(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last night, as is often the case, I worked late, not leaving the office until the sun was a mere hint on the horizon. Cars and trucks lumbered along the road, some with their headlamps on, others only illuminated by their running lights. The official end of summer has yet to come, but it’s done. Kids are back in school. Family vacations are done. Days are growing short.

On the ride home, I thought of days that used to be. I thought of tomorrow, and what the new day might bring. I also powered down the windows and cranked up one of my favorite albums to listen to when driving: the last thoroughly great Neil Young album, Psychedelic Pill, which I also deem to be one of the decade’s best albums. Recorded from January to March 2012, and released on October 30th of that year, it finds Neil backed by Crazy Horse, and features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.

In short, it’s nine-songs strong. (Eight, really.) Eighty-plus minutes. It burns, yearns, questions, looks back and ahead, and does so with an eye that’s at once cynical and naive.

“Driftin’ Back,” the lead-off track, clocks in at 27 minutes and change, and finds him musing about the sound quality of MP3s, meditation, religion, art, and the corrupting nature of Big Tech, among other things. (“I used to dig Picasso/Then a big tech company came along/and turned him into wallpaper.”) The stream-of-conscious nature of the lyrics is echoed by Neil’s swirling and twirling guitar, which slithers one way and then the next, all while rising and falling like the star we call the sun. It’s epic.

The concise title track follows, and echoes “Cinnamon Girl.” Lyrically, it’s about nothing less than looking for a good time – and, in a foreshadow of a song to come – getting lost in music. It’s followed by the near-17-minute “Ramada Inn,” a slice-of-life portrait of a longtime marriage in stasis. He drinks too much. She wants him to talk to old friends who gave it up. Yet they love each other. They do what they have to. Neil’s solos are both mournful and majestic, with his guitar flying out of the thick rhythms laid down by Crazy Horse only to return to the groove in time for the next verse. Rolling Stone hailed it as one of the year’s Top 5 songs.

“Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” both look back at the days that used to be. The former explores how one’s hometown stays with you wherever you may roam (“you don’t learn much/when you start to get old”); and the other digs into the joy that the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison gave him. 

“She’s Always Dancing” is the deliverance that “Psychedelic Pill” hinted at, painting a picture of a woman losing herself in the sweet cacophony of rock ’n’ roll: “She wants to dance with her body left unbound/She wants to spin, and she lives in her own world/She wants to dream like she was a little girl.” Although her age is never given, we know she’s no longer young – and yet the music, as it does for all of us, rejuvenates her. (That’s my take on it, at any rate.)

The gently haunting “For the Love of Man” hones in on a difficult question that has, no doubt, circled through the minds of many parents of differently abled children: “For the love of man/Who could understand what goes on/What is right and what is wrong/Why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh/When a child is born to live/But not like you or I.”

“Walk Like a Giant” is a thunderous, 16 1/2-minute summary of one of life’s cruelest lessons: The hopes, dreams and beliefs of youth are slowly crushed with every tick of the clock: “I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream.” That doesn’t stop us from attempting to color-correct our faded idealism, mind you. Giants lumber on. Sometimes they falter. Sometimes they don’t. But they don’t give up.

An alternate mix of the title tune closes things out in fine fashion. Who isn’t looking for a good time? Who doesn’t get lost in music?

The track list:

 

It’s early Sunday morn as I write, and Roberta Flack is killing me softly with her songs. My trusty Tribit headphones cover my ears, and – though Bluetooth capable – are plugged into my Macbook Pro via an M-Audio Micro DAC. It’s a plug-in sound card that, as the picture shows, is just a tad larger than a thumb drive, and enables me to listen to 24-bit, 192-kHz music files in all their glory without first copying said files to my Pono player. 

A MacBook Pro can output 24/96 through its headphone jack, of course, by switching the settings in the MIDI utility, and the sound quality is quite good for both high-res files and the Neil Young Archives, which streams up to 24/192. But this $100 Micro DAC improves the sound, be it through my headphones or solid Logitech Z623 THX-certified 2.1 computer speakers.

I should mention that, a few summers back, I stopped using the Pono player on a regular basis. It overheated once, then twice, and then a few more times during the summers of ’16 and ’17 while I was out and about, and then, while listening in our den one hot-and-humid afternoon, it didn’t just overheat, but fried the 128g micro-SD card inside. (I made the “mistake” of listening while charging.) By that point, however, I’d already grown tired not just of adding and subtracting files from my micro-SD cards, but of toting two gadgets around.

Around the same time, I decided to give Apple Music a go. While there was a drop-off in quality, there wasn’t a drop-off in what – to me, at least – is the most important factor when it comes to music: emotional quotient. And, truthfully, what I hear via my iPhone or MacBook Pro is better than what I enjoyed via the Realistic stereo system my parents gifted me with for Christmas ’77  and the Realistic cassette deck I installed in my little brown Chevette in ‘85, to say nothing of staticky AM radio. All things are relative, in other words. Sometimes “good enough” is enough.

