KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

NEIL YOUNG Part 7 – A Dreamin’ Man In The Prime Of Life

Last week, as I approached the latest batch of Neil Young albums I would be revisiting, I knew there was at least one record that would stand the test of time and one very good live recording, but the others were more of a mystery to me: albums I probably listened to a Neil Young - Harvest Mooncouple of times and then filed away. After giving them a number of listens this past week, I found a lot to like…and a lot of forgettable music as well. They can’t all be winners, but at least I started off with one of his best. I still remember the first time I heard Harvest Moon (1992): in the passenger seat of a friend’s car late at night, returning from a long road trip. The album is so quiet & mellow that I should’ve drifted off, but the songs were immediately captivating and I found myself mesmerized from start to finish. I bought my own copy as soon as I could. In title, mood and participating musicians, it’s a sequel to his classic 1972 release, Harvest, although Harvest Moon maintains a particular atmosphere while the earlier record covered a wider variety of musical territory. They’re both among his all-time best, so I’ll leave the comparisons behind & focus on what’s important: the fact that the majority of its songs are career highlights.

“Unknown Legend” is a melancholy tune with a great guitar tone, excellent harmonies from Linda Ronstadt and a number of melodic hooks like the one at “Somewhere on a desert highway she rides a Harley-Davidson…” “Harvest Moon” slowly lopes along as it’s nudged forward by subtle brushwork on the snare drum, and Ronstadt’s vocals are sublime. “War Of Man” is more intense than the majority of the songs here. It has a Joni Neil Young Photo (from Harvest Moon CD)Mitchell vibe, especially with the alternate guitar tuning (at least, that’s how it sounds to these ears). There are nice shifts from sparse acoustic to the steady beat with a fretless bass line pushing it forward. It also features haunting vocals by Ronstadt, James Taylor & Nicolette Larson (“No one wins…it’s a war of man”). “You And Me” features only Neil on acoustic guitar & vocals, with Larson on harmonies. I occasionally hear hints of Neil’s classic, “Old Man,” and there are a couple of wonderful melodies (“I was thinkin’ ‘bout you and me”; “Open up your eyes, see how lifetime flies, open up & let the light back in”). One song, however, towers over the rest: “From Hank To Hendrix.” It struck a chord with me the first time I heard it, and it’s been a favorite ever since. Neil narrates the tale of a long relationship slowly coming to an end (“Can we get it together, can we still stand side by side?”), referencing Hank Williams & Jimi Hendrix (obviously) as well as Marilyn Monroe & Madonna. His sweet yet melancholy harmonica and the fantastic harmonies from Ronstadt & Taylor make this one of his most emotionally powerful songs.

[Neil Young – “From Hank To Hendrix”]

Neil Young Photo (circa 1992)“One Of These Days” is a muted country-folk tune with tasty pedal steel guitar and a lilting melody (“One of these days, one of these dayyyys”). Like most of the songs here, he seems uncharacteristically nostalgic for old times, old friends and old lovers. In this case, he’s thinking about contacting long-lost friends and colleagues to thank them &/or apologize because “I know I let some good things go.” “Old King” is a hokey but fun banjo-plucked back porch song about “the best old hound dog I ever did know.” You can feel the love he had for his departed dog, even when he sings “Old King sure meant a lot to me, but that hound dog is his-to-ry.” “Dreamin’ Man” is a pleasant acoustic song with nice harmonies by Larson and Neil’s half-sister, Astrid Young. For me the best part is the instrumental break after each chorus. The lyrics are interesting, seemingly sung from the perspective of a homeless man living out of his car and dreaming of a woman he sees passing by every day. It’s possible I’ve completely misinterpreted it, though. The other two songs I haven’t mentioned aren’t quite filler, but they weren’t on the same level as the eight wonderful tracks I’ve already discussed. My instincts were correct, and this album that I loved so much when I first heard it over 2 decades ago still has the same impact after all this time.

