Friday, 7 June 2019

Neil Young

Another of those great acquired taste enigmas here....

Neil Young (1969)

Neil Young's debut album was released at the height of "folk rock" and "country rock", so its quiet tones fitted the era perfectly, as psychedelia gave way to wistful, airy, acoustic and poetic songs. There was some rock on the album too, though, in places, paving the way for some of his later work. The sound on this remaster, which came from the "four first albums" box set, is excellent, very warm and bassy.
The Emperor Of Wyoming is a gentle, folky instrumental, while The Loner has some excellent buzzsaw lead guitar and shows the first signs of the sort of crashing electric guitar work that would so characterise his material with Crazy Horse. This is a great rock track. If I Could Have Her Tonight is the sort of laid-back country rock, complete with Byrds-style jangly guitar, that so exemplified that late sixties, early seventies genre. I've Been Waiting For You was covered most effectively by David Bowie on 2002's Heathen album. Here, it is certainly not as powerful as Bowie's far more contemporary version, but as far as late sixties rock went, it pretty much rocked, featuring some searing guitar. Young's voice is what it is, you just have to get used to its whining quality. It certainly isn't the best rock voice around, that's for sure, but the material was good and you just sort of get used to it.

The Old Laughing Lady is very slow-paced, with a beautiful bass line, stark drum sound and, actually, a rather fetching, peaceful, hippy-ish vocal from Young. There are some nice jazzy instrumental parts in places, with some wild backing vocals  throughout the song then it reverts back to the chilled out ambience of most of the rest of the song. It is certainly an interesting one. Its backing vocals are very reminiscent of Elton John's Where To Now, St. Peter. Then comes a brief classical string interlude - Why? Who knows. It fits in ok, though. 

Here We Are In The Years is a folky, reflective number, while What Did You Do To My Life also has a light feel to it, albeit with some excellent guitar underpinning it. It actually sounds very David Bowie-ish in places. I've Loved Her So Long is more the typical Neil Young that people would come to know in the early seventies. The album finishes with the lengthy, nine-minute The Last Trip To Tulsa, whose length is completely incongruous with the rest of the album. It is an "on the road" narrative sung by Young with an acoustic guitar backing only. It is very much a Bob Dylan-influenced song, although one instantly knows it is Neil Young. It is also hippily indulgent and, surely, hallucinogenic in its genesis, man.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

This was Neil Young's second album, and the first to feature his excellent backing band, Crazy Horse. Their presence ensures that it was an essentially rock album in flavour, despite a couple of folk/rock tracks that served as echoes of his debut album from only four months earlier. Young was casting himself as a proper rock artist on this album. He succeeded in this aim too, it is an excellent album. I is still one of my favourites of his. There is something essentially pure about it.
Cinnamon Girl is a short, riffy rocker that gets the album off to a fine start. It is clear from the outset that Young's voice is deeper on this album than on his debut offering. I much prefer it when his voice is like this. Crazy Horse are on top form on here too - great bass and drums. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is a mid-pace rocker with hints of The Byrds and The Band in there. The guitar is big, jangly and caustic. Once more, Young's voice is stronger than it sometimes had been. Both these tracks were played live by Young many times over the years. Round And Round (It Won't Be Long) is more typical Neil Young - a mournful, slow pace acoustic-driven number with a plaintive, reflective vocal. It is a throwback to Young's first album in its gentle folk/rock feel.

Down By The River was the first of the album's two extended tracks in which Young  wound his oblique, almost hippy-like lyrics around his loose, improvised playing with Crazy Horse. This was re-inventing Young as a credible rock artist. The rumbling, deep bass and the tremendous guitar interplay is extremely impressive, particularly for 1969. It is good solid, powerful but dignified rock. His vocals always sounded uniquely mysterious and ominous, though, and the backing vocals are so very 1969 "country rock". Some of the guitar also briefly reminds me of Creedence Clearwater Revival in places. Many years later, Paul Weller, in his Wild Wood era, would be very influenced by stuff like this.

