Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

I listened to the new album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Colorado, this morning and a few more times this afternoon. To my ears, after those few spins, it’s a solid outing that mixes glimmers of greatness with a few well-meaning but mundane tracks – par for the course, in other words, when it comes to Neil’s output since Psychedelic Pill.

It should be noted that longtime Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampredo opted out of rejoining the band, as he’s apparently happy in retirement in Hawaii (who wouldn’t be?), so Nils Lofgren – who first backed Neil on After the Gold Rush and played with the Danny Whitten-era Crazy Horse on their eponymous 1971 album, steps in. (He also played on Tonight’s the Night and with Neil’s Trans-era band, of course.) The shift results in less thud-thick chords reverberating like ripples through the soul and more stiletto-like guitar runs. One approach is no better than the other, mind you. It’s just different. And now that I think about it, It’s more akin to Neil and a less-woozy Santa Monica Flyers than Neil and Crazy Horse.

That said, the opening track, “Think of Me,” possesses a Broken Arrow-like gait that’s both comfortable and compelling. (And I mean the album, not the song.)

“She Showed Me Love” is a cacophonous track that clocks in at 13:37, with witticisms and broadsides set aside a chorus that seems borrowed from another work in progress. It matters not. The guitar histrionics and groove, as if often the case with Neil, matter more than the lyrics. Me, I get lost in the music; others, however, might find themselves bored after five minutes.

In “Olden Days,” Neil reaches out to an old friend who’s moved on. It’s a “Days That Used to Be”-type tune recast a few decades on, with the longing for the past replaced for a longing for friends who’ve passed. “Where did all the people go?/Why did they fade away from me?/They meant so much to me and now I know/That they’re here to stay in my heart.”

The ominous-sounding “Shut It Down” rages against climate change-deniers, and while I agree with the sentiments, the lyrics make less of a case than those of the questioning “I Do,” which closes the album proper.

The LP comes with two additional tracks on a 45 – a second helping of the “We’re a Rainbow Made of Children” rewrite, “Rainbow of Colors,” and “Truth Kills,” an acoustic ode in which Neil admits that “I don’t wanna be great again/First time was good enough/Truth kills in a world of lies/So I’ll be speaking up/Don’t wanna be great again.”

(He said it, not me.)

All in all, like I mentioned up top, it’s a solid outing with some memorable moments. Not Neil’s best, but far from his worst. Give it a go. (FYI: The single songs, along with the album in full, can be streamed via the Neil Young Archives.)

(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:

(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: