Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.

On December 11, 1974, Neil Young entered a Nashville studio with new songs in mind. Fellow travelers Ben Keith (pedal steel) and Tim Drummond (bass) were on hand, as was the Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and, presumably, kindred spirit Emmylou Harris (though she may have overdubbed her harmonies later). After a few days, the sessions – with drummer Karl T. Himmel taking over for Helm after three songs – relocated to Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch and then to L.A. Soon enough, after resurrecting two songs recorded over the summer, a new album was born…but, until now, never released.

It’s a story most older fans know, of course, as Neil told it in a 1975 interview with Cameron Crowe: At the last minute, he shelved the ready-to-roll Homegrown and released instead “the most liquid album” he ever made, Tonight’s the Night: “I had a playback party for Homegrown for me and about 10 friends. We were out of our minds. We all listened to the album and Tonight’s the Night happened to be on the same reel. So we listened to that too, just for laughs. No comparison.”

“A lot of people would probably say that [Homegrown] is better,” he went on to explain. “I know the first time I listened back on Tonight’s the Night it was the most out-of-tune thing I’d ever heard. Everyone’s off-key. I couldn’t hack it. But by listening to those two albums back to back at the party, I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown. I took Tonight’s the Night because of its overall strength in performance and feeling. The theme may be a little depressing, but the general feeling is much more elevating than Homegrown.” 

He also says, “I’m sure parts of Homegrown will surface on other albums of mine. There’s some beautiful stuff that Emmylou Harris sings harmony on. I don’t know. That record might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album. It was the darker side to Harvest. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady. It was a little too personal…it scared me.”

Forty-five years later, on the Neil Young Archives, he expanded on why he left the album locked away: “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.”

“Separate Ways” leads off the album and finds him ruminating on his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. He’s sad it’s over, but doesn’t wish away what they had: “We go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharing our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…”

“Vacancy,” recorded a month later at the Broken Arrow Ranch, finds him in a less forgiving mood – he casts his lover as a pod person, just about: “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there/You poison me with that long vacant stare/You dress like her and she walks in your words/You frown at me and then you smile at her…”

“Star of Bethlehem,” which was eventually released on American Stars & Bars, circles round to the top, thematically speaking: “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone/All you have is memories of happiness lingering on…”

In between, surprisingly, not all songs excavate love gone wrong. The title track – known to many via American Stars ’n Bars, celebrates homegrown dope; “Florida” does too, in that it’s stoned patter that hopes for profundity but comes across as pablum; “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” recorded on New Year’s Eve, is a bluesy jam; and the delicate “Little Wing” is absolutely gorgeous.

Through the years, some tracks – some re-cut, others not – surfaced on other albums – “Homegrown” and “Star of Bethlehem” on American Stars ’n Bars, “Love Is a Rose” on Decade, “Little Wing” on Hawks & Doves, and “White Line” on Ragged Glory. Recorded during the same sessions, “The Old Homestead” wound up on Hawks & Doves while “Deep Forbidden Lake” landed on Decade; and, recorded the same day as “Love Is a Rose,” the CSN-laden “Through My Sails” closed Zuma.

Listening to Homegrown, one thing is obvious: It’s no match for the ache and gravitas that is Tonight’s the Night. That’s not a knock, mind you; few albums are. But it’s also not as great as some critics – who’ve obviously gone mad after months of lockdown – seem to think. Rolling Stone calls it an “unearthed masterpiece” in a track-by-track analysis while Variety dubs it “one of the best albums from his 1970s golden era.” It’s neither. Rolling Stone’s main review by Angie Martoccio gets a little closer to the truth, though the four-and-a-half stars it’s awarded is one star too many. To my ears, it’s a solid set that – aside from “Florida” – is quite a treat, though it is sometimes bleak due to the heartache that fuels the songs.  

If it had been released in place of Tonight’s the Night, would much have changed? TTN was more of an artistic than commercial success, after all, peaking at only No. 25 on the Billboard charts. While Homegrown – which features a friendlier, Harvest-like sound – isn’t an artistic equal to TTN, my hunch is it would have done better when it comes to sales, as some tracks are more radio-friendly, but doubt it would have done much to change the arc of Neil’s career.

That said, Homegrown’s all right with me… it’s Neil. It’s new (mostly). Some may be disappointed at first, due to the hype that preceded its release, but to those I’d say give it a few listens. The potency creeps up on you.

It’s an album many Neil fans dislike, if not despise, due to the clinical rhythms and distorted vocals that accent much of the music. For me and my tastes, however, it’s a great, if eccentric set that’s well worth a few listens. As I wrote in the CSN/Y discography on the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006) website, “if you listen past the surface, you’ll hear a strong heartbeat – and many treasures. [It] also features the mini-epic ‘Like an Inca,’ which includes this couplet from its last verse that aptly sums up Neil’s ’80s career path: ‘There’s a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone.’” It’s not my most-played Neil album, but it’s one I’ve returned to, time and again, throughout the years.