The Losing End (When You're On) is a melodic, mid-pace country rock chugger with a nice, swinging bass line. 
Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) is a sombre folk number with echoes of Pentangle, as well as Bob Dylan. It is enhanced by some superb electric violin. Incidentally, "The Rockets" was the original name of Crazy Horse. It is an atmospheric track that really gets into your system after a while. Cowgirl In The Sand is the album's other lengthy number. Like the first two tracks, this and Down By The River became Young live staples. It is packed full of swirling, muscular electric guitar backing an archetypally late sixties vocal. Once again, Paul Weller will have learned to love this after probably initially hating it. That guitar is a blueprint for much of his work in the mid-nineties, and Ocean Colour Scene, for that matter. There is some simply superb, instinctive guitar work on this track. This was certainly a most convincing album - four great rock tracks and three folky ones. Young's relationship with Crazy Horse, of course, would go on to produce so much great music over many more years.

After The Gold Rush (1970)

Fifteen months went by between Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and this, Neil Young's third album. In the meantime he had been involved with CSNY's Deja Vu album, contributing two songs (Helpless and Country Girl) as well as the non-album single, Ohio. This album is not quite as "rock" as its predecessor, with no extended guitar "jamming" passages to any of the songs, and Young re-visits his more folky roots once more. There is quite a bit of a country rock vibe to it as well. A newcomer to Young's backing band, Crazy Horse, was seventeen year-old Nils Lofgren (of latter day E St. Band fame) who contributed on piano as well as guitar. 
The album begins in gentle, acoustic fashion on Tell Me Why, which is folky Americana in the CSNY style, as if Young was still recording with them. It is full of breezy harmonious vocals, reminiscent of folk rock band America.

After The Gold Rush is one of Young's best-known songs - a haunting song that nobody really knows the meaning to, but there's something very Woodstock, very late sixties/early seventies hippy about it. The flugelhorn perfectly merges with Young's bleak but melodic piano. I can never hear this too many times. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a very late sixties, breezy, harmonious love song. It showed that the often cynical, caustic Young had a tenderness deep within him. Despite its airy feel, it also has a deep bass line. Southern Man has achieved notoriety in that it was the song that provoked Lynyrd Skynyrd to write Sweet Home Alabama as a response to Young's daring to call into question the often racist ways of many in the south of the USA. Young was dead right if you ask me, particularly in 1969. Lynyrd Skynyrd should have taken a look out of their own window, much as I love their music. Anyway, it is a great song, with a solid, pertinent message and some excellent guitar. It is the album's most obviously rock song.

Till The Morning Comes operates as a short lively interlude backed by bass, drums and flugelhorn that, unfortunately ends just as it is getting started. Oh Lonesome Me is a slow, wistful, harmonica-backed ballad, a sort of country blues, that finds Young's already high-pitched voice going a bit vibrato at times, while Don't Let It Bring You Down ups it a bit, being a bassy, muscular slow-paced rock number. That big, rumbling bass on it is just delicious. I love that deep sound. Birds is a plaintive piano and vocal number that was covered by Paul Weller on his Studio 150 album of covers in 2004. Although the track is gentle and low-key, there are parts of the "it's over" bit that are almost anthemic. 

Then the album gets more punchy again with When You Dance You Can Really Love which is a medium-paced rock song with some impressive guitar riffs. The riff reminds me a bit of Argent's Hold Your Head Up. The track gets quite heavy near the end. Its vocal is very CSNY. I Believe In You is another CSNY-influenced, sombre-sounding, reflective song with some nice clear percussion. Its positive message is slightly nullified by its deadpan delivery. Cripple Creek Ferry ends the album with a brief bit of country fun. Although this is comparatively short album (nothing wrong with that) it is good one, an appealing mix of rock and country, folky material. It was very typical of Young's early seventies output.

Harvest (1972)

After the demise of Crosby, Stills, Nash and YoungNeil Young continued the contemporary trend for country rock with this, his most popular album. Considered a classic by so many, I am not sure it quite deserves that accolade. That said, of its genre, it is pretty good, let's be honest. However, Deja Vu by CSNY is more than its equal, as are albums by The Band or even America from the same period. There is something adventurous in a lot of its material, though, that makes it a bit more special.
The album begins with the resonant, Dylanesque Out On The Weekend, with its huge drum sound and Young's confident vocal. Harvest is an appealing slice of country rock, while the Band-esque, plaintive A Man Needs A Maid is Young singing against a piano and strings backing. I have always had a bit of a problem with Young's voice on tracks like this. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but there you go. Quality songs like this would be considerably enhanced by a better voice. However, Young's voice gives them their plaintive quality, it can be successfully argued. Heart Of Gold is the album's best-known track. I like Young's voice on this one, and love the song too. It is packed full of atmosphere.

