Saturday, January 10, 2009

Neil Young discography, part 1

As a followup to the review in my last blog post, I will give my overview on the discography of the legendary Neil Young. This will include the work he did as a member of other groups (three different groups have had his input as a band member) and compilations will be reviewed. In a final list, I will summarize the best from top to bottom, and in various forms. Hopefully those who read can see what they agree or disagree with and what they should check out as per recommendations. Anyhoo, these days not every CD out there needs to be acquired through spending money as this would cost one hundreds and hundreds of bucks, so consult your friendly internet and music sharing websites, etc. If you're already familiar with this modern day approach, I'll just quit my lecturing and unleash my overview of one of rock's most idiosyncratic, impressive catalogues. From 1966 onward, Neil has been a constant force to be reckoned with and it began with Buffalo Springfield. In their short time they produced these works and retrospectives:

(Note: * means album credited to Neil Young & Crazy Horse)
-Buffalo Springfield (Atco, 1966)
Key Neil tracks: "Burned," "Flying on the Ground is Wrong," "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." Others: "For What it's Worth," "Sit Down I Think I Love You." 
If you've read my review on the new live Canterbury House album (new as in unreleased since its 1968 recording), you'll know that Neil's weak, somewhat unappealing vocals were shunned by the other members of the group to the point that some of his tunes were handled by the more warm and ear-catching voice of Richie Furay. That doesn't detract from their quality, even if Furay could never perfectly emote the words the way they were meant to be done. The production is pretty crude even by 1966 standards, but this is mainly due to the mix and not the quality of the engineering or the studio. Despite that it is a vital debut record that Neil's fans will enjoy, even those who find Stephen Stills' excesses annoying will enjoy him here, because at this point Stephen is still a budding songwriter, guitarist and vocalist who hadn't yet turned stale on anyone.

"For What it's Worth" is the enduring classic here, helped by its status as a hippie 60s anthem against police brutality and the administration's intolerance of pro-active youth. Stills is also in fine form with "Sit Down I Think I Love You" and the countryish "Go and Say Goodbye." But Neil's work holds its own quite well. "Nowadays Clancy Can't Sing" is rife with literary imagery and who knows what it's saying? Then again who cares? It's an essential listen, like some understudy of Dylan at work. Meanwhile, Neil tries his hand at less gloomy, but no less desperate material with "Burned," the Beatles-esque "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say it?" the depressive "Out of My Mind" and the unique "Flying on the Ground is Wrong" (inspired by Roy Orbison's work apparently, and it has the novel subject matter of the protagonist telling a girl he can't get with her if she doesn't understand his recreational drug use). Most of the other tracks are nothing special and are hindered further by the flaccid production found here from former managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone.
Rating: A-

-Buffalo Springfield Again (Atco, 1967)
Key Neil tracks: All three of the ones here, "Mr. Soul," "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow." Other key tracks: "Bluebird," "A Child's Claim to Fame," "Rock & Roll Woman," "Hung Upside Down." (Believe it or not these aren't all the tracks!). 
The title is not so imaginative, but the music within it is. Often, the alumni of this band have claimed that the first LP had better tunes with weaker production, but the production, arrangements and performances here do make this set of songs better, although it's debatable that the debut LP was superior in terms of songwriting. Well, the songs just sound better and that's good enough for this listener. And it's still an impressive batch of songs. The in-and-out nature of Neil and his hearse passenger comrade Bruce Palmer (constantly caught up in passport troubles due to drug arrests) made for disjointed sessions but Neil manages three cornerstones of 60s psychedelia. 

Those cornerstones are the dark, fuzz-drenched acid rock meets garage rock of "Mr. Soul," the dreamy classical pop of "Expecting to Fly" and the bizarro sound collage "Broken Arrow." "Broken Arrow" is often undercut by its own wild experimental touches, but it's still a captivating listen, especially the chorus. "Mr. Soul" is a gem of Californian rock in the mid-60s and demonstrates Neil wasn't all timid, soft and introspective. It's the beginning of Neil's rise to songwriting genius and the beginning of Stills' prime as a surefire rock hit maker. He was at the peak of his early honeymoon as a rock hero with the harmony-driven "Rock & Roll Woman" and the bluegrass-meets-rock of "Bluebird," still one of his top 5 compositions and an enduring country-rock classic. Even Furay contributes a great bluegrass number with "A Child's Claim to Fame," and sings the solemn, jazzy "Sad Memory." "Child's Claim" is in fact a thinly veiled shot at Neil's wavering ties to the band. Neil took no offense, providing down home acoustic guitar to this delightful contribution. A Californian cornucopia of rock, bluegrass, country, pop and psychedelia for sure. 
Rating: A

