Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
As I’ve gotten deep into Neil Young’s discography, I’m discovering that I prefer the more acoustic side of his musical output in recent years. In that setting, the melodies seem to have more impact, and I respond to the melancholy & nostalgic nature of his music & lyrics as he reached his 50s & 60s. For Prairie Wind (2005), he brought together frequent collaborators like Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Chad Cromwell and others who provide sympathetic musicianship to this collection of 10 wonderful songs (more than half of which made a lasting impression on me this past week). “The Painter” is a gorgeous folk-tinged country song with weeping steel guitar and strong melodies (“It’s a long road behind me, it’s a long road ahead, if you follow every dream you might get lost”). He’s addressing the passing of time and the friends he’s lost along the way (“Some of them are with me now, some of them can’t be found”). “No Wonder” features fantastic guitar work (both acoustic & electric) and subtle harmonies from Emmylou Harris. I would describe it as muted Americana, and it has a rocking intensity despite the quiet production. I especially love the hushed vocals in the chorus (“Tick…tock…the clock on the wall, no wonder we’re losin’ time”). “Far From Home” is driving & bluesy with horns & harmonica propelling the music. Ben Keith plays some stellar dobro, and the rootsy instrumentation deftly links country with blues and R&B.
The highlight of the album for me is “It’s A Dream,” a stunning piano-based ballad with an amazing, emotive vocal melody. The strings add sweetness without being sugary, especially at “And it’s fading now, fading away.” It’s one of those special songs that’s sad & uplifting at the same time. “Prairie Wind” is a back porch country shuffle with the surprisingly successful addition of a horn section, making for a cool combination of sounds. I love the sweet harmony vocals at “Prairie wind blowin’ through my head, tryin’ to remember what daddy said.” “He Was The King” is a fun & groovy tribute to Elvis Presley with great slide guitar. It has a similar groove to the Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck In The Middle With You” and Sheryl Crow’s later sound-alike, “All I Wanna Do.” I’m not sure how I feel about album closer “When God Made Me,” but it’s worth mentioning as it stands out from the rest of the record. Featuring the Fisk University Jubilee Choir, it’s pretty much straight-up gospel, also bearing similarities to early Elton John and The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” This song finds him raising questions about God, racism, war, love, and other big themes without providing the answers, allowing the listener to come to his/her own conclusions. It’s pretty but I don’t know if I will come back to it frequently. The remaining songs didn’t stand out as much, but they’re all very good and make for an enjoyable listen. In the liner notes it reads, “For Daddy,” and many of the songs have a feeling of loss, either pending or experienced. It had me wondering if Neil’s father was ill at the time, or if he had passed away: if that was the case, belated sympathies to Neil & his family. Despite this, it’s not a somber album, and I enjoyed it as much as his other primarily acoustic records like Comes A Time, Harvest Moon and Silver & Gold.
His next studio album was 2006’s Living With The War. I only heard it via a streaming website when it was released and didn’t like it enough to purchase the CD, so I won’t be discussing it here. If any of my readers feel that it was an essential addition to his catalog, I’ll make it a point to get a copy after I’ve wrapped up this series. Otherwise, my opinion will be based on that single listen back in ’06.
Chrome Dreams II (2007) is a sequel of sorts to an unreleased ‘70s album called Chrome Dreams whose songs ended up on subsequent releases. I believe Neil’s intention for this follow-up was to gather recent songs covering various styles and see how they fit together. Instead of a solid collection covering disparate genres like 1989’s Freedom, which has been one of the most pleasant surprises in his catalog so far, Chrome Dreams II doesn’t hold together nearly as well. I enjoyed it the first time I played it again last week, but with each subsequent spin I became less enamored with it. It’s not that any of the songs are bad, but many are simply ordinary. There are, however, a handful of highlights which I really enjoyed. The 18+ minutes of “Ordinary People” starts off as a Crazy Horse-esque midtempo epic, but goes through various shifts in mood throughout its extended running time while essentially maintaining one steady beat. Instead of being solely a showcase for Neil’s blistering guitar work (which is definitely on display), it focuses more on the groove as the band vamps along (especially through the lengthy outro). I love the loose, ragged, occasionally off-beat backing vocals, and the piano-and-vibe sound gives off a cinematic Bruce Springsteen vibe at times. “The Believer” is a cute little song that got better each time I played it. It’s one of his most lighthearted, upbeat songs that has a sparse arrangement but doesn’t feel empty. I really like those “I believe in you” backing vocals.