Are You Ready For The Country? is one of the album's rockiest tracks and, despite its folky verses, Old Man has some powerful passages in the chorus refrains. Again I find it very Band-influenced. It is another most evocative number. 
There's A World, rather surprisingly, sees Young accompanied by The London Symphony Orchestra, and, this time unsurprisingly, the track is over-orchestrated. Personally, I would prefer it without the huge sweeping string sound. Alabama is another rock number, with some excellent guitar. It was claimed to be the actual song Lynyrd Skynyrd took umbrage over, inspiring them to write Sweet Home Alabama, as opposed to Southern ManThe Needle And The Damage Done is an acoustic lament for music's drug addiction victims. It is very CSNY in its feel. The final track, the lengthy Words (Between The Lines Of Age) is excellent. A track that varies in mood and tempo and styles - orchestrated, rock, reflective, powerful. Possibly the best track on the album. Yes, this is a fine album, undoubtedly a leader in its country rock genre and it has something that raises it above just an average album, but I still don't feel it is an absolute classic.

Tonight's The Night (1975)

This album, although eventually released in mid-1975, was recorded in 1973 by a grief-stricken* and (probably) drugged up Young. He toured the album and audiences, raised on Heart Of Gold and After The Goldrush were not too happy with this often maudlin, bluesy rock material. The album's release was shelved and On The Beach was recorded and released instead. Two years later the album got released and has, retrospectively, received much critical kudos. Personally, I prefer it to the often plaintive Harvest, so there you go.
Tonight's The Night is Young's tribute to his roadie Bruce Berry*, who died of a heroin overdose, six months after Crazy Horse's guitarist Danny Whitten* (Apparently, Young fired Whitten, gave him $50 and a flight ticket to LA. Whitten died of an overdose the next day). Young expressed his guilt, loss and grief, but it is done in a punchy, muscular rock format with Young's voice sounding gruffer and hoarser than on earlier recordings. It is as if Young is trying to sing it all out of his system. Speakin' Out is a laid-back piece of bluesy rock, driven along by a strong bass and piano. Once more, it is a powerful rock-ish number. Nils Lofgren provides and excellent guitar solo. World On A String continues the rock vibe, with another pumping offering. The tempo slows with the harmonica-driven strains of Borrowed Time. It is a moving, sad song that has Young trying to exorcise his feelings at the time. In typically Young fashion he straps his electric guitar on again soon enough, though, and gives us the scratchy, riffy joy of Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown. This is one of the album's rockiest moments.

Mellow My Mind finds Young's voice straining and cracking over its steady beat. It is a mournful lament of a song, but still full of power and featuring a killer harmonica. 
Roll Another Number (For The Road) is a drunken-sounding slice of self-pitying country blues. Steel guitar backs Young's tired-sounding voice. "I'm not goin' back to Woodstock for a while...." he tells us as he finishes his drink and gets all reflective about "that helicopter day...". Albuquerque is an excellent song, one of Young's best. It is another sombre country rock song, with Young once again mentioning how he is going to "roll another number...". More ghostly harmonica enhances the song's atmosphere. Young wants to find somewhere to enjoy some "fried eggs and country ham...". This is someone who just seems to want to get away from it all for a while, unsurprisingly. New Mama is a gentle acoustic and keyboard wistful number. It is the lightest number thus far. It has a very Celtic, folky feel in places. The electric guitar is back on Lookout Joe, which is full of an attractive slow thump. Tired Eyes sees Young back in that country bar, singing "please take my advice..." over a tinkling piano and a sad harmonica. Tonight's The Night is reprised at the end, slightly more in slightly more bluesy fashion, but still containing a real rock power. Although this is an album expressing devastation and personal loss, its upbeat sound means when listened to it comes over as quite a lively, positive offering and is certainly a lot better than it was initially thought to be. Thankfully time has viewed it kindly.

Zuma (1975)

Neil Young reunited again with Crazy Horse on this album and it revisits the hard rocking edge he had employed at intervals throughout the seventies. The music is played with a loose, buzzy guitar-driven energy by Crazy Horse (who didn't seem to be able to play in any other way, anyway) and is considered one of Young's best seventies rock offerings. It is another in what was now becoming a long line of highly credible and listenable albums from this enigmatic artist.

