Monday, April 22, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Seven: After the (Late Career) Gold Rush

All good things must come to an end, and Neil Young's 90s renaissance could not last forever. Before embarking on this project, I only had a spotty knowledge of his 2000s material. He did not go back into the Ditch, but Young definitely decided to move away from his traditional modes, to varying degrees of success. In the latter half of the decade he seemed to find his footing, but no album in this period measures up to the best he had made in the prior decade. Nevertheless, I found some of these to be at least interesting.

Road Rock Vol 1, 2000

I was not sure whether to put this one in the last installment or this edition, and basically made the decision to put it here because the 90s post was getting too long. (Not the most honest periodization method, I know.) This is a live album from Young's 2000 tour, and I think its lack of distinctiveness makes it a good curtain-raiser for a more mediocre decade in his career. The music here is by no means bad, just not completely distinct. It starts with a good take on "Cowgirl in the Sand" that lasts 18 minutes. At the same time, why? The same can be said for the extended take on "Words" and the closing cover of "All Along the Watchtower." The sense that Young was leaning on his traditional modes yet building on them is just not there anymore. This album may be good in a vacuum, but there's far, far better things in this mode in his catalog. Ultimately, it's just inessential. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Toast, recorded in 2000-2001 released in 2022.

In a sign that Young is not as steady as before, we have our first lost album in awhile. It's recorded with Crazy Horse, but like Sleeps With Angels, it's not a trip back to the garage. I have to say, I liked it. From what I understand, Young's relationship with his longtime wife Pegi was hitting some snags, something that shows up in many of the songs. Crazy Horse grooves along and the emotions are reminiscent of the Ditch years. I am not sure why Young didn't release it, but his newfound tendency to doubt himself is a throwback to his tumultuous 70s. It's certainly better than the record he put out instead. 

Rating: Four Neils

Are You Passionate?, released in 2002

Some of the songs from Toast ended up here, but recorded with Booker T and the MGs instead of Crazy Horse. We are back to Young's 80s experiments in genre, this with time soul music. That band as always sounds fantastic and they are the highlight of this record. What's striking here is Young's voice. He is barely projecting, sounding like a chastised child. The songs reference problems in his marriage, and he really comes off like a man in emotional pain. Unfortunately, soul music requires soul power in the singing, and Young provides the opposite. The elements just don't work together. I am sure his live gigs with Booker T and the MGs are great, but this record lacks that spark. The backing band saves it from being completely missable. 

Rating: Two and a half Neils

Greendale, 2003

Does anybody remember CD burning? For a brief time in the early-to-mid 2000s it was a big way for me to access music. My friends would get stuff and burn it for me and I would give them burns of stuff I had and they didn't. We were all music nuts, so doing this did not mean spending less on CDs, it meant we got more bang for our buck. I listened to this one in the burned CD format, and had mixed reactions. Young plays with Crazy Horse but without Poncho on rhythm guitar. I like the stripped-down sound and the loose, jammy quality. This is an old-school concept album, telling the story of a family in a small town and touching on police violence and environmentalism. It has the same problem all rock operas do, in that songs based on plot get boring and indistinct. Despite that persistent issue, I enjoyed listening to it again after a twenty-year hiatus. There's a similar vibe as Toast in terms of Crazy Horse's approach and I have to commend Young yet again for trying new things even in old age. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Prairie Wind, 2005

I had never listened to this album before, but I knew the music well from Young's Heart of Gold documentary with Jonathan Demme, filmed around the same time. (I love the Demme docs, more on that later.) In a trend I've noticed with his more folkie material, I prefer Young's live versions over the studio tracks, which creep way too far out of the Ditch into the middle of the road. Not all of the songs are strong, but he's playing with some great country musicians and he captures some of that Harvest spirit. Tellingly for this stage of his career, it's not as good as Harvest Moon. When his songs evoke the landscape of his native Manitoba, this album really gets me. I too was raised on the Great Plains swept by prairie winds, due South from him in Nebraska. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Living With War, 2006

The "War on Terror" and the degradations of the Bush years brought a lot of dissent out into the open, but few artists were able to rise to the moment. Political songs are always a challenge because the lyrics are often more suited for writing pamphlets than crafting songs. While this album achieved some acclaim at the time, I think it's mostly because folks were glad to hear a Sixties rocker take on Dubya. Almost twenty years later, it is incredibly cringey. I did find it to be an interesting artifact of a past time, as well as an early example of what has been termed "resistance lib" in the Trump Era. Like a lot of Boomers of this persuasion, Young's objection to a criminal president is rooted in an idealized vision of America he absorbed in his youth (even if he grew up in Canada.) Instead of seeing Bush as the natural outgrowth of a lot of trends in American life, he is talked about as a deviation from the great American way. While this framing serves a political purpose, its naivete grates. The one thing I appreciated is that Young attacks these songs with genuine fire.

Rating: Two Neils

Chrome Dreams II, 2007

Young mysteriously named this as a sequel to one of his "lost" albums even though it does not share much musically or thematically. Whatever his motivations, he starts really strong, sounding better than he has on any officially released album since his 90s comeback. This album really goes all over the place, especially the eighteen-minute "Ordinary People," which he had recorded in the late 80s with the Blue Notes. The thing is, it sounds better than just about any song he put out in that mode! Instead of just playing the blues, he has Old Black growling and scratching with aplomb along with the horn section. There's pretty ballads too, like "Shining Light." "Ever After" is a lovely country song. Not all of these songs work, but the ones that do really grabbed me. If you haven't listened, give it a shot.

