Saturday, August 06, 2011

Music Library: Neil Young

I should write "WWNYD" on all of my guitars, because I can't even touch one without thinking of what Mr. Young would do.  He's one of my all-time favorite guitarists and songwriters, a guy who knows exactly how to wreak the most emotion from every note, every phrase, every line.  And that's what poetry is.  Also, he sings real funny, but I don't even notice it anymore.  It drives my wife up the wall, though.

Neil Young (1968).  Neil's first album after springing himself from Buffalo Springfield is an altogether too sensitive folky-with-strings thing.  That said, it's better than 85% of albums that could be described thus and at least 50% better than it has any right to be.

Neil Young Archives Volume I (1963-1972).  This is a massive box set, but I already owned much of the material on it.  Skipping over the early tracks, I bought some 25 unreleased songs and versions of songs when eMusic acquired this.  Among the things I picked up are an early version of "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," two different versions of "Birds," including one with Crazy Horse (!), a couple of more songs from Gold Rush with CSNY: good stuff.  Nothing earthshaking, mind you, but pretty good, nonetheless.

Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968.  A live show from the Archive series, this is NY kicking it, folky-style.  There are a bunch of songs from his Buffalo Springfield tenure and first solo album, but they have more life here.  Plus there's part of an early version of "Winterlong," my favorite NY song.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (with Crazy Horse, 1969).  Seven songs, four of which are stone classics.  Two have guitar solos for days, so minimalistic at times that they seem like Neil is paying for each note, so unhinged at times that it's like Neil doesn't care how much it costs him.  And what amazing songs!  I sometimes forget that this wasn't his first album, because it probably should be.  But it's okay that Neil made a half-hearted one first because he wouldn't want it getting around that he's invested in this or anything.  I want to mention Danny Whitten's guitar parts, too.  He's ostensibly a rhythm player, but his parts are so complementary that it seems he's more of a co-lead.  Definitely an influence on Television.

After The Gold Rush (1970). Meant to accompany a movie that never existed, Gold Rush is a near-perfect album, combining all of Neil's love of stompbox country and edge-of-the-needle folk.  The only song I could do without is his cover of Don Gibson's "Oh, Lonesome Me," which drags more than the original and yet fails to capture the pathos.  I'm happy to call it a noble failure rather than a speed bump.

Live At The Fillmore East (with Crazy Horse, recorded 1970). I probably should mention that I shuffled many of the live albums by when they were recorded, not when they were released.  This came out in 2006.  It is the Holy Grail of Neil Young/Danny Whitten guitar interplay.  It has a 12-minute version of "Down By The River" and a 16-minute version of "Cowgirl In The Sand" and nary a wasted noted between them.

Live At Massey Hall 1971.  As he is the god of tasteful guitar licks, he is also a god of songwriting.  Wikipedia helpfully notes that only eight of the 18 songs he played that night had appeared on albums at the time of performance.  The remaining ten would pop up in different places over the next few years, mostly (well, about half) on Harvest. Excellent recording and excellent performance.

Harvest (February 1972).  This was a major album for Neil, but not for me.  It's a little more countrified, with a backing band Neil dubbed the Stray Gators that was pulled from Nashville session players.  The songs are pretty strong, but I've always had a hard time connecting with it.  Neil's trying pretty hard to please a mass audience (and that he did: it went to #1 on the US charts and is a multi-platinum seller), but I like him better when his rough edges poke through.

Journey Through The Past (November 1972). This is the soundtrack to a NY-directed movie that I've never seen. From all reports, it sounds rather incoherent, which is easily the best word to describe this album, the NY album I am least likely to reach for, ever.

Time Fades Away (1973). NY reportedly hates this album and refuses to release it on CD or as a digital download.  But he is wrong. It is one of his top five best albums.  It's a live album recorded with the Stray Gators on the Harvest tour, but his songwriting is more bare and angry and aching than on Harvest.  See, Danny Whitten was supposed to join them on that tour, but he died of a heroin overdose instead.  And these songs, most of which appear nowhere else, are brutal.  So brutal that even the Stray Gators can't make them sound easy.  I said I like him better when the rough edges shine through; this one is all rough edges and bloody elbows, and goddamn does it taste sweet.