Don't Cry No Tears is a solid, mid-pace rocker to start the album off, with a nice deep bass sound to it and some by now trademark Crazy Horse riffing. A low-key bass and slow guitar riff introduces the sombre Danger Bird. It ends with a couple of minutes of outstanding guitar work. As will be said on any review of their work in this period - Crazy Horse could really play. Pardon My Heart was a gentle, tuneful acoustic number that wouldn't have been out of place on 1972's Harvest album. Lookin' For A Love is a poppy piece of country-ish rock. Cynical old Neil could periodically come up with fetching, romantic, wistful songs like this. Its vocal harmonies are very redolent of CSNY.

Barstool Blues is a typical Young-Crazy Horse slice of solid riffy rock with Young's "marmite" high-pitched reedy voice straining a bit to cope with the song, but the backings are always so good that I always tolerate Young's voice (of which I have always had my problems with). The lyrics are aways great and the attitude too. That is why I always return to his music with enthusiasm. 

Stupid Girl is not The Rolling Stones song, but another chugging Young deep rocker. Once more the guitar is top notch. Drive Back continues along the same riff-paved road. Nothing new here, just trustworthy, reliable rock. Neil Young was like Tom Petty in that respect - album after album that you knew would not let you down. Cortez The Killer sees Young going all historical as he sings of the Spanish conqueror of the Aztecs  over some sublime, extended guitar backing on one of his most lengthy, improvisational numbers since the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album. It is a minor classic. The laid-back and folky Through My Sails was apparently a remnant from the CSNY sessions back in the early seventies. It provides a peaceful, reflective end to an otherwise upbeat, rock-oriented album.

Freedom (1989)

This is, for me, one of Neil Young's finest albums. The tracks were sourced from a variety of aborted previous projects and are out together to make a long album (for 1989) of over an hour's music. It is simply a great rock album, full of all sorts of influences - rock, folk, Americana, Tex-Mex, soul -  and delivered by a confident, wordly-wise and prophetic-sounding Young, backed by a great collection of musicians.
The album kicks off with a live acoustic version of the rack that ends it - Rockin' In The Free World. It contains a superb Dylanesque harmonica solo from Young. The song fades out with the audience singing away. A real highlight in Young's career is up next - eight minutes of cinematic glory in Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1). It is very, very Bob Dylan-influence, even down to the "they can't get no relief" All Along The Watchtower lyric. It's not just that, though, it is the whole structure, the delivery, the sound, the lyrics, the ambience. "Send me a cheeseburger and a new "Rolling Stone"..." is a great line too. There is some wonderful Mark Knopfler-style guitar throughout the track and some excellent saxophone too. The song is truly wonderful, I have to say and Young out-Dylans Dylan. Check out that great bass/percussion bit around six minutes in as well.

Don't Cry is a slow-burning plaintive number more in keeping with Young's recognisable style over the years, the same can be said of the gentle, acoustic, airy strains of Hangin' On A Limb, which has some America-style harmonies and backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt. It is a beautiful song and has a quiet, lilting melody that stays in your head. 
El Dorado is an attractive, Mexican-influenced piece of slow bluesy rock, complete with castanets and lyrics about "mission bells", "seƱoritas" , "Tijuana" and "Mariachi bands". It contains more of that Knopfler-esque guitar and a deep, infectious bass line. Listening to it is six minutes well spent.

The Ways Of Love is a return to an acoustic sound, on a song that has a sort of waltz beat to it and a bit of country twang to its guitar sound. There is a nice harmonica near the end. 
Someday has a piano intro that reminds me somewhat of a slowed-down version of The BanglesManic Monday intro. It breaks out into a stately, mid-pace rock beat backed up by some insistent "chain gang"-style male backing vocals. It is another of my favourites on the album. The saxophone solo part is positively E St. Band, particularly when you hear the accompanying piano and drum sound too. 

