Friday, January 30, 2009

Neil Young discography, part 4

Ever since the arrival of Freedom, Neil Young had regained his legendary role, and his subsequent releases went a long way toward making up for an erratic 1980s. While his wilderness was self-imposed in the mid-70s, it seemed like Neil actually was trying to stay relevant and sharp in the 80s. In fact, technically he released more "studio" albums (nine) than in the 70s (eight- only because one was a collaboration with Stephen Stills). But then again in the 70s he was still caught up in CSNY and aborted two albums (1974's Homegrown and 1977's Chrome Dreams), building up a hearty backlog of recorded material for himself, much of which did not see the light of day for years, some still vaulted to this day, some re-recorded for future albums. But the 80s was just slightly less prolific. He had two planned LPs abandoned, 1984's original Old Ways and 1988's Times Square and several more typical Neil compositions were held over for certain 90s releases. 

Indeed, Neil kept up a healthy pace in the 80s despite the distractions of his son Ben's cerebral palsy and the general experience of family life (Neil had not been married to Carrie Snodgress and their relationship broke down after a mere five years or so). The first half of the 90s was not as busy, but few forty-something rock stars could manage a hectic pace like Neil had taken. After a string of critical and commercial successes that proved Freedom was no fluke, Neil went back to the Crazy Horse well in 1996 for the fourth time in ten years. But the results were not the achievement most had come to expect after the solid Ragged Glory and Sleeps with Angels.
This was coming off the heels of scoring his first soundtrack, to a film he had nothing to do with, with Jim Jarmusch's indie Spaghetti Western Dead Man, which starred Johnny Depp. Afterward, he went into the studio for what would be his last album for an unheard of four years.

-Dead Man (Soundtrack) (Reprise, 1996)
Many would not consider this a true Neil album, not because it is a soundtrack as much as because it is comprised of instrumentals, but it is an interesting glimpse at his way with instrumental textures. It's no Journey Through the Past, that's a compliment by the way, but it's still a little out there. Apparently it was recorded with Neil setting up his arsenal of instruments, letting the tape run and performing semi-improvised parts while a few big screens set up in the studio let him watch the movie so he could colour the scenes as he wished. This is not a totally worthless listen, believe it or not. When you consider the fact that Jarmusch is a big Neil fan and friend, you can't fault Neil for making a soundtrack that doesn't exactly conjure up thoughts of Rust Never Sleeps. Consider this his own Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which was Bob Dylan's mostly instrumental soundtrack except it was for a movie he had a notable role in. Definitely for collectors and hardcore Neil enthusiasts. 

-Broken Arrow (Reprise, 1996)*
Key tracks: "Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')," Avoid: "Baby What You Want Me to Do?"
After Crazy Horse began feeling a bit forgotten, somewhat sidelined when Neil began touring and recording with Pearl Jam throughout 1994-95 to great appraisal, though in my opinion not equal musical excellence even compared to Sleeps with Angels, Neil showed he had not run his course with them like had happened in the early 80s. They were once again enlisted for an attempt at another raucous, middle-aged rocking good time. He titles the album, strangely enough, after one of his big opuses with Buffalo Springfield, although that song in no way shape or form figures into the album. However, his ranch complex in Northern California was given that name so the "Broken Arrow" moniker lived on. What made the jam-heavy Ragged Glory so good was the emotional tone behind the album, one of positive love and respect for the past. But there's nothing distinct nor alluring with this album, unfortunately.

Neil makes the mistake of putting three lengthy jams at the top of the album, but seems to have forgotten that his previous "epics" like "Cortez," "Love to Burn" and "Change Your Mind" had superb lyrics, melody and inspired band dynamics at work. Here, it passes in one ear and out the other, without grabbing the listener. These first three cuts in mention are "Big Time," "Loose Change" and "Slip Away," which run for a combined 25:52. While none of them are that bad, they have their weaknesses and if you're not in the right mood to listen to garage jamming with uninspired lyrics and dull melodies and riffs, you'll probably want to press the skip button. "Big Time" has a lumbering groove to it, 50s-styled chord changes. "Loose Change" is not much different, pretty much going by the same beat and tempo, only for nearly 10 minutes. "Slip Away" is a slight improvement, going for a more angelic atmosphere with tambourine and rolling polyrhythms from the drums. 

Unfortunately, "Slip Away" is also quite aimless and unfocused, plodding along with Neil's echoey vocals buried in the mix by the instrumentation, a frequent problem with this album.It does have an uplifting chorus that could potentially have been a strong one if the vocals weren't so distant sounding. Songs like this would never have made the cut on his best stuff with Crazy Horse. The best stuff on Broken Arrow merely sounds like demo or rehearsal fodder in comparison to superior Crazy Horse work. Such lapses in production/engineering sense really do nothing but hurt the album's quality. "Changing Highways" is the fourth cut and perhaps the best to this point, only because it runs a mere 2:23, projects the vocals better and doesn't try to exploit one groove for an eternity. This time it's something like a boom-chick country-rocker, in the vein of a "Lookin' for a Love" or "Motor City" (which it sounds like a re-write of in fact) only inferior. "Scattered (Let's Think About Livin')" runs for under 5 minutes thankfully, and is probably one of the only quality tracks here thanks to a clear, concise melody, displayed both by lead guitar and vocals. 

Of course, the vocals are buried again for "Scattered" but that's to be expected after getting used to the first four tracks. "This Town" follows it, curtailing any momentum "Scattered" could have set up, sounding like some kind of warm-up Pearl Jam might try their hand at. Their influence did rub off on Neil during the mid-90s, but God knows we could have done without him trying to turn Crazy Horse into a senior Pearl Jam outfit if this disc is what that mix yields. "Music Arcade" allows for Neil's voice to be heard because it's just him strumming on acoustic guitar, but he continues to sing in a near whisper in his lower vocal register. He rarely tries the intense vocal gymnastics that he had done as recently as the Smell the Horse tour. Since that point, he seemingly scaled back his vocals to a rather modest approach, which would have been nice in 1970 when his high-pitched warble could get irritating but not in 1996 when the songs weren't as extraordinary. 

"Music Arcade" is a nice switch from the usual garage rock one-dimensionalism of the album, but would still have been filler on any of his previous five studio releases. The eighth and final track is a rather off-the-beaten-path choice, as a cover of Jimmy Reed's blues standard "Baby What You Want Me to Do?" is included. However, this is a live version that sounds as if it was a bootleg, captured by a fan in the audience. Indeed it was and indeed the sound quality is suspect. It's still a good performance but we'll never know how good it could have sounded in person with such a lo-fi recording. The drums, guitar and bass come through nicely but the vocals are distant and murky (gee where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, songs 1 through 7!) with the crowd's talking being just as audible as Neil singing. Not a satisfying listen. And yet, it still manages to stand up to the rest which is a definite disappointment after years of momentum from his comeback at the end of the 80s.
Rating: B-

-Year of the Horse (Reprise, 1997) (Live)*

-Looking Forward (Atlantic, 1999) (CSNY)

-Silver & Gold (Reprise, 2000)
Key tracks: "Silver & Gold," "The Great Divide," "Distant Camera." Avoid: "Buffalo Springfield Again," "Horseshoe Man." After a longer layoff than anyone had ever seen from Neil (over three years), Mr. Young finally unveiled a new studio album. The wait was prolongated by delays and a tour/album with Crosby, Stills and Nash after an eleven year gap during 1999. But when April 2000 rolled around, the long-awaited Silver & Gold came out. The reviews were supportive enough, the sales modestly good, but some were disappointed and with good reason. This is not the kind of nostalgia one would crave from Neil as he sounds more like a melancholy, boring and heavy-handed old fart most of the time. The fact the best songs were written in the 80s cannot say much about Neil's game at the time. Sure, it's all well and pleasant, but nothing near what he has been capable of. The music is homey, rustic, welcoming, yet also quite unimaginative at times. This isn't to say that there aren't compelling songs, dripping in Neil's unique brand of smiles and sunshine but not sounding too corny.

For this album, Neil enlists some old hands such as Ben Keith, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Oscar Butterworth, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner as well as bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper, both legendary figures of the 60s Memphis soul scene through Stax Records as producers, arrangers and session musicians (in addition to being part of Booker T. and the MGs, famous instrumental performers wth hits like "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug Her"). Neil had used the two along with Booker T. for a 1993 tour and went back to them for a studio record. For vocal cameos there's Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, who had given "Wrecking Ball" some profile by making it the title track to her 1995 Daniel Lanois-produced album and Neil returned the favour by lending harmony vocal and harmonica for her cover of Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World" on the very same release. Despite this roster, the album rarely takes off musically, with Neil preferring to let the band members take a restrained, backseat role. You'd hardly notice any Booker T. & the MG funk in there anywhere. 

The low-key spirit behind Harvest Moon makes a return and the middle-aged reflection is pervasive here with "Good to See You," the hillbilly-ish country tribute to his father (or a father figure of some creation) "Daddy Went Walkin'" and the incredibly dull "Buffalo Springfield Again," where he sings a throwaway about his desires to perhaps reunite with the old band he used to create magic with in the 60s. This sentiment seems nice but it comes off as navel-gazing and a bit perplexing when you consider Neil failed to show up for a reunion gig in 1987, not to mention their 1997 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There are also those songs that go down like a cup of tea bathed in honey, if you're into that gentle side of Neil. "Good to See You," is an endearing song of love and friendship but it's steeped in James Taylor territory, therefore it's a bit dull. "Silver & Gold" champions the satisfaction of living a simple life with a true love, though the song dates back to 1982. However, Neil's artistic direction in 1982 was pointed far off from happy-go-lucky folk, considering he was tinkering with computer programmed synths, vocoder and electronic instruments for Trans.

The love songs here lack the spark and streak of bitterness that often made Neil such an intriguing singer-songwriter. Here, he takes on a figure of weariness, as if he's become too old to fight or complain (though his followup album would look at the frustrating side of marriage). "The Great Divide" stands out as one of the few times he marries that "glory of love" stance with a good song. He does the same for the quaint but impressive "Red Sun," "Without Rings" and the touching "Distant Camera." Where it fails is on the incredibly sappy "Horseshoe Man." "Horseshoe Man" has a sad piano intro that soon gives way to a story of how a horseshoe man repairs broken love and frankly it all sounds like a choice candidate for a Hollywood chick flick. "Love, how could they know love?" comes off as one of the cheesier delivered lines in the history of Neil Young music. It's a song easy-listening fans will enjoy, but it's not really true to superior romantic ballads like "Lotta Love" or "You and Me." The whole album is dogged by such a lush tone, one that seems twice as corny as Harvest Moon ever got (and not nearly as interesting), the album that before Silver & Gold was his most brazenly sentimental.
Rating: B-

-Road Rock, Vol. 1 (Reprise, 2000)
Rating: B+

-Are You Passionate? (Reprise, 2001)
Key tracks: "Differently," "Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)," "When I Hold You in My Arms."
Having hit a creative lull starting in 1996, Neil seemed energized as the new decade rolled around. Despite Silver & Gold being a disappointment to many, Neil was front and centre in the pop music landscape when 9/11 occurred. The all-star telethon held a week later found Neil nearly stealing the show with an inspired rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" on piano amongst other appearances. Neil took it upon himself to write a tribute to the passengers of the doomed Flight 93 that fought the terrorists away from the plane controls in order to avert an attack. This song would be the rather bluesy "Let's Roll," which is nothing special or sucky, although it does have some questionably trite lyrics at times that make it seem like the passengers banded together under a pact to protect freedom, liberty and equality, etc. But don't be fooled by this lofty effort, because one song does not an album make.

