called Love', the dull 'Like an Inca') tide you over. I think both of these are some of Neil's best for quite some time, but my point here is that the processed tracks are really just as good. Neil also covers his own 'Mr. Soul' in the same style, which is fascinating the first time you hear it, but a bit too minimalistic to really click. Furthermore, I think the other tracks on here are as good or better than 'Soul' anyway, and I'd like to hear more of Neil ideas, especially after he took a 2-year vacation from really trying like he did. Hey now! Time for another factoid! Trans was made by Neil as an attempt to understand what it was like for his son to try to communicate, that under the layers of cerebral palsey was a boy who wanted love and laughter, and that it was our inability to understand him that was the problem - not the boy himself. I think that's a remarkably sensitive point of view, and it's nice to hear that Neil was approaching some sort of understanding and peace with his personal situation after what appears to have been a very stressful couple of years for the man. Then again, the resolution that Trans points to is sort of a messy one - his relationship to technology remains an ambivalent one, and it seems quite clear that Neil's unrest and unease would return in force as the 80's wore on. But if we're going on interesting, compelling, and ultimately successful artistic statements, Trans is one of Neil's best works in one of his least successful periods.
Capn's Final Word: Hell, I actually think I love this thing outside of the pointlessly overlong 'Like an Inca', and once again wonder what exactly happened immediately after this - Neil went from pushing the boundaries to being unreasonably reactionary in less than a year's time.
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- Geffen 1983
Am I completely insane because I think Neil's rockabilly album sounds far more artificial and fake than Trans did? Everybody's Rockin' is a 25-minute long retrenchment effort from the House of Neil, sent up to deflect all the criticism and outright hatred that Trans generated. It's almost as if Neil said 'So you didn't like it when I went futuristic, eh? Well, Denny, unpack the Nudie suit and get me some pomade, because the Eighties are the New Fifties!'. Now, I can't say that I'm the world's biggest fan of rockabilly, or 50's rock 'n' roll in general - I generally much prefer the grit and groove of blues and country music of that same period and feel like most early rock 'n' roll is a sad compromise between the two, but I can also recognize good stuff when I hear it. I tells ya, Gordie Howe, this ain't the good stuff. For one thing, if you remember, all those old guys were either blue-voiced proto-crooners like Elvis or Roy Orbison or genuine shouters like Jerry Lee Lewis, and Neil the Younger ain't neither one of those. He's a cranky old whiner with a cranky old whiner-man's voice that's about as well-matched to this kind of music as Aretha Franklin's ass is to a micro-miniskirt. His contortions to bluesiness are absolutely poisonous and hit these eardrums like ten tons of knitting needles. My skin crawls. Moreover, Neil cranks up the 'vintage' slapback echo sound that only makes the pain more intense - now, not only is Neil essentially shrieking his way through these songs, the sound seems to resound through your very skull due to all this pinging from the tape-echo.
Okay, now if I can actually get beyond how ugly Neil's vocals on this album sound, there's maybe some bright points to mention. 'Wonderin' is a nice tune, for example, and might've made a fair inclusion as an acoustic track on Comes Another Time, the background vocals are pretty decent throughout, and um....it's over after only 25 minutes. The songwriting, outside of 'Wonderin', is gimmicky and ridiculous - 'Kinda Fonda Wanda' and 'Mary Lou's Got a New Pair Of Shoes' being Sesame Street rhymes somehow redirected for inclusion on an actual record album, and much of the rest being tiny scraps of vacuum nothingness that never fail to report how much 'rockin' is goin' on, as if constant reminders might make up for the fact that none of these arrangements show any signs of life whatsoever. Neil also covers a couple of second-tier classics like 'Bright Lights, Big City' and 'Mystery Train', but they're not given any extra effort either. I'm not even gonna mention how irritating Young's 'Cry Cry Cry' is, except to say it makes 'T-Bone' sound profound.
The obvious comparison piece here is the Rock and Roll album, coming at a similarly uneasy time in Lennon's career, it seemed to say to the world that the man had little more to say except for what had already been said by others, and that the best therapy is sometimes getting together with your friends and a mentally unstable legend of a producer, getting dead drunk, and have a ball recording a bunch of Sun Records covers. Neil not only forgets to have a ball, it almost sounds like he's making this album out of penance for Trans. It's amazing to me that an album as short as this one can feel so long, but when you apparently have as little feel for the source material as Neil does, it's no mystery that this album is near-unlistenable.
Capn's Final Word: Neil begins his stint in roots prison, but we're the ones who have to pay the consequences.
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- Geffen 1985
Hrm...in just about a year's time, Neil had recorded a badly received synthesizer album, a lame rockabilly album, and now this - his hardcore conservative Nashville country album originally recorded in 1982 but Tonight's the Night-ed by Geffen until three years later. Now, like I said before, I've got a fair amount of respect for country music in general, at least that which was made before the 1980's when it got way too slickified to kick any more ass. I generally enjoy it, see? For me, looking on a Neil Young album jacket and seeing the names of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Dolly Parton listed as guest vocalists is a cause for celebration, not for a mad dash to the toilet for a quick purge of the ol' breadbasket. I like these guys, or at least liked what they had done in the Sixties and Seventies, and for Neil to finally make a country album that loses his laid-back easy listening hippie wussball vibe of Harvest or Comes a Time and features classic talents like these guys sounds like a pretty great thing...on paper. The problem is, Neil often has a pretty cartoonish set of goggles through which he looks at the world when he's doing stuff that's slightly beyond his comfort zone. Because of this, nearly everything is painted in broad strokes of near-caricature. It happened on Everybody's Rockin', where the entirety of 50's rock 'n' roll was boiled down to about three lines of baby babble wrapped up in that horrendous '59 Cadillac pink color, and it's happened again on Old Ways, where everything is as country as a steaming cow patty. The fact that Neil was able to avoid this sort of over-simplification on Trans seems to have been a pure stroke of luck backed up by the fact that he really didn't have a clue as to what synth pop was supposed to sound like. So, on Trans, he relied on his instincts and came up with what amounted to be a very good album. On Old Ways, he relies on formula and cliché like a crutch, and ends up with an album that almost nobody liked. Neil treats cowboys and country folk half like infallible warriors of goodness and half like retarded stepchildren who can't handle the concept of indoor plumbing. I seriously don't know what kind of 'country' Neil seems to have come across in his travels, but it's not really any of the same sort that I know.