Rating: Four Neils

Deja Vu Live, 2008 with CSNY

This was recorded in 2006, in the middle of Young's political reaction to the Bush wars. Young decided to bring the rest of CSNY back together for a tour, attempting to rekindle the hippie political spirit of "Ohio." At the time I must admit I rolled my eyes a little because I was tired of Boomers hogging the mic when it came to anti-war protest. Listening to it now, I was struck by how much better the songs from Living With War sound live. Political messages will always connect better in front of a crowd, and unlike the recent studio CSNY records, those famous harmonies are back. Well, except for the version of “Wooden Ships,” which is more like harm. (The guitars  sound great though.) Here “Let’s Impeach the President” is a raucous party song that based on the crowd’s booing really touched a nerve. While much of this is pretty rote, I at least had to respect that bit of punk edge.

Rating: Three Neils

Fork in the Road, 2009

The blurry Polaroid photo on the cover tells you this is not going to be a clean record, which is just how I like it with Neil. Yes, it's thrown together and sloppy but it's also creative and fun. The lyrics might need more polish but the garage sound kept me tuned in. The theme here is cars, as this came out around the time he rigged up his old Lincoln Continental to be electric. When I read his memoir (which came out a couple of years after this) I must admit I got worn out by all of his talk about electric cars and improved streaming sound. At this stage in his life it felt like he was more interested in his technical hobbies than in his music, which was more tossed off than crafted. Nevertheless, I had fun with this one even though it's on the slight side. I especially enjoyed "Dirty Old Man," which had the gutter punk humor of "Welfare Mothers" all over it. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Le Noise, 2010

Until I listened to this one I didn't know that the title was a play on producer Daniel Lanois' name. From the title I expected something that did not sound like a typical Neil Young record, and I was correct. Lanois' production style is distinctive and can be divisive. I tend to be a fan, and on this record Lanois provides his sheen but does not overpower what Neil does best. I have to say, I really liked it. As with his other latter-day records, the lyrics are not exactly inspiring, but the new sound helps cover that up pretty well. It should be noted that even in his heyday Young had some lyrical clunkers, like rhyming "rain" with "rain" on "See The Sky About to Rain." While the 2000s did not produce any classic Neil Young albums, he at least ended things up with three solid efforts. I had a hard time trying to periodize this stage in his career, but I think this is a good stopping point. After a decade of experiments of varying quality, he would move into the 2010s with a return to Crazy Horse. 

Rating: Four Neils

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Six: Shakey’s Return

Neil Young’s decade in the 80s wilderness could have been the end of his career. Instead, he bounced back with a stunning comeback. He managed to return to his strengths without indulging in mere imitation of his glory days like the Stones have been doing forever. In fact, Young became a part of the burgeoning grunge thing in the early 90s. Sonic Youth opened for him, he cut a record with Pearl Jam, and his own work sounded like it came from the present rather than from the past. In this period I became a fan, listening not only to the classics, but also to his new output, which I considered just as good. Like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Young did not just "come back," he produced new work that could proudly stand tall next to the stuff that had made him famous. Ironically, he found new relevance by returning to the kind of sounds that had made him famous in the first place. 

Freedom, 1989

Right from the first chords of the acoustic version of “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” you just know that the man is back, baby. Not only is it one of his best songs, he dropped it in the same year the Berlin Wall fell. In the midst of all the self-congratulation he wrote the most searing critique of Reagan’s America to make it on the radio this side of “Fast Car.” There’s some other good songs here, especially “Crime In The City.” Some of this record is spotty and uneven, but it is a bona fide Neil Young record, his first in ten years.

Rating: Four Neils

Ragged Glory, 1990 with Crazy Horse

This was the first contemporary Neil Young album I bought and also the first with Crazy Horse I'd ever listened to. I was already a huge Hendrix fan and the guitar tone on this record gave me the same thrill. Young and the Horse sound amazing, like the best garage band that's ever trod the earth. Appropriately, it starts with two songs he wrote in the Zuma days of the mid 70s. Young and the Horse sound like the last ten years hadn't even happened. Appropriately, some of the songs express nostalgia for the sixties, like “The Days That Used To Be” and “Mansion on the Hill,” but this is no throwback. It fits in quite comfortably with the whole grunge sound of the time. The extended rocking out on a couple tracks also mirrors the growing jam band scene of the time. While those workouts maybe don't thrill the people who come to Neil for his directness, they are far from boring. When performed live it gets even wilder and better. 

Rating: Five Neils

Way Down in the Rust Bucket, recorded in 1990 and released in 2021 with Crazy Horse

This live show is an entry in the Archives series and it really blew me away. I hadn't heard this one since embarking on this project, and it now might be my favorite Neil Young live album. It comes from a show at a small venue in Santa Cruz, where Young and the Horse were warming up for their tour. As I have noticed time and again, Young's live performances add a lot to the songs, especially if he is vibing with the audience. It's an appreciative crowd, and Young's guitar work sounds amazing. The Horse is locked in tight, too. The new material from Ragged Glory sounds even better live, with the solos and jams bringing the songs to new heights. I also appreciate the song choices. It's not just the old warhorses, but also the likes of the infamous "T-Bone," which live at a club sounds fun instead of plodding. Albums like this are why the Archives series is such a gift. 

Rating: Five Neils

Weld, 1991 with Crazy Horse

After Ragged Glory Young rode the Horse out on a well-received tour. Sonic Youth opened, a sign that he was not just some geezer but a man who appreciated and supported the younger musicians influenced by him. While this is not as thrilling as Rust Bucket, it's still really damn good. Young gets adventurous, especially on "Like a Hurricane." I remember seeing a report about the tour on MTV News and I was sort of in awe of this group of aging men who were really letting it rip in a wild way that their geezer peers could not attain. I only have to ding this one a little for not being too inventive with the song choices, which are all the most well-known or new in the catalog. The exceptions are an anti-Gulf War cover of "Blowin' In The Wind" and a spirited "Roll Another Number" that closes things out. 