His next release, Unplugged (1993), is both a great live album and a missed opportunity, in equal measure. Recorded for MTV’s show of the same name, if I recall correctly he was Neil Young - Unpluggedunhappy with the first recording attempt, so he tried again weeks or months later and the second time was the charm. With 14 well-chosen songs from throughout his career, it’s hard to argue that it’s a very enjoyable performance and one of his most accessible releases. However, I always thought that the concept of an “unplugged” performance was to re-work songs that are best known in a more electric setting, giving fans an alternate viewpoint. Since a large portion of Neil’s catalog was already acoustic, including most of the songs he chose for this album, there are far fewer surprises than I would have liked to hear. With that minor criticism out of the way, there are a handful of wonderful surprises. The solo acoustic take on “The Old Laughing Lady,” originally from his debut album, has more of an impact than the studio version. “Mr. Soul” is given a haunting & mysterious setting, highlighted by his dark harmonica playing. The only previously unreleased song here is “Stringman,” a simple piano ballad from 1976 that reminds me of Jackson Browne. The two highlights for me are “Like A Hurricane” and “Transformer Man.” The former is an amazing re-working of a classic, sounding like a church hymnal with Neil on pump organ. The latter takes a formerly futuristic song and brings it to life in an organic setting with pretty backing vocals. The other songs sound exactly as you would expect them to, which can be interpreted as praise or critique, depending on your expectations. There’s no denying, though, that’s it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen.

He reconvened Crazy Horse for Sleeps With Angels (1994), a more dark & subdued collection of songs than we had come to expect from Neil & his hard rockin’ cohorts. The Neil Young - Sleeps With Angelstitle track was a tribute to the recently departed Kurt Cobain, and although the album has a reputation as an homage to the late Nirvana frontman, much of the music had already been recorded and it’s a coincidence that the mood and lyrical content address aging, loss and death. It took a number of listens for me to start appreciating this record and it was worth the effort, as at least half of the 12 songs made a lasting impression. The tack piano (or is that harpsichord?) on “My Heart” sets a cool mood to start the album, and I love Neil’s high vocals and the tight harmonies. This is a real standout in his catalog; it’s pretty & interesting, with a super catchy melody at “Somewhere, somewhere, I’ve got to get somewhere” and “My heart, my heart, I’ve got to keep my heart.” “Western Hero” and “Train Of Love” share the same backing track, so only the lyrics are different (not sure why he decided to do that, but who’s going to question Neil at this point in his career?). Both songs are simple, hushed & elegant, and wouldn’t have been out of place on Harvest Moon. The former is about a hero general who’s been forgotten over the years, or possibly about America’s stature in the world (“Through the years he changed somehow, he’s different now”). The latter is more about lost-love but it’s just as effective as the story in “Western Hero,” with a memorable melody and soft harmonies.

[Neil Young – “Prime Of Life”]

One of my favorite tracks is “Prime Of Life.” What initially sounds like a flute is probably a recorder, which provides a slightly ragged but instantly identifiable hook that reminded me of the intro to Mary Well’s Motown classic, “My Guy.” The music is propulsive yet Neil Young Photo (circa 1994)subdued, and I love the “prime of life” backing vocals. The centerpiece of the album has to be the nearly 15-minute long “Change Your Mind,” which stands proudly among his best epics. Unlike some of those earlier songs, this isn’t merely a loose framework for Neil to explode on guitar. In edited form, it could’ve easily been a hit single. Naturally it features great guitar work, but it’s the melodies that make it special, especially the pre-chorus (“Don’t let another day go by…without the magic touch”) and the chorus (“Distracting you/change your mind, Embracing you/change your mind”). He never quite goes into overdrive in any of his solos, giving the song an amazing tension throughout its extended running time. “Trans Am” finds him in half-talking Bob Dylan mode, with a series of similar verses and a simple chorus of “Trans Am” backing vocals. The remaining songs didn’t have the same impact on me, except for the negative impact of “Piece Of Crap,” which is accurately named. The repeated bass note in “Safeway Cart” reminds me of The Eagles’ “One Of These Nights,” and I love the yelping harmonica. Album closer “A Dream That Can Last” returns to the sound of “My Heart,” giving this mostly dark album two lighthearted bookends. All in all, Sleeps With Angels is a standout in his catalog, and one of his finest with Crazy Horse. Newcomers should be willing to give it some time to sink in.