Just because he does "Let's Roll" does not mean this own version of The Rising, Bruce Springsteen's 2002 LP that uses 9/11 as a centerpiece for a whole collection of songs. It truly sounds more like his own Planet Waves, Dylan's 1974 LP with the Band which is like a thinly-veiled plea for peace, understanding and communication with his wife. Now, Dylan's marriage turned out to be doomed, so the signs of strain become more evident when listening to Planet Waves, but Neil has been happily married to Pegi for over 30 years. This was perhaps the only time he ever penned songs that made it seem like even his marriage had squabbles and other imperfect features. There are also happier-themed numbers that work to extoll the virtues of marriage, portray Neil as a faithful, if not at times goofy, husband and speak glowingly of family. Musically, Neil once again enlists Booker T. and the MGs help, along with drummer Steve Potts. He uses Crazy Horse for "Goin' Home," although Frank "Poncho" Sampedro is utilized alongside the MGs and his backing vocals cut through. 

Are You Passionate? has a tongue-in-cheek title (transposed from a Native joke in Canada) btit he music inside isn't as humourous, even if it keeps a happy vibe throughout. This time, the use of the famed Stax house band reveals their intended purpose as a funky backing unit. At times it sounds reminiscent of the Stax sound, minus the distinctive Southern-style tack piano and cracking snare drum. Other times it is vaguely similar to Motown, with strong tambourine-accentuated backbeats. Unfortunately, too often the arrangements sound the same for this album to really take off like it could have. The tired jams are kept to a minimum here, compared to the leaden Broken Arrow. The songs are tighter, hookier and catchier than Silver & Gold, which is a good start. The emotions behind some songs come across as more sincere and less sappy, even when they sound like a flippant old cranky man going on about being a faithful husband. Melodically, this is his most interesting album since Sleeps with Angels, or arguably Mirrorball

Upon release in 2002, this album received mixed reviews, sometimes unfairly bashed. It was an adequate job by Neil to recreate a decidedly 60s R&B sound for his songs about commitment and passion. He starts off with a good, soulful Four Tops kind of beat for a tribute to his daughter entitled "You're My Girl." There's a strange depiction of a total loser who knows it too in "Mr. Disappointment" which is enhanced by Neil's spoken word bits in a sarcastic, rumbling low voice. He warbles in a high wine over the ubiquitous slow groove, so the song isn't great but it is nice to hear such a naked, plaintive song that doesn't manage to fall into a trap of precociousness like the Silver & Gold work did. "Differently" is one of the standouts, an infectiously grooving song reminiscent of something you'd hear from an Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. Over Motown-esque half-note guitar chords, Neil pledges to be a better man and appreciate more about his love than ever. It features a superb guitar riff that is a hook repeated a few times like a central theme to the song almost. 

During the chorus (bridge?) of "Differently" there's also a wonderful organ line from Booker T. that reminds one of what made them the great Stax house band they were. "Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)" is a slower, more tender one that features great interaction between Neil and his backing singers, and he once again actually writes a melodic guitar line. It seems his guitar work here is at its most vocal-like, playing lines that sound like they could be sung too. And often these guitar riffs are the same, or at least similar, to the melodies of the song they're in. "Let's Roll," the already mentioned 9/11 pean, is a slow, menacing rock that sounds more Springsteen than Neil. It's got a tough exterior but the song is a bit too one-dimensional and considering the mighty subject matter, it falls short of the Neil Young mark of excellence. "Are You Passionate?" sounds a bit too much like the usual slow groove heard throughout the album, plus the melody isn't fantastic. It's still a thoughtful, soothing title track that will calm the nerves, let one sit back with some camomile tea, but that's at best. 

Nothing primal or gripping can be generated for the listener through "Let's Roll." It would have been a stunning and appropeau move for Neil to put in his version of "Imagine" from the 9/11 telethon show, but since that had nothing to do with the rest of Are You Passionate? it likely never crossed his mind to include it. A tactical error? Not really. But I'm sure it will be made available on one of his archive collections some day. Further along the LP, "Goin' Home" isn't much worse than what he did with Crazy Horse on Broken Arrow, but it doesn't really deserve to run nearly nine minutes. Still, it's a nice break from a bit of the R&B overtones of the rest. "When I Hold You in My Arms" is his own classic soul ballad, featuring excellent vocal interplay again, a commendable song structure and a nice touch by putting in piano instead of organ. Neil sings a song about how being with his loved one makes him forget about "what's out there." It's his best shot at creating a heartfelt R&B love song and works quite well. "Be with You" is a bit like "You're My Girl," coming off like one of those Four Tops Holland-Dozier-Holland hits. It's not as good however, coming off more like a Four Top B-side or deserved album track.  

Ok, it's not as cheesy or overblown as any Four Tops misfire, but "Be with You" comes off as more forced than many other songs. "Two Old Friends" seems to be in the same key as every other pleading emotional song, but in this case it's more about friendship (either in a relationship or a typical plutonic friendship). It's a very endearing song, even if it trudges upon familiar territory to a less effective degree. "She's a Healer" is a cool vamp that doesn't waste time like most of Neil's lengthy pieces since 1994. Booker T.'s organ work again provides a good compliment to the music, so it's a good closing track. Are You Passionate? has been unfairly bashed over the years. People took it as an old man harangue that was neither compelling nor gritty. Well, so what? The tunes inside were mostly admirable and it's just a couple great songs from being a very good album. Instead, it's just Neil's best since Mirrorball, which it is a step below despite having the same grade from this reviewer. Still, it would be quickly forgotten and overshadowed by the followup, his most ambitious work in years, if not ever because of its concept.
Rating: B 

-Greendale (Reprise, 2003)*
Key tracks: "Falling from Above," "Bandit," "Sun Green," "Be the Rain."
After 2002's Are You Passionate? and 2000's forgettable Silver & Gold both left critics with a sour taste, coupled with Neil's slump that started with Broken Arow, Neil wanted to spark his artistic hunger. He decided to go back into storytelling, crafting a new album with Crazy Horse (in a stripped down trio format without Frank Sampedro playing for some reason) that told a fictitious story of a small Californian town called Greendale. It would become accompanied by a low-budget film directed by Neil himself (under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey, for his Shakey Pictures film company) and many the CDs would also come with a DVD of Neil performing the album in its entirety at a pub called St. McVicar's in Dublin, Ireland.
Interestingly, this acoustic-only deal would find him explaining the story's arc, mentioning parts where he didn't have the technology or the means for what he wanted. 

Neil did manage to bring in a megaphone for certain parts where characters spoke through one, but the acoustic performance is a stark, excellent alternative to the studio version. The acoustic one is actually a slight improvement on the electrified studio version, but you'll be satisfied by both. What we have here is an album with a narrative, a central focus point allowing Neil to meander, wander and still retain some consistency. Sometimes with previous underwhelming albums he had songs that sounded too similar to each other, but here that's part of the song cycle. You can consider it like his own Tommy, only the tale here is not as weird or abstract. The basic story is an exploration of small town America, its values, customs and its troubles. Neil infuses his own hippie beliefs on the poisonous role consumerism, corporations, pollution and political corruption play in seeping into small town America. He casts light on the old and young generations, history and present day issues. The story is about a family, the Greens, and how the murder of a police officer with a double life named Carmichael, by the disaffected druggie son of the family Jed. This apparently starts a chain reaction of events that tear the family apart.

Riffs, chord progressions and themes seem to reappear throughout the album, linking it all together. Neil uses the opening, "Falling from Above," to set the pace for the themes of the album via his "Sing a song for freedom/Sing a song for love" line, not to mention the refrain "A little love and affection/In everything you do/Will make this world a better place/With or without you." We're introduced to Grandpa Green and Jed through this song, which invites listeners with its alluring character interaction and spritely melody. The chugging, one-dimensional blues-rock of "Double E" is saved by its back story of Edith and Earl Green moving into Greendale and renaming the Double L train line that went by their house the Double E (for Edith and Earl of course). They of course being two idyllic hippies in love, during the Summer of Love no less. A similarly shuffling blues beat with the usual riffs is used to describe the town, with the talk of seafarers thrown in for good dialogue, all before backup singers "The Mountainettes" (Pegi Young, Nancy Hall, Sue Hall and Twink Brewer) chime in time and time again singing "Greendale." 

"Leave the Driving" sounds almost identical to the previous two songs, with the same bluesy beat and crunchy, bluesy soloing by Neil. The content of the lyrics is once again primary to the music, an unfortunate facet to the album. Here we learn of how Jed got pulled over by officer Carmichael, discovered with weed and cocaine in his car, and then the tragic instance when he shot the cop to escape the law. "Carmichael" is a vivid portrayal of his funeral with the force speaking out on their opinions of him, including his wife's frustration with her husband getting himself killed in the line of duty. "Bandit" is the gem on the album, one of the more riveting acoustic pieces he has done since the late 80s. The "Someday, you'll find/Everything you're looking for" chorus is a triumphant return to crafting brilliant melodic hooks, while the verses are spoken word. They talk about how Earl Green struggles to sell his art, losing money and letting people down around him as he sits lonesome, smoking marijuana while contemplating all the failed bets, risks and projects. 

"Bandit" is a tremendously insightful character analysis and a damn good song to boot, with Neil's guitar tuned down a full two steps, giving the bass sixth string a buzzing, almost hellacious tone. "Grandpa's Interview" brings back the electric sludge, though this time to provide an affecting, scathing and yet charming look at a series of events that sees media attention centered on the Green family after the disgraced cousin Jed's arrest. Eventually, Grandpa Green gets so indignant he walks to the porch with a double barreled shotgun to confront the media throng gathered outside the family house. But of course, as he is interviewed by some vapid magazine interviewer, he rails and rants until his heart gives out from the stress. As he struggles to stay alive, Neil breaks the fourth wall to mock himself, with Grandpa crankily questioning, "That guy who keeps singing/Can't someone shut him up?/I don't know for the life of me/Where he comes up with this stuff." An odd trick to pull out, yet a genuinely hilarious one too. 

What with all the dialogue to get through, the first 6 tracks all extend over 5 minutes, with "Falling from Above" and "Leave the Driving" inching over 7 minutes, "Carmichael" extending over the 10 minute mark and "Grandpa's Interview" falling just short of 13 minutes. So that's why the rather short 3:16 "Bringin' Down Dinner" is a nice reprieve from the endless tracks preceding it. It's a peaceful sort of track, led by Neil on pump organ describing Grandma and Sun Green noticing Grandpa on TV shortly before his demise as Grandma plans to bring dinner to him. The hymn-like song, with Neil's alternately spoken and vocalizing voice, aided by double-tracking and effects, works well to break up the monotony of the winding narratives, heavy on electric guitar improvisation and reminiscent of Neil's blues idol Jimmy Reed's music. It's important to remember that with a song cycle, there will be one-dimensional aspects, recycling of ideas and monotonous themes, but it's how they're pulled off that matters. And for most of Greendale, the story never strikes one as half-baked or far-fetched. Therein lies the achievement of Neil.

From here, the story veers toward a look at Sun Green, the youngest generation of the family who becomes an outspoken, stringent activist, mostly turning her rage on those who harm the environment. She chains herself to a bronze eagle monument in (outside?) a corporation's building with suits, TV and media flocking to cover her harangues. Sun is armed with a megaphone and a litany of accusations toward capitalist pigs, etc. Neil captures the growing pessimism and reaction to the growing controversy around U.S. President George W. Bush's moves (this was still 2003 remember). The song itself is a powerful story about her strong, sometimes illegal activism getting her in trouble with U.S. authorities, who actually raid her house then shoot her cat for getting in the way (gee, Neil are the feds really as sadistic as you think?). Sun Green's catchprhase during all this demonstrating seems to be "Hey Mr. Clean/You're dirty now, too." She later befriends a young activist named Earth Brown, who is headed to Alaska but gets arrested on phony pot possession charges.