On The Beach (1974).  Tonight's The Night was recorded first, but this one was released nearly a year earlier.  Full of great - if a bit meandering - songs and bare performances, it's a strong album only a step or two behind Time Fades Away.

Citizen Cane Junior Blues (bootleg, 1974). This is an acoustic bootleg from the On The Beach tour. I have no regrets.

Tonight's The Night (1975). Sounding like it was recorded in the dead of night in an undertaker's backroom while drunk on cheap whiskey, Tonight's The Night is the sound of being wound down, exhausted, depressed, and beaten.  It's an elegy for a whole part of NY's life, but I have to admit that it's not really an album that I love.  I like it.  Admire it.  But the mopeyness sounds a little calculated and polished, and I just can't take to it the way I want to.  It's a great album, but I can't be satisfied with mere greatness.

Zuma (with Crazy Horse, 1975). I don't know that there's ever been a greater album shackled to shittier cover art than Zuma. With new guitarist Frank Sampedro stepping in on the Crazy Horse guitar duties, NY throws out a series of songs that refuses to be marred by dumb lyrics ("Don't Cry No Tears"), sexism ("Stupid Girl") or Crosby, Stills, and Nash ("Through My Sails").  "Cortez The Killer" is downright epic in scope and execution.  First-rate.

Long May You Run (as the Stills-Young Band, 1976). A remarkably crappy collaboration with Stephen Stills, long the catalyst behind some of NY's questionable output, Long May You Run features a couple of okay NY songs, a few bad ones, and a whole bunch of stink from Stills, who must have had some seriously good weed to convince Neil to go along with this crap for as long as he did (legendarily, NY stepped out 8 dates into what was planned to be a long tour, leaving a pithy note about spontaneity for Stills).

Chrome Dreams (bootleg, 1976). This was intended to be a release, but NY pulled it.  I'm glad.  The ones that he changed on subsequent releases, he always changed for the better, and all but one of the songs turned up on later albums.  It doesn't flow well, either.  That said, it would have been a great second-tier NY album if he had put it out.  Considering that the songs he improved ended up on the first-tier Rust Never Sleeps, I'm glad he made the gamble.

American Stars 'N Bars (1977).  This one is a bit all over the map, stylistically.  There's a lot of Harvest-style smoothness, but there's also "Like A Hurricane" and "Homegrown" with the full Crazy Horse stomp.  It's not a favorite of mine, but it'll do.

"Winterlong" and "Campaigner" (1977).  Clearly, I have no use for the greatest-hits compilation Decade, except that it includes these two nonalbum tracks, and one of them, "Winterlong," is my favorite NY song.

Comes A Time (1978). Another Harvest-style album. I have a lot of affection for it, because I can't help but love "Lotta Love."

Rust Never Sleeps and Live Rust (both with Crazy Horse, 1979).  Half acoustic pastorale, half Crazy Horse putting on punk airs, Rust Never Sleeps is a perfect album.  Every song is exactly what it is supposed to be, and "Powderfinger," in particular, is the Great American Song.  Not a note out of place.  Live Rust is an typical greatest-hits-played-faster live album, the first such of NY's career (both Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps were substantially recorded live, but both feature new songs and are more like studio albums in that way).  That said, Live Rust features some stunning guitar work.

Hawks & Doves and Where The Buffalo Roam Soundtrack (both 1980).  Neither of these seem well-thought-out.  They're both kind of all over the place. H&D has some of the more cast-off songs in any NY album to date, with some surprisingly right-wing-oriented lyrics.  WTBR has NY playing the title song on a heavily distorted guitar, which seems like it should come together in a big way, but doesn't.

Re-Ac-Tor (with Crazy Horse, 1981).  It has a bad rap, but Re-Ac-Tor brings the wild guitar rave-ups infused with punk energy that fueled the second half of Rust Never Sleeps.  None of the songs have the strength of the Rust songs, but they have plenty of energy to burn.  I'd written this one off years ago, so I was surprised by how strongly I re-act-ed to it this time.

Trans (1982).  Oh, here is an album that many people just hate.  Perhaps influenced by Kraftwerk, perhaps, as NY said about it later, a misguided attempt to communicate with his son who suffered from cerebral palsy, Trans is a bizarre mixture of elements that will never sit right together.  I rather like it when I get around to listening to it, but mainly because it is so crazy-wrong.