Yet, when at my desk and in the mood, I often fire up the Vox app and play some of the high-res files I collected from 2014 through early ’17 – or just stream from the NYA site. How to enjoy that music to its fullest? While there are many options, some of which are rather pricey, for me right now it’s the M-Audio Micro DAC. It gets the job done.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Sunday, 9/1/19. 

1) Roberta Flack – “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A few years back, Diane and I watched Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, a one-hour documentary about Roberta’s ascent to stardom, on (I think) Amazon Prime. For me, it was something of a revelation – I picked up a few of her albums from the Pono Store in the weeks that followed. This, her rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic (found on her 1971 Quiet Fire album), is just mesmerizing. 

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “American Tune.” One of Paul Simon’s greatest songs, from his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, was given the Simon & Garfunkel treatment during their now-legendary 1981 Central Park concert. The lyrics are as appropriate now as they were in ‘73: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/or driven to its knees/But it’s all right, it’s all right/We’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/we’re traveling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

3) Courtney Marie Andrews & Deer Tick – “You’re the One That I Want.” Speaking of duets… and to lighten the mood… there’s this clip of a Grease cover, which I just discovered last night. Trust me when I say, “It’s electrifying!”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train.” Speaking of Courtney, she’s part of the forthcoming collection of Tom Waits songs, Come on Up to the House, which also includes Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Phoebe Bridgers and Patty Griffin, among others.

5) Allison Moorer – “The Rock and the Hill.” One album I’m anticipating is Allison Moorer’s Blood, which will be released alongside her memoir of the same name in late October. If this tasty track is any indication, it’s going to be flat-out great. (If you’re so inclined, head over to Allison’s website and pre-order both it and the book. And then check out her online journal, which is always an interesting read.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Milky Way.” Another album I’m looking forward to is Colorado, which is also due out in October. It features Neil backed by a reconstituted Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren on guitar in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampredo). This, the first single, is both stirring and subdued at once.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

By now, every fan should know the story behind Tonight’s the Night, but since some may not, here it is: Following the tragic deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, who both overdosed on heroin, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers at Studio Instrument Rentals in Santa Monica, and set out to eulogize his late friends.

As Neil explained in a recent post to the Neil Young Archives, “We played starting at midnight, through the night, and drove home just before dawn to our hotel every night for a month. Visitors came by late at night. One of these nights we practically nailed the whole album, and that is what we wanted to do…keep it real. We drank tequila and smoked weed. Teenagers, don’t do what we did. We didn’t fix the mistakes. The whole album and why we made it and I wrote those songs was all a mistake. It won’t be repeated again. Some say it’s the best thing we ever did.”

In my estimation, Neil and band tapped into and channeled the collective unconscious, crafting a set that is guaranteed, no matter how often one hears it, to send shivers up the spine. Decades ago, for my old website, I wrote: Neil’s eulogy to fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, this album is his most intense—and one of his best, too. In addition to the harrowing title song, it includes the equally haunting “Borrowed Tune,” a song with a stolen melody that best sums Neil’s strengths even as it wallows in admitted “weaknesses” [i.e., drugs and booze]. (A+)

This is how much I treasure it: Through the years, I’ve purchased it on vinyl, cassette, CD, high-resolution FLAC, and the 2016 vinyl reissue. (Truth be told, however, nowadays I usually stream it – and all other Neil stuff – via his Archives site.) 

Here are a few highlights:

Although recorded in 1973, the album was held back until 1975. Reprise apparently didn’t think it would make a great followup to Time Fades Away. As I’ve noted in other posts, great art doesn’t necessarily equate with great sales, and this would be a good example of just that – although a critically acclaimed album, it never rose higher than No. 25 on the Billboard charts.

A purported acetate of the original Tonight’s the Night did surface years ago, but – honestly – this is the version to crank up. Play it if you got it. (And if you don’t have it, get it!)

Side I:

Side II:

 

The end of the decade is nigh. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it until this week, but the clock’s hands are tick-tick-ticking closer to midnight. Before this annus horribilis gives way to the Year of Visual Acuity, however, listen to this:

That’s the opener to Leslie Stevens’ new album, Sinner, which as a whole conjures a century’s worth of country music in its 10 tracks, echoing everyone from Glen Campbell to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and her Spyboy band. It’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.

It’s traditional. Alternative. Unique. Her voice trembles, rises and falls, dynamic and dramatic, in sync not just with the lyrics but the soul. Some are story-songs. Others are from the heart.

Here’s a live rendition of another of the album’s highlights:

Leslie Stevens is currently on tour in the States, and thankfully isn’t bypassing my neck of the woods. You can see where she’s playing, and buy Sinner, at her website. (It’s also available via the normal streaming sites.)