The final song is an opus to drive the album home. "Be the Rain" is interspersed with more warnings through Sun Green's megaphone as Neil cautions against harming Mother Nature. It's a more direct way of promoting Neil's love of natural beauty than 1992's "Natural Beauty" or 1990's "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)." Often Neil has said that he is respectful to religions but does not prescribe to one, rather that nature is his religion. It's no wonder he feels that way when you listen to the last couple tracks, which run about approximately 12 and 9 minutes. They cap off Greendale very well. The rather singular music is the one detriment to a fine story arc by Neil and one must give him his due for putting his heart and soul and genius into an album for the first time in years. The fact it doesn't come across as a knockout is a slight letdown, but this is still easily Neil's best since 1995 when his roll began to subside. Greendale is a listen you need to make a few times before making final decisions and conclusions on what kind of achievement it is. To me, it's a respectable effort that doesn't quite hit the money all the time, but satisfies well enough.
Rating: B+

-Prairie Wind (Reprise, 2005)
Key tracks: "The Painter," "No Wonder," "Here for You," Avoid: "It's a Dream."
In 2005, Neil young ran into personal problems that come with age. First off, his famous sports journalist/author father Scott died after years of deterioration due to dementia in June and then Neil, as he recorded the album, needed surgery to fix a brain aneurysm that threatened to kill him. These realities and Neil's reaction in music aroused great praise from critics and Prairie Wind was lauded like no album of his since the early 90s. At the time, I found it curious approval and although my opinion of this album has softened since 2005, I still find it an overrated effort, even more overrated than Harvest Moon. It is quite reminiscent of that album, or better yet Silver & Gold. While it is certainly better than the latter, Prairie Wind wallows in sentimentality, corniness and melancholy that never were trademarks of Neil in his prime. It all starts off well enough with the tender, simple "The Painter," peppered with philosophical lines like "If you follow every dream, you might get lost." The country overtones are obvious right away with longtime standby Ben Keith's pedal steel guitar.

Ben Keith is a returnee as are Neil's backup singer wife Pegi, Spooner Oldham, Chad Cromwell, Emmylou Harris and Rick Rosas. Long absent guests making a return include Grant Boatwright, drummer Karl Himmel and backing vocalist Anthony Crawford (one half of the singing duo with Larry Byrom in 1983's Shocking Pink days). The unfortunate thing with such a good roster is that these songs tend to drag on when they should be kept brief, concise and restrained from wandering. "The Painter" is never overly long, neither is the vivid "No Wonder," the album's standout, which recalls his past and his mortality. There's even a reference to Chris Rock speaking at the 9/11 telethon before the show was finished by "America the Beautiful." It all sounds a bit familiar, but "No Wonder" is an engaging folk-country rumination. The album loses a bit of steam after this. Although it's a sweet song of dedication, "Falling off the Face of the Earth" is hampered a bit by Neil's meek, high-pitched vocals. Nonetheless, it's one of the more consistent tracks. "Far from Home" is one of the tunes that uses beefy, Memphis-styled horns (the rather boring Elvis tribute "He Was the King" being the other).

Through the bluesy "Far from Home," Neil joyously takes a nostalgia trip to the Canadian prairies where he spent part of his youth. He does the same on "Prairie Wind," a sweeping, Greendale-esque epic that sags, especially with its 7.5 minute running time. The sentiments are genuine, but the execution is limpid and corny more often than not. "It's a Dream" is incredibly maudlin stuff, as strings back up Neil's attempt at being Bryan Adams or something. "Here for You" is a much more sincere and well-crafted love song. "This Old Guitar" is a near winner, as Neil talks about how his guitar cries when he leaves it alone and how it's just another link he has toward the past troubadours of folk and country. The melody is much too similar to "Harvest Moon" for it to be considered a stand alone gem, but it's a solid composition nonetheless. The finale is a trumped-up, gospel extravaganza called "When God Made Me" that sinks into its own life-affirming philosophizing that decries human atrocities and behaviour. It's all quite humanistic and full of itself, a trend that hurts this overrated "comeback" effort.
Rating: B

-Living with War (Reprise, 2006)
Key tracks: "After the Garden," "Shock & Awe," "Lookin' for a Leader."
Neil had gained the praise of critics with Prairie Wind, which still rings like a hollow triumph to this reviewer. Nonetheless, it had a focus lacking on other efforts of the past decade like the incoherent Broken Arrow and the lame Silver & Gold. But there was a president in office, who had rankled many around the world and incurred the wrath of musicians and Hollywood elite. Neil did not necessarily hop on any bandwagon, because he uses this target to wave the flag like never before since Hawks & Doves. Addressing this new direction in the press, Neil referred to how some of his fans were bored by his old fart acoustic musings and how it was time to plug in and pump up the volume. Using the saga of the Iraq War, Neil becomes outspoken in his shame of President George W. Bush, his cadre of friends in office and how the troops were caught in the midst of the bungling. 

Neil touches on what made him such a strong voice in the past on Living with War, a quick follow-up to Prairie Wind that stirred controversy amongst right-wingers as well as rock fans who cannot stand when a star gets on his soapbox to bash politicians. It's a communal kind of effort as Neil gathers a 100-person choir to sing along for many tracks. The Cromwell-Rosas rhythm section returns for a more vitriolic instrumental approach, and Niko Bolas (one half of "The Volume Dealers" production team with Neil that was behind This Note's for You and Freedom) is at the helm. Neil recorded it all in nine days, stepping up to the plate when he noticed that no one else was speaking out. The power behind the arrangements is the most intense since Ragged Glory or even Freedom. The best song on the album is also the lead cut, "After the Garden," which criticizes governmental response to the impending danger of global warming, warning that nothing will matter once environmental damage take its full measure. 
rumpets provided by Tommy Bray, ex of the Bluenotes, blare throughout the title track, a ramshackle tune that takes the point of view of a soldier (veteran?) vowing to never kill again and how war still haunts him. 

"The Restless Consumer" features all the vocal lines provided by Neil and the choir on top of an angry, driving rock beat. As the choir screams out "Don't need" Neil goes through a laundry list of complaints in spoken word form. The song is hurt by rather weak singing from Neil, which could explain why the vocals all sound buried in the mix. "Shock and Awe" plays like some blistering rock number from the Freedom-phase of his career as Neil caterwauls enthusiastically about how the American efforts to liberate Iraq were squandered. Neil takes on a humanist attitude by describing all the dead soldiers, dead innocent bystanders, traumatized children as not being worth the whole "Mission Accomplished" hoopla. "Families" is a bit off a knock-off song that speaks of families but does so in a roundabout, vague manner that's rather hard to understand. The sentiment is nice, the tune is average. "Flags of Freedom" paints an idyllic picture of the day in a small town when a young man leaves for war. Though not set to any particular time period, we're left to assume it's in recent times since there's references to Bob Dylan singing back in 1963. 

Interestingly, the song sounds like a kindred spirit to Dylan's 1964 esprit de temps anthem "Chimes of Freedom." The most damning song, given away by the title, is "Let's Impeach the President." Sometimes there's humour involved like when Neil says "Thank God he's cracking down on steroids/Since he sold his baseball team" but most of the time it's accusatory words sung by the massive choir with Neil. He rails against Bush's spending, war initiatives, homeland security spying, poor reaction to Hurricane Katrina and use of religion to justify himself. During a sequence of Neil yelling out "Flip... Flop!" there's a montage of Bush sound bites meant to ram the point home and a lonely, patriotic-themed trumpet begins to play. The second best thing on this album is "Lookin' for a Leader" which has Neil looking forward to someone to right the wrong he sees. He tosses out potential names and touches on that eventual candidate in Barack Obama in fact. The last verse speculates if it will be a black man or woman in office, which were both just as likely as the other with a 2006 perspective. He also admits "America is beautiful/But it has an ugly side." 

It's a very effective presentation altogether that makes "Lookin' for a Leader" so good. "Roger and Out" seems to be a side trip to the overall theme of America at war as Neil remembers a good friend and the times they spent, another nostalgic trip from the master of nostalgia. A ubiquitous "America the Beautiful," highlighting the boisterous 100-person choir is used to finish off the album. The whole album is very familiar territory if you've heard side 2 ("Hawks") of 1980's Hawks & Doves which was the first indication that Neil had some red, white and blue running through his veins. This time, it's a reaction to failed presidential policies rather than a call to arms for a re-awakening of American pride and peace of mind. He rages against the machine, but is still once again promoting the middle and working class America, especially the small town values. Unlike in 1980, 2006 found Neil in a more liberal, left-leaning frame of mind. The songs never take off like a great album should, but none disappoint. Therefore, all things considered Mr. Young churns out his best album in 11 years no doubt, his most passionate, provocative since Freedom, if not ever.
Rating: B+

-Live at the Fillmore East (Reprise, 2006, Rec. 1970)*
Key tracks: ? ... depends on what you want to hear: the standards of the 1969 Crazy Horse, the rare performances or the authentic live feel
Back in 1970, Neil was on the cusp of his greatest fame to date but was still riding along with the anonymity of fronting a ragtag backing group that seemed technically inferior to the usual groups that jammed, played acid-inspired solos that lasted hours. The Horse preferred to accentuate the rhythmic aspects of jamming, never putting tempos too quick or sacrificing rational, focused songs for the sake of "trippy" mind-bending workouts on guitar. Crazy Horse followed the D.I.Y., primitive aesthetic of a Velvet Underground, though with way less avant-garde aspirations. And it was a breath of fresh air, compared to the usual bands that made soloing their focal point. Sometimes this could wear thin even with a group of virtuoso players (such as Santana or the Grateful Dead). When it came to the practice of blowing one's mind with countless solos, vamps or instrumental sections of any kind, by 1969 it had become a bit dogmatic and boring. 

By 1970, big rock artists began to fade because of this style going down the tubes or they'd simply adapt or drop the usage of endless running times with endless, tedious solos from their music altogether. Mostly however, the show-off solo found its way into rock to an even greater degree than it had done after Chuck Berry, but primarily due to the pretentious noodlings of keyboardists in prog-rock bands that thought they were bringing a bop era to rock and roll. Anyways, only a few making the idea of constant solos a consistently alluring one (coming to mind would be Hendrix, Funkadelic, the Allman Bros. with their duel guitar harmonics in the spirit of John Coltrane-Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie-Davis in jazz). With the prospect of an archives collection looming, after years of broken promises for fans, Neil decided to give teasers, samplings if you will. The first was this snapshot of a concert stand done by Neil and the Horse, with the previously alluded to Miles Davis as an opening act if you can believe it (Miles was exploring rock sounds at this point, in an effort to become a Hendrix-like star even if it left jazz audiences bewildered and unresponsive). 

This disc is saved from redundancy by the fact it was the last time Neil would tour with Danny Whitten, the eventual heroin casualty of the band. As well, the extended "Down by the River" and "Cinammon Girl" showcase how the Whitten-Young guitar interplay could make every rendition worth paying attention to be. It was not as if the song's aimlessly wandered around like some of Neil's "jams" from the 90s and onward. There was some legitimately interesting give-and-take, minimalist soloing and the harmonizing of the band was rawer, but yet realer, than the polished sheen of any CSNY a-capella. As well, there are early incarnations of "Wonderin'" (here more of a lumbering, countrified tune than the 50s doo-wop take-off it became for 1983's regrettable Everybody's Rockin') and "Winterlong" (only ever released as one of the tapes from the vaults for Decade in 1977). "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" is more ragged than the sunny studio version in this format, but you can still hear where Neil was going when he switched from writing lush, psychedelic journeys to California-drenched garage rock that was just one slice short of being totally oddball for the time.

"Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" sounds practically the same as the performance used for Tonight's the Night as a harkening back to Whitten before his drug addiction completely sapped him of his musical gifts. No better, no worse, which I suppose is nothing to complain about unless one goes into the listening process expecting to be supremely blown away by the stage work of Neil and company. This is not the hot shot classic that other Live at the Fillmore East recordings are (namely the Allman Bros.) but it's still one of the better ones and considering the venue shut down in 1971, leaving the Fillmore West as the primary facility for promoter Bill Graham's interests. It was a smart decision for Neil to kick off his "Bootleg series" (to steal Bob Dylan's classification for such a record) with this one, that gives a glimpse, albeit a short one (six tracks, a running time of 43:15 mind you). While this is not up to the standard of the chilling Time Fades Away, it is certainly up there with Live Rust or Weld and not just because of its historical documentation intentions.
Rating: A-

-Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise, 2007)
Key tracks: "On the Way Home," "Old Man," "A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold Suite," "Bad Fog of Loneliness," "See the Sky About to Rain," "Down by the River."
Well, releasing something from his run at the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse in March 1970 allowed Neil to get his grittier, grungier side out, and from a time when he was mostly being pigeonholed as a folk-rock singer-songwriter with deep sensitivity and introspection. That was what had gained him a following from his Buffalo Springfield days and it was what catapulted him to fame through CSNY then After the Gold Rush and Harvest. That acoustically based facet of Neil Young's creative genius of the early 70s is on full display with this concert album. This album is derived from a run of shows at Toronto's fabled Massey Hall in January 1971, over a full year before Harvest made him a world superstar and not just Canada's own, which is the idea you get based on his national brethren giving him a rousing, hero's welcome on these recordings. 

The Massey Hall concerts showed an artist in that rare organic stage where he is revealing his creations to crowds. Reviews were glowing, and even Neil's producer David Briggs suggested it be put out as an album. However, Neil felt it would disrupt the surprise of the studio versions of many of these songs that were bound to come out on Harvest. When this music finally came out, Neil proclaimed it should have been the album that came out and that looking back, the late Briggs (who passed away from cancer in 1995) was right. As for where his career was at, Neil had secured a spot with Crosby, Stills and Nash in June 1969 and performed with them at Woodstock. Basically, he had his hands full, which no doubt was a positive to him, at least at this juncture before stardom caught him off guard and made him a bit surly with the whole rock star deal. The solo projects weren't originally supposed to garner commercial fortunes or cashflow but soon his own career was in step with the supergroup success of CSNY. It was because of this, paired with Danny Whitten's heroin use spiraling out of control, that Neil had retreated back into his softer side.

Young began to become confident enough to perform and compose with piano, an instrument he had picked up over the previous few years. This added a newer dimension to his writing, allowing him not just to perform on his own armed with only a guitar and harmonica. Neil's ability to adapt full ensemble tracks to solo performances in live situations is quite evident on Live at Massey Hall 1971. At times, the audience cheers wildly for certain lines (biggest pop is for "Now I'm going back to Canada" from "Journey Through the Past"), gives nice applause for the opening of each song (followed by claps for when the others finally notice the song by Neil uttering the opening line) and at one point calls out song requests. Neil sounds rather subdued (possibly high?), though in a light-hearted mood, in his in-between song banter. He brings up his ranch a few times, referencing it for comedic effect eventually. Another highlight is him describing how he was to be on The Johnny Cash Show before it got rescheduled and then cancelled altogether because the show was cancelled itself. 

Neil could be a little less animated than usual due to being in a back brace for an injury he suffered shortly before this concert date while chopping wood on said ranch, which he would call Broken Arrow Ranch. It does not seem to hinder the quality of his playing or singing. His singing is mixed quite up front and he is no longer restrained or shy in expressing his vocals. The interesting thing with this dig into the archives is how only 8 of these 18 tracks were previously released to the public he was playing to at this time. The rest would show up on future LPs, the exception being the country cool of "Bad Fog of Loneliness," intended for his Johnny Cash appearance as he Neil reminds us. "Bad Fog" did not deserve to sit in limbo for this long, featuring an endearing melody not to mention lyrics that cleverly string together a rhyme of "loneliness," "single-mindedness," and "sweet caress." Bravo Neil, I do say. As for acoustic, individual adaptations of his earlier repertoire, the whole album kicks off with "On the Way Home," slowed down and in a different key but no less triumphant than the Buffalo Springfield version, which looks to the future with only the slightest sign of regret and bitterness. 

"Tell Me Why" sparkles as glistening as the original, while "Old Man," revealed to unsuspecting fans, sounds more urgent and emotional in this stripped down form than the original, which is dressed up with banjo, backing vocalists and pedal steel guitar. Neil even explains this song is about the old man named Louis who manages his ranch, though obviously that explanation did not catch on as much as the more popular rumour that it was written as a message to his supposedly estranged father Scott, himself a high-profile figure in Canada. The piano numbers include "Journey Through the Past," already mentioned in the review of Time Fades Away in part 1 of this massive undertaking. Another tracks later included on that 1973 album is "Love in Mind." These two versions don't really differ, but considering the Time Fades Away versions are hampered by the sound quality, not just of the master tapes and mixes themselves but the quality of the available copies (recall that it's not available on CD unlike these Massey Hall versions). 

"Helpless" is a crowd favourite for sure, already recognized as a modern Canadian classic and here it does not come off as laid back as the CSNY version, which is still the definitive rendering of the song (most other versions can sound too self-knowing and aggrandizing). This live performance of it is strong and powerful in its own right. This "Archives Series" release is greatly aided by how it shows the genesis of "Heart of Gold" through a lengthy version of "A Man Needs a Maid." An excerpt of what became his only #1 smash hit song is dropped into the piano ballad "suite," which also was radically changed by the time of its release, but only because a symphony orchestra was overlaid onto to the sweet, tender song. Even without the classical hoopla, the song simmers with seriousness, urgency and artistry on a level usually seen from a talent like Dylan or John Lennon. Only Neil could take weird concepts like seeing a movie and being inspired to want a maid. It's also neat to hear how he takes the mammoth "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down by the River" and clips them to under 5 minutes apiece, with more mysterious, menacing touches in response to the absence of electricity perhaps.

There are plenty of pieces already known to people when Neil performed them here and all of them hit the target. The deep alternate tuning makes "Don't Let it Bring You Down" even more haunting sans drums, bass, etc. while "Ohio" seems more solemn and mournful than angry than the CSNY version, which is a war march compared to this scathing finger wag at the authorities. "I Am a Child" is a curious choice to conclude the album, only because it's the kind of spritely song you would hear at the beginning of an album or concert. Here it stands more as a testament to Neil's ability to take anything from his back pages and make it work on any level he wants it to, including as the finale to his encore. Even the glimpses to what would become well-known tunes sound like he had been performing them for years. It's a treasure to here a piano delivery of "See the Sky About to Rain," which features a different set and configuration of lyrics. "There's a World," also on piano, demonstrates how the Harvest version bungled what was a decent song at its core by burying it in some soundtrack-ish Beethoven accompaniment from the Jack Nitszche-arranged orchestra.

We even get to hear "The Needle and the Damage Done," culled from the same month of 1971 where Neil's Harvest version comes from (though done during a show at UCLA). He introduces it by explaining why he wrote the song, which is because heroin had, according to Neil, become a problematic indulgence of so many talented artists. This clearly concerned him enough to write the song, not even realizing just how badly the drug would gut his stable of friends in the coming years. Overall, Neil is at ease with the audience, even though in one instance he requests that no pictures be taken during his song as it distracts him and puts him off-rhythm (though after he's done he says people are permitted to snap pictures). He proves his power over the audience gathered by getting them to stomp and clap along to the country hoedown of "Dance, Dance, Dance" which would've made quite a nice inclusion on Harvest in place of something weaker like "Are You Ready for the Country?" Instead, Crazy Horse were allowed to do their own take of it on their debut album in 1971, then Neil re-modelled the song, primarily by changing the lyrics, into "Love is a Rose," a hit for Linda Ronstadt before Neil's own showed up on Decade

This live album is the most keen musical look into what Neil Young was developing into at this point in his career. It paints an even more vivid picture than the "roots" of the Canterbury and Fillmore releases, the "career at its highest ebb" Live Rust, the super volume assault of Weld, the exercises in back catalogue prowess (CSNY's Four-Way Street, MTV Unplugged, Year of the Horse, Road Rock Vol. 1). It even hints at what was to come better than the gloomy Time Fades Away (which without the knowledge of a Tonight's the Night or On the Beach to come could be seen as a zany extension of his Harvest bluesier, edgier elements). It is a fascinating look at how in 1970-71 Neil seemed to churn out a tremendous song or two every month. IT's amazing that he sat on so many great songs without finding a place for them, even passing them over for weaker material on albums likely because they did not fit the mould. It's understandable, but there were tracks that Neil could not find the time or place to lay down or include on any of his vaunted 70s LPs. With this in mind, it's no wonder Neil has yet to unleash so many recordings from the vaults and why when he does, it will be one gargantuan set.
Rating: A

-Chrome Dreams II (Reprise, 2007)
Key tracks: "Beautiful Bluebird," "Boxcar," "Ordinary People," "The Way."
Still rolling with a burning internal creativity that had been strong since the decade dawned, Neil put out this one in the fall of '07. It straddles many styles but is significant for finally unearthing the unreleased 1988 gem "Ordinary People." Alongside regulars like Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, though this time with Ralph Molina on drums instead of Chad Cromwell and Neil's wife Pegi (whose own first ever album came out almost in conjunction with Chrome Dreams II), this is a bit like a combination of his previous two albums, though without the uniting theme (aging and reflection on life with Prairie Wind, the missteps of George W. Bush and America dealing with war on Living with War). The only discouraging thing is that the best tracks were all written before the 90s. There is nothing truly worthless to be found here, though there are several average numbers and only a few ones of top quality. 

The album gets off to a very peaceful, homey start with the magically naturalistic "Beautiful Bluebird," featuring Ben Keith's startlingly pretty dobro. "Boxcar" goes in a bluegrass direction, though with an infusion of rock elements. It's a spirited, traditional-sounding tune, and another winner. After "Ordinary People" (covered later on), the album doesn't hit the high spots as often. It gradually slides after the opening three tracks. It's all well and good at first, with "Shining Light" which sounds like a country tune but its chord changes are more like a 50s doo-wop or early 60s soul classic and it turns into one during the choruses. It's the usual amount of old man innocence, sweetened by a heavenly backing vocal choir. It's an uplifting listen, though it seems to borrow a bit from the melody of "Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)" so Neil was unknowingly lifting from himself at times. "The Believer" is the usual song of confirmation and positive outlook, once again reinforcing the idea that the only way Neil can get pissed off anymore is by politics. It used to be that his disposition could be affected by personal events or what he saw as rotten in society, but Freedom might have been the last gasp of pessimistic Neil.

So is it wrong to pick on Neil's happiness? A little, but if it doesn't produce the same revelatory streak that made him the legend he is, it's relevant for discussion. "The Believer" is just a pure good time, though it's a bit too derivative to take off from there. "Spirit Road" is the best of the new rockers here, recalling the native mysticism behind classics like "Powderfinger" or "Cortez the Killer." What could be the most daring track, or the stupidest depending on your sense uf humour, is "Dirty Old Man." Over a decidedly dirty boogie, Neil warbles from the point of view of a disheveled alcoholic bum whose youth is behind him apparently. Sometimes the descriptions of this dirty old man are charmingly goofy, replete with the "Dirty Old Men" backing singers imitating the old man as Neil sings about his troubles. It's another in a line of his joke rockers, but it doesn't hold up as well as "Welfare Mothers," "Piece of Crap" or "Fucking Up." "Ever After" is one of those ordinary country-rockers Neil can spin off with seemingly little effort, which speaks to his abilities as well as his lack of original ideas during the latter part of his career (Not that there's anything wrong with that!).

