Posts Tagged ‘Harvest Moon’

(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.)

There was a harvest moon last night. For those who don’t know what that is, the Oxford Dictionary definition describes it as thus: “the full moon that is nearest to the time of the autumnal equinox.” An equinox occurs when Earth’s equator aligns with the center of the sun, which happens twice a year. One marks the start of spring and the second marks the beginning of fall. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox almost always occurs on September 22nd or 23rd; and this year it’s early morning of the 23rd. 

The term “harvest moon” itself dates to the early 1700s, if not before, in England, and Oxford credits it to the “country people.” With days growing short, farmers made use of the moonlight while harvesting their summer crops.

Anyway, last night, by the time I left work, cascading clouds in the night sky blocked my view of the moon, yet I felt its power and heard its vibrations thanks to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album, which he released on November 2, 1992. The lore behind it is well-known, at least among Neil fans: Recording Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse in 1990 and reaching for electric nirvana on their subsequent tour left him with tinnitus. Rather than risk permanent damage to his hearing, he downshifted to a softer sound – and delivered one of his best albums.

He saw it as a sequel in style, mood and personnel to Harvest, his much-loved 1972 album, although the same could also be said, to varying extents, of Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves and Old Ways, among other outings. It did well, too, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard charts, going double-platinum, and winning plaudits from critics and fans alike.

Accented by acoustic guitars, harmonica, and backup vocals supplied by fellow travelers Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and (half-sister) Astrid Young, the 10-song set is a contemplative affair that mixes brushstrokes of reality with hues of the heart. “Unknown Legend,” the opener, was written for the Comes a Time album, and tells the story of a woman in a diner who once lived free but is now dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood. 

“From Hank to Hendrix” tells the story of a couple’s relationship that may or may not last despite the years (“from Marilyn to Madonna”) they’ve put into it. (“The same thing that makes you live/can kill you in the end.”) Many folks like to read what inspired specific songs, but to me inspiration matters less than the result. And the result here is memorable.

The title track, on the other hand, is a celebration of a long-lasting, loving relationship – maybe even the same one. “But now it’s getting late/And the moon is climbin’ high/I want to celebrate/See it shinin’ in your eye/Because I’m still in love with you/I want to see you dance again/Because I’m still in love with you/On this harvest moon…” 

“War of Man” is another stirring track:

Another favorite track of mine is “Dreamin’ Man,” which sports a lilting melody and lyrics that spin a disturbing tale about a stalker: “I park my Aerostar/Dreamin’ man/With a loaded gun/And sweet dreams of you/I’ll always be a dreamin’ man/I don’t have to understand/I know it’s alright…”  

As Nicolette and Astrid sing behind Neil at the end, “He’s got a problem.”

One possible inspiration (though it’s just a hunch on my part): Robert John Bardo, the stalker who killed My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer on July 18, 1989. Neil would have been exposed to stories in the newspapers and on TV, I’m sure. But, again, it matters not. The juxtaposition of the dreamy with the sordid is meant to jar, and make us think.

What else? Neil flipped the normal routine of albums for Harvest Moon, touring the songs first and then releasing them. We saw him in March of ’92 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., from the back of the balcony. Everyone roared for the opener, “Long May You Run,” but murmurs began soon after he launched into the second of eight unfamiliar songs in a row (seven from the future Harvest Moon and “Silver and Gold”). It was a great night.

The track list:

If I could turn back time, one thing I’d do – aside from noting the digits of a Powerball drawing – would be to expand my music-discovery process. Among other things, I’m still vexed that Lucy Rose’s tuneful musings escaped my notice until early 2017, when the Staves shared one of her songs on social media. 

Given that I routinely scour the music magazines and blogs for new artists and releases, the oversight leaves me apoplectic. How could I have missed someone so good for so long?

For those unfamiliar with the British singer-songwriter, she’s released three studio albums, a live set and a remix disc since 2012. Wikipedia fills in more of the blanks, but her best-known song is probably one of her first: “Shiver,” from her debut, Like I Used To, which broke semi-big a few years later when it was used as the theme during Season 2 of the popular Mushishi anime series. Here she is, pre-debut in 2011, singing it on The Crypt Sessions. 

As you can hear, she’s essentially a diamond cutter who crafts precise, heartfelt gems from the vagaries of her life. In 2015, she told The 405, “Lyrics really are my hardest thing. I find them so hard, and a real challenge sometimes. To find something to write about and know what I want to say. You know, I don’t just want to write about anything, and write something for the point of writing a song. If I don’t have anything to say, then I feel like there really isn’t any point.”

That approach, of writing about what means the most to her, still echoes in her work. Check out the hypnotic “Solo(w)” from her No Words Left album, which is due out on March 22nd:

Also from No Words Left: the equally powerful “Conversation.”