[Neil Young – “The Believer”]
“Spirit Road” is a driving rocker that sounds like a slightly tighter version of Crazy Horse. The melody never grabbed me, other than during the chorus, but I love the fuzzy guitar, harmony vocals and the bouncy groove. “No Hidden Path” is another long song (14-1/2 minutes) that gets by on its combination of groove, swing & rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a great hook at “Show me the way and I’ll follow you today,” as well as lots of typically tasty guitar work. It might have had more impact in a shorter version, but I never tired of the fantastic groove, even if it gets a bit repetitive. That’s it for truly noteworthy tracks on this album, even though there are some very nice performances among the remaining songs. The banjo work on “Boxcar” sets this subtle tune apart. The album ends with “The Way,” an interesting whimsical waltz featuring The Young People’s Chorus Of New York City, who sound almost like angels singing to people as they arrive in heaven (“The way, we know the way, we’ve seen the way, we’ll show the way to get you back home…to the peace where you belong”). It may not be one of my favorites, but the melody & performances stuck with me, so on that level it was successful. In the end, Chrome Dreams II turns out to be a minor disappointment.
Neil had one thing in mind when he recorded Fork In The Road (2009): automobiles. More specifically, he was obsessed with his LincVolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental converted with hybrid technology. This allowed him to focus on his passions like the environment, clean energy, ending our dependence on foreign oil and, of course, cruising down the road in his favorite car. Unlike the previous album’s numerous stylistic shifts, this one is mostly straight ahead rock. Album opener “When Worlds Collide” features a crunchy 3-note guitar riff and a punchy rhythm section that has a Rolling Stones-y swagger. It sets the tone of driving down the road, and I like the way it opens up at the chorus (“Strange things happen when worlds collide”). “Just Singing A Song” is a Crazy Horse-esque midtempo rocker with soaring guitar and memorable melodies at “Send this song to a distant star while the rhythm explodes” and “Just singing a song won’t change the world.” “Cough Up The Bucks” is a repetitive, almost monotonous tune with simplistic lyrics (“It’s all about my car…and my girl…it’s all about my world, my world”) that somehow became the high point of the album for me. I love his deadpan vocals when he repeats the title throughout the song, and that scratchy, metallic guitar sound is unlike anything I’ve heard from him.
[Neil Young – “Cough Up The Bucks”]
“Get Behind The Wheel” has a swinging feel that recalls his earlier This Note’s For You album. It’s a cool bluesy rocker with solid guitar work, and the “Get behind the wheel in the morning and drive” refrain must be an homage to Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule” (“in the morning and plow”). He shifts gears for “Off The Road,” a slow & intense number with a sparse arrangement and great tight harmonies at “You go-o-o-o” and “Off the ro-o-o-o-oad.” The music has a sleepy quality that matches the lyrics. “Light A Candle” sounds like an old-time folk song, with strummed guitar, sweet pedal steel & soft vocals. Some of the other songs have elements I really enjoyed, even if they’re minor entries in his catalog. “Fuel Line” is a fun but dumb rocker about his LincVolt (“The awesome power of electricity stored for you in a giant battery”). “Johnny Magic” is super catchy at “In the form of a heavy metal Continental, she was born to run on a proud highway,” while the high-pitched harmonies at “Johnny Magic” sound like a throwback to the “Johnny Rotten, Rotten Johnny” vocals in his ’79 classic, “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” “Hit The Road” has a funky & ragged Joe Walsh quality, and it’s filled with double entendres (“She looks so beautiful with her top down”; “Just jump inside & turn the key, your satisfaction in guaranteed”). “Fork In The Road” is a political commentary with the sing-along refrain of “There’s a bailout coming but it’s not for me.” This album may not be a major accomplishment in his career, but it’s a rollicking good time and the fact that it’s mercifully brief (less than 39 minutes) makes it an easy & enjoyable listen.