-Last Time Around (Atco, 1968)
Key Neil tracks: Both... "On the Way Home" and "I Am a Child." Other key tracks: "Questions," "Kind Woman."
There isn't much here that bears the hallmarks of a cohesive band. Like the Beatles' White Album, a release that landed a few months after this one, it sounds like solo showcases all thrown on the same disc of vinyl. It definitely sounds like the process of a band splintering and sure enough the group was finito by the time Last Time Around came around. "On the Way Home" sounds like folk if Motown got its hands on it, and we might have heard that had Motown not had to jettison the Mynah Birds, Neil's band (featuring lead singer Rick James) before embarking to L.A., after their audition tapes in February 1966 (due to James' AWOL status from the army). Neil would adapt it to his live work in acoustic form but here it is a boisterous, reflective song. 

Neil tackles childlike wonder and growing up with "I Am a Child" and this became another memorable staple of his career. Lord knows how many people would make much cheesier songs in the 70s with the usual blustery harmonica Neil displays here. If you want to choose between this and "That's My Boy," take Neil's side of it and you won't regret it. Neil also co-pens "It's So Hard to Wait," with Furay. Other than that, Neil is scarcely heard on this record in any form. The rest is dominated by Stills, with a bit of Furay's underrated grace (the would-be country classic "Kind Woman") and new bassist Jim Messina's production work (he'd find more success hooking up with Kenny Loggins in the 70s). It's a disappointing finale. Not quite the triumph you'd hope from a great band that broke up too soon, much like Cream's limp Goodbye was in early 1969. It's no wonder they were breaking up when you hear this album.
Rating: B+

-Retrospective (Atco, 1969)
Pools together all the "hits" and popular numbers the band did. As a testament to Neil's excellence in the band, only four of his ten contributions to their three LPs are omitted ("Burned," "Flying on the Ground is Wrong," "Do I Have to Come Right Out and Say it?" and "Out of My Mind," all from the premiere LP). Half the tracks are Young compositions, in other words. Neil was the brains of the band, thought not necessarily the brains behind it, while Stills was its spirit and soul and ultimately the most influential toward the group's direction. By 1968, a band could not hold Neil's ambitions back, let alone one as volatile as Buffalo Springfield. The drawback to this hits collection is that it is a single disc, twelve song one and it neglects a couple underrated album tracks in favour of more of the singles. But what can be said to argue against 12 great cuts like these? Still the best sampler out there as record companies have for some reason been prevented from putting out a more definitive, longer running album, like the "The Essential" releases Rhyno has provided for vintage artists in recent years.
Rating: A


-Neil Young (Reprise, 1968)
Key tracks: "The Loner," "I've Been Waiting for You," "The Old Laughing Lady," "I've Loved Her So Long." Avoid: "The Last Trip to Tulsa." 
Almost all the the songs, save the bloated nine-minute closer, have their charm. But other than the four key tracks listed above, nothing gets you by the scruff and gives you a good shake. More about this album is discussed in my previous blog post that focused on Neil's goings-on in 1968, but it can be said that this was a bit of an uneven, inauspicious debut that bear the hallmarks of a young artist finding his voice in the studio and as a writer. Despite this being just ok, it is quite the showing for an artist to make, especially coming right out of the safety net of being in a band where just a few tracks per album will suffice. See the Canterbury review for more on this album.
Rating: B+

-Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969)*
Key Tracks: "Cinnamon Girl," the title track, "Down By the River," "Cowgirl in the Sand." Avoid: "Runnin' Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)."
A lot of people did not know what to make of this album when it came out in mid-1969. It seemed to be a wildly acerbic switch from the more polished rock he had captured on his debut as well as with Buffalo Springfield. This music seemed anti-commercial by comparison. It seemed ahead of its time as riff-heavy rock like this did not become potentially hit material until glam and hard rock dominated the charts of the early 70s. It comes off like the Velvet Underground if they discovered jamming and had the chops to pull it off (their 17-minute "Sister Ray" hardly counts). Plus, though there were lengthy jams like any old acid rock outfit circa 1969, they were not virtuosic nor were they searing, drug-influenced Hendrix shredding on the axe! 

