Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The latest batch of Neil Young albums I revisited this week was an interesting one, including two live albums and three studio releases that couldn’t be more sonically or thematically different. I began with Year Of The Horse (1996), 2 CD’s of live recordings with Crazy Horse (Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot & Frank Sampedro), which coincided with a concert film of the same name by director Jim Jarmusch. Following the live Weld album by only five years, the world probably didn’t need another concert recording of Neil & “The Horse,” but I found it to be more enjoyable than that previous album as it covered more diverse musical territory while always showcasing the talents of his longtime backing band. He certainly gave fans their money’s worth, with 12 songs across 84 minutes on a “Specially Priced 2 Disc Set” (as the sticker on the shrinkwrap read). I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the versions of songs from 1996’s Broken Arrow, my least favorite of his albums to date. “Big Time” still has the excellent chorus from the original, and Neil delivers some top-notch guitar solos over a standard Crazy Horse rhythm. “Slip Away” might meander a bit over its 11 minute running time, but Neil’s guitar work can be described as fluid, melodic & fierce. The song itself may not be memorable, but the musicianship is. “Scattered,” with its lovely sentiment of “Let’s think about livin’, let’s think about life” is short & sweet, and the melody (“I’m a little bit high, I’m a little bit low…”) packs more punch than its studio counterpart.
Many older songs show up in stellar versions: “When You Dance” (more fuzzy & stomping than the original), “Barstool Blues” (three times its original length; it’s got a four-on-the-floor beat but still grooves), “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” (an intense take on this Life song; I just wish they had avoided the echo-y snare drum sound), “Mr. Soul” (a full-sounding unplugged version with great harmonica), “Pocahontas” (his voice has a snarling quality; it’s not revelatory but I’m always happy to hear this song), “Danger Bird” (“slow as molasses” as I described it in my appraisal of Zuma, it’s slow, epic & massive), “Prisoners” (still a dumb but fun song, with some demonic guitar shredding) and “Sedan Delivery” (a classic Crazy Horse performance, and I love Neil’s “Smell ‘The Horse’ on this one” intro). It’s not an earth-shattering concert recording like his earlier Live Rust, but it’s a more than solid representation of a group still in its prime.
His next studio album wouldn’t appear for another four years, but it was worth the wait for fans of his quieter side, as Silver & Gold (2000) is a triumph. Like his other mostly acoustic releases (Comes A Time, Harvest Moon) that are too easily compared to his landmark 1972 album, Harvest, but really only capture a fraction of that earlier classic, Silver & Gold recalls the peace & serenity of earlier standards like “Heart Of Gold” and “Old Man” with the added nostalgia of a man in his mid-50s. “Good To See You” is a simple acoustic song that sets an upbeat tone for much of the album, both musically & lyrically. “Silver & Gold,” which was written in 1982, reminds me of early James Taylor, with just Neil on guitar & harmonica, singing about domestic bliss (“Our kind of love never seems to get old, it’s better than silver & gold”). “Daddy Went Walkin’” directly references his earlier hit, with “Old man crossin’ the road, you gotta let him go/he’s feelin’ fine.” I like the various tempo changes and emotive harmonica playing. This song gets better with each successive listen. He’s never sounded more nostalgic than on “Buffalo Springfield Again,” where he surprises his fans and probably his old bandmates by suggesting a reunion with that group (which would actually happen a decade later). It’s a catchy country-rock song with cool guitar runs in the stop-start section after the chorus.
“Razor Love,” which was written in 1987, is the longest song here at nearly 6-1/2 minutes, and it’s also the highlight of this record for me. The subtle instrumentation is perfect against his emotive vocals (“I got faith in you, it’s a razor love that cuts clean through”), and there’s a wonderful little ascending melody at “Silhouettes…on the win-dow.” “Horseshoe Man” has an absolutely gorgeous haunting piano melody, and great call-and-response between the vocals & pedal steel guitar in the chorus (“Love…how could they know love?”). It’s one of the few somber songs here, with the titular character bringing heartbreak “because love is everywhere.” “Distant Camera” sounds a bit like “Old Man” at a faster tempo, and I love how it goes from melancholy to bliss (“Life is changing everywhere I go, new things and old both disappear”; “All I want is a song of love…to sing for you”). The three songs I haven’t mentioned are all very good but not quite at the level of the 7 other wonderful songs already discussed. I think I’ll be returning to this album frequently in the future, as it’s one of the most pleasant surprises in his catalog…especially coming so many years into his career.