Echoes of other artists, though not other songs, can be heard in those tunes, of course. As she explained to Arcadia Online in 2015, “I went through that whole stage when I was first starting out where I went into the back catalogues and listened to every Joni Mitchell album and every Neil Young album, and they’re those things that I’ll always go back to consistently.” She shared more influences in 2017 with The Pool, when she also incorporated Nico, Nick Drake, Carole King and Tom Waits into a playlist of influences. She also included all of them, plus others, in this Music Radar countdown of her top albums of all time. It makes me yearn to hear her sing something from Neil’s Harvest… but Harvest Moon works. This is delightfully sweet:

I wouldn’t be surprised if, somewhere along the way, she also cited Jackson Browne as an influence. Like him, she has an eye for incorporating details that add depth and weight to her songs. Here, she covers “These Days” – which was first sung by Nico in 1967 – on the BBC in 2013:

Speaking of cover tunes (and possible influences), here she is singing Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” on Fearne Cotton’s last Radio 1 show in 2015.

But enough covers. Here she serves up a haunting rendition of “Is This Called Home,” from her 2017 album Something’s Changing, for 7 Layers:

And, finally… I’ve featured this song many times on the blog since its 2017 release. How it didn’t become a massive hit escapes me, still.

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All in all, as I remember it, 1992 was a good year. In the spring, Diane and I flew the friendly skies to Californ-i-a, where we toured Hollywood and Beverly Hills, explored Haight-Asbury and Fisherman’s Wharf, and mined for gold in the hills of Nevada City. (That’s me, in San Francisco, above. I was 26.) And, in the fall, we saw one of my Top 10 Concerts of All Time: 10,000 Maniacs at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-03-06-amIn between, and before and after, we saw many good-to-great shows, beginning in January with John Mellencamp at the Philadelphia Spectrum and ending with…well, my memory’s blank. The early ‘90s have blurred together for me, and rather than list an act we may have seen in 1991, ’93 or ’94, I’ll share the certainties: Neil Young at the Tower Theater (from the very last row in the balcony); Bruce Springsteen and the Non-Street Band four times at the Spectrum; Shawn Colvin at the TLA; and Graham Parker with Lucinda Williams at the Trocadero. We also took in Billy Bragg, Nanci Griffith and others at the WXPN Singer-Songwriter Weekend at Penn’s Landing – unlike their mid-summer fetes nowadays, it was free.

Of the uncertainties: the Tin Angel, which is slated to close next month, opened its doors that year; and the Chestnut Cabaret was still open. I’m sure we saw shows at both venues. The Keswick Theater in Glenside was open for business, too, and we definitely saw a show or two there…though who, I can’t say. The Valley Forge Music Fair was another favorite concert stop – provided there was someone we wanted to see, of course. (And we did see Trisha Yearwood there on her Hearts in Armor tour…but that could have been 1993.)

Diane and I, by then, were also in the sandboxed universe of Prodigy.

In the wider world, Microsoft released Windows 3.1 in April; riots in L.A. erupted in April after four LAPD officers were acquitted of using excessive force against Rodney King; Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno was named as his replacement; the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho helped spark the antigovernment/militia movement that culminated in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing; and Bill Clinton won that fall’s presidential election.

Oh, and there was one other important event this year: Bob Fest!

And, with that, today’s Top 5: My Top Albums of 1992.

1) 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden. As I mentioned in this Top 5, I pretty much played this, the studio swan song of the 10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, nonstop – well, as close to nonstop as possible. It’s everything I love about music: It’s poppy, rocky, bright, light and deep, with melodies that soar and lyrics that, if one listens to them, mean more than most. The juxtaposition of the jangly with the profound is something I adore.

2) R.E.M. – Automatic for the People. Released on October 6th, the same day as Our Time in Eden, this classic offering from R.E.M. is just that – a classic. “Hey, kids, rock ’n’ roll…”

3) Neil Young – Harvest Moon. So, perhaps, my memory is playing tricks with me: Although I remember playing Our Time in Eden nonstop…this low-key classic from Neil Young, released on October 27th, received much attention from me (as did R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, for that matter). Of note, in typical Neil fashion, he toured with the album long before it was released; when we saw him in March, he pretty much played the entire album with just a smattering of past favorites.

4) Lucinda Williams – Sweet Old World. Above, I mentioned having seen Graham Parker and Lucinda in concert this year – one of the more unlikely pairings we’ve witnessed, really. Guitarist Gurf Morlix was with her, and he was just phenomenal; and by the time she and the band left the stage…well, I have no memory of Parker, who was the headliner. Which speaks volumes, given that I remember quite a bit about Lucinda’s set – “Hot Blood,” especially.

5) Suzanne Vega – 99.9F. Up until this point, Suzanne was a somewhat conventional urban folkie. On this album, however, she expanded her straightforward sound to include electronic textures and seductive rhythms. The title song is a masterpiece; and the album is, too.

There were quite a few other solid albums released this year: Juliana Hatfield’s solo debut, Hey Babe; Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town; Tracy Chapman’s Matters of the Heart; Robert Cray’s I Was Warned; the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On; Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience; Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts in Armor; the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall; Keith Richards’ Main Offender… and another longtime favorite of mine, Neneh Cherry’s jazzy Homebrew. Here’s “Move With Me” from it: