Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Not many recording artists are fortunate to have a career that lasts four decades or more, and even fewer are willing to explore new musical territories after so many years. Neil Young is one of those rare artists. Throughout the 1990’s and the early part of the 21st century, he alternated between his hard rock side (often with longtime backing band Crazy Horse) and his acoustic folk-based singer-songwriter side, with a handful of minor variations in between. With Le Noise (2010) he decided to try something different, working with producer/sonic architect Daniel Lanois to shape solo performances into something darker and more mysterious than anything he had previously done. There were times when I was waiting/hoping for a band to join in, but mostly I enjoyed the unique mood conjured up by the two of them. “Walk With Me” features heavy guitar sounds, chugging along & bouncing off one another. The romantic yet simplistic lyrics didn’t make much of an impact, but this song is all about texture and setting the mood for the rest of the record. “Sign Of Love” could be a Crazy Horse song with that super heavy riff, and I love how he addresses aging with a sense of humor (“It’s a sign of love, when we both have silver hair and a little less time, but there still are roses on the vine”). The stuttering, echo-y effect on the vocals sounds like something you’d hear from Radiohead.
[Neil Young – “Sign Of Love”]
“Love And War” is a haunting, powerful & dark folk song with nice fingerpicked acoustic guitar that recalls Richard Thompson at his most traditionally folky. It’s one of the highlights of the album for me, featuring lyrics about the futility of war and the toll it takes on soldiers & their loved ones. “The Hitchhiker” is autobiographical, as he takes us from Toronto to California to his early fame to paranoia (and references to various “substances”) to “living in the country” to survival after living his life on the road (“I don’t know how I’m standing here living my life, I’m thankful for my children and my faithful wife”). He also references his earlier song “Like An Inca” (originally on the Trans LP), both melodically & lyrically. This brings up one of the joys of revisiting full artist catalogs & writing about them here, since I wouldn’t have made the connection between these two songs prior to spending time with that earlier album. “Angry World” has one of the nastiest guitar sounds I’ve heard from him: super raw & distorted. There’s not a lot to the song other than its attitude, and I was surprised to learn that it won the Grammy for Best Rock Song. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” is a brooding acoustic tune that stands apart from the rest of the album with stark lyrics and powerful vocals. The melody never fully grabbed me and it does go on a little too long at 7+ minutes, but I really enjoyed his acoustic guitar work. Album closer “Rumblin’” is another of his eco-conscious songs that finds him singing about our planet in a lower voice (“I feel the rumblin’ in her ground”; “When will I learn how to give back?”). The electronic textures at the beginning are a nice touch. Le Noise (a play on the producer’s last name, I believe, but also a fitting description of the guitar tone on many songs) sets itself apart from the rest of his discography, and even though only about half the songs are truly memorable, I enjoyed the one-of-a-kind ride it took me on and I’ll be revisiting it frequently.
The third & final Archives release I own is A Treasure (2011), which was recorded with a band he dubbed International Harvesters prior to the release of his traditional country album, Old Ways. Of the 12 songs included on this disc, five were previously unreleased and one was a cover version, so I was only familiar with half of the album. “Amber Jean” is upbeat, old-school country featuring fiddle and high harmonies. “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” is a slightly bouncy acoustic tune with Neil playing the unlucky-in-love protagonist waiting for a phone call (“I can’t reach out & touch you, you’re hung up on the line, I’m your disconnected number now & you’re a private line”). His old Buffalo Springfield song “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” is the highlight of the album for me. It’s super slow & melancholy, and the melody has been stuck in my head for days (“Then I’m sorry to let you down, but you’re from…my side of town…and I’ll miss you”). It sounds like a cross between a Willie Nelson ballad and Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”
“Soul Of A Woman” is a blues shuffle, but Rufus Thibodeaux’s fiddle adds a country element. In a slightly different arrangement it wouldn’t have been out of place on his This Note’s For You album. One of my favorite songs from Re-ac-tor, “Southern Pacific,” works even better here. The train whistle sound of the fiddle and Anthony Crawford’s plucked banjo keep the song chugging along. Neil also rips a fantastic guitar solo. “Nothing Is Perfect” (“in God’s perfect plan”) is a lovely country gospel song that’s unlike anything else here. The album ends with the more rockin’ “Grey Riders,” a bouncy tune with playful piano and a raw guitar instrumental interlude after each chorus. Two songs I already knew, “Are You Ready For The Country?” and “Motor City” (with its “Who’s driving my car now?” refrain), offer few surprises but benefit from these twangier arrangements. The one cover song, “It Might Have Been,” is an old-time country shuffle that reminded me of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.” As I mentioned in my discussion of Old Ways, I’ve been a fan of traditional country music for many years, and Neil’s take on this genre is legitimate. If country isn’t your thing, I don’t think this album will change your mind, but I really enjoyed it and consider A Treasure one of his best live albums.
When Americana (2012) was released, I read a lot of negative reviews and, like many fans, I questioned Neil’s decision to record mostly traditional folk songs that are often associated with children’s sing-alongs. Many artists release “covers” albums & collections of old folk songs, and often they indicate a lack of songwriting inspiration. It took one listen to dismiss that theory, as Neil and Crazy Horse (Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro & Ralph Molina) offer up unique performances of these standards (on their first album together since 2003), often using lyrics that have been omitted from the more well-known kid-friendly versions. It also sounds like they had a hell of a good time in the studio. The Stephen Foster classic, “Oh Susannah,” has a cha-cha rhythm and cool group vocals when they sing the title, as well as a memorable hook at “’Cause I come from Alabama with my b-a-n-j-o on my knee.” According to the liner notes, this is based on Tim Rose’s version from the ‘60s. “Clementine,” as in “Oh my darling Clementine,” is pretty far from a children’s song, with a thunderous drumbeat, fuzzy guitar, and lyrics about a girl who drowned, narrated either by her father or boyfriend, depending on your interpretation. I loved this version the first time I played it, and it’s still a lot of fun after numerous listens.
[Neil Young – “Clementine”]
“Gallow’s Pole” is a very old song that’s been performed in various guises by Odetta (whose version was their inspiration), Leadbelly, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and many others. I love the bouncy feel and the group vocals at “hangman, hangman, slack your rope.” “Travel On” is based on a British folk song about a man who’s constantly on the move. It’s upbeat & super catchy with a great melody, and I love the vocals at, “And I feel like I’ve gotta travel on.” I previously knew “High Flyin’ Bird” via Richie Havens’ version. This one’s not as good, but it does sound like a typical midtempo Crazy Horse rocker that could easily fit on most of their records. “Wayfarin’ Stranger” stands out as the most subdued song here, and its haunting power comes from the simple & sparse arrangement. Neil based it on Burl Ives’ version of this 19th century folk song. The rest of the album has its moments, but the songs aren’t as unique as the ones I’ve already discussed. I like the swinging “sha-na-na-na-na” doo-wop arrangement of “Get A Job,” originally a #1 Pop and R&B hit for the Silhouettes in the late-‘50s. Unfortunately, the loose vocal performance doesn’t work for this type of song. Their take on “Jesus’ Chariot” (a.k.a. “She’ll Be Comin ‘Round The Mountain”) shifts from dark & foreboding to a lighter feel in each verse, and I really like the group vocals at “When she comes.” The album ends with a stomping sing-along rock version of “God Save The Queen,” which incorporates “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” There’s nothing terribly noteworthy about it, but it does conclude the album on an upbeat, patriotic note. I’m surprised to say that Americana is one of the most enjoyable Neil Young & Crazy Horse albums, and in spite of the fact that there are no original songs, they prove themselves to still be a vital rock band, a point they confirmed on their next album.
His most recent album, Psychedelic Pill (2012), is another collaboration with Crazy Horse, and it’s also a 2-CD set that’s the longest studio album of Neil’s career. With 9 songs totaling nearly 90 minutes you know there will be some extended jamming, but nothing can prepare you for the 27+ minute album opener, “Driftin’ Back.” He doesn’t break any new ground but still manages to keep things interesting. From the simple guitar strumming in the intro to the steady midtempo groove that continues through most of the song, he moves from wistful nostalgia (“Dreaming about the way you feel now when you hear my song”) to cranky old man, as he complains about the culture of downloading music (“When you hear my song now you only get five percent”). More than half the song is filled with instrumental passages that showcase his guitar work while also creating a mantra-like, hypnotic Krautrock feel. By comparison, the nearly 17-minute “Ramada Inn” seems like a concise pop song, even though it takes us on another long journey. The guitar washes over the standard Crazy Horse rhythm track, and there are wonderful vocal melodies, most notably at,” Every morning comes the sun, and they both rise into the day, holding on to what they’ve done.” This song features my favorite guitar work on the album, including some amazing melodic & soaring soloing.
“Walk Like A Giant” is aptly titled, as it’s nearly as long as “Ramada Inn” while introducing an instantly memorable whistling melody that sits atop the fuzzy groove. Also, the 4-minute outro sounds like a giant stomping & crushing the landscape. Lyrically he’s addressing the failure of his generation’s hippie dream, and musically it’s got his most raw & fiery guitar performances, at times recalling “Like A Hurricane” or his electric guitar sound on Live Rust. At 8-1/2 minutes, “She’s Always Dancing” doesn’t use its length as effectively as the other songs I’ve mentioned, with only the group harmony vocals at the start (“She wants to live without ties to bind her down…”) & the stinging lead guitar making an impact on me. He’s in a nostalgic mood again on “Twisted Road,” a slightly bouncy little song where he recalls the “first time I heard ‘Like A Rolling Stone’” and describes Bob Dylan as being “like Hank Williams chewin’ bubble gum” (can’t argue with that). He also mentions Roy (Orbison, I assume) and The Dead. “Psychedelic Pill” appears in two versions. The first has a distracting flanger effect that undermines the track, while the “Alternate Mix” is much more listenable. It’s a relatively minor song that’s short & sweet, and ends the album on a positive note. Psychedelic Pill is dominated by those three incredibly long songs, and fortunately they’re all worthy of multiple listens even though they consume a lot of time. This album is clearly geared toward his most devoted fans, since the average listener most likely wouldn’t have the patience to sit through such a long record. It’s hit-and-miss like many of his albums, but after nearly 45 years it’s amazing that he can still create such significant & timeless music.
That wraps up the Neil Young discography. Over the last 2 months I’ve revisited 45 albums, following the various twists & turns in his career, from acoustic singer/songwriter to fuzzed-out guitar hero, from troubled troubadour to country-rock hitmaker, from the underrated Geffen years to Crazy Horse ringleader, from his resurrection as grunge-era inspiration to creator of concept albums…and numerous points in between. He may have repeated himself a number of times but he’s never failed to surprise & delight, and I’m sure that will continue for as long as he’s with us. It’s hard to believe that there are still several Neil Young records I haven’t heard, and I’ve been told that there are a plethora of unreleased albums that can be found by resourceful fans. After I’ve taken a well-earned break from his music, I will seek out some of this material with fresh ears, and I may have to re-open this series to discuss those records along with anything else he releases in the future. For now, I thank you for joining me on this “journey through the past” as I finally got to delve into these albums that have been sitting on a shelf for such a long time. I hope I helped you re-ignite your passion for his music, and possibly discover something you didn’t already know. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, as one of the main purposes of this blog is to chat with other fans. Please share this series with any like-minded people, and stop by soon to find out about my next artist. Thanks again.