It was primitive, almost like the Stooges first LP that same year only Iggy and the boys were playing demented, nihilistic proto-punk while Neil was fiddling around with what would become grunge/alternative rock. The opening cut "Cinnamon Girl" is built on a classic riff in modal dropped D tuning, the harmonies of Crazy Horse (whose genesis was as a doo-wop group) and a power chord structure unlike anything heard outside the Who or the Kinks up until that time. Meanwhile the two songs that top 10 minutes, "River" and "Cowgirl," have remained staples of his live shows and classic rock radio for good reason. Even if they go on and on, both have ear-catch melodies and Young's vocals aren't marred by the introversion of previous recordings.  The good time country title track is a refreshingly short experience that touches upon the charms of country life "back home," a frequently recurring theme in the future for Neil. 

The other three of the seven tracks range from the enjoyable (the uproarious country-rock "The Losing End" which features Danny Whitten's distinctive harmonizing) to the okay (the standard Neil introspective folk of "Round & Round [It Won't Be Long]") to the turgid and dreary ("Runnin' Dry").  Overall though, this is the first statement as an artist that Neil Young made in order to prove he could branch out from his beginnings in a folk-rock act on the Pacific Coast to become a substantial rock and folk giant on his own. The album did chart, unlike Neil Young, but left some critics confused. Retrospective analysis of the LP proved it was an influential and unique landmark. Neil would go back to hone his style in acoustic music and country afterward. Though it seemed he might have turned his back on rip-roaring garage rock with Crazy Horse, he would again work with them although the severe heroin addiction of Danny Whitten curtailed his appetite for working with them. 

Crazy Horse was dropped in 1970, having recorded on just bits and pieces of what became After the Gold Rush. Despite this, Crazy Horse laid down a couple albums on their own in 1971-72, with a little help from former members of the Rockets as well as teen guitar sensation Nils Lofgren and L.A. studio arranger, musician and soundtrack composer, the late Jack Nitzsche (the latter two being frequently hired hands in Neil's solo career). They would of course be revived by Neil in 1975 in the wake of Whitten's eventual death by OD, proving Neil still had a place in his heart for rag-tag, garage rock and roll. Everybody Knows happens to be the first in a string of remarkable albums that, for the most part, went uninterrupted until 1980. 
Rating: A

-Deja Vu (Atlantic, 1970) (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Key Neil tracks: "Helpless." Other Key tracks: "Woodstock," "Almost Cut My Hair," "Teach Your Children."
Neil raised his profile by joining the already successful Crosby, Stills and Nash in June 1969, just before their appearance at Woodstock (where Neil requested cameras filming the event not include him in their shots, which they listened to you'll learn when you watch the footage) where Neil's rarity "Sea of Madness" was performed. Though Stills had clashed with Young in their previous collaboration, it was felt that Neil's songs and rough-hewn lead guitar would beef up a sound that some critics found sterile and sugary from their self-titled first album, released earlier in 1969. The newly minted quarter already had a hit single with Young's hard rocking and outraged "Ohio," about the Kent State incident of 1970 when five students were gunned down by the National Guard. Though that hair-raising classic was not on the subsequent album for CSNY, Deja Vu is no lame duck. 

The standout of the whole LP is "Helpless," a pure country-folk masterpiece that recalled his roots growing up in small town Ontario in Canada. "Helpless" fits in well with the harmony-driven, quainter attitude around CSN but could have also fit in on any of his prettier 70s releases too. The "Country Girl" suite is a decent song, though nothing on the level of "Helpless." The rest of the album had its highlights and low-lights amongst the tunes penned by the other three members. Stills is still, no pun intended, in charge but he is overshadowed here. Only his "4 + 20" makes the final cut. The collaborative "Carry on" is a spirited opening track, though nothing great. Nash actually provides solid work throughout, with the country dreaminess of "Teach Your Children," the singy-song "Our House" (demonstrating the clearly different English sensibilities of Nash's writing) being highlights. 