Rating: Four and a Half Neils

Harvest Moon, 1992

While Comes a Time could have been the sequel to Harvest, Harvest Moon very much feels like an official one, twenty years later. It was fitting for Young to make his comeback with Crazy Horse, and then extend that comeback with songs in his folkie vein. Being a middle-aged man, the themes have changed. "From Hank to Hendrix" is a profound song about the transitions of this precarious time in life, and to my mind one of his best ever. The title track is just a truly gorgeous love song, and a rare one about a long-lasting love. The only misstep is the album closer "Natural Beauty," which goes on for eleven minutes in the preachy hippie mode that Young will increasingly take in his lyrics going forward. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Dreamin' Man Live '92, released in 2009

Here's another Archives series I'd missed, this time chronicling Young's solo acoustic shows after Harvest Moon. He is in fine voice, and as always his acoustic live sets are just as good as what he puts on record. I was even a little shocked that he managed to make "Natural Beauty" sound less ridiculous. The selections here are all from Harvest Moon, and I do really wish that we got some more catalog tracks so we could hear what he was doing with them at the time. Nevertheless, if you like Harvest Moon you will love this.

Rating: Four and a Half Neils

Unplugged, 1993

How to explain the "unplugged" phenomenon? In the early 90s, in the midst of a revival of more "authentic" rock music, MTV had a series where performers would give acoustic concerts. The results were sometimes pretty fantastic. Nirvana's appearance might be my favorite album of theirs and LL Cool J brought the house down with his. Neil Young was obviously the perfect person for this, and I remember really enjoying his episode at the time, particularly the gritty take on "Mr Soul." Around the same time he did a live show for PBS that I taped and loved for the songs where he brought out an organ. (He does so here, too.) While people have a tendency to poo-poo the Unplugged thing these days, I think this is a strong set with some surprising cuts, including an acoustic "Transformer Man." 

Rating: Four Neils

Sleeps With Angels, 1994 with Crazy Horse

I didn't buy this album until a few months after it came out, and it became the soundtrack to my summer in 1995. I was back in my hometown after my first year of college, extremely lonely and bored. The dark tone, inspired by Kurt Cobain's suicide, fit my mood pretty well. This record is as close as Young got to the emotional Ditch after the the mid-1970s, and the title track, "Trans Am," "Safeway Cart," and "Driveby" would have fit in well on Tonight's The Night. Many songs explored the territory of "Crime in the City" and "Keep Rockin' in the Free World": the desperation of the people left behind by the inequalities of the neoliberal turn of the Reagan era. It's easy to think of the 90s as a carefree time of economic prosperity, but for those of us who were paying attention at the time, things didn't look so great. Kurt Cobain had been a hero of mine as his suicide hurt more than any death of any other famous person possibly could, and this record registers Young's own despair about it, too. This album does suffer a little from CD disease, in that it could be shorter. It's interesting that Young creates mirrors, like using old time piano on the first and last songs and the same tune for "Western Hero" and "Train of Love," but maybe we'd be better off with just one song from each pair. That being said, this album does not hearken back to Crazy Horse's garage adventures or Young's folkie roots; the sound is pretty unique and arresting. the avant-garde touches on "Prime of Life" and the gutter-punk snarl of "Piece Of Crap" still grab me (and my cousin's band performed the latter back in the 90s along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana tunes!) This album is among Young's best. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Mirrorball, 1995 with Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam made no secret of their love of Neil Young, yet another thing that made him the coolest Boomer rocker to teenage me. I was really excited when they decided to cut a record together, it was a true "Hey, you got peanut butter on my chocolate!" moment. I still remember the first time I listened to it. I'd gone home from college over Labor Day weekend, which also coincides with my birthday. I got it as a birthday gift, and first listen was in my car driving back to college. A sunny Nebraska road trip was the perfect accompaniment, which is maybe why it just never sounded so good the other times I listened to it. Part of the problem was that my expectations were ridiculous. I had been grooving to Sleeps With Angels and Pearl Jam's Vitalogy that whole summer. While I liked Mirrorball, it just wasn't as good as those other albums. I ended up putting it aside and didn't really pick it up again, even though I thought it was good. Listening to it again now I am struck by how Pearl Jam and Young work well together, and Pearl Jam's, er, heightened musicianship compared to Crazy Horse allows for some new tricks. (Although on "Downtown" it sounds like Pearl Jam is really smelling the Horse.) I must admit, this album is better than I remember, definitely better than the records Young and Pearl Jam would put out next, even if it's not as good as the milestones they just passed. 

Rating: Four Neils

Broken Arrow, 1996

I had been with Young for his 90s comeback up to this point, but I never bought this album. I saw a negative review and decided I should spend my hard-earned cash on Radiohead's The Bends instead (a wise choice.) In many respects this is a throwback to Young’s 80s: scattershot, weak songs, and not memorable. That said, any time Neil gets on the Horse and shreds with Old Black it’s too great to ever really be bad. I think it’s slightly better than its reputation, but not by much.

