Friday, April 26, 2024

Neil Young Spring Part Eight: Long May You Run

We've reached the last installment! After taking a crooked path in the 2000s following his 90s comeback, Neil Young jumped back on the Horse in the 2010s and did great work in his garage band mode. I also happened to tune back into his music around this time, going to see the 2011 Jonathan Demme-directed documentary Journeys in the theater. I enjoyed seeing him going back to where he was born in Ontario as well as the live footage from Massey Hall. His newer material sounded pretty vital, so I was willing to put a toe back in. In the last decade or so Young has had some moments of brilliance, but his political commitments have not translated well to song. Nevertheless, he has kept regularly putting out music and changing things up. It seems that he has remembered his admonition that rust never sleeps. He has put out multiple good albums in his 70s, which is something I don't think other legacy artists can say. 

Americana, 2012 with Crazy Horse

Some people poo-poo covers records, but I don't. They can help legacy artists who have hit a rut rediscover the things that inspired them. Bob Dylan has done this multiple times, with his folk covers records in the 90s and his jazz standards covers in the 21st century. After both his songwriting found a new lease on life. On this record Young gets back on the Horse and plays old folk songs with a lot of clash and bash, similar to what Springsteen did on The Seeger Sessions. Folk music is not somber guys emoting in cafes, it's music for hoe-downs and shindigs, something both Young and Springsteen understand. Man I had some fun with this record! Crazy Horse bring their chaotic energy and Young seems to be having a blast. Sometimes things get a little too sloppy and require a dash of polish, but overall this is a good time. 

Rating: Four Neils

Psychedelic Pill, 2012 with Crazy Horse

Going back to his roots certainly inspired Young because this is definitely his best album since the 90s. By the way, does anybody remember buying music on iTunes? For a short period in my life I had the misbegotten idea to cut back on physical media, but hadn't yet started streaming. I would buy not only songs, but whole albums on iTunes. I bought this one after reading a rave from a critic I trusted. I really enjoyed it at the time, struck by how gonzo Young and the Horse got with their extended workouts. In many respects, this is the sequel to Ragged Glory, and just as good. The difficulties in his marriage and approaching mortality come in at different points, most brilliantly in "Ramada Inn." That song is one good enough to go into his pantheon. It's a song about aging, marriage, and alcoholism and completely unsparing. It stretches past fifteen minutes, but is not the longest song on the album. That honor goes to the almost 28 minute long "Driftin' Back." The Horse is in loose jam mode here, and if you go in understanding that you will enjoy this record. Not all 28 minutes of "Driftin' Back" are captivating, but the point is to just sort of lay back and lose yourself. After all, that's what the best psychedelic music can do. "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" in the words of one of the genre's pioneering tracks. As with Ragged Glory, Psychedelic Pill references the 60s while still sounding fresh. That Young was able to cut a record like this at age 66 is pretty damn impressive. 

Rating: Five Neils

A Letter Home, 2014

Here were have another covers album. As noted above, these are too often maligned. Interpreting a song is well can be harder than writing a new one. The concept here is that Young is using a restored 1947 recording booth in Jack White's studio. It makes these songs sound like outtakes from Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music. I have to admit, I enjoyed the effect and Young seems like he's having some fun here. Unlike Americana, these are not traditional folk songs but songs written by modern folkie songwriters. The takes on fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot's songs are especially strong, as well as a very heartfelt version of Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe." Knowing that Young's marriage to Pegi Young was falling apart at the time gives it even more power. Ultimately this album is a gimmick, but a worthwhile one. 

Rating; Four Neils

Storytone, 2014

One of my favorite things about writing this series has been the many "what the fuck?!?" moments and this was the biggest I've had since Landing on Water. I had done zero research on this one beforehand and when I heard the orchestral strings swelling in my car on the way to the dentist I indeed exclaimed "what the fuck?!?" These songs are performed with big bands and orchestras, some of them reflecting his romance with his current wife Darryl Hannah. (Pegi, who he had recently divorced, was instrumental in starting the Bridge School and was a musical artist in her own right. She sadly passed away five years ago.) There's nothing more foolish in this world than an old man in love with a younger woman and that might explain how this whole thing happened. The thing is...I kinda like it in moments. The preachy hippie environmental songs are grating but some of the music here is effective vocal pop. The biggest issue, as with most of Young's genre experiments, is that his voice is not suited to the material. His voice is pretty singular and weird and vocal pop of this traditional variety requires smooth crooning. Despite the ridiculousness of this album I didn't completely hate it.