Everybody's Rockin' (with the Shocking Pinks, 1983).  A rockabilly album.  I guess I should mention that NY changed labels right before he put out Trans.  Between that and this, David Geffen sued him for not sounding like Neil Young.  Interesting question: can an artist be someone other than themselves?  NY countersued and Geffen lost, by the way, and scared off REM, who had been considering signing with him before the suit.

Old Ways (1985), Landing On Water (1986), Life (with Crazy Horse, 1987), and This Note's For You (with the Bluenotes, 1988).  I can't even pretend that I have much to say about these albums.  Old Ways is straight-up country with Waylon and Willie and the boys.  S'okay.  Landing On Water is godawful.  Avoid at all costs.  Life is turgid and dull, two words that were never applicable to a Crazy Horse record before this.  This Note's For You is an R&B pastiche.  It's not great, but it's not terrible, so there's that.

Eldorado EP (with the Restless) and Freedom (both 1989). A welcome return to the free world, and the rocking therein.  I used to think this was a great album, but 20 years later, it now sounds like a good album given a boost by a grateful audience.  The EP has slightly different versions of some of the songs from Freedom and two tracks unavailable elsewhere.  Also pretty good.

Ragged Glory and The Feedback Is Back (the latter a bootleg, both with Crazy Horse, 1990).  NY + Crazy Horse + loud guitars + great songs = f*!#in' great album.  One of the few post-80s NY albums I can give 5 stars in my collection.  The bootleg is fun, too.

Arc and Weld (both with Crazy Horse, 1991). The latter is another excellent live album with Crazy Horse.  The former is a 35-minute sound collage of noise, feedback, the beginning and ends of "Like A Hurricane," and it is like nothing else.

Harvest Moon (1992). A sweet reunion with the Stray Gators for some country sugar.  Another album I used to love more than I do now.

Unplugged and "All Along The Watchtower" (1993).  Pretty lame greatest-hits-live thing for MTV's Unplugged series that was popular at the time.  The Dylan cover is from a benefit recorded that year.

Sleeps With Angels (with Crazy Horse, 1994) and Mirror Ball (with Pearl Jam, 1995).  Never connected that well with either of these albums.  There's some good there, but mostly they bore me.

Dead Man Soundtrack (1996), Broken Arrow (with Crazy Horse, 1996) and Year Of The Horse (with Crazy Horse, 1997). Oh my, is the Dead Man Soundtrack great.  Maybe it's not your speed, but it is definitely mine.  Recorded with two overdubbed NY guitars playing against each other, wrapped around dialogue from the movie, actors reciting Blake poems, pump organs, and the sound of a car running in the background, it is an aural experience that I enjoy immensely.  NY's guitar tone is remarkably pure, and his playing is extraordinary.  Broken Arrow is a return to form with Crazy Horse, too.  Maybe it's not quite as good as Ragged Glory, but better than most everything else from the 1990s.  Year Of The Horse is another great live rave-up with Crazy Horse & NY playing their favorite songs.  The Jarmusch concert movie is worth seeking out.

Silver & Gold (2000) and Are You Passionate? (2002).  I disliked both of these when they came out, so they surprised me by being quite listenable this time around.  The former is a Harvest-style country album, the latter a more rocking affair with members of Booker T & The MG's sitting in.

Greendale (with Crazy Horse, 2003).  I didn't get this rock opera the first time around, but this time I quite enjoyed it.  Frank Sampedro sat this one out, so NY is the only guitarist on the album.

Prairie Wind (2005), Living With War (2006), Living With War: In the Beginning (2006), Chrome Dreams II (2007),  Fork In The Road (2009), and Le Noise (2010).  Sorry, I'm ready to wrap this up and I don't have that much to say about any of these albums.  Unlike the 80s albums, these are all quite listenable.  Prairie Wind is another country album.  Living With War and LWW: In The Beginning are basically the same album.  The latter strips out much of the production of the former and is better for it.  Chrome Dreams II is a Freedom-style kitchen sink album.  Fork In The Road is a concept album about an electric car that NY likes.  It's alright.  Le Noise is more or less a NY acoustic album with one loud, distorted guitar replacing his acoustic.  Quite listenable, as I say, as I pretty much expect any NY album to be at this point in his career.  He's shaken off the pointlessness and he's still reaching for relevance, and god bless him for that.


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