Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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]