Rating: Three Neils

The Monsanto Years, 2015 with Promise of the Real

Uh-oh, Neil is getting back into Living With War territory again. I appreciate his passion for environmental causes but that does not always work musically. Promise of the Real is backing him on this one, doing Crazy Horse slop with but some more youthful vim and vigor behind it. That helps carry some of these tracks, at least. The lyrics though? Woof. They are didactic to the point of ridiculousness, like a blog being sung aloud. Again, I mostly agree with Young's critique of big agribusiness! At the same time, some of the hard-rocking, energetic songs get torpedoed by the clunkiness of the words. Greendale made similar points, but benefitted from from having a story structure to hang Young's ideas on. Despite it not being very good, I once again must commend Young for refusing to be predictable and for being someone who actually cares about the state of the world today.

Rating: Two Neils

Earth, 2016 with Promise of the Real

This is yet another live album, coming from his tour off of The Monsanto Years. As I've mentioned before, his political rants sound less shrill in the live format. I also appreciate a couple of deep cuts from the past being thrown in here, like "Western Hero" and "Vampire Blues." Promise of the Real plays with heart and Young's passion for environmentalism give these live versions some immediacy. As I've said before, however, the songs just aren't that good. "People Want to Hear About Love"'s charms do come off well here, though. 

Rating: Three Neils

Peace Trail, 2016

Young takes a step back with this one, recording with just himself and studio musicians on drum and bass. It's produced by Rick Rubin, the king of late-career legacy artist records. The songs have an immediate sound to them, even if some land better than others. Unlike his last three albums, I was not waiting for this one to end. At the same time, it did not really stick with me much, either. The lyrics are not quite as didactic this time, but a song like "Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders"....well just look at the title. Like a lot of music of this era, it feels thrown together. I keep wondering what kinds of albums Young would be making if he took his time and concentrated on making one really good one instead of four okay ones. I think about Bob Dylan, whose recent Rough and Rowdy Ways is a masterpiece. Then again, if Young wasn't flying by the seat of his pants, it just wouldn't be a Neil Young record anymore.

Rating: Three and a half Neils

The Visitor, 2017 with Promise of the Real

Young is back with Promise of the Real, and back in political mode again, too. Like the last album he did with them the musical backing gives the songs punch, but the songs themselves aren't much to write home about. This time they aren't quite as cringe, though. I also really dug the gonzo "Carnival" where Young sings like an evil, deranged carny. (Not everyone seems to think the same lol.) The problem is that this just feels like more of the same. Young has impressed me with his ability to shift shapes, but things are getting pretty boring. Lucky for us, he's about to do what he always does when looking for inspiration: ride the Horse. 

Rating: Two and a half Neils

Colorado, 2019 with Crazy Horse

Young gets back on the Horse, but with Nils Lofgren taking over from Poncho Sampedro, who had to retire due to arthritis in his hands. (For a Falstaffian guy like him this just seems cruel.) Lofgren might too good at playing guitar to be in the Horse, but he doesn’t let that on here. After a lot of meh albums with a couple of yikes thrown in this album is a blessing. Befitting the album’s title and Young’s new home, there’s a real Western feel to this one. He lets the preachiness come in only a little on songs like “Shut It Down” and “Rainbow of Colors.” For the most part these songs are more personal and profound. In Young’s late career I wish he cut all his albums with the Horse because that’s when he is clearly at his best.

Rating: Four Neils

The Times, 2020

Colorado marked a return to Young's Crazy Horse mode, and here he is in acoustic folkie mode. Conceptually, this is pretty slight. The Times is an EP of some intimate live performances of older songs. Some of these are warhorses we've heard before, but on their own terms, these are fine renditions. I also have to give it bonus points for containing "Campaigner." The rendition of "Little Wing" is beautiful. 

