KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – NEIL YOUNG “AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS” AND “DECADE”

Artist: NEIL YOUNG
Album: AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS and DECADE

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

During the first few months of 2013 I revisited Neil Young’s discography a handful of albums at a time, which I wrote about each week in a 10-part series that featured a total of 45 titles (including compilations and live albums). It was a thrill for me to finally dive head-first into a catalog that initially seemed almost impenetrable, re-discovering a number of old favorites and uncovering some previously-overlooked gems. After last week’s post on CSN by his on-again/off-again bandmates Crosby, Stills & Nash, this seems like an ideal time to shine a spotlight on Young’s two releases from 1977, American Stars ‘N Bars and the multi-disc compilation Decade. I already wrote a lot about these records so I’ll simply re-share those words here.

American Stars ‘N Bars is a schizophrenic hodgepodge that includes songs recorded by several different lineups at four sessions between 1974 & 1977. The members of Crazy Horse feature prominently, often augmented by other musicians & singers, most notably Linda Ronstadt and 25-year-old newcomer Nicolette Larson (who would have a huge hit with Neil’s “Lotta Love” a year later). “The Old Country Waltz” is exactly as the title suggests. No surprises there, but it’s still an enjoyably sad song (“Well I loved and I lost and I cried, the day that the two of us died”). “Saddle Up The Palomino” combines country & Celtic together in a blend that recalls Fairport Convention, especially the guitar riff during the instrumental breaks. “Hey Babe” is a nice upbeat country tune that finds him actually sounding optimistic (“Let’s try to make this last”). There’s a great subtle hook at “Oh, oh, can you see my love shining for you” with those wonderful female vocals. Ronstadt & Larson are also featured in “Hold Back The Tears” with a big memorable chorus (“Hold back the tears that you’ve been cryin’, push off the fears when they come around…just around the corner may be waiting your true love”). “Bite The Bullet” is more ramshackle than the previous songs, which sets it apart. I love those female vocals as they shout out the title after each line of the verse, as well as the silly but fun lyrics (“Carolina queen, she’s like a walking love machine”). It’s nice to hear him loosening up and having a blast.

“Star Of Bethlehem” is noteworthy as a duet with Emmylou Harris. It wasn’t my favorite song here, but I like the muted production and Neil’s harmonica solo. “Will To Love” is a wonderful new discovery for me. Neil plays and sings everything, so it comes across more as a home demo than a fully-produced track, but that works to its advantage.  His tight multi-tracked vocals, which are tender & soft, create a haunting atmosphere. There are interesting textures throughout, between what sounds like leg smacking, an organ that replicates a vibraphone and the gently picked & tapped acoustic guitar. The lyrics are enigmatic (“I can be like a fire in the night, always warm and giving off light, but there comes a time when I shine too bright”), and various underwater references which equate him with a fish swimming in a sea of love. At over 7 minutes it might be too long for some listeners, but I got hooked (no pun intended). The most famous track from this album is “Like A Hurricane,” a classic Crazy Horse blaring rock song that reminds me of Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” (it must be those soaring guitars). The album ends with a simple, fun ditty: “Homegrown.” At first it comes across as a throwaway song, but the catchy vocals, biting guitars and the stomping blues feel in the last line of each verse won me over. I would consider American Stars ‘N Bars to be at the same level as Zuma, each with one all-time great epic and several other excellent songs.

 

Like many people, my first purchase was the 2-CD compilation called Decade, which was originally a 3-LP set. It combined most of the best-loved songs from his solo albums, his earlier work with Buffalo Springfield, and his collaborations with Crosby, Stills & Nash, all chosen by Neil himself with informative (if hard-to-read) handwritten liner notes for each song. Of the 35 songs on this collection, I’m already pretty familiar with about 24 of them, but after spending much of the week with this album it was nice to learn some of those lesser-known tracks, many of which are exclusive to Decade“Down To The Wire” is a cool 1967 psychedelic nugget featuring Stephen Stills & Dr. John that was originally intended for the unreleased Buffalo Springfield album, Stampede. It reminds me a bit of Texas psychedelic legends 13th Floor Elevators. “Sugar Mountain” is a well-known song recorded live in 1968 that made its first album appearance here (it was originally a b-side), but was later included on a live album of the entire concert. According to Neil’s liner notes, he wrote this on his 19th birthday, and when Joni Mitchell heard it she wrote her own early classic, “The Circle Game” (which I talked about here). “Soldier” is the edited version of a stark piano ballad that was included on his Journey Through The Past soundtrack.

“Winterlong” was originally intended for, but eventually left off, Tonight’s The Night. It’s a very catchy midtempo country rocker with Neil self-harmonizing, and features a weeping steel guitar. “Deep Forbidden Lake” starts off as a stark tune with just voice & guitar before developing into a simple, sparse country song. According to his liner notes, this song “hopefully signified the end of a long dark period…” “Like A Hurricane” is another well-known classic, but this version features a different lead vocal than the album version. It’s not strikingly different, but it remains a killer song. “Love Is A Rose,” later a hit country song by Linda Ronstadt, was recorded in 1974 during Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour rehearsals. It has a great melody that grabbed me immediately, and I love the back porch country vibe. “Campaigner” is a rare political song with a sense of humor, as he sings “Even Richard Nixon has got soul” without a hint of irony, anger or bitterness in his voice. I’ve always loved the song “Long May You Run” from the Stills-Young Band album of the same name. The version included here also features David Crosby and Graham Nash, and as much as I love their voices (individually and collectively), there’s something about their harmonies here that makes the song a little too sugary for me. It’s still catchy, but I much prefer the album version. The rest of Decade includes Neil Young standards like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” “Cowgirl In The Sand,” “After The Gold Rush,” “Old Man,” “Harvest,” “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Cortez The Killer.” I’ll be discussing all of them as I get to each of their respective albums, so I only included the titles here to show what an impressive collection this is. It’s hard to believe this only covers the first 10 years of his recording career, and yet it’s still so thorough.

 

[Forty Year Friday will return on August 25 after I celebrate a joyous family occasion next week]

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19 comments on “Forty Year Friday – NEIL YOUNG “AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS” AND “DECADE”

  1. mikeladano
    August 11, 2017

    This is where I confess stuff.

    Forgive me Rich for I have sinned.

    I only own two Neil Young albums. One is a recent single CD Greatest Hits. The other was a recent album given to me by Aaron. Before you take my citizenship away I should mention it’s nothing against Neil in particular. There are just some artists I haven’t got to yet.

    My earliest memory of Neil Young was seeing him in the “Tears Are Not Enough” video and thinking he looked rather sickly, and also like he might be native.

    My next memory is actually from an SCTV sketch.

    Good times!

    Like

    • It’s okay, Mike. You’re forgiven for this musical oversight. 😀 Actually, I completely understand when some people simply don’t like his music, or are only interested in his best known songs. He is a singular talent but he’s not for everyone…especially his voice. When I started hearing him on the radio as a pre-teen (around the time of “Hey Hey, My My”), I didn’t “get” it at first, but over time I became a big fan. At the very least I can see you falling in love with some of his albums with Crazy Horse, which would satisfy your love of heavy, sludgy music with loud guitars.

      Thanks for sharing the SCTV clip. It’s funny but hard to fully appreciate out of context of the whole sketch. One of my favorite Neil Young references occurred on How I Met Your Mother in an exchange between Canadian former pop star Robin and opinionated ladies’ man Barney:

      Robin: “Neil Young is a Canadian treasure. DO NOT make fun of Neil Young.”
      Barney: “Robin, I would never make fun of a defenseless old lady with vocal cord paralysis.”

      Like

  2. stephen1001
    August 11, 2017

    I’m with you Rich (and as you said, many others) with Decade being the gateway!
    But I didn’t rush through the gates admittedly, it took some time, but I’m now a fan

    Like

  3. Aphoristical
    August 11, 2017

    Decade is a monster. Love is a nose and you better not pick it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. zumpoems
    August 11, 2017

    Thanks for the write-up on AMERICAN STARS ‘N BARS as I haven’t every heard that one.

    Like

    • Thanks for checking it out. Depending on your Neil Young collection I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an entry point into his discography (there are several essentials that I rate more highly), but if you’re already a fan with several NY albums in your collection you’ll probably find a whole lot to like on American Stars ‘N Bars.

      Like

  5. Alyson
    August 11, 2017

    I’m with Mike (above) on this one – I too have sinned and as with CSN last week I have not given Mr Young nearly enough attention to date. Having read your review, I now have a good starting point. I was a fan of Linda Ronstadt in ’77 however so like the sound of those duets with her. (Also liking the sound of SCTV – will have to check that out as well!).