"No Hidden Path" is a fine rock opus, stretching nearly 15 minutes but not getting the same effect as his older extended jams. Still, after a few years of forgetting about his garage rock workouts, "No Hidden Path" is a satisfactory return to the style. It's better than 90% of the forgettable Broken Arrow, but that's not saying a ton. Thank co-producer Niko Bolas for making this one work okay when it could have easily been one of those weak productions where vocals are pushed way to the back and guitars go up front without much ammo packing. Yet despite this 14:33 run time, "No Hidden Path" falls short of "Ordinary People." The knack for Neil to pull one out of left field, rightly or wrongly, is well exemplified by the final track, the touching "The Way." Where the bombast of "It's a Dream" and "When God Made Me" degenerated into mundane, humanistic tripe, "The Way" strikes a deeper chord. Enlisting the Young People's Chorus of New York City, Neil crafts a spare song, mostly made up of keyboard parts. It sounds akin to one of the mellower songs from Sleeps with Angels like "My Heart" or "Train of Love/Western Hero." 

"The Way" deals with the usual positive affirmations about never giving up, even when people call you washed up (Neil lashing out at his harshest critics, even though they're a few and far between bunch?). But this time, you're more inspired by it than exposed to it, if that makes any sense. It's probably one of the most harmony-dominated song of his career, a sort of innocent, child-like take on Brian Wilson's "teenage opuses to God." This would have fit well on the aborted 1967 masterpiece Smile, since Pet Sounds and other pieces like it were centered around romance. If only Neil's kooky adventures could be this great all the time! The lack of sappy gimmicks like strings only enhances what's a strikingly good 5:15. So if sometimes taking chances pays off, why not try it more Neil? Kudos are deserved for this one, which perks up an album that begins to tail off after "Ordinary People." As for that magnificent piece, Neil felt that by this point it was the right time to release it and maybe he had a premonition since a huge recession was on the horizon. The song deals with all walks of life, from the criminals to the average, law-abiding folks. 

"Ordinary People" is Neil once again harping on the working class but this time, he does it in such a frank, honest way that it's hard not to see it as a precursor to his rage-against-the-establishment Freedom and/or the sum of the continually growing topical lyrics of his 80s work. There are a ridiculous 10 verses but each one is well-earned and deserving of its place on the song, all 18:13 of it. There are the occasional instrumental breakdowns plus guitar solos (which were perhaps at their best during this 1988 period with his blues bar band outfit, the Bluenotes). Since this comes from the This Note's for You era, and the "Sponsored by Nobody" tour which was a sign Neil was coming around to greatness all over again, there is a horn section. But it is not a blues piece at all, the thundering distortion of Neil's electric guitar proving that right off the bat. Aside from sax and muted trumpet solos, they just exist for the post-chorus sections but don't overburden at all and the outdated late 80s Casio keyboard doodles actually aid the piano with their bell-like effect. What doesn't work here? Nothing really, in all honesty. Neil's singing is also engaged and intense, moreso than you would think. 

"Ordinary People" is certainly not his best song, but it's one of his most creatively written. Hell he's using terms like "Patch of ground people," "Conscientious people," "Confiscatin' all the dealer's land," and "Nose-to-the-stone people." Neil sounds fully committed as ever and if you don't believe he wasn't determined to make a unique statement song, check out his sly, spoken word lines which include a part where he follows up the line "Some are saints, and some are jerks" by calling out "That's me!" in the background. When he shouts "Keep takin' it one day at a time!" he wails off-kilter as if h was in one of those zones he gets into, which you mostly see when he's ready to rip out another scintillating solo. Neil takes the time to scream insanely throughout, only enhancing the pure conviction behind the song. For most artists, this would be a career highlight, but for Neil it's just another special achievement in a long series of them. "Ordinary People" jumps out at you seemingly out of the blue, especially when you consider it came in a period where he forgot his own strengths in attempts to contemporize. Anyone who got to hear this one in 1988 were likely stunned and knocked over by this return to form. 

It can be argued that, behind "Rockin in the Free World," this was his best 80s composition. It would have barely cracked his top 20 of the 70s, but that's no small feat. "Ordinary People," in retrospect, can be seen as a turning point where his career was rescued from the mire of lawsuits, dull genre jumping moves. The song has a life of its own, reacting to wild crashing sections with more laid back, calm parts just to build up for yet another chorus. And every chorus is actually different, so this is not one of those songs where you'll memorize all the lyrics after a few listens (which would take you nearly an hour to get through). Without "Ordinary People," Chrome Dreams II would still be Neil's best work since Greendale from five years prior. But thanks to it, it comes a shade short of matching it. "Beautiful Bluebird" and "Boxcar" come from the original Old Ways and Times Square sessions, which shows how Neil's best current stuff if sometimes leftovers from another era. Overall, the album goes up from a B to a B+ simply because of this tune. 
Rating: B+

There you have it. With a few exceptions, plus the previously reviewed Canterbury House disc, that is a comprehensive review of Neil Young's storied career up to date. When his newer releases hit the market, I will be on top of it. There is quite a busy year up ahead in his discography as the promised Archives, Vol. 1 may or may not be released. I say may not since a new album, dealing with the ugly economic climate of late, is on the way, one entitled Fork in the Road. The supposed title track was given a sneak peek as Neil created a Youtube exclusive music video of him lip-synching to the track in front of his computer while outdoors on his ranch. Strange little bit of promotion but we'll see what the album itself is like. Hawks & Doves, part 2? Only with Obama boosting instead of Reagan? We'll see. Also announced are two Archives volumes, one an artsy (quite literally since it was created for a friend's art exhibit but shelved back in 2001) Crazy Horse collaboration called Toast and the other a live album of his 1969 stint at the legendary Toronto coffeehouse The Riverboat, a venue he had been unceremoniously kicked out of by the manager in 1965. Yes, it will be an intriguing year from old Shakey.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Neil Young discography, part 3

After the triple shot of haphazard releases (the somewhat unfairly bashed Trans, the lackluster Everybody's Rockin', and the average Old Ways), Neil went back to more contemporary sounds for the first time since 1981's Re-ac-tor. Addressing the advent of big drums and synthesizers on the rock scene, Neil attempted a modern 80s rock album. And despite being his most serious attempt at crafting a good album in years, it ended up being one of his biggest missteps:

-Landing on Water (Geffen, 1986)
Key tracks: "Hippie Dream," "Pressure." Avoid: "Violent Side," "People on the Street," "Hard Luck Stories."
It's not as if adding big arena rock sounds to his music was a detestable and unsuitable act by Neil. The fact is that he just didn't know how to write those types of tunes as most of this LP falls flat. There are so few things to enjoy here and it doesn't have the goofy act of Everybody's Rockin', so Landing on Water just may be the worst album Neil has ever done to this very day. The opening cut, "Weight of the World," isn't so bad, though it's not terribly distinctive or impressive either. "Violent Side," "Bad News Beat," "People on the Street," "Hard Luck Stories," and "I Got a Problem" all suffer from being poorly written, burdened with weak melodies, clunky keyboards and production and instrumentation that simply drags them down further. These songs in particular lack any of the rhythmic variety and precision of the best techno of the 80s, showing Neil was likely out of his element with this style.

Another noticeable bugaboo is in the titles and lyrical matter of the songs. They all sound like they were ripped from the headlines of magazines or tabloid papers but the problem is they offer little to no imagination to build off of these ideas ("People on the street need a place to go" and the other lines of that song are about as bare bones and boring as the worst of Re-ac-tor which was looking mighty fine at this point). "Touch the Night" is nothing much, but it manages to be one of the singles drawn from the LP and one of its stronger cuts. Can't complain too much about that one. Same goes for "Drifter," a decent way to end Landing on Water considering how mediocre the rest of the album tends to be. Famed session drummer Steve Jordan provides the pounding, loud work at the skins, while Neil and Danny Kortchmar provide guitar work. There's no bass because of all the synthesizers providing the bottom end and these doodlings on the keys are provided by all three and yet, that doesn't seem to work toward providing a steady rhythm here. A conventional rhythm section is indeed missed. 

Landing on Water gets quite grating because it's all mechanically distorted guitars, intrusive sound effects, dull synth parts and ear-splitting drums. But other than a boys choir thrown in on a couple tracks, that's all you get. The incredibly similar sound to each tune eventually gets irritating, except when the song isn't bottom of the barrel, which happens so infrequently. The only stellar songs here are "Hippie Dream" and to a lesser extent "Pressure." "Hippie Dream" uses the tech-rock settings to great effect as Neil sings a thinly veiled message to disgraced David Crosby, at this point serving a drug and firearms offense after his crack-cocaine addiction grew well out of control by the early 80s. The lyrics to "Hippie Dream" are some of Neil's sharpest in the 80s. Neil's acid tongue remarks "But the tie-dye sails/Were just a hippie dream/Capsized in excess/If you know what I mean." Certainly it's Neil throwing stones from his high and mighty perch, but he does it somewhat out of concern for his old friend and how his hippie paradise was squandered by such reckless drug abuse. 

"Pressure" meanwhile, is a nervy new wave rocker with just a few of the usual synth hijinks but they're kept at a restrained role. There's what sounds like a brief saxophone wail, although it's just as likely to be a processed synth sax noise. If the rest of the album was like the aformentioned two, perhaps Landing on Water could have been a worthy genre exercise and a sign of a turnaround. Instead, it's likely the worst LP the great N.Y. has ever put out. Everybody's Rockin' is merely a mediocre nostalgia trip to Neil's youth and the rockabilly he grew up on, but Landing on Water is an attempt to create relevant contemporary 80s rock that falls well short of the mark, or at least the notch a critic would expect from a Neil Young. Taking that into consideration, this is quite the dud. You're better off just picking up a few songs from this and eschewing the rest.
Rating: C+

-Life (Geffen, 1987)*
Key tracks: "Mideast Vacation," "Prisoners of Rock & Roll," "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks." Avoid: "Around the World."
In 1978-79, Neil took his show on the road to record new compositions in concert, then spice in some overdubs from the studio and unleash it all on a new LP. For the electric side of his artistry, Neil used performances done with his longtime standbys Crazy Horse, naturally. Having not recorded anything substantial with them since 1981, Neil acquiesced to the frustration and impatience the Horse, and fans, must have been feeling. To promote his newest album, Neil hit the road in 1986 with some of the synths and programmed and/or electronic drums that distinguished the mediocre (terrible by Young's standards) Landing on Water, only with the tried-and-true garage rockers Crazy Horse as his supporting band. More comfy at home with his frequently used buddies, Neil was able to draw on his vast (already by 1986) repertoire while infusing modern touches instrumentally.

This was the last album Neil would cut for Geffen Records, but it's fittingly his most Neil Young archetypal album for David Geffen. There's more traditional brooding Neil folk with the eight-minute, exotic "Inca Queen" (after "Cortez the Killer" and "Like an Inca," the third historical perspective of the Incas in Neil's catalogue) as well as the gallant "Long Walk Home," which is somewhat flawed by excessive war and bomb sound effects. At its core, "Long Walk Home" is a throwback to his 70s folk, though with a lot more bombast thanks to the 80s tinge to it. Good old garage rock returns with the basic, but enjoyable "Too Lonely" and the fantastic "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" where Neil complains about music business politics, how he and his band won't listen to "Record company men" that "try to change us and ruin our band." Then he boasts in the chorus "That's why we don't want to be heard/That's why we don't want to be good." 