Neil must have had such a good time recording & touring the Silver & Gold album that he decided to release a live recording from that tour. Road Rock Vol. 1 – Friends & Relatives (2000) features longtime collaborators Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Duck Dunn, Jim Keltner and Pegi & Astrid Young (his wife & half-sister, respectively) on a collection of 8 songs that mostly come from earlier in his career. Starting things off with an 18-minute version (wow!) of “Cowgirl In The Sand” makes it clear that this album was aimed at his most loyal fans. It has a similar vibe to the Crazy Horse original but this band makes it more musically meticulous. “Walk On” has a nice loose groove, and it’s a joy to hear this one (originally from On The Beach) played live. “Peace Of Mind,” a song I didn’t mention in my discussion of Comes A Time, is very pretty with a sparse arrangement featuring a weeping steel guitar. I love the melody at “You know it takes a long long time.” The 11-minute take of “Words” is a searing epic rendition of this Harvest masterpiece. “Motorcyle Mama” is an excellent choice to follow that extended guitar workout; a short, fun little number with a great rhythm and some belted Linda Ronstadt-esque vocals (not sure if that’s Pegi or Astrid). This version of “Tonight’s The Night” might be my favorite since the original, played at a perfect slow tempo with an ominous undertone and tight harmonies. Album closer “All Along The Watchtower” features The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and was recorded in her home state of Ohio (Cleveland to be exact). This version of the Bob Dylan song owes more to Jimi Hendrix’s definitive interpretation, but Neil’s inspired (and inimitable) guitar work makes the song his own. I can’t say this is a great live album, and it’s certainly not essential, but it’s nice to have a document of Neil in concert with a band other than Crazy Horse for a change.
Are You Passionate? (2002) is an interesting album. It has a number of excellent songs but it doesn’t hold together as a satisfying whole. It features members of Stax soul legends Booker T. & The MG’s (Booker T. Jones, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Steve Potts) along with other Neil regulars like Frank Sampedro and Pegi & Astrid Young, and one song with Crazy Horse. One of my main complaints is that 8 of the 11 songs clock in at 5+ minutes, and the 65-minute album overstays its welcome. Since it’s essentially “Neil Young & The MG’s,” I’m not surprised that the majority of songs fall under the Southern Soul genre, and in many cases it’s easy to draw comparisons to well-known soul and R&B songs. “You’re My Girl” combines the funky bouncing bass line of “Green Onions” with Neil’s distinctive guitar tone & style. Here he’s singing to his daughter who’s growing up in front of his eyes (“Please don’t tell me that you’re leaving me just yet ‘cause I know I gotta let you go…”). I love the occasional group response vocals. “Mr. Disappointment” was an immediate highlight; a melancholy midtempo song with an emotional lead guitar melody that’s repeated in the chorus (“I’d like to shake your hand, Disappointment”). I like how Neil sings in a huskier, raspier voice than usual, sounding similar to Robbie Robertson.