Rating: Three Neils

Year of the Horse, 1997 with Crazy Horse

I bought this double live album on CD because it was discounted. I liked it, but only OK, and it soon got traded in at the used CD store (remember those?).At the time people wondered why Young was putting out yet another live record. The fact that it draws tracks from Broken Arrow drags it down, but I did appreciate the more obscure selections, especially”Prisoners.” It still rocks hard, and it’s still the Horse, even if this isn’t nearly as good as Weld. The blistering take of "Sedan Delivery" almost gets us there.

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Looking Forward, 1999 with CSNY

I have to say I was dreading this one. The last CSNY record came at the end of Young's crappy 80s, and so the low quality of his work with Messers. Stills, Nash, and Crosby was not so much of a disappointment. This album is pretty undefined and uninteresting, and it comes after Young's renaissance decade had upped expectations. Some of these songs seem comically aimless. As usual, Young's contributions are the best, but they can't bring this thing enough life. Thankfully it was the last CSNY studio record. 

Rating: One and a half Neils

Silver & Gold, 2000

I’m putting this one as the last of the “comeback” era because in this phase Young stuck with his two signature modes: folkie and rocking with the Horse. This album is definitely in the folkie mode, but he would soon return to divergent paths in the 21st century. Like Harvest Moon, this is pleasant and mellow, but the songs are not as good. It’s not bad, just uneven. Perhaps after putting out some just okay records in his regular modes, Young decided it was time to shake it up.

Rating: Three Neils

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Five: Lost in the Eighties

The 1980s were a bad decade for a lot of legacy music artists, but none disappointed in that decade more memorably than Neil Young. Yes Bob Dylan would cut some stinkers and Johnny Cash would lose the plot, but Young's albums jumped all over the place and sounded nothing like his signature sound. I first started listening to Young in the early 1990s, and every article about him commented on the astounding weirdness of the prior decade. I will admit, that kept me from listening to any of these albums before doing this series. While conventional wisdom is often wrong, there's a reason Young has barely put out any Archives releases from this period. 

Hawks and Doves, 1980

This is the Neil Young record I most reliably see at every used record store. The first side is songs from his "lost albums" of 1974-1977. Because their choice is scattershot, they don't cohere, and "Lost in Space" is a sub-par outlier, the songs are less effective than they ought to be. Side two is mostly recent material, jaunty and countrified and politically conservative. It's also not that great. "Union Man" mocks the musicians' union and unions in general. "Hawks & Doves" seems to be backing Reaganite foreign policy. "Stayin' Power" is so awful I can barely listen to it. The album is also under a half hour long, an admission of artistic bankruptcy. Things are not looking good.

Rating: Three Neils

Re*ac*tor, 1981 (with Crazy Horse)

Young is back on the Horse here. Their smash and bash is welcome but can't save this weak batch of songs. (This is another album I reliably see at used record stores.) When things come together I can enjoy the Crazy Horse chaos, like on "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" and "Opera Star." The xenophobic anti-Japanese car message of "Motor City" is annoying but Crazy Horse pops. In terms of weak songs, Young got a lot of flack for "T-Bone," which is almost ten minutes long and whose lyrics solely consist of "Got mashed potatoes/ Don't got no t-bone." Like a lot of Young's 80s stunts, this is something that sounds a lot more amusing than it is to listen to. Crazy Horse saves this one.

Rating; Three Neils

Trans, 1983

This is probably the most infamous of Neil Young's experiments, his first for Geffen Records. Young completely eschews his old sound for an electro-rock buzz overlaid with Vocoder-distorted vocals. I am a huge Kraftwerk fan, so of course I loved it. "Computer Age" is almost worthy of Hutter, Schneider, and co. Two friends who are following this project were especially keen to hear my thoughts on this one, and now I know why. At times this sounds more derivative of new wave artists than it does original, and I'd rather listen to the real thing rather than an imitation. For the most, however, I think it works. That however was the opposite of what critics and fans thought at the time. 

Rating: Four Neils

Everybody's Rockin', 1983 with the Shocking Pinks

Trans could have been just a one-off deviation, but then Young put out a rockabilly record, one only 25 minutes long with plenty of covers. This was the clearest sign that he had decided to completely distance himself from his career up to this point. The songs aren't horrible, but they are not good and don't even rise to the level of paint-by-numbers rockabilly. This was a time when bands like Stray Cats and Big Daddy were successfully putting their own spin on this music and updating it for the 80s. Young does not sound like a famous musical artist, but more like the leader of a local cover band. Of all his genre experiments this is by far the worst.

Rating: Two Neils

Old Ways, 1985 with the International Harvesters

After cutting a bad rockabilly record Young made some okay country music. He had flirted with the genre on Hawks and Doves and American Stars N' Bars, and here he goes all in. Because it's the 80s, the country in question is very "Nashville Sound," with strings on multiple tracks reminiscent of those on George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Some of the songs are nevertheless pretty enjoyable. It's great to hear him sing with Wille and Waylon and Young appears to be having a good time for a change. Something about this album just doesn't seem to work, though. On most of the songs his voice lacks the depth you need to sing traditional country. Young's voice sounds thin, as if he's not even really putting himself into it. The album cover, showing his back as he is walking down a road away from the viewer is symbolic of a man turning his back on his audience and also seemingly removed from his own music. This isn't a bad record, but it could have been so much better.

Rating: Three Neils

A Treasure, recorded 1984-1985 and released in 2011

This is one of the few currently existing Archives releases from the 1980s. From what I've read it sounds like Young has some "lost" albums in this period that might end up getting released. In any case, I think it's telling that this is the sole release from the first half of the 80s, since his country work with the International Harvesters backing band is the only thing from this period where Young seems to be having a good time. The backing band is full of Nashville pros, so they know how to play. On record Young's singing did not match the country material, as good as the band could lay it down. Live he has more energy, and his country sojourn actually feels like it was a good idea poorly executed. I really dig the country takes on older Young tunes like "Are You Ready For The Country," and especially "Flying on the Ground is Wrong." Lyrically some of this material suffers from Young's engagement in cranky middle-aged conservatism, but I guess that stuff fits better in a country milieu. Unlike pretty much everything else in this installment of the blog, I actually ENJOYED this music. (I like Trans, but that's more something I appreciate rather than enjoy.) 