Neil makes sure he gets in the ubiquitous political song, "Mideast Vacation," a tune portraying the tumultuous warring situation of the Middle East and the extreme anti-Americanism it calls, sung from the point of view of a military lifer. It is a powerful, hard rock tour de force with the synclavier gun sounds, heavy bottomed synths and another synthesizer that replicates a Middle Easter woodwind instrument. This 80s approach to rock is fine and dandy on "Mideast Vacation" but is overbearing on the wannabe hard rock anthem "Around the World," another topical song addressing worldwide violence among other issues. The LP loses some steam at the end with the average, vitriolic "Cryin' Eyes" and a couple of mournful ballads. The first of which sounds like a damn good single you'd expect to hear from the Cars, entitled "When Your Lonely Heart Breaks," one of his best ballads since the tearjerker, failed romance ones on Comes a Time. "We Never Danced" on the other hand is not so emotionally gripping, coming off more like a maudlin adult contemporary, sprinkled with those irritating bell-like synth settings of the 80s (the kind that would be used in a Vanessa Williams song or a tender moment on the TV show "Full House"). It's an unstable ending for a second side that loses the momentum built by a quality first side. This does not become the comeback record many were certainly hoping and wishing for, but it's easily his best since Trans and arguably his best since Hawks & Doves.
Rating: B

-American Dream (Atlantic, 1988) (CSNY)

-This Note's for You (Reprise, 1988)
Key tracks: "Ten Men Workin'," "This Note's for You," "Coupe De Ville." Avoid: "Married Man."
Returning to Warner Bros.' Reprise label, where he had enjoyed a solid relationship and his greatest achievements, Neil was looking toward a renaissance as his inconsistent 80s came to an end. Geffen had offered a lucrative contract with lots of creative control but came to regret it and president and founder David Geffen's move to sue Neil Young created a backlash against him and his record company. The matter would end with a judge finding in favour of Neil, ending the outlandish fiasco. However, Neil's first album in his return to Reprise was another genre exercise, this time with a blues band, complete with horns. Although it managed to get Neil playing his best lead guitar in almost a decade, This Note's for You was another shoulder shrugging product. 

The album was originally attributed to Neil Young & the Bluenotes, until Harold Melvin (leader of the R&B vocal group the Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes) took legal action. This Note's for You produced a better chart showing than his past few albums, although one could credit the chart placing to the controversy around his music video for "This Note's for You." The video clip for "This Note's for You," directed by Jonathan Demme, mocked the commercialization of popular music in the era, targeting Calvin Klein, Michelob Beer, Pepsi and Coca-Cola (through a Whitney Houston look-a-like dousing a Michael Jackson doppleganger's enflamed hair with a can of cola). Neil's looks at consumerism caused MTV to ban the clip for its attempt to use product placement, even though it was clearly in jest and for satire. It generated a spotlight on Neil's work as he publicly defended it while seeming bemused by MTV's decision. 

This disc contains an inexplicaby pared down, 2 minute version of the title track, though this was rectified by a live, 5 and a half minute version included on the 1993 Geffen compilation Lucky Thirteen. The first track is a bit of a rousing one as the bluesiness is demonstrated in fine form with "Ten Men Workin'." This actually is a good song, but it is slightly hurt by its basic horn arrangements that don't engage the listener much and this is a common malady with every song's horns. The slower, quieter pieces are actually the best part of this blues project, namely the jazzy "Coupe De Ville," the even jazzier closing track "One Thing," the Otis Redding dead ringer "Twilight" and the menacing "Can't Believe Your Lyin'." Some of these tracks just sound too much the same, usually because they share arrangements. That holds true for "Life in the City," "Married Man" and "Hey Hey" which are pure blues throwaways featuring those boring horn charts. It's really the more soul-inspired stuff that works on this LP as the already mentioned "Twilight" and "Sunny Inside" recall the energy and spirit of Stax Records. 

All in all there are some delights to be had with This Note's for You but like even his best 80s albums there's that execution, that devastatingly honest punch, missing from Neil's music. Too many of the arrangements and songs are basic blues structures that go nowhere, even if they would sound top flight live in concert or at a bar. But on an LP, some of it falls flat on its face. However, Neil's artistic drive was rising as he even cut another album with the Bluenotes, an aborted one named Times Square. As usual, while Neil's recorded work suffered mixed reviews, his concert work was widely praised and he was a true performing dynamo with anything he wanted to play. One opus, an 18-minute tale from the streets called "Ordinary People" would not see official release for another 19 years but a listen to it proves that Neil's genius had not diminished and he was far from washed up. He had discovered his passion for electric guitar again and was cognizant of the noise/alternative rock bands he helped to inspire. His following album would be a comeback that propelled him into the 1990s with style, a decade that proved his legendary status could not restrict him from making great albums again. 
Rating: B

-Freedom (Reprise, 1989)
Key tracks: "Rockin' in the Free World" (extended electric version), "Don't Cry," "Hangin' on a Limb," "El Dorado," "Wrecking Ball," "No More."
The 80s had not been a fun time for one Mr. Neil Percival Ragland Young. From bad relations with fellow musicians (Crazy Horse) to panned albums (take your pick) to difficult personal issues and the loss of his once strong commercial, and even stronger critical, clout. In 1988 he returned to Reprise Records after a stormy six-year stint on Geffen Records that is still easily the driest spell of his career, even though he was releasing a new album every year except 1984 (when the original edition of Old Ways was abandoned). After the blues genre exercise This Note's for You, there wasn't any more expectation of a breakthrough for Neil as there had been before it, even if Neil's concert tour with the Bluenotes produced some excellent work. Sessions through 1988-89 produced new music but a planned LP, Times Square, was scrapped and Neil decided to pick up the pieces, cull together all the good songs lying around that did not fit with the projects he had been partaking in and made Freedom

With such a grand and exclamatory name, this new album certainly sounded like an improvement just based on title alone. His penchant for message/protest songs had grown in the 80s, but Freedom is the first time it ever came together as part of a  triumphant formula, as in musically, spiritually and lyrically cohesive and stunning. Its release was preceded by an EP titled Eldorado, a rare collector's item now and even then because it was only released in Japan. Eldorado did not attempt to use straight country, rockabilly, techno, blues or any other alternate genre to the world of Neil Young lexicon in order to break ground. It simply went back to his pioneering use of distortion, powerful electric guitars and feedback. Simply, Neil went for pure noise and there were sections of ear-splitting guitar pyromania. There were dark, disturbed songs as if drawn from his mid-1970s bleary days and nights, namely the supposed shot at Stephen Stills, "Cocaine Eyes," the harrowing "Don't Cry" and "Heavy Love." 

"El Dorado," the EP's title track and the fourth cut on Freedom, is a great moment, like some "Cortez" the second coming but only this time dealing with a criminal saga down south of the border, with Mariachi bands and a bullfight centering the tale. His cover of "On Broadway" reveals a new dedication to commanding vocals as he shouts furiously at most points, even tongue-in-cheek imitating a man looking for someone to "give me some of that crack" before he lets out a high-pitched scream calling for said crack. Yet again, a bizarre twist to a Neil Young song but a funny one too. It's a joyous cover that still manages to have the impact of any hard rock blistering showcase Neil had done in the 80s. Only better. "El Dorado," "On Broadway," and "Don't Cry" were included on the album, while the other three from Eldorado are a bit harder to get. 

"Don't Cry" is another sign of a return to form for Neil as he juxtaposes quiet verses with heaven-rattling guitar bursts that seem to be a return to the carefree fury Neil once displayed. "Don't Cry" features ethereal singing at times, and also nearly demonic howls when the drama of the song picks up. The lyrics describe a man who seemingly follows and stalks his ex-girlfriend because of his unwillingness to get over their broken relationship. Creepiness personified right here, in other words. But what really resonates is what bookends this LP, a nod to how he structured Tonight's the Night and Rust Never Sleeps, his two greatest albums. "Rockin' in the Free World" kicks it off as a solo acoustic piece done in front of a live audience and although its abbreviated compared to the longer, thrashing finale, it sets a great mood for Freedom. "Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Part I)" is a swinging jazzy number that tells another story of a hard luck individual, continuing Neil's fascination with the down and out characters in every walk of life, something he had picked up for Landing on Water

"Crime in the City" on Freedom is actually bested in faster, more dramatic live renditions, but here it has a cool, breathy aura about it and although it goes over 8 minutes, it's worth every second. The Bluenotes horns provide the real jazziness here, although the song goes deeper than any of the quiet ones from This Note's for You. The wild variety of styles on this album does not hamper it whatsoever, only going to show how deep Neil's songwriting talents ran. It almost seemed he woke up from his slumber in 1988-89 after disappointing the high expectations for so long. He goes for tender, smooth folk with "Hangin' on a Limb," a lovely tune with gorgeous harmony vocals from Linda Ronstadt, who also joins him on the sweet "The Ways of Love," which features a unique chorus done with a bolero rhythm. "Someday" is one of the weaker tracks due to a lack of a strong melody and cheesy Casio-type keyboards, although Neil's sincere delivery helps redeem it from the trash heap. 

The honest romanticism of the album stands up well against the more abrasive grunge rock workouts and another winner comes with "Wrecking Ball," that shows how Neil can be great without fancy production techniques, only a spare band setting, driven by a single guitar or piano. His songwriting resonates so well that he can get away with material that others would be accused of being saccharine with. The great thing about the 1988-89 period is that Neil finds his most effective rhythm section outside of Crazy Horse, with drummer Chad Cromwell and bassist Rick Rosas having become a couple more of Neil's favourite sidemen. They provide such scintillating attack for many songs of the period, and a couple of the final few songs are indicative of that. A sort of sequel for "Needle and the Damage Done" (indeed he often prefaced this song with a version of that 1972 classic) comes with the haunting "No More." It's a memorable anti-drug rocker that has Neil at the top of his game yet again. "Too Far Gone" is a rather ordinary country-rocker, something proper for Old Ways but not here, although its history dates back to 1976.

The last song is the warhorse, the concert staple, the rock radio favourite, the electric version of "Rockin' in the Free World." Addressing patriotism (and not in the one-dimensional way he had earlier in the 80s), international strife, homelessness, the evils of politics, pollution and environmentalism, it's his most socially conscious and concise composition. The simple power chord prowess behind it allows for some of Neil's most awesome soloing, this often resulting in brilliant live performances of it. With it new and fresh in the public consciousness, Neil really drove it home when he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in September 1989 and the visual and audial effect of it combined made it a rare great musical moment on TV. It stands as a testament to Neil's re-invention as the Godfather of Grunge and a model icon for a new generation of rockers, as does the entire Freedom album. Many were surprised that this seemingly has-been singer-songwriter could strike back so hard in 1989 at the age of 44 with his best album in exactly a decade. But he did. And it was no one shot fluke, as Neil spent the first half of the 90s making good to great albums. It all got started here.
Rating: A

-Ragged Glory (Reprise, 1990)*
Key tracks: "White Line," "Love to Burn," "Mansion on the Hill," "Love and Only Love."
Upon Freedom, Neil Young had re-invented himself in some ways, but mostly had just regained whatever form had been lost between 1980 and 1988. Neil had also developed a renewed drive in his music, a knockout blow of loud, fuzzy guitars and punk-like values toward lyrics. The true red, white and blue Americana of Neil's early 80s adventures, what with the right-wing values, praise for the blue collar working class and the praise of Reagan, had transformed into an apolitical "man of the people" who wrote songs with the cause of the average man in mind. Neil stopped speaking out in public about his admiration for Reagan and seemed to sour on the "Morning in America" honeymoon. By the end of the 80s, Neil turned back toward more left-wing ideals, but instead of revealing them with tunes defending the Natives or bashing Nixon, Neil was espousing ideals of environmentalism and socialist beliefs. "Rockin' in the Free World" was the culmination of it all. Seemingly, he had rediscovered his old hippiedom.