[Neil Young – “Mr. Disappointment”]
“Let’s Roll” is his tribute to the passengers who fought back the hijackers on 9/11. It begins with an ominous intro that leads into a chunky, funky groove with a big guitar riff. I really enjoy the high vocals in the bridge (“No one has the answer but one thing is true, you got to turn on evil when it’s comin’ after you”). “Goin’ Home” is the one song with Crazy Horse; the heavy, pummeling music gives that away. It definitely has more punch than anything on their last album together, Broken Arrow. “When I Hold You In My Arms” swings like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “You Really Got A Hold On Me” with a light 6/8 (or is that 3/4?) feel. Lyrically, he’s back to the domestic tranquility of Silver & Gold, and his bluesy guitar is highlighted along with Booker T.’s one-of-a-kind organ sound. “Be With You” sounds a lot like The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song,” and it’s hard not to smile at this ‘60s Motown throwback. It’s a minor song but a whole lot of fun. The rest of the album often falls into the MOR (Middle Of The Road) category, with slick production and by-the-numbers instrumentation that recalls Eric Clapton at his most banal, or later songs like John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change.” I often enjoy this type of recording in small doses, but there’s a little too much of it here and it quickly wears thin. Album closer, “She’s A Healer,” though, is a rare extended Neil Young jam that’s more groove-oriented as opposed to his usual guitar freakout. Are You Passionate? isn’t a terrible album by any means, but it’s also not terribly memorable. As always, I give him credit for exploring new territories, and at least half the songs are worth repeated listens.
I have mixed feelings about Greendale (2003), a convoluted 78-minute concept album with Crazy Horse (minus Frank Sampedro this time) about a small town & its citizens, a murdered police officer, the devil living in the town jail and a young girl named Sun Green who connects with a man named Earth Brown (turning the whole thing into a parable about respecting our planet and its natural resources…or something like that). I read Neil’s rambling liner notes for each song, and even he seems confused by his own story. The bonus DVD, which includes a solo acoustic performance where he attempts to explain the story between songs, is harder to get through. It would be more enjoyable to just see & hear him play the songs without all the preambles. Also, 9 of the 10 songs exceed the 5-minute mark, with 3 exceeding 10 minutes, and they don’t really lend themselves to extended instrumental passages. Even the most diehard Neil Young fan had to feel that their patience was being tested the first time they played it. Now with all those negative comments out of the way, I should say that I did find a lot to enjoy here & about half the songs work well on their own. It just took some extra time & effort.
“Double E” is a down & dirty blues shuffle with a great guitar melody and biting lead guitar. It’s relatively brief, at just over 5 minutes, and there’s a great hook at “Back in the day, livin’ in the summer of love.” “Devil’s Sidewalk” is a bouncy 4/4 blues with fuzzy guitar that maintains a steady groove from start to finish. I really like the “Green-daaaale” backing vocals by The Mountainettes (Pegi Young, Nancy Hall, Twink Brewer & Sue Hall).
“Leave The Driving” sounds like an old folk song updated for a rock band, with Neil playing some excellent raw harmonica, and it’s one of the darkest tracks on the album. It tells the tale of how Sun’s cousin Jed murders a cop named Carmichael after the officer stops him on his way out of town (his car was full of drugs). “Carmichael” recounts the story of the murdered cop, the fight he had with his wife that morning, and the secret he was hiding from her. It has a steady, subdued groove with subtle guitar runs over its 10+ minutes. “Sun Green” is a stomping blues rocker with a wonderful lead harmonica melody. It seems to be about youthful idealism, and pits the innocent young woman against authority figures as she repeatedly shouts, “Hey Mr. Clean, you’re dirty now too” through a megaphone. I had some issues with the Rent-style Broadway feel to album closer “Be The Rain,” but it’s hard to find fault with the music and the repeated refrain of “Save the planet for another day.” The rest of the songs have elements I enjoy (like the way “Grandpa’s Interview” reminds me of James Taylor’s “Handy Man,” the rattling guitar strings in “Bandit” and how the music in “Falling From Above” sounds like something Lou Reed might have written) but they don’t hold my interest all the way through. I remember liking all of Greendale when I first bought it a decade ago, but it obviously hasn’t held up well for me. I’m curious to find out if other fans are more receptive to the whole concept and not just individual songs.
Next up will be a few more studio albums he recorded in the first decade of the new millennium, as well as a handful of archive live releases. I’m approaching the finish line in his discography but there’s still a lot more music to explore over the next couple of weeks. I continue to be impressed by his work ethic and his stubborn refusal to repeat himself from album to album.