    I do have a lovely memory of some of his most familiar songs though – Whilst on holiday one year in Greece with my friends, we got to know a couple of doctors from Athens who were also on holiday. One evening we ventured inland and came upon one of those little outdoor tavernas in the middle of nowhere. There was a guitar on the wall above the bar and one of the docs asked if he could borrow it – Although Greek, he entertained the whole taverna with a string of Neil Young songs the most memorable for me being Heart of Gold (the most familiar). A perfect evening I have never forgotten. Wonder where he is now?!

    Enjoy the joyous family occasion and look forward to finding out what you share in a fortnight.

    P.S. By coincidence my brother-in-law is also called Neil Young, but not this one!

    Like

    • Hi Alyson. Thanks for sharing that lovely Neil Young-related anecdote. I’m sure there are plenty of things that bring back memories of that trip, but isn’t it amazing how a musical connection can instantly bring you back to that time & place?

      That name can’t be easy for your brother-in-law. Makes me think of the character named Michael Bolton in the movie Office Space. At least your bro-in-law shares a name with a beloved musical icon and not an often reviled singer best known for over-the-top ballads and a curly mullet. On a related note, I always felt bad for my old college friend Michael Jackson, who’s had to endure living with that name all these years. Our college years coincided with Thriller and Bad, and he had to endure a lot of ribbing. Probably still does, although I never ask him about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson
        August 13, 2017

        There are certain moments in time you wish you could bottle and keep forever – That evening was one of them. Surreal but amazing and much of it down to the music of Neil Young.

        Yes as a namesake it’s not too bad and relatively common where I come from. The Michael Jackson one would have been difficult during that era – Poor guy. Hopefully he got over it and probably became a Mike or something down the line.

        Enjoy your weekend off!

        Like

  6. J.
    August 11, 2017

    Brilliant. Given Pearl Jam had been hanging around Neil, Mirror Ball was my gateway to his music. Definitely explored his stuff earlier than I probably would have, actually.

    Anyhoo, American Stars ‘N Bars is one of my favourites. I love that album unreservedly and consider it essential (though I know it’s not generally thought of too highly).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi J. Ironically, as someone who never liked Pearl Jam (sorry, just could never get past Mr. Vedder’s voice, although they’re all top-notch players), Neil’s collaboration with them was not high on my list of NY favorites. But anything that brings people into Neil’s musical orbit is a good thing. Glad you like AS&B. Not sure I agree that it’s essential…certainly not in comparison to at least 8 or 9 other albums in his discography…but it shouldn’t be overlooked by casual fans simply because it only has one well-known song.

      Like

      • J.
        August 14, 2017

        I can certainly appreciate that. His voice is definitely an obstacle for many I know and I find it off putting on newer releases (I haven’t much enjoyed a Pearl Jam release in 15 years).

        Mirror Ball is still a favourite due to it being my gateway album (though I don’t listen to it often). I maybe should have specified that ASnB is an essential for me.

        Like

  7. Murphy's Law
    August 12, 2017

    I intend to get farther into the Neil Young discography one of these days – I have Decade and several live albums (Live Rust, Unplugged, Arc-Weld), but I just haven’t taken the plunge into the studio work.

    Like

    • Sounds like you have an excellent Neil Young “starter collection.” 😀 Actually, those are very good albums to have, but you’ll be well served by a number of his original studio albums. Happy record shopping.

      Like

  8. keepsmealive
    August 13, 2017

    Not sure I’ve ever heard AS&B all the way through. Must get on that. I’m actually pretty tempted by the RM release series he’s doing, chronological album releases in box sets…

    Decade is 40? 4 Decades! 😉

    Like

    • I’ve read about some upcoming Neil Young reissues but I haven’t paid much attention since I already own his whole discography. Are they vinyl-only box sets or remastered CDs? I know he’s a stickler for sound quality so if you don’t already own the albums these box sets would likely be excellent additions to anyone’s collection.

      I joked the other day with a friend that Neil’s long-promised follow-up to Decade will have to be called Four Decades. 😀

      Like

  9. 1537
    August 13, 2017

    Nice post Rich. I don’t know American Bars at all but I love Decade – the version of ‘Hurricaine’ on that is possibly my favourite one – although on the LP his handwriting is tough to decipher for some of his sleevenotes.

    Liked by 1 person

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