After 1989 saw him bang with a bang, it would not have surprised many to see this be some one-shot fluke and Neil would go back to poorly emulating contemporary trends with generally unengaging songs. But instead, he hooked up with Crazy Horse again. This time, the desire to create a real made-in-the-garage sound produced easily his best collaboration of work with the Horse in over a decade. Though Re-ac-tor and Life were two of his most respectable albums in between Rust and Freedom, they had been mostly hollow echoes of what had been during the 70s. Only the outright hard rockers seemed to touch on any of the past magic, so Neil decided to build a studio in his Broken Arrow ranch garage and capture the craziness there, with very few overdubs (though Neil had been hesitant to overdubs in the 70s, he seemed to forget that during the erratic 80s). There would be no experimental flourishes with synthesizers or drum machines on Ragged Glory, which perhaps is the most fun album in Neil's canon.

Perhaps the Horse weren't as mystical or dark as before, but their accompaniment was at its peak here. Maybe this can be attributed to Neil's positive outlook and the fact that now they were all relatively clean and sober, save for a penchant for marijuana. No more cocaine, hallucenogenics, tequila (hamburgers maybe!) or even heroin (Whitten being its casualty and Frank Sampedro having quit hard drugs years earlier). While there had been long jams over the years, especially in concert, only Everybody Knows This is Nowhere saw true extended ones and we're talking double digit numbers. Such pieces can be flat and overly long if the song isn't so happening, but with the 10:00 "Love to Burn" and the 10:18 "Love and Only Love," the magic is there. Both songs are similar to the other but manage to be unique platforms for soloing from Neil on "Old Black" (his nicknamed electric guitar since 1969). The spirit of the initial Crazy Horse material of 1969-70 is evident, so much so that the first two tracks date back to that period and even got some play in live shows. 

Those particular long-shelved chestnuts are the 7-minute "Country Home," a wistful pledge to find relaxation and comfort back in the country (gee, haven't heard that theme before have we? Neil sure loves that countryside) and the highway ode "White Line," at 2:57 an extremely brief one (compared to the album overall, which averages 6:20 per track). Neil is somehow more blatantly defiant in middle age, no longer afraid to ruffle feathers (although times had changed by 1990) and express his frustrations with the part-harangue, part self-deprecating "Fuckin' Up." There is a ton of nostalgia and reflection into the past, mainly on "Mansion on the Hill," which recalls the happy times of the late 60s counterculture movement and "Days That Used to Be," which finds hope in the present and future while remembering the past and those who fell by the wayside, which in Neil's world was a large contingent of peers and friends. 

This nostalgia is at times a bit overbearing, namely with "Over and Over," but there is some light-hearted, fun-loving "Old Fart Hippie" humour that adds an infectious quality to Ragged Glory and this is best exemplified by Neil's bluesy, joyous cover of the 60s garage nugget "Farmer John." Neil's environmentalism comes to the fore on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," which is a lightweight, somewhat overly sentimental plea for natural preservation and respect to the planet, recorded live with Crazy Horse's four-part harmony singing it. It's a grand old statement, but comes off as a bit too hippie, granola-eating precious. Since there are only ten songs here and a few fail to be anything memorable, Ragged Glory is not a sensational album although it is very good. The songwriting was stronger on Freedom, but the feel, the soul and band dynamic behind Ragged Glory was definitely superior. 

Many of these songs may sound grungey but none, not even "Fuckin' Up," wallow in self-defeat or rage like most of the groups at the forefront of that Seattle scene, namely the Cobain-led, Young-influenced (yes it's true) Nirvana. Of course, Kurt Cobain would figure into Neil's artistic outlook in a few years time and the fact that Neil was on a roll when groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit the scene certainly raised his legendary profile. Ragged Glory, even moreso than Freedom, helped find him a new audience and Neil's record sales began to improve after a good 7 year period where his commercial fortunes were minimal and, by contrast to his 70s releases, paltry. Ragged Glory kept his momentum going and he would continue to roll until petering out by the late 90s.
Rating: A-

-Weld (2CD Live) (Reprise, 1991)*
Key tracks: "Crime in the City," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Welfare Mothers," "Like a Hurricane."
Yes there are plenty war(Crazy)horses thrown in here and yes the Ragged Glory renditions do not deviate much from their studio versions (proving the recordings of "Love to Burn," "Mansion on the Hill," "Fuckin' Up," "Love and Only Love" and "Farmer John" really captured a live feel), but yes this is a kick ass live album in many ways. It's at times too lumbering, redundant and flawed to be as good as Live Rust, but it has its allure for every Neil fan except those who cannot stomach his brand of hard rock. This is pure electric force, no acoustic fanfare. Because of that, it is a cherished record for big fans of Neil & Crazy Horse or just fans who find Neil's rock side preferable to his folk side. 

This tour, better known as the Smell the Horse (likely a play on semi-fictional Spinal Tap's famed album Smell the Glove album from their 1984 documentary) tour, saw a similar stage design to the Rust Never Sleeps tour. No druids this time, but lots of oversized equipment. During the tour and then the mixing of this extraordinarily loud album, Neil suffered hearing damage and was afflicted with tinnitus for a while (a hypersensitivity to sounds) and became a big enough control freak that the Horse and the equipment crew of technicians could hardly stand him by the end, this all according to Jimmy McDonough's research in his comprehensive bio of Neil, 2004's Shakey. The backdrop of the Gulf War renewed Neil's anti-war sentiments and he was as vocally against warfare on this album as any in the past, arguably moreso than before. 

Regrettably, although the performances are uniformly powerful, we get songs that were recorded live for a studio album and recorded live for a live album before being here. I speak of the songs from Rust Never Sleeps. Nothing about "Hey Hey, My My," or "Powderfinger" is much different or better than their originals. However, "Welfare Mothers," not included on Live Rust, is definitely worth a listen thanks to Neil's giddy commenting on the playing, often yelling out "Beautiful!" or "Sing it!" after the chorus line. Also, there is a borderline insensitive, certainly hilarious on-stage dialogue with Poncho Sampedro in which they pretend to be welfare mothers getting their cheques in the mail. It's classic weird-cum-comedian Neil. The reprising of "Cinnamon Girl," "Cortez the Killer," and "Tonight's the Night" don't do anything but update how the Horse and Neil delivered their music and there appears no decline, although the enthusiasm is more fun-loving and spirited than Live Rust. 

"Like a Hurricane" is a unique adaptation here thanks to its extended 14 minute run time, most of which is just massive waves of distortion and feedback to draw it out, especially toward the end. Here, it's a good sonic experiment although they do it a bit much as most of these songs have a million false endings and drawn out sustained final chords to keep the energy from stopping. It gets old after a while. The live dynamic is strong all over though, even if "Rockin' in the Free World" with the Horse lacks the up-tempo crash and bash it did when recorded with the rhythm section of Cromwell and Rosas. Good 'ol Neil displays the anti-war flavour with his resounding cover of "Blowin' in the Wind," which has gun, bomb and explosion sound effects spliced in. The concert film for Weld displayed this in an arresting visual presentation but hearing it is good enough. 

The faster, more blistering and bitter "Crime in the City" is found here and it bests the album version from Freedom no doubt. It's a highlight here as Neil uses his hollering voice, distinct on this double live set, to ram home the seriousness of the lyrics. A neat twist comes with the rarely included "Roll Another Number," almost revived because of its revisionist tinge and indeed it was that way even when it was written in 1973, a mere seven years into Neil's career in the business. Weld falls short of being a masterful live album and it could have used a bit more restraint on the length as well as variety in the song selection. These qualities, or lack of them, put it just a touch behind the more retrospective and representative Live Rust. But who can argue with the most demanding audial experience of any Neil Young album?
Rating: A-

-Harvest Moon (Reprise, 1992)
Key tracks: "Unknown Legend," "From Hank to Hendrix," "Harvest Moon," "War of Man." Avoid: "Such a Woman."
Regaining his stature as an iconic singer-songwriter, Neil Young was riding high as the 90s dawned and progressed further. Having become more political and hard-edged topically than ever, Neil endured as a significant voice in pop music, although he had not really enjoyed a smash hit album since Rust Never Sleeps. That changed as he decided to go softer, crafting his most quaint and peaceful album overall since Comes A Time, which was also one of his few albums that went gold almost instantly (others would take years) having hit the top 10 in Billboard's album charts. Perhaps it was reeling from tinnitus that inspired Neil to write softer, folkier, country-flavoured songs once again. There had been some here and there on Freedom and songs left on the shelves during the 80s but Neil had not crafted a side of truly acoustic-based music since the "Doves" side of 1980's Hawks & Doves

Commercially, it has always been the softer side of old Neiler that connected with the public and generated good sales. Harvest Moon has actually gone double platinum as of today, only the third album of his to do so (joining Harvest and After the Gold Rush), success that Neil had only experienced as part of the ultra popular, megagroup CSNY. The album finds Neil in a less introspective mood than its "prequel" Harvest, instead finding him a melancholy, contented 46-year old man. Often, that melancholy can become weary and boring. This is maybe the first indication that Neil mellowing with age could take the edge off him. He was no longer churning out moody love songs like "Pardon My Heart" or "Look Out for My Love," perhaps because he really was happy with his personal life. Neil still comes up with wonderfully tuneful work on this album however it begins to seriously lose steam after a prime opening five cuts. Here, Neil enlists the Stray Gators, a group of sidemen including Kenny Buttrey, Jack Nitszche, Tim Drummond, Spooner Oldham and Ben Keith that had been his group on Harvest. 

With their presence, Neil returns to that easy-going country formula that struck gold (or platinum that is) 20 years earlier, before becoming a hellacious relationship on the road. Therefore, we get more pronounced use of harmonica, very few electric guitars (unless pedal steel counts), brushed drums, soothing piano and nothing as riveting rhythmically as something found on Ragged Glory or Freedom. Heck, its spiritual predecessor had James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt guest on "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold," so why not bring them back into the fold (though Ronstadt had appeared on a few other LPs over the years)? Ronstadt is joined or replaced, on other tracks by her old friend, the late Nicolette Larson, and Neil's half-sister Astrid, giving it the warmest vocal atmosphere of a N.Y. album since that old benchmark Comes A Time. There are ruminations on finding love, losing love and aging such as "Unknown Legend" about his wife Pegi, "You and Me," likely about the same (which borrows melodically from "Old Man") and "From Hank to Hendrix." He criticizes warfare once again with the haunting, weighty "War of Man." 

The title track is another homey love song, that describes going out to dance at the local dive as a romantic evening. Well, they always say Neil fancies waitresses and is intrigued by the simpler things of life and "Harvest Moon" is a great portrayal of that trait. "One of These Days" is like his "Days That Used to Be" acoustic style, with Neil vowing he will one day write a long letter to all the good friends that he's known, which I'm sure is not something he actually took up but it's the sentiment that counts not necessarily practicing what you preach. The song is the weakest up to this point but is overtaken by a few throwaways at the end, namely the incredibly sappy "Such a Woman," which is similar to 1993's "Philadelphia" his Oscar-nominated theme song to the movie of the same name. The thing is, "Philadelphia" is a sparer, more emotionally moving piece that does not get bogged down as an unabashedly corny love pean. If you didn't think it was so bad at first, "Such a Woman" eventually brings in strings to accentuate the sickly sweet message. Oh well, as long as Neil's wife liked it. 

"Old King" brings in the banjo to sing some rollicking, but buoyant country about the late Elvis, Neil's dog. From love songs to his wife to love songs for his dead dog, Neil is all about tributes on Harvest Moon. After the pleasant, but average "Dreamin' Man," yet another almost unashamedly modest, gentle one, there is another tribute if you will. "Natural Beauty" is it, and at over 10 minutes (perhaps a bit long even though it's built to be a lengthy tribute) it's one of his longest purely acoustic songs. In segments, it reminds one of "Will to Love" what with the addition of marimba to the acoustic guitar. It sounds a lot like an acoustic adaptation of "Cortez the Killer" as the chords are the same, but there's a wailing harmonica, eventually accompanied by animal sound effects. The melody is one of the stronger ones and although this meanders, it never preaches too much about Neil's love of nature (which he calls his own personal religion) despite a badly worded chorus that goes "Natural beauty should be preserved like a monument/To nature" (as if it wasn't a monument to nature?). 