After a lifetime with Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, in 1982 Neil Young signed with Geffen Records in a deal that reportedly guaranteed him $1 million per album. However, when he turned in his first effort, Islands in the Sun, Geffen rejected it. In 1995, Neil explained to Mojo that Islands “was a tropical thing all about sailing, ancient civilizations, islands and water”; a prototypical Neil LP, in other words. But, as he recalled in Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography (page 556), “[David Geffen] didn’t think it was good enough. ‘Neil, you can do more with these songs – keep going.’ It was healthy what he was telling me. But instead of going forward, I went back – to all the stuff that had been buried. I really did all the Trans stuff at the end of Warner Bros., not at the beginning of Geffen.”

Those old sessions, also detailed in Shakey (pages 551-552), were essentially an extension of the re*ac*tor jams in 1981: 

Young continued to record with the Horse. Poncho recalls Young – all jacked up after seeing the Rolling Stones play San Francisco – coming in with a song sporting Stones-like riffs entitled ‘Computer Age.’

Around this time, Young also purchased a vocoder, an odd device that enabled him to mask his voice as a variety of characters, none of which sounded too human – imagine robotic voices from fifties science fiction movies. Young then took the mutated vocals and played them through the Synclavier keyboard, which essentially turned it into music.

‘When we got the vocoder, we started listening to Kraftwerk,” said [David] Briggs. All this would eventually become Trans. Even a version of ‘Mr. Soul’ – complete with backward guitar – got the machine treatment. And the further Neil got into the new music, the less company he took with him.

‘Trans started like we do always – two guitars, bass, drums,” said Poncho. “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff – the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it. Briggs felt no one around Young tried to understand. “Billy and Ralph and Poncho, all the other participants, they dismissed it. They played on the stuff, but didn’t think it was music.”

Thus, the resulting album mixed six tracks from the old sessions with three from the new; and Geffen Records, believing it had a dud on its hands, simply shrugged and dumped the LP in the arid sales stretch that lies between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Radio, at least as I remember it, pretty much ignored it.

The critical consensus was (and remains) decidedly mixed. In the February 3rd, 1983, Rolling Stone, Parke Puterbaugh gave it four (out of five) stars and wrote, “In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers – note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” – and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest.”

In the Rolling Stone offshoot magazine Record, however, Stuart Cohn was much less kind. He says “the listener is left like Dorothy in Oz, discovering there’s no wizard behind the curtain”; and sums up with: “Trans…is just a closed circuit: no future, no options. Just a man and his toys, without the songs or ideas that can make the toys so much fun to play with.” 

Neil, for his part, describes it well on the Neil Young Archives: “Trans is one of my best records, from a standpoint of being misunderstood. Trans was made with the idea of supporting it with a series of videos that went with the story. Bots of all kinds, with their digital voices sang the words and melodies of a tale of communication for the disabled, those of us who cannot speak. Here, these folks, especially my son Ben Young, were cared for by robots trying to help them learn how to communicate.” 

Looking back, I can understand why many longtime fans were (and remain) dismayed by the shift to electronica beats – but I didn’t have the same longterm connection. Re*ac*tor was my first Neil LP, which I purchased at age 16 in late 1981; Hawks & Doves was my second, which I picked up a few months later; and, in the final week of 1982 – when I was flush with Christmas cash – I picked up not one, not two, but five Neil Young albums on cassette to play in the Sanyo Mini AM/FM Stereo Cassette Recorder my parents had gifted me with.

A week later, I picked up the tape for Trans (along with Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask). I didn’t know the backstory. I just knew the beats were cool, the distorted vocals even cooler, and that “Like an Inca,” one of those prototypical Neil Young songs, soared.

In many respects, as I noted last week, McCartney II – Paul McCartney’s own eccentric electronica collection from 1980 – helped prepared me for Trans. Such off-kilter excursions, to me, were just something artists did from time to time. Maybe that’s why, from the moment I heard it, Trans just felt right to me; yeah, it’s odd, but it speaks to my heart and soul – perhaps because, as a child, I had a speech impediment that sometimes made it difficult to communicate with others.

Anyway, I enjoyed the set so much that, within a few months, I also bought it on LP – something I did on occasion. In this instance, it was to better appreciate the fascinating (to me, at least) cover art, which shows an old-school Neil and digital-age Neil hitching rides into the future and past. Oh, and though it’s listed on the album jacket and in the lyric sheet, “If You Got Love” was yanked at the last minute; the version of “Sample and Hold” on LP is three minutes shorter that the CD; and the version of “Like an Inca” on LP is a minute-and-change shorter than on CD. (Let’s hope that Islands in the Sun – which, as I write, isn’t listed in the NYA timeline – is one day released as part of Neil’s archival series; my hunch is it will be a sublime set.)

So…give Trans a go, sometime, be it on the LP (or, if you can find it, cassette) or CD. It’s not Neil’s best, by any stretch, but holds within it a lot of intriguing sounds. You may be disappointed, but you may be surprised.

 

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums that have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.