Neil teamed up with Pearl Jam for Mirror Ball (1995). I’ve never been a fan of theirs, mostly because I don’t like Eddie Vedder’s voice. Friends have chastised me for this, but Neil Young - Mirror BallI’m not saying he has a bad voice; I just don’t like listening to it, which is a shame because all the members of Pearl Jam are great musicians. I kept an open mind as I played it several times this past week, but other than a handful of notable songs it’s done in by a muddy production and vocals that are buried in the mix. I would describe album opener “Song X” as a “sea shanty waltz,” and the “Hey ho, away we go” backing vocals contribute to the pirates-at-sea vibe. It has a different feel than I would’ve expected, but the typically crunchy guitars and fiery solos were not surprising. “Big Green Country” sounds like an early Foo Fighters song: super melodic, loud & raucous. There’s a manic yet controlled off-kilter guitar solo, and a recurring melody reminds me of The Moody Blues’ “The Story In Your Eyes.” The big guitar riff that starts off “Downtown” continues through the song, a groovy & fun tune with playful lyrics. Normally this might seem like a dumb, by-the-numbers rocker, but it’s a real standout here. It has a loose, Rolling Stones vibe, and it was nice to hear Neil referencing Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix in the final verse.

My favorite song is “Throw Your Hatred Down,” a propulsive & driving melodic rocker. It’s similar to another song here, “I’m The Ocean,” which never shifts gears over its 7+ minutes, while “Throw Your Hatred Down” tosses in some twists & turns, as well as a Neil Young Photo (circa 1995, with Pearl Jam)melodic chorus where the piano gives it an E Street Band vibe. The anti-hatred message is a strong one (“Children in the schoolyard finish choosing teams, divided by their dreams, while a TV screams”), and the raw & ragged guitar solos give off a sense of urgency. “Scenery” is the longest song, at nearly 9 minutes, and it might have been more effective in edited form. It’s big & loud with a soaring lead guitar, and lyrics that appear to address the pitfalls of stardom (“You sell your heart but that’s not the price of freedom, where things are useful only when you need them”). Album closer “Fallen Angel” is more of a song fragment at just over 1 minute, with Neil alone on pump organ singing about a dead artist (Cobain again?) and how his music & image are being posthumously treated (“Hungry people move like waves behind the beat”; “Fallen angel, who’s your saviour tonight?”). I doubt I’ll be coming back to Mirror Ball too often in the future, as only 1 or 2 songs would make the cut on a hypothetical career-spanning anthology of Neil’s work. I’m sure this album speaks to a lot of fans, but clearly I’m not one of them. Maybe a remix would help, but I’m sure this is exactly the way he wanted it to sound.

Neil Young - Broken ArrowNeil followed up Mirror Ball with an album that was even less memorable, Broken Arrow (1996). Recording again with Crazy Horse, there seems to be no purpose to this album other than to give the record company more product to sell. It’s by no means terrible, but it’s certainly unnecessary. The only truly noteworthy song for me is “Loose Change,” which has a nice harmonica line & is instantly catchy at “I built a house of cards, built a house of rain, built a house of love, it’s hard to build again.” Over its 9+ minutes there’s a slow-but-swinging groove, but it’s more of a “long song” than an epic, and occasionally sounds like a jam or a work-in-progress. And that’s the one true highlight on this album.

“Big Time” has a pretty good framework for Neil’s guitar heroics and a very good chorus (“I’m still living the dream we had, for me it’s not over”). After another extended song that doesn’t do much for me (“Slip Away”), the next four songs are at least mercifully shorter.  Of these, only “Changing Highways” (a short honky-tonk song with loud electric guitar) Neil Young Photo (circa 1996, with Crazy Horse)and “Music Arcade” (an acoustic song with the great line, “Have you ever been lost, have you ever been found out?”) made any kind of impression, and they’re forgotten pretty quickly. Why he chose to end the album with a bootleg quality recording of the ‘50s Jimmy Reed song “Baby What You Want Me To Do” is beyond comprehension. It’s a slow, down-and-dirty blues shuffle with great musicianship, but sonically & stylistically it sounds like a poorly selected bonus track. This is an album that should’ve remained in the vaults, and considering he has a number of unreleased albums which fans claim are as good as anything in his catalog, he would’ve been better off allowing one of those to finally see the light of day.