Rating: Four Neils

Barn, 2021 with Crazy Horse

Young covers similar ground here but does it even better. He manages with “Human Race” to make a good political song that happens to have some ridiculously scorching guitar work, some of the best of his whole career. Lofgren also provides some piano touches of the kind he did on many of the classic 70s records, giving Crazy Horse a new dimension. On this album, the political content goes down easier because the songs can hold up to the words. The lyrics on “Canerican” might be cringe, but the song rocks so hard that you can forget about it. Young's late career is all about spontaneity and capturing moments in time, and this along with Psychedelic Pill do that the best. Barn is really worth your time. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Noise and Flowers, 2022 with Promise of the Real 

Now that I am getting near the end of this project I am feeling weary. I thought I knew all the albums I had to cover, then I noticed that this one existed. "Not another live album!" I groaned to myself. Then I saw it was not with the Horse and I was even more disappointed. However, this one pleasantly surprised me due to its song selections. I get the feeling that Promise of the Real pushed Young to play some of their favorite deep cuts. It's great to hear them play the likes of "On the Beach" and "Winterlong." Not all of these renditions are memorable, but at least he's not doing the blog posts masquerading as songs that he cut in the studio. 

Rating: Three and a half Neils

World Record, 2022 with Crazy Horse

In the past five years Young has stayed on the Horse more times than at any point in his career. It's easy to see why, since almost all of his best records in the 21st century have come with them. He wants to keep things free and loose, and his old compatriots know exactly how to make that work. Barn had a lot of hype when it came out, but I hadn't heard anything about this one, so my expectations were not as high. Turns out this is just about as good. Instead of recording in a barn in Colorado, Young and the Horse are at Rick Rubin's Shangri-La studio in Malibu. Having Rubin at the helm keeps the shagginess from being self-indulgent, it's a great blend of fun and craft. As I mentioned before, Nils Lofgren adds a lot to Crazy Horse, especially on piano. Despite having an ace producer, Young is still in the loose jammy mode of recent Crazy Horse records. This works best with the stunning 15 minute "Chevrolet." The one knock on this record is that the lyrics to his earth worship songs are pretty ponderous. As with Barn, the smash and crash of the Horse provides ample distraction. In this respect, Young is like the singer of an 80s hardcore band. 

All Roads Leave Home, with Molina Talbot Lofgren Young

This is a strange one, since it's Young collaborating very loosely with the members of Crazy Horse. All the songs except one are theirs. I wasn't sure whether to include this one or not, but figured I might as well. The members of the Horse aren't the greatest singers, but there's a lot of heart in these tracks. Young's contribution is an intimate acoustic version of "Song of the Seasons" from Barn. The music here is not the Crazy Horse garage jam, but mostly ballads with a folk tinge. Not great, but I appreciated hearing the members of the Horse step out from the background. 

Rating: Three Neils

Rating: Four and a half Neils

Before and After, 2023

This is a strange album, mostly just Young performing stripped-down versions of some of his older songs. I guess if Taylor Swift can do it, why not him? For the most part these are deep cuts, and I like how it feels like I am being invited to hear a songwriter think through his back pages. I also appreciate him doing some of these songs on piano rather than guitar, a throwback to his early 70s live recordings. His voice falters at times, but I find it endearing. Listening to all of this music has given me such a deep appreciation for Young's tenacity. The man is almost 80, yet he's constantly releasing new music and refusing to stick with anything resembling a formula. 

Rating: Four Neils

F##in' Up, 2024

I just listened to this album today, the day of its official release. I find it fitting to end my look at this artist's long and winding catalog with a brand new release in its moment of freshness. It's another live album, this time coming from a small private concert last year. I was initially skeptical, but right from the first notes I realized I had no reason to doubt. Young is back on the Horse, performing reworked versions of songs from Ragged Glory. What blows my mind is how inspiring and fresh this sounds, and how his takes on this material are just as strong as the live tracks over thirty years ago from Weld and Way Down in the Rust Bucket. This album is credited to "Neil and the Horse" since the backing band is the new Crazy Horse plus Lukas Nelson from Promise of the Real. The Horse still bucks and broncs and Young gets some otherworldly sounds from Old Black. His voice has gotten weak, but he keeps with his recent trend of embracing noise as a way to make up for it. The gambit is more than successful. 

Rating: Four and a half Neils 

I am going to write something summing up my thoughts on this experience, but the main thing I'm struck by is that after listening to all these albums for over a month...I still want to listen to more Neil Young! I am not sure there is another legacy musical artist who has managed to be this prolific and wide-ranging into such old age. Long may you run, sir.

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