Rating: Four Neils

Landing on Water, 1986

I'd never heard a note of this one before, and was taken aback when I was immediately hit by the big snare and synth sound of 80s corporate rock when I put it on. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em I guess. This sounds like a less well-executed Genesis album. Geffen had sued Young for not putting out "representative music" and I wonder if this album is troll by Young, effectively saying "OK, let me sound like every other aging rock act in the 80s." As with his other albums since Hawks and Doves, the songs are weak. In some cases the 80s sound is done in such an extreme way that I almost -almost- find it brilliant as parody. Either way, I will not listen to this ever again.

Rating: One and a half Neils

Life, 1987 with Crazy Horse

The conventional wisdom on this album is that it's the moment when Young started to pull himself out of the depths of his failed experiments in the 80s and make better music. Having just listened to it for the first time, I can't really go for that narrative. The album is really uneven, with some highlights like "Prisoners of Rock and Roll" and plenty of forgettable tunes. He's back on the Horse, but the heavy 80s production style feels cold and digital, undercutting what Young and the Horse do best with their normally warm sound. At least his politics have returned to skepticism of American empire instead of the rah-rah bullshit from earlier in the decade. I might give this one a relisten just to check and see if my impressions are right. 

Rating: Two and a half Neils

This Note's For You, 1988 with the Blue Notes

"This Note's For You" is the first contemporary Neil Young song I ever heard, courtesy of the video getting a lot of MTV airplay after they had initially banned it. Its anti-sellout message fit well with the anti-Reagan backlash of the late 1980s and its attendant questioning of runaway capitalism. The anger in the song is welcome too, I get the sense that Young CARES again. I have not felt that much this decade. While the blues sound here is more the ersatz blues of the Blues Brothers than it is Buddy Guy or Muddy Waters, it is a welcome change from the godawful corporate rock sound of the last two albums. Not all of the songs work, but I found myself grooving to its vibe, which felt the least forced of any of the genre experiment albums. Thank goodness this was the last one. 

Rating: Three Neils

Bluenote Cafe, recorded in 1987-1988 with the Blue Notes and released in 2015

As with the country material, the live versions have more fun and adventurous vibe than the studio versions. There are a lot of songs here not on the record, but few catalog numbers. Young's old stuff probably wouldn't have worked as blues songs. Anyway, this isn't the best thing around, but it's a hoot.

Rating: Three and a half Neils

American Dream, 1988 with CSNY

I wanted to just straight rip this album, but I know that it was recorded in the first place because Young had promised David Crosby he would do so if Crosby got off drugs. That means this album is a literal labor of love. Too bad more of that spirit does not show up in the grooves. It's really long, the songs are not very distinct, there's few of those great harmonies, and the production style off-brand 80s Genesis. It came out at the same time that The Who and Jefferson Airplane got back together for tours and the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead were scoring hit songs and tours. I came of musical age in this environment, which encouraged me to love the music created by an older generation before I was born. In a lot of ways, that has lead to me today in my 40s writing this long Neil Young series. 

Rating; Two Neils

At this point in his career Young could have become yet another geezer act, making money on what he'd written as a young man. In a stunning rebirth, Young would soon prove in the next decade that he was no oldies act, but rather an artist with new tricks up his sleeve.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Four: Regeneration

Neil Young became a star in the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s he took a turn into the ditch. In the late 70s he tried to balance the middle of the road with his wilder instincts. It all ended with Rust Never Sleeps, perhaps his best album. Strangely, he would follow it up with a long trek in the wilderness. 

Long May You Run, 1976 (with Stephen Stills) 

I was not sure where to start the post-Ditch period, but listening to this album makes for an obvious break. After some abortive sessions with the whole CSNY crew, Young cut an album just with Stills. The two of them had been the heart of Buffalo Springfield, and listening to the live CSNY stuff I kept thinking that they should have kept making more music together. Turns out that was kind of a monkey's paw situation, since this album is pretty meh. Instead of utilizing their ferocious twin guitar attack, this is some very smooth 1970s yacht rock that's just not nearly as good as Steely Dan and other masters of the form. The title song is one of Young's most famous, but the rest does not distinguish itself all that much. Perhaps it just sounds underwhelming after the brilliance of the Ditch material. 

Rating: Three Neils

Hitchhiker, recorded in 1976 and released in 2017

Homegrown was not Young's only "lost" album in this period. He also cut and then shelved Hitchhiker, a very stripped-down collection recorded in a day that his label and others thought was too unfinished to release as an official record. Many of the songs would show up elsewhere, like "Campaigner" and "Human Highway." The wonderfully eerie "Hawaii" was also on Homegrown. I was most struck, however, by hearing early versions of songs that would be highlights of Rust Never Sleeps: "Pocahontas," "Ride My Llama," and "Powderfinger." In the 70s a major artist was not allowed to put out a stripped-down record like this, but Young seemed to anticipate the "unplugged" craze of the 1990s. (There's a reason why he hit a major career renaissance in that decade!) Hitchhiker is a return to his folk roots, but with the sting of his Ditch-era songwriting. It's a shame it took so long to see the light of day because I think it's one of the best things he ever did. 