Well, that wasn’t a very good album on which to end this post, although I’m glad I gave it a few listens to confirm my initial impressions. The highlights of this batch are clearly Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this period of his career. Now it’s time for me to move on to his next 4-5 albums, which include a couple of live releases (with and without Crazy Horse) and a few studio albums I don’t know much about (as with a lot of his records, I probably played them twice and quickly forgot them). I’ll start listening this weekend and will share my thoughts on them after I’ve given them ample playing time. Thanks for stopping by.

20 comments on “NEIL YOUNG Part 7 – A Dreamin’ Man In The Prime Of Life

  1. mikeladano
    March 12, 2013

    You know it’s funny…here I was singing the praises of Mirror Ball not that long ago. And I’m reading this article, and you’re describing Mirror Ball. And then I realize, “Shoot, I can barely remember that album now.” I bet I haven’t listened to it since the record store. I used to like it a lot. Unfortunately it was one of our “flop” albums, it didn’t sell well for us, we had a lot sold back. Too bad.

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    • Mike, thanks for confirming my biggest complaint about that album: the lack of memorable songs. Although I’m not a Pearl Jam fan and was skeptical about it when it first came out, I always keep an open mind and it doesn’t matter to me who’s playing on the album as long as it’s good. Other than the few tunes I highlighted, it was mostly in one ear & out the other. And that was after giving it at least 4 listens last week. Based on what I’ve read, it sold a lot initially because of the Pearl Jam buzz, but after that it disappeared quickly. Your record store tale seems to confirm that.

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      • mikeladano
        March 13, 2013

        Oh and I get what you’re saying about Eddie’s voice too. I’ve grown to like it, but what I don’t like are all the second rate imitators. The Creed soundalikes. The movie Ted did a funny spoof on that kind of singing.

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      • I missed “Ted” in the theater and I don’t have Netflix, but I’ve wanted to see it since I watched the first trailer. Whenever it shows up on HBO, Showtime, etc., I will finally get to see it. That scene is great.

        Although I don’t like Vedder’s voice, I can’t blame him for the imitators that followed (although, Creed…uggh!). My biggest issue with him from the first time they appeared on SNL was the “I’m gonna be quiet the first half of the song and demonic in the second half” performance which seemed to occur in every subsequent song. I know that’s a generalization, but it stuck with me.

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      • mikeladano
        March 13, 2013

        Rich it just so happens I am working on my Ted review today.

        I never saw that SNL. I studiously avoided Pearl Jam at the time!

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      • I will hold off reading your review until I see the movie, but I’m sure it will be thorough as always.

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      • mikeladano
        March 13, 2013

        Fair enough! I had a blast doing the review. I could give you this video at least.

        Anyway, Neil Young, right? Here’s another retail perspective. We hated those cardboard cases. We had a lot of problems with them, and pretty much every CD he made from Mirror Ball on came in one. They would slip out of our security cases, and they would really scratch up the discs, the cardboard was so tight. I had a lot of customers who hated those. They’d cut them up, put them in jewel cases, or just throw them out.

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      • The earliest of those cardboard digipaks that I remember were Bonnie Raitt and Sting, around ’89 or ’90. I hated them then & I still hate them. I guess they thought they were saving the environment by not using jewel cases but I’m not sure they made much of a difference. I just got the new Bowie CD, which came in a digipak, and I ripped the front in the corner when I removed the folder from the sleeve. That would never happen with a jewel case, and now I’m stuck with a slightly torn package before I’ve even listened to the music.

        I remember those security cases, although when I was working in record retail stores (’83-’88) we used them for cassettes. I was there for the advent of CDs, which were in long boxes for years so they fit the old LP browsers. Then we realized that people were slicing open the bottom of the long boxes and stealing the CDs in the jewel cases. I used to be personally offended when that happened.

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  2. stephen1001
    March 21, 2013

    Interesting – when I looked at After The Gold Rush, I wondered what it would sound like with Eddie Vedder singing. I enjoy Neil’s songs but am still striving to appreciate his voice (as a result, I’m subject to similar chastising from friends!). And I had forgotten about *shudder* Creed, the Ted clip summarized that 90’s Pearl Jam knockoff trend nicely!