Though this album was nothing quite as interesting as the best of Neil's repertoire, Deja Vu was probably the best thing CSN(Y) ever accomplished on record. As for problems, that take this down a notch well, Crosby's hippie paranoia, despite the proud "freak flag" boasting of "Almost Cut My Hair," is more indulgent than inspiring and the title track, his own doing, works better than "Mind Gardens" or "Triad" from his days as a Byrd, but that's not saying much. Neil's Buffalo Springfield leftover "Everybody I Love You" is pulsating rock but seems out of sorts with the CSNY harmonies dominating. Those harmonies are still quite crystal clear, meticulously pieced together almost. However, personally I find them too sterile and they remind me too much of 70s groups like Yes or Supertramp. Neil's guitar is not buried, nor are Stills' musical contributions but unlike the CSN debut, Stills doesn't have to do it all along with CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor. 

This time, there's the benefit Neil's lead work, which is utilized alongside Stills and Taylor and teen bass whiz Greg Reeves while Crosby and Nash sometimes provide instrumentation of their own. The group's cover of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" is a busy, blistering rock piece that was a total re-creation of Joni's spare, jazzy original. Joni made her version somewhat of a Eastern-influenced hymn that just relied just on electric piano and multiple vocal overdubs. Kudos to CSNY for re-modelling it, but it's still not a home run. It was a big hit of course, as most things by CSNY were privy to be over the years, but I think it sounds like some kind of second rate Guess Who, which is nothing to brag about in and of itself. When you include it with the other two CSNY albums and the CSN ones, Deja Vu is probably the best studio album of any variation for the hippie worshipped trio/quartet.
Rating: B+

-After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
Key tracks: "Tell Me Why," "After the Gold Rush," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart," "Southern Man," "Don't Let it Bring You Down," "When You Dance I Can Really Love," "I Believe in You."
There is something quintessential about After the Gold Rush. It captures Neil at his most vocally engaging and is, next to Harvest, his most accessible work. There is a quaintness and peace to much of the album and not a single weak song. With an all-star roster of folks Neil had worked with before and would work with for years after, Neil captures a breezy, excellent chemistry in a solid display of musicianship. Heck, even Danny Whitten was capable enough to make an appearance or two. It's near perfection and whether Neil is in "Ohio" mode, spewing his disgust (the attack on Antebellum racism in the magnificent "Southern Man") or singing of bittersweet love (the folky putdown "Tell Me Why," the utterly beautiful "Only Love," and his cover of Don Gibson's country weeper "Oh Lonesome Me"), Neil is impressive and confident. 

Even minor tracks sparkle in their own way and the mystic, poetic side of Neil is somehow redeemable, rather than non-conformist and uncommercial, which it had been before and would be again. This is best displayed by the achingly dark "Don't Let it Bring You Down," and the fantasy storytelling of "After the Gold Rush." Even the love songs are much more sincere and upfront than before, as "I Believe in You," and "Birds" are as elegiac and mesmerizing as Young gets. "Birds" is one one of the lesser tracks here and it's still a true gem and has harmonizing so restrained yet eloquent that CSNY could only dream of such precision. "When You Dance I Can Really Love" finds Neil singing a love song of a more caustic, decisive fashion. Jack Nitszche bashes away on piano, even going into rather dissonant triplets toward the end while the hard rock guitars that characterized Everybody Knows make their presence felt, not a common thing to find on this LP actually. Interestingly Neil manages to make the short tunes "Till the Morning Comes" and "Cripple Creek Ferry." 

Featuring the usual piano-led instrumentation of this album, along with strong harmonies, both songs manage to be almost like snippets of longer ones and they fade out while the music is still sinking in, rather than after the fact. Like the title track, "Till the Morning Comes" features a solo from French horn, an instrumental barely ever used on a Neil Young recording again (perhaps "There's a World" and "A Man Needs a Maid" are the only other ones). Neil may have been looking for the forlorn sound the instrument brought to several Beatles recordings, namely 1966's "For No One." Without being overly sentimental, After the Gold Rush is one of his more longingly romantic albums in his 70s output. Without being overly aggressive, it manages to be one of his more hard-edged too. It had something for anyone and, coupled with his stint in CSNY, only served to popularize him, leading to the outright sensation that Harvest was on the charts.
Rating: A+

-Four Way Street (Live) (Atlantic, 1971) (CSNY) 