Rating: Five Neils

Songs for Judy, recorded in 1976 and released in 2018

This is a strange Archives release since it's selections from the acoustic sets of his 1976 tour, which featured Young on guitar in the first half of the show before bringing on Crazy Horse to rock out. I like it because there's plenty of Ditch era songs being performed in a different context. Young is loose and sounds like he is having fun or really stoned or both. I listened to it pretty incessantly when it was first released and still really enjoy it. It also benefits from better sound quality than some of the "official bootlegs." 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Odeon Budokan, recorded in 1976 and released in 2020

This is another recent Archives release from his 1976 shows. The strange name comes from the recordings being made at the Odean in London and Budokan in Tokyo. This album replicates the shows themselves, starting with acoustic songs then turning things over to the Horse. I like that the acoustic set has some lesser-known tunes, like "The Old Laughing Lady," "Too Far Gone," and "Stringman." The electric set has a lot of cuts from Zuma. This is the first live Crazy Horse record with Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on guitar rather than Danny Whitten. The latter added a touch of doomed melancholy to the songs. Poncho is more of a Falstaff figure, a lug who likes to kick out the jams with a smile on his face. He would also go on to be one of Young's most essential collaborators. The Horse sounds fantastic on the electric side, and evidently this was a concert that bassist Billy Talbot himself prized. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Chrome Dreams, recorded 1974-1977 and released in 2023

Believe it or not, Young cut a third "lost" album in the 1970s. Most of these songs would appear on other projects in the future, but it's a shame this album was kept under wraps. It's definitely better than the "official one" that followed. Like Hitchhiker it feels raw, both musically and emotionally. There are versions of songs that will later dominate Rust Never Sleeps, most intriguingly a slowed-down, grungy version of "Sedan Delivery." I also love the bite that "Homegrown" gets on this version. Of all of his "lost" albums, I am truly the most confounded about why he did not release this one in the moment. It's one thing to prefer to put out a barnburner like Tonight's the Night, another to release something mediocre like American Stars N' Bars.

Rating: Four and a half Neils

American Stars N' Bars, 1977

While I knew "Like a Hurricane," I had never actually listened to this album before this project. Having heard all of the "lost" albums it contained few surprises since Young culls the second side from those earlier sessions. The first side is very country rock and very au courant for 1977. After a strong start it just sort of peters out into some forgettable tunes. The second side has some gems from his unreleased albums, but thrown together like this they don't really cohere. A good album has to have common theme or sound running through it, and this one just doesn't. Some individual songs are good, though. It is strange and frustrating that Young was writing so many good songs in this era but putting out less than stellar official albums. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

High Flyin', recorded with The Ducks in 1977 and released in 2023

When this Archives release came out last year I was intrigued. For a brief time in 1977 Young joined a band called The Ducks playing bars in the Santa Cruz area. The band included a former member of Moby Grape, and it was a true group effort. The members shared lead vocals and on most of the songs Young isn't singing. You can still hear him let it rip on guitar with his signature tone, which makes this group sound like the greatest bar band that ever lived. That's in fact what they were, and this album is mostly culled from these down at heels gigs. While the songs might not be as strong top to bottom as Young's work with Crazy Horse, this is still so much damn fun and I really enjoyed listening to it. It's a reminder of why Young would find inspiration in punk and go on to be an unofficial member of the grunge scene in the 90s. The man understands that rock and roll is about energy and feeling with a strong dash of chaos. I have to wonder if this road not taken is what motivated him to get back on the Horse.

Rating: Four Neils

Comes A Time, 1978

In many ways this is the album people expected from Young after Harvest. Here he is on the cover, strumming an acoustic guitar and even smiling, for crying out loud! The music is mellow and even smooth at points. Some of the lost album songs make an appearance here, too, like "Look Out For My Love" and the wonderful "Human Highway." The excellent title song speaks to Young's situation after his time drifting. There comes a time to settle down for us all. The production is maybe too good, however. It sounds like a brand new Lincoln Continental when Young is at his best sounding like a banged-out Camaro with its muffler scraping the pavement. A good but not great record.

Rating: Four Neils

Rust Never Sleeps, 1979

You could never imagine the other guys in CSNY observing punk rock lay down the gauntlet before the bougie hippie crowd and responding like this. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” sums it all up. Kurt Cobain put that in his suicide note, which understandably upset Young, who had chronicled the wreckage of the 70s bummer and the people he lost. I think he knew he was speaking a truth and playing with fire when he wrote that line. This was my favorite Young album before starting this series and I don’t think that’s changed yet. Side one is his acoustic folkie side, but with some edge. “Hey Hey My My” cuts deep and then comes “Thrasher,” a song I’ve played on repeat during important life transitions. It helps that he goes from this emotional one two punch to the surreality of “Pocahontas,” the silliness of “Ride My Llama,” and mellowness of “Sail Away.” On side two he and the horse really let it rip. “Powderfinger” is jaw dropping, “Welfare Mothers” hilariously scuzzy, and “Sedan Delivery" more punk than punk. What’s wild is that this shouldn’t work as an album. It’s a mix of live songs from totally different concerts with a couple of studio tracks thrown in. Somehow, the whole is still greater than the parts.

Rating: Five Neils

Live Rust, 1979

In 1979 I could see why fans would have been frustrated by Young putting out a new double live album repeating a lot of songs from a different mostly live album released that year. New records are expensive! As a fan in the streaming era that don’t matter much. In fact, if someone wanted to listen to a single album as an intro to Young, I’d give them this one. He and the Horse both sound amazing. The acoustic songs cover some of his best folk material and in the case of “Comes a Time,” improves on it. The Horse rips and snorts and breathes new life into “The Loner” and “Tonight’s The Night,” The latter might be my fave live Young song this side of “Powderfinger.” This album is a kind of victory lap for Young’s miracle decade, right before a decade in the wilderness.