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    • I can understand people not enjoying his voice, in the same way that I don’t enjoy Eddie Vedder’s voice. I’m glad you can enjoy some of his songs, though, and we’re on the same page regarding Creed.

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      • stephen1001
        March 22, 2013

        Oh there’s definitely no questioning the songs – when I’m in a music store looking at acoustic guitars, the harvest moon intro is among the first things I’ll play!

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      • Do you get dirty looks from store employees when you do that? At least it’s not a Wayne’s World/”Stairway To Heaven” issue (see below). I’ve always assumed they couldn’t get the rights to “Stairway…” for the movie because that’s not the song he’s actually playing when they stop him.

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  3. stephen1001
    March 22, 2013

    Not actually Stairway in the ‘No Stairway’ scene – denied! I find Harvest Moon’s such a good one to noodle on when trying out a guitar, the nice D chord, lead pattern in the upper register, harmonics waterfall back down – and hopefully not too overplayed (a la Stairway) to prompt a No Harvest Moon sign!

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    • I can totally hear “Harvest Moon” being an excellent sonic choice for testing out an acoustic guitar, even though I’m a drummer who was never able to learn any melodic instruments. To get the full effect, you should ask someone to take out a broom and do the rhythmic sweeping that Neil used during his Unplugged performance to get that brushes-on-a-snare sound.

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  4. stephen1001
    March 23, 2013

    I shall try to recruit a percussionist/sweeper next time!

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  5. Pingback: NEIL YOUNG Part 9 – Wind, Chrome And A Lincoln Continental Hybrid | KamerTunesBlog

  6. Lewis Johnston
    April 15, 2013

    Harvest Moon, one of the best albums of the 1990’s. I do enjoy Young’s acoustic music a great deal, plus it is a follow up to “Harvest”, something I thought would never happen. It is a beautiful melodic album that on the one hand transports you to the past but the themes are rooted in the present. One of Young’s most personal albums I think, a huge hit and deservedly so, it illustrated his ability to pull out a surprise when you least expect it. As regards “Unplugged” like you I thought that could have been better, it would have been great if he did more of his electric tracks in an acoustic setting “Transformer Man” was most enjoyable. Not that there was anything wrong with the performances, but given Young’s perverse nature I was expecting “Trans” unplugged, that at least would have been different for sure. Moving on to “Sleeps With Angels” this is one of the finest albums that he has recorded with Crazy Horse, of course he was back in full on sombre mode for this one, certainly it terms of sonic texture it is one of the most diverse sounding albums with Crazy Horse, everything from tack pianos to recorders and everything between thrown in for good measure, plus the playing is pretty slick too. It does suffer from being a bit long and there are a couple of tracks that could be done without “Piece Of Crap” and “Blue Eden” spring to mind. The next release “Mirror Ball” would have made a fine four or five track CD, it seemed to me at this point that he was running out of steam, while it does have it’s moments as you have ably pointed out here, it is by no means a good album. Plus the production lets it down somewhat. The final album in this section “Broken Arrow”, well that is best avoided, apart from “Loose Change” which it sounded like he made some effort in writing and “Big Time” the rest is dross. However on the LP version there is a song called “Interstate” which is very good, why it was put on that I will never know, at least having that on there I have a reason to get the LP out. I did see Young live when he toured in 1996 and the “Broken Arrow” tracks were just as bad live but longer, if I remember “Slip Away” seemed to go on forever. This period covered started with a bang and ended with something of a whimper, but then who said following Neil Young was easy? He is a stubborn, perverse individual and he loves to test his audience, that may be one of the reasons he has lasted the course.

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    • Hi Lewis. Once again, we’re on the same wavelength. I was happy at how much I still loved Harvest Moon. It’s one of those albums that certain fans have turned on simply because even non-Neil fans enjoy it, but song for song it’s as strong as almost anything he’s ever released. It doesn’t have the diversity of Harvest but mood-wise it’s clearly related to that earlier classic. We’re in agreement about how things went down after Sleeps With Angels during this era, so not much to add to that. At least we know he had better things ahead.

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