First off, Neil has somehow decided that sounding 'country' is equal to sounding like a grouchy, tuneless old fart, especially when heard one-on-one next to his far more vocally gifted guest stars. Listen to how Dolly Parton helps Neil through the paces of the opening 'Next of Kin' - she almost sounds like a kindergarten teacher teaching Neil the ABC's "Okay, Neil, now what grade would this album have gotten if me and my two country buddies weren't guesting on it? That's right, a D! Can you say 'D' again, Neil?' 'Once An Angel' could've been a good track if Neil wasn't Rolf the Dog-ing all over it. The guest spots are sadly wasted - Waylon is sadly (or wisely, if you're Waylon) kept in the background on most of his tracks, and Willie's given one of the more ridiculous tracks to sing on ('Are There Any More Real Cowboys?', which contains an entire voice about what kind of clothes a 'real' cowboy should wear. Thanks, Joan Rivers.)
The best thing about the album is that Neil finally seems to have collected a pretty good backing band for his latest bizarre excursion - the smoother than smooth International Harvesters make the band of morons that made the second half of Hawks and Doves look like no-talents, though I'd say they're about as fit to rock 'n' roll as a plate full of scrambled eggs. In fact, there's even a goddamned string section here, but I promise you it's the least of your worries. It's not the band that's the problem, folks. Three guesses as to who lets this album down....
Okay, so I can see that the highly out-of-character and quirky (for this record) 'Misfits', a duet with Waylon, could have been a heart-stopper in the vein of Young's On the Beach-era work with a harder arrangement, and the more uptempo numbers like the title track are close to marginally acceptable country formula, but for the most part this album's a twangy snore because Neil has no idea what to do with his pals or his band, and gives them Charmin-thin material to work with. That seems to have become a running theme, and I'm afraid we've got a few more muddy dirt roads to make it down before we can pop back up on the highway again.
Capn's Final Word: Are you ready for the country...to put you to sleep?
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firstname.lastname@example.org Your Rating: B
Any Short Comments?: I think you might have missed the point here. After "Trans" and "Everybody's Rocking," Neil was under a lot of pressure from his record company to make a record that sounded more like his older material. So as a big "fuck you," he gave them this. When the record company balked at actually putting this out, Neil refused to make any more albums for them. The record comany caved in, and there you have it. I'm not even sure that he expected/cared whether anyone actually bought this record.
Your Rating: B+
Any Short Comments?: It amazes me how so called "critics" time and time again have continually forced the notion down our throats that this album (along with ALL Neils 80's output)sucks. Well, I guess I'm listening to a completely different recording because what I'm hearing is some beautifuly played good ole country music. Just what exactly is so bad about it? The harmonies are beautiful and the songs themselves are FAR from being weak in any way. Compare this album to the so called country crap thats been around for ages now and tell me with a straight face this album is deserves the C rating it was given. We all know his troubles with Geffen, and that this was not the first Old Ways album he presented to them but this version of Old Ways was not just something he haphazardly put together, not with the caliber of musicians he had working with him on it. You think he'd have Willie and Waylon guest on this record for shits and giggles? These songs are good country songs and I definitely know that he still holds these songs dear to him. So come on, cut this album some slack, if your not a fan of country music thats one thing but don't bash it just for that reason. I honestly think that true fans of country music will appreciate the songs for what they are, beautiful melodic country music which was far and away better then most of the other "country" albums then AND now. God Bless you Neil Young and your family and thank you for the music.
(Capn's Response: I appreciate that you like this album, and are obviously a big Neil fan. But hackwork by a highly experienced professional does not make great music, and just like his unimaginitive dabblings with rockabilly and synth rock (by that I mean Landing on Water, not the respectable Trans), this was a momentary flash in the pan for Neil, not something he 'holds dear to his heart', to use your words. I think you can tell how much Neil thinks about this album by A) how often he's ever acknowledged it in the 20 years since it came out (Hint: NEVER), and how much he's revisited the 'hardcore country' side, which outside of Harvest Moon, which is debatable, is ALSO NEVER. This was a flavor of the week for Neil, something that felt good at the time, but also something that took no more thought of effort than Everybody's Rockin'. Bringing in Waylon and Willie does not automatically exempt this album from toss-offedness. In fact, I think Neil used those guys to prop up a weak album. Listen, I DO love country music, probably more than you do (you sound more like a Neil worshipper, and therefore have a very tangential interest in C&W at best), and sorry, but this ain't anything but a grumpy old man's idea of what stuff is like in the 'country'. Neil has about as much to do with the country as Marylin Manson does. Luckily, he'd snap out of this artistic ditch sooner or later, but this is just a bit of nothing as far as I'm concerned.)
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