Rating: Five Neils

Friday, April 5, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Three: Into the Ditch

How did Neil Young respond to massive success? By putting out the darkest, most disturbing music of his career, much of it intended to alienate his newfound audience. He himself admitted to doing this deliberately, the first of many such moves he would make in his career. This era also happens to be the one I return to the most. I went through a rough personal crisis in my mid-30s and this music spoke to it in ways nothing else could. It's interesting that Young himself made it hard to acquire some of these records until recently. You get the feeling that the darkness here is truly real and something he wished never to return to. After all, I'm not keen to relive the crisis that made this music make sense for me, either. 

Journey Through the Past, 1972

Young's first record after Harvest is one that he later never bothered to put on CD. It's not a proper album, but the soundtrack to the film he made of the same name. The film is highly experimental, weird, confusing, and ultimately not all that good. With the record and film Young seems to be announcing that he does not want to be America's newest singer-songwriter sensation. The album is a literal soundtrack, meaning all the sound from the screen is on this record. That makes it spotty as a listening experience because the film is a pastiche of live performances, studio recording, and strange images. The early tracks have promise, especially the blistering take "Southern Man" and the rageful version of "Ohio." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the 15-minute version of "Words." This album is ultimately an interesting curiosity and not in need of tracking down. 

Rating: Three Neils

Time Fades Away, 1973

The cover of this live album always gets me. It's an altered photo of a shaggy hippy early 70s rock audience with a guy flashing a peace sign, wholly unaware of the slab of angry, discordant depression and sadness that Young is about to unleash. This is where his "Ditch Trilogy" begins in earnest, with Young hitting his audience expecting "Heart of Gold" with the likes of the harrowing "Don't Be Denied." It came after Young fired Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten from his touring band before they hit the road. That night Whitten died of an overdose, and Young carried the guilt of it all, blaming himself. The title song sets the mood well, a rambling saloon song about junkies and dashed hopes. This is a warts and all live record, complete with Young's voice cracking and the band sounding ragged. He does not play the hits, or any songs off of his records, for that matter. "Yonder Stands the Singer" is the only misstep, but I still have to give that one some points for its raucous energy. "LA" is a moody study of that city's special brand of ennui, the "city in the smog." "Last Dance" presents the quotidian workaday life as a grotesque trap to be escaped from. (Out of morbid kicks I will listen to this one on my commute.) The previously mentioned "Don't Be Denied" is my favorite, pretty much a straight autobiographical song. Young talks about his father leaving his family, moving to a new town, and getting beat up by the other kids in school. He discusses success with Buffalo Springfield as nothing more than "playing for the highest bid." I was not able to hear this one until I got a turntable because Young had not allowed it to be put out on CD. (He later changed his mind.) I can assure you it's worth listening to on its own merits, not as an exercise in tracking down a rare, long lost object. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Tuscaloosa, recorded in 1973 and released in 2019

This concert in the Archives series comes from the same tour as Time Fades Away, but comes across as less desperate and scary. The white line fever of life on the road has not ground him down yet. You can also hear Young perform some songs from Harvest, and he plays them pretty straight instead of trying to confound his audience. There are some songs that will appear later, as well. I love the version of "New Mama" on here, a blistering electric take rather than the acoustic brooder it would become. (I prefer this version, especially Ben Keith's junk sick steel guitar.) Parts are ramshackle, but not as gloriously so as they would be on Time Fades Away. If you like the Ditch Era of Neil definitely check this one out.

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Roxy: Tonight's the Night Live, recorded in 1973 and released in 2019

This is a legendary show and the inaugural one at the Roxy nightclub in LA. Young had spent the prior months recording what would later be released as Tonight's the Night two years later with a hybrid of Crazy Horse and the Stray Gators dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers. He basically performed the whole album on a stage meant to mimic Miami Beach, with Young wearing sunglasses and a lightweight summer blazer. The goofiness helps mitigate the deep darkness of these songs, and I dare say, improves them. Tonight's the Night is a cathartic record, and with those feelings out of his system is ready to rock again. If anything, these songs are a rumination on the death of the 60s, which I ultimately feel is the thread drawing all of Young's Ditch stuff together. The band has been playing and recording these songs for months, and they sound really tight. As I've noticed on other live releases, Young feeds off the crowd when it's a good one. They are actually happy to hear unreleased material and seem to be in on his "Miami Beach" joke. It's a great listen and one I keep returning to.

Rating: Five Neils

Somewhere Under the Rainbow, recorded in 1973 and released in 2023

This is one of the latest "Official Bootleg" concerts, meaning it comes from an audience source. It was recorded in London and like the Roxy show leans hard on Tonight's the Night material. Unlike the other "official bootleg" releases, the lowered sound quality on this one is really distracting. That's a shame, because the Santa Monica Flyers are still tight and the setlist is interesting. Hearing this band take on "Helpless" was a highlight. Unfortunately, the sound is so garbled that I had a hard time enjoying this one, which is a real shame.