During the period covered in this post, Neil finally began releasing rare studio & live recordings as part of his Archives series, something he had been promising for nearly two decades. To date this series includes five previously unreleased live CD’s as well as a massive box set called The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972. I haven’t gotten my hands on the box set yet, but I do own three of the other five releases (two of which I’ll discuss here while the other one will be included in my next post). Eventually I’d like to hear them all.
Live At Massey Hall 1971 (2007) captures an incredible solo performance from early in his career. Recorded a year before the release of his fourth album, Harvest, but featuring five songs from that album (two as part of a medley) as well as another five that were completely new to the audience, it showcases an artist who was rapidly evolving and not worried about giving his fans what they wanted. Of course, this would become a trademark throughout his career, and the crowd seems enthusiastic through the entire show, so maybe they got what they wanted after all. Of the songs included on existing solo albums and with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, these are all captivating…and in most cases seminal…versions. From CSNY’s “Helpless” & “Ohio” to recent solo classics like “Cowgirl In The Sand,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” & “Down By The River” and on to Buffalo Springfield’s “I Am A Child” and “On The Way Home,” the then 25-year-old delivers them with the authority of a much more seasoned performer. Even “See The Sky About To Rain,” which wouldn’t appear on record until 1974, shows up in a powerful piano version. The aforementioned “On The Way Home” was a highlight, with its great pop melody and his voice high & pure. At times it reminded me of Joni Mitchell and Todd Rundgren.
Many of the other songs were as new to me as they were to the audience that night, while a few I might have heard but then forgotten about. The piano ballad “Journey Through The Past” is musically similar to “After The Gold Rush” and features surprisingly nostalgic lyrics for such a young man (“Will your restless heart come back to mine on a journey through the past? Will I still be in your eyes and on your mind?”). “Love In Mind” is a short, sad piano ballad sung by a man who feels lost in the world (“I’ve got nothing to lose, I can’t get back again…what am I doing here?”). The commanding performance of “A Man Needs A Maid” (coupled here with “Heart Of Gold”) is even more powerful than its studio counterpart. The original lyrics in the first verse (“Afraid…a man feels afraid”) give the song a vulnerability that didn’t appear on the album version. “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” sounds a bit like its follow-up song, “The Needle And The Damage Done,” but doesn’t have that song’s emotional heft. “Dance Dance Dance,” which showed up on the first non-Neil Crazy Horse album, appears here in a loudly strummed acoustic version that had me thinking of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” (I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing). I have nothing but praise for this album and can’t recommend it highly enough. From start to finish it’s as enjoyable as anything he’s released.
Dreamin’ Man Live ’92 (2009) is simply a collection of solo acoustic versions of all ten songs from 1992’s Harvest Moon, performed on six different dates (all but two prior to that album’s release). The sequence is different from the studio album, and Neil is the only performer (on guitar, piano, harmonica & banjo). There’s not a lot to say about this release except, if you’re as big a fan of Harvest Moon as I am, you will likely love this as well. The songs retain their beauty & intensity even in this intimate setting. For my thoughts on the songs, please revisit my post on the original album. It’s not worth reiterating those comments here as there are no drastic differences. In the future when I’m in the mood to hear Harvest Moon, I will alternate between the two albums and will always enjoy either version.
I’ve already listened once to the remainder of his catalog, or at least the portion that I own (three studio albums and one Archives release), and will continue playing them over the next several days. In my next (and final) post, I will share my impressions on these records as well as my final thoughts on Neil’s sizeable discography.