Thursday, March 28, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part One: Expecting to Fly

Part of the trick of a series like this is periodization, but in Young's case his first phase is pretty easy to divine: before Crazy Horse and after Crazy Horse. Even if he doesn't play most of his albums with the Horse, that's the moment when he went from being a member of a band to the leader of a band. His songs also picked up more confidence in that period. Young's early efforts show someone who, in the words of a song of this era, was "learning to fly."

Buffalo Springfield, 1966

When I was putting this series together I realized something that made Young different from Springsteen and Dylan: he had recorded with multiple groups. I decided not to limit this series to his solo records, since I think his time in group settings is really revealing. Young performed songs from his Buffalo Springfield days for years after so I think they should be included here. 

In the aftermath of the British Invasion the garages of North America exploded with rock bands trying to find a sound. Most of them cut a locally-released single or two then faded into obscurity. One of those bands was the Mynah Birds, Young's group after The Squires, a pre-Invasion surf rock band. He then famously moved from Canada to LA and met up with Stephen Stills to form Buffalo Springfield. Along with Love and The Doors they were part of a formidable scene that moved beyond garage rock into something more complex and profound. 

Buffalo Springfield would grow even more with their next album, but their debut puts them miles ahead of their contemporaries. "For What It's Worth," their big single (added to later versions of this album) is still used today as a shorthand for the 1960s in films and TV to the point of cliche. There's something spooky about this song and the Springfield's other best tracks on this record, like "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." Not every track is killer, but this is a strong first effort overall and a harbinger of what's to come. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967

Things come together much better with this album. Evidently the band took their time recording it, and it shows. It starts with "Mr Soul," an absolute barnburner where Stills and Young craft a killer twin-guitar attack. "Bluebird" contains a similar energy that pushes the song to the bursting point. I tend to like those rockers best, but there are a couple of moody, grandiose pieces by Young that point to something else: "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow." There is a painful longing in these songs that will go on to define some of his best subsequent work. Here, when he is so young, it verges on sounding adolescent and petulant. Even so, this is a fantastic record. If the band had managed to hold together I bet it would be their music, not the Eagles, all over classic rock radio for decades to come. While I would have been glad to have been spared The Eagles, we got CSN, Poco, and Neil Young's solo career out of the breakup, which is far better. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

The Last Time Around, 1968

The last Buffalo Springfield album was mostly thrown together and Neil Young has disowned it, but I like it. There's a relaxed, hazy vibe I find appealing. "On the Way Home" and "I am a Child" are great Young compositions. Some of the songs stick out too much and others are half-baked but it's an enjoyable listen all around. The country touches point to how Richie Furay and Jim Messina would go on to form Poco, an unjustly forgotten country rock pioneer. Again, Buffalo Springfield could've been The Eagles, but better. Their three albums add up to a helluva greatest hits record, one everybody should own. 

Rating: Four Neils

Neil Young, 1968

Neil went solo with a self-titled record, a statement of independence. Believe it or not, I had never listened to this one all the way through before starting this series. It's been described as "uneven," and that's a fair assessment. The sound is very raw and moody, with Young not quite in control of the tone. "The Loner" is the key standout, one of the best songs he ever wrote. (I also used the "unplugged" version of this as a sort of personal anthem in my anti-social teenage years.)  These early records show an artist tapping into something unique and special, but he has not yet figured out to give it proper shape and definition. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

Sugar Mountain Live At Canterbury House, recorded 1968 and released 2008

Now we are getting into Young's "archives" releases, which have more than paid off on their promise. Young had talked about it for years, building up high expectations and for once the hype was worth it. The production on his first record doesn't work for me; these solo live recordings give the songs the air they need. Young's links to what he later called "the old folkie days" are here. The eponymous song, which was later shunted off as a B-side, is one of his most beautiful. He wrote it as a 19-year old, already sad about childhood's end. I first heard it at 17 when I was having similar emotions and the song zapped me like few others ever have. This recording is interesting as a document, since it includes some hippie stage banter and a window into a lost world of folk music clubs. Young's voice and playing are top-notch and the emotions come through strong. Listening to this I can hear the seeds of the success that Young will soon harvest. (Yes, I intended that pun.)

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Live at the Riverboat 1969, released 2009

Here's another show from the Archives series from the same winter of 1968-1969. I had not heard this one before doing this project. A lot of the tracks are similar to the Sugar Mountain release, but the stage banter feels edgier in this one. The sound quality is not quite as good, but apart from that it's about the equal of the prior release. Both show that Young was maturing and ready to truly take flight. 

Rating: Four Neils

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Introducing Neil Young Spring

I have mostly been writing over at my Substack and have been neglecting this more venerable space. Over there I wrote about the joy of reading Ulysses and the sorry state of social trust after COVID. I have been searching for a series to keep me writing over here, where I am more likely to let my freak flag fly. In the past I used full run-downs of Dylan and Springsteen albums to inspire me, and this year I figured I would devote spring on this blog to Neil Young.

Why Neil Young, apart from him being another legacy classic rock artist with a massive catalog? Well, Neil has been in the news. He is back on tour with Crazy Horse, and he has also ended his Spotify boycott. With his music more available again, I thought it would be great to give it all an evaluation. If I get a chance to see him live, this would be especially fruitful. 

I also want to add that I am one of the weirdos who subscribes to Neil's Archives site. This site allows you to hear his entire catalog of music with vastly improved sound and access to stuff you can't get elsewhere. I appreciate Young's independent-mindedness and his genuine desire to put out streaming music that sounds better. than what we get now. This also means that my series will cover EVERYTHING. I'm on break now, so get ready for the first installments to drop!

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Shadow Show, "On a Cloud" (Track of the Week)

One thing that both thrills and depresses me is that there is an unending stream of amazing new music coming out every day. The embarrassment of riches is thrilling, but the fracturing of the listening audience is depressing. It's often hard to find this new music, and when I do, it's hard to find other people digging the same thing. When the encounters do happen it's amazing. A few weeks ago I was at a record store in Hoboken and the clerk was playing an album by the Sundays, a band I've recently returned to. I enthusiastically let her know this, and later when I bought a Ween live album she returned the favor by gushing about it. 

I thought I would share some new music today so the world has a slightly better chance of hearing it. I get a lot of my new music from New Jersey's freeform station WFMU. The other day as I drove to the train station I heard a song come out of my speakers that blew me away. When I stopped at a light I immediately turned on Shazam so that this nugget would not escape me. 

The guitars shimmered and jangled with pristine, pure beauty. The tight harmonies lifted me up further, ready to face my day ahead. The song in question is "On a Cloud" by Shadow Show, which I listen to multiple times a day. I know almost nothing about this band, other than I want a way to hear this sublime sound forever. 

Falling in love with a song and a band isn't that different from falling in love with a person. The desire can be persistent, insatiable, and even maddening. I remember when I became a Bowie-head in the late 90s. I bought practically his entire back catalog on CD in less than two years (and I was broke.) It is amazing to me that I can still get that crazy feeling of connection with a band that I used to have as a teenager. It's less fun, however, if you can't share it. I recommend that you go and tell people about your favorite new song the way you did in high school. I think it will make the world a better place.