Rating: Three Neils

On the Beach, 1974

Like Time Fades Away, Young kept this album from getting reissued until the 21st century. When I finally heard it I was blown away, and before I embarked on this series I considered this a top five Neil Young album. While Tonight's the Night was recorded earlier, it would not be released until 1975. This album is far less intentionally abrasive because Young seems to have gotten the worst feelings out of his system. The first song, "Walk On," is practically sunny, reveling in the joy of leaving bad times behind. It's musically fitting for an album opener, but the themes get much darker after. "Revolution Blues" is sung from the point of view of the Manson Family, essentially, and "Vampire Blues" from the perspective of an oil company "sucking blood from the earth." "Motion Pictures" is a gorgeous lament of lost love, and "Ambulance Blues" is probably Young's definitive statement on the death of the 60s. His verdict: "you're all just pissing in the wind." Re-listening to this album I was struck by its uniqueness in his catalog, which is probably why I keep going back to it. 

Rating: Five Neils

Citizen Kane Jr Blues, recorded in 1974 and released in 2022

This is another Official Bootleg, one that gives a unique insight into the Ditch Years. Young performed a little acoustic show at the Bottom Line in New York, going back to his folkie roots. The show is really intimate, and key to any good Young concert recording, the audience is sympatico with him. The sound quality is not the best, but because it's just him and a guitar the limitations are not as noticeable as on other bootlegs. I had not heard this one until doing this project, and I listened on my headphones as I walked down Broadway in a rainstorm, which seemed to fit the mood. There are songs from Tonight's The Night and On the Beach, but I was most struck by the early rendition of "Pardon My Heart," which would later show up on Zuma. The crowd laughs at the dark humor of "you're all just pissing in the wind," which might be the intended response. Apart from sound quality this is a must-listen. 

Rating: Four Neils

CSNY 1974, recorded in 1974 and released in 2014 as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

I must admit, I was not initially not looking forward to listening to this. As I mentioned in the last installment, I am not a huge CSNY fan. They are the ur-bougie hippies, symbols of resistance turned into cultural affectation. In 1974 they went on a massive tour despite not putting out any new material, leaning into their fundamentally bougie nature. This album is a box set put out forty years later and assembled by Graham Nash from live recordings. The thing is...I really like it. I might even like it better than Four Way Street, the document of their 1970 tour. The members of CSNY seem to be enjoying the break from their solo careers, and Nash does a good job of picking a wide range of songs to feature here. As always, Young brings some grit and much needed edge. I can't imagine what the typical CSNY fans thought when he reeled off dirges like "On the Beach." They also get more political with stuff like "Fieldworker," "Prison Song," and "Goodbye Dick." This set is really long and the campfire acoustic section gets too crunchy for my tastes, but this is an ideal road trip spin.

Rating: Four Neils

Homegrown, recorded in 1975 and released in 2020

Stuff like this is why people were so excited by the Archives project. Young had planned to put this album out in 1975, then decided instead at the last minute to release Tonight's The Night, which had been sitting on the shelf. Accordingly, some songs here show up later in his career in other forms on other records. When the album came out I was shocked to hear "White Line," a song I knew from 1990's Ragged Glory. There's also "Love Is a Rose," a song I had seen him perform on TV in the 90s that's a sort of remake of "Dance Dance Dance." Homegrown points to the folkier paths Young would return to in the second half of the 70s, but with similar themes to the Ditch material. He opens with "Separate Ways," a disarmingly frank song about the breakup of his marriage. I get the feeling he thought this was too personal for public consumption an opted for Tonight's The Night because that album's themes were more about the times than about the man. This is still an excellent record, even if it's not quite as powerful as the album he released in its place. It's a testament to Young's abilities in this era that he had whole secret albums just lying around. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Tonight's the Night, 1975

As I mentioned before, this album was recorded in 1973, and by the time Young released it in 1975 it was already kind of an artifact. By this point he seemed to be shaking the "bad fog of loneliness" that envelops this record. Before I ever heard it, I read it was an inspiration to the Sex Pistols. The music does not sound like heavy punk riffage, but there is an immediate rawness to it that would define punk in a deeper way. His voice breaks (especially on "Mellow My Mind") and the production is entirely unadorned. This album feels like one long, raw meditation on the dead dreams of the sixties, starting with a title song about Young's roadie Bruce Berry dying from a heroin overdose. "Tired Eyes," about a murdered drug dealer who "tried his best but could not" brings this vibe across most powerfully. It's fitting that this album came out in 1975, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, and post-postwar economic boom. People at the time were well aware that not everything in life works out. While this is an amazing record, I rarely listen to it because it replicates the feelings of being in a deep depression too well. 

Rating: Five Neils

Zuma, 1975

People like to talk of a "Ditch Trilogy" that ends with Tonight's the Night, but I like to think of Zuma as a coda. The vibe is much more fun, but Young is still wrestling with his failed marriage to Carrie Snodgrass. Musically this is still rough and ready with Young back riding the Horse again. This is the first album with Frank Sampedro on guitar in the Horse, and he seems to bring out some extra growl from the band. While the songs themselves are about the fallout of a broken relationship the music feels jaunty and fun at times. This is the sound of a person emerging from a time of darkness. The bad thoughts of the past weigh him down, but he's starting to look to the future. For that reason I find it to be an optimal post-COVID album. It certainly replicated a lot of my feelings over the last couple of years. I only have to ding it for the tiresome rock guy misogyny of "Stupid Girl."

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Dume, recorded in 1975 and released in 2020

This is a reimagined and lengthened version of Zuma with lots of new material recorded at the time. It adds to the shaggy vibe of the original album, and I daresay improves on it. The first track, an electric version of "Ride My Llama," is perfect for Crazy Horse's stomp and bash. The additional material tends to be more light-hearted, leaning into the shaggy vibe of the original. Even more than the original album, this is the sound of someone beginning to emerge from a deep funk.

Rating: Five Neils