All in all, because of some modest, rather restrained performances and production, Harvest Moon does not sizzle like its inspired 1972 predecessor, although both share the distinction of being his highest-selling albums, which may explain why they're often considered two of his most overrated. This is no mere product, but it's not the latter day masterpiece it's sometimes touted as. There's something missing, some gravitas that used to separate Neil from your average airy-fairy folkie. Here, he comes dangerously close to sounding something like a more talented, gifted and less ridiculously maudlin version of John Denver, America or Harry Chapin, three "contemporaries" of his in the early 70s singer-songwriter phase. Three who, to varying degrees (in the order provided actually) outsold him in record units, except for... You guessed it, Harvest. And that assertion means this album is still not that bad at all, but not great either. And for that, I will always bestow a:
Rating: B+

-Lucky Thirteen (Geffen, 1993)
Key tracks (of the new versions): "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me," "Ain't it the Truth," "This Note's for You" (Live).
As scattershot and underwhelming as the 1980s were for Mr. Young, it wasn't all bad. Collecting the varying styles makes this compilation a weird one and quite imperfect. Of curse it was originally just going to be Geffen's attempt at a hits collection or singles collection for his six-year stint on their label. However, Neil decided to intervene so he could unleash some material from the vaults along with selections with his own input involved. But there are four newer tracks that would have stood out had they made the cut. First, there's the waltzing country "Depression Blues," which discusses economic hardships and was intended for the original, shelved Old Ways in 1983-84. Then from his 1983 tour with the so-called Shocking Pinks is highlighted with the bluesy, pleading "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me" and the "autobiographical" supposed "story of the Shocking Pinks" in a track called "Get Gone," which borrows heavily from "Willie and the Hand Jive." 

The fourth unreleased one is a sizzling live cut with the Bluenotes entitled "Ain't it the Truth" while the definitive "This Note's for You," also done live with the Bluenotes, is included in its 5 and a half minute form. The concert snippets from his work with the Bluenotes are the highlights and they show the actual album This Note's for You could have been better. As for the already released selections, there are two very questionable inclusions that also take the grade down, those being the rather boring "Where is the Highway Tonight?" and the clunky techno-rocker "Around the World." If you want other ones from Old Ways and Life, then "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" and "Prisoners of Rock & Roll" would have done. The rest, "Sample and Hold," "Transformer Man," "Once an Angel," "Hippie Dream," "Pressure," and "Mideast Vacation" are proper choices that represent the best of each dizzying genre exercise Neil indulged in. Lucky Thirteen isn't so aptly titled, as the 80s were anything but lucky, but it is what you want if you'd rather not collect the mostly mediocre LPs they came from.
Rating: A-

-MTV Unplugged (Reprise, 1993)
Key tracks: "World on a String," "Helpless," "Transformer Man."
While Live Rust was a proper greatest-hits-done-live set and Weld an accurate representation of the calamitous electric guitar sludge Neil had been slowly fomenting ever since returning to lead guitar with the Bluenotes, this one seemed to capture his acoustic settings and in the wake of the popular Harvest Moon. He re-invents some of his electric work as acoustic pieces, with "Mr. Soul," a major key version of "The Old Laughing Lady," and "World on a String." Plus there's "Pocahontas," yet another version of "The Needle and the Damage Done," and a piano-led version of "Helpless" aided by Nils Lofgren on accordion. There are some truly interesting quirks here as we get a previously unreleased 1976 song "Stringman" done on piano and then a slightly shaky version of "Like a Hurricane" done on pump organ. This doesn't sustain itself for the 4.5 minutes very well, but it's a unique re-interpretation. 

The band joins him for the last 6 tracks and apparently this was the second run-through of the set after Neil was dissatisfied with his band's performance the first time around (this being the Stray Gators with Astrid Young and Nicolette Larson on backing vocals, Nils Lofgren adding guitar, accordion and autoharp and Oscar Butterworth taking Kenny Buttrey's place on the drum stool). The slick, relaxed band setting is not unlike Harvest Moon but at least we hear a subdued "Look Out for My Love" as well a spacey, acoustic, non-vocoder version of "Transformer Man." But it all has this frustratingly restrained sound to it and the performances rarely take off, falling short in the face of superior studio versions, this holding true for "Unknown Legend," "Long May You Run" and "From Hank to Hendrix." It's too bad a live album of Neil's has not drawn on his greatest, most overlooked acoustic tunes like "Tell Me Why" or "Pardon My Heart," settling for the more easy listening countrified ones. The first part of this disc is the most rewarding and slowly but surely, this MTV Unplugged set becomes just a passable live one.
Rating: B

-Sleeps with Angels (Reprise, 1994)*
Key tracks: "My Heart," "Driveby," "Prime of Life," "Change Your Mind," "Safeway Cart."
Having renewed and strengthened his bond with Crazy Horse, one that seemed fractured in the 80s, Neil decided to use them in a much more eclectic, softer fashion. That sounds like a recipe for failure but instead it results in perhaps Neil's best 90s album, an album that referenced aging, death, addiction and all the darker elements of life that Neil had not quite gone near since Tonight's the Night. Crazy Horse gets to rock out but not nearly as much or as hard as usual. Instead, they are utilized to give rough backup on instruments like bass marimba, vibraphone, electric piano and grand piano (though this is mostly Frank Sampedro) while Neil pulls out his keyboard skills for accordion and tack piano, which becomes almost the signature instrument of the album because of its upfront presence, mainly in its melodic usage and being the primary chord change provider on a few cuts. 

Though Neil's career was on the rise and he had become a favourite of the grunge crowd, and therefore respected by the MTV generation, he wanted to get back to those themes from the tragic underbelly. The real hard-hitting moment for Neil came when his immortal line from "My My, Hey, Hey" was referenced in Kurt Cobain's suicide letter from April 1994: "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Drawing on the suicidal tendencies of rock stardom among other disturbing scenarios, Neil made an album that was both dark and defiant. There is a ragged weariness that is much less tightly wound than on Tonight's the Night and more melancholy, world-beaten and resigned. It's not as if Neil has gone pessimistic overnight. He is only speaking for the lost souls it would appear and does not limit this sense of decay and death to rock stardom. 

This is almost like he is reflecting on that very line from Rust Never Sleeps that Cobain included in his suicide note, almost re-thinking what it means, its purpose as a mantra or life-affirming belief. Certainly Neil does not feel death is something you should prefer over becoming a washup, or else he would have offed himself in the mid-1980s. But there is a tired mood throughout the record with somewhat mournful numbers like the downbeat "Prime of Life" (featuring the first inclusion of recorder- or flute?- on one of his songs), the drifting "Driveby" and "Western Hero" (written about war heroes while "Train of Love" is the same exact song only with different, more unimaginative lyrics). Even when the mood is low, the songs can actually be rather thrilling and ominous. The volume level is not ear-splitting like a Crazy Horse collaboration can be and this album is perhaps the decibel opposite to Weld. These songs include the tremendously eery "Safeway Cart," and the partly spoken-word "Trans Am."

Even the brighter, happier material has an air of lonely desperation to it. The almost child-like amateurish structure to "My Heart" comes off as affecting and genuine, rather than corny and/or maudlin which was a problem with some Harvest Moon tracks. "My Heart" is an oddity in Neil's catalogue because nothing about it had the hallmarks of a typical Neil ballad and credit goes to the man himself for throwing in vibes and tack piano in to colour the song. Crazy Horse's usually spirited harmonies are more warm, soft and tender here. The finale uses the same instrumentation but has a more triumphant mood to it, with "A Dream That Can Be Last" a fitting finale to the album and in fact a superior closer than the ones on his previous two LPs. The muddy mix of certain songs may bother audiophiles but without it, "Sleeps with Angels" would not have that detached, dissonant feeling that makes it one of Young's more challenging, unsettling listens. 

If you're the kind of Neil fan who really enjoys a real gutkicking hard-assed style of rock, then you'll find it with the bluesy "Blue Eden" and the comedic "Piece of Crap," in which Neil blares over a punk ethic and arrangement about all the stuff he buys that falls apart because it's, well, a piece of crap. Not a great tune, mind you, but it's the attitude that counts in punk and the same goes here. "Change Your Mind" is in the style of a long-winding jam like the ones from Ragged Glory, only this one falls just short of the live version of "Words" from Journey Through the Past, as the longest track on a non-bootleg album of his. Both were bested when "Ordinary People" finally came out. "Change Your Mind" is one of his eloquent love songs but the jamming and soloing in between each verse is extensive stuff and although the song isn't up to the level of previous greats, it's rewarding enough to deserve going for 14:39. There are a few slip-ups but the album length is not a problem the way it is on Weld, Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon so it's sequenced well. And the spot-on deliverance of the goods on his return to darker themes makes this stand as the last truly excellent album Neil has done to date (Freedom still might be his last indispensably masterful LP).
Rating: A-

-Mirrorball (Reprise, 1995) (w/Pearl Jam)
Key tracks: "I'm the Ocean," "Truth Be Known," "Throw Your Hatred Down," "Scenery."
Of all the younger bands and singers that openly idolized Neil "Godfather of Grunge" Young, Pearl Jam was undoubtedly the most vocal. They often credited him as a major influence and although there were more 70s hard rock influences in them than classic Neil garage rock, they shared a similar ethos and passion for being honest, hard-working artists. A dispute with Epic Records left their names off the final credited product but 1995's Mirrorball still featured them backing Neil on every track making poor old Crazy Horse an afterthought to some, though dearly missed by others. Pearl Jam prefers tighter, bouncier arrangements and their rhythm is usually much steadier and accomplished than the Horse. The album came together after several live collaborations which dated back to 1993's MTV Video Awards when Pearl Jam backed Neil on a shaky version of "Rockin' in the Free World," Eddie Vedder stumbling around drunkenly while nursing a bottle of hooch or something which still was a highlight of the usual trendy affair. 

Eddie Vedder is found on backing vocals on some tunes and a co-lead on a song he co-writes with Neil called "Peace and Love," a decent inclusion here. He was mostly absent from sessions due to an apparent problem with some stalker, but the musicians in the band were there and Jack Irons, then Pearl Jam's drummer and formerly drummer of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, gives some of the more propulsive drum work of any Neil recordings. Likely due to Pearl Jam's commercial clout, this album would be Neil's highest charting album since Harvest, making it to number 5 before quickly fading from the charts, which even bested Sleeps with Angels #9 showing and Harvest Moon (#16). This is basically grungey type of music, a bit cleaner than your average Neil garage rock. Some songs aren't very much more than average, such as "Song X," "Act of Love," Big Green Country" and two short, relatively minor pieces on harmonium in "What Happened Yesterday" and the closer "Fallen Angel" (a move that recalls the barely-over-a-minute inclusions of "Till the Morning Comes" and "Cripple Creek Ferry" on After the Gold Rush).

There are very solid rockers too, like the driving "Throw Your Hatred Down," the bluesy rocker "Downtown" (one of two singles derived from the album) which is littered with great soloing from Neil and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready or Neil's lumbering, impassioned 8.5 minute slam on celebrity and fame, "Scenery." "Truth Be Known" is one of the more memorable of the slow rockers but the true classic is Neil's semi-autobiographical "I'm the Ocean," as exciting and honest a rock number that Neil has done post-"Rockin' in the Free World." It's a seven minute tour de force with not a second wasted as Neil candidly and frankly looks at the special nature of his life, memorably signing "People my age/They don't do the things I do." Mirrorball suffers from some throwaway material and few true grand slams, so this is not exactly much better than Harvest Moon and it really comes down to which style caters to you best. Personally, Mirrorball is more interesting but it is not quite the fine showing Sleeps with Angels was.
Rating: B+