You may imagine The Drifters' On Broadway would not be an automatic choice for Young to cover, but he does it really well, giving it a big chugging rock beat and some searing guitar throughout. It's great. Young's vocal is surprisingly impressive too. He sounds like he's really loving it when he sings "I can play this here guitar" and launches into a huge grungy solo. Who would have thought The Drifters could go grunge? Wrecking Ball was written a long time before the Bruce Springsteen track of the same name. Young's song is a fetching, tender rock ballad, with a nice, deep bass and drum rhythm and a wistful vocal from Young. Talking of nice bass, No More has a delicious line, together with some upbeat drums and bluesy rock guitar. It is an appealing slice of catchy mid-pace, melodious rock. Too Far Gone is a delightful country rock ballad featuring an impressive guitar solo. The studio version of Rockin' In The Free World is robust and rocks big, as you would expect. It is one of Young's best rockers, overflowing with riffs and pounding drums. Listen to that solo near the end - quality, just a pity it suddenly fades out. This is a varied, stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable album from beginning to end. There is not a bad track on it.

Colorado (2019)

Whenever artists like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Santana or indeed anyone over fifty releases a new piece of work they are met with the usual comparisons with work they produced thirty, forty, fifty years ago and they face numerous calls for them to give it up and retire. Why should they? Neil Young is certainly an artist who has something to say, and this is one of his most overtly political albums, so more power to him. That power is reiterated by the beautiful crash of Crazy Horse's backing. They haven't lost anything over the years, that's for sure.
"When you see those geese in the sky think of me..." sings Young on this appealing, harmonica-driven, beautifully bassy mid-pace rocker, Think Of Me, that opens the album. Quite why songs like this are considered by some to be sub-standard is beyond me. I find it quite disarming, thoughtful and evocative. Yes, Young is older and his voice is older, but, let's be honest his voice delivery was always a bleat as opposed to a growl, wasn't it?

She Showed Me Love is a diatribe against "old white guys trying to kill Mother Nature...", Young realises that he is an "old white guy" too and rails belligerently against many of his own generation as he sees "young folks fighting to save Mother Nature...". This is one of the first Extinction Rebellion anthems. Fair play to old Neil, telling it like it is at 73 and spitting out the invective over a typical Crazy Horse grungy, scratchy guitar backing. May his song always be heard. The song lasts thirteen minutes, however, as the Horse get into a groove like it is the Weld era again. Initially, I thought, God, this is going on a bit, but after a few listens it gets into your bloodstream and you get hooked. Well I did anyway. The sheer power of Nils Lofgren and Young cranking up their industrial-sounding guitars is stunning, the same goes for Ralph Molina's sledgehammer drumming and Billy Talbot's deep, throbbing bass. There aren't too many more visceral basic rock outfits around. They crackle like a faulty plug socket. Incidentally, the guitar riff has slight strains of Argent's Hold Your Head Up in it.

A trademark Crazy Horse buzzy riff introduces the catchy Olden Days. Young's voice falters a bit on this but does it matter? Actually, no. There is an attractiveness in his vulnerable delivery and the backing is solidly reassuring too. 
Help Me Lose My Mind is a big, chunky piece of walking pace grungy thump. Young's ranting vocal sounds at one point like David Byrne when he sings "I gotta get a new television...". For me, this is as strong as anything Young and Crazy Horse did back in the day, there is no discernible diminishing of power here.

Green Is Blue is a plaintive vocal and piano reflection on contemporary political corruption, divisiveness and ecological decay. People need to be singing stuff like this, now more than ever, and thankfully Young is doing just that. Shut It Down has an absolute killer of a riff that would cause the national grid serious problems if it was played simultaneously up and down the country. "Shut the whole system down..." rails Young as Crazy Horse power away, like an out of control piece of factory machinery. Milky Way is a slow, infectious number with a fetching staccato drum rhythm and a gently emotive vocal. There is some great guitar half way through as well. Eternity is a a pleasantly laid-back, sad-sounding number that sort of washes over you as many of Young's quite numbers do. 

Rainbow Of Colours is a magnificently buzzy, guitar-driven condemnation of current American governmental policy. It is refreshing to hear true protest songs like this making an appearance again. Good God, we need them. There is something of Dylan's With God On Our Side about the melody. I Do is a gently-delivered, moving song that questions whether much of the natural world we know will actually always be there. Maybe it truly won't. All of this album is thought-provoking and there are many times these days when I feel isolated and feel that nobody else really gives a damn about many issues (I know, of course, that this isn't true) but when I listen to this I know that Neil Young does.

Give Crazy Horse's output some time too :-

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