-Harvest (Reprise, 1972)
Key tracks: "Out on the Weekend," "Harvest," "A Man Needs a Maid," "Heart of Gold," "Old Man." Avoid: "There's a World."
Much has been made about this being Neil's greatest, but this is usually rhetoric from those that define an artist by their greatest commercial successes. Harvest was one of the best-selling albums in the world in 1972, with "Heart of Gold" hitting #1 on nearly ever nation's chart. The song is a hell of an anthem of course, but don't discount the beautiful slick country and folk he provides with "Old Man," (which highlights the additions of pedal steel guitar and banjo to Neil's arsenal) the opener"Out on the Weekend" and the gentle, folksy "Harvest." Yes, there's a glut of songs with relaxing pedal steel guitars, banjo and acoustic guitar, but not much substance behind some of that style. This is not to say Harvest isn't good, but it falls short of the consistency the previous two albums Neil displayed. 

Too many songs are simplistic and ordinary. "Alabama" is a misbegotten attempt at re-creating the fury of the brilliant "Southern Man," but it only seems like a needless sequel. "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" is a throwaway rocker in the mould of "When You Dance" and "Are You Ready for the Country?" is bar band filler, nearly like the music he would gravitate toward during the 1973-74 dark period except not as on the edge or commanding. The collaborations with the "London Symphony Orchestra" result in the near maudlin masterpiece "A Man Needs a Maid" but also the overblown "There's a World." "Maid" is an account of a man longing for a maid he doesn't have to love, inspired by seeing Diary of a Mad Housewife, a movie which inspired him to track down his future partner Carrie Snodgress, the "Mad Housewife" actress. Neil admits this outright when he warbles "I fell in love with the actress/She was playing a part that I could understand." Led by Neil's exquisite piano work, it's alternately moving, bombastic, daring and pretentious. 

The very shocking real-life death and decay going on around Neil inspired him to write "The Needle and the Damage Done," about the heroin-related death of Bruce Berry, younger brother of Jan (of surf duo Jan and Dean). Berry had been a roadie for CSNY and the song was also a plea for restraint to Danny Whitten, Neil's confidante, partner in musical brotherhood and the rhythm guitarist from Crazy Horse. Whitten's own self-destruction from heroin had caused Neil to put aside working with Crazy Horse, who are sometimes missed on the album's rockers. "The Needle" probably became the most resonant of all the tracks here because of the very true personal feelings behind it. As more rock stars died or suffered at the hands of heroin, Neil's song hit home harder and he became the first rock star to speak out on the dangers of the drug, one that had so publicly deprived the rock scene of some of its biggest talents. Harvest stands as perhaps Neil's most overrated LP, but nonetheless it is a mini tour de force of his songwriting progression worth checking out.
Rating: A-

-Journey Through the Past (Soundtrack) (Reprise, 1972)
A hodgepodge of alternate and unreleased versions of Neil's songs, plus live cuts, TV appearance renditions of songs and some unreleased goodies, but only the haunting piano solo ballad "Soldier" manages to be worth mentioning. The rest is hampered by redundancy and weak quality behind the performances and arrangements. As a result, this has yet to be released on CD in North America and is hardly considered a Neil Young album at all, rather more like a postcard of his first docudrama, one of many off-the-cuff, flakey excursions in film Neil would embark upon.
Rating: C+

-Time Fades Away (Live) (Reprise, 1973)
Key Tracks: "Don't Be Denied," "Bridge," "Love in Mind," "Last Dance."
Despite its muddy production, ragged performances and the very strained vocals of Neil, this is as essential to a legendary artist's canon as any live album can be, save for maybe live releases like Live at Leeds or the Allmans' Live at the Fillmore East. The tour surrounding this album was fraught with problems, as Neil's audiences were unreceptive to his harsh, madcap new material which signaled his desire to return to the underground and shy away from the spotlight of big time fame. Also his band, dubbed the Stray Gators, continually demanded pay raises as the tour progressed which led to the particularly persistent Kenny Buttrey being sacked for John Barbarata, formerly of the Turtles. He performs on the cuts that made it here. On top of this, Danny Whitten had died of a heroin overdose before the tour, just days after Neil had sent him home to L.A. from rehearsals because his deepening drug addiction had ruined his ability to perform. 

Neil lost his voice part way through this lengthy 1972-73 tour which results in some of the cracked, anguished vocals heard here. The next two years would see Neil's voice in bad shape as he continually had difficult with his high register, though this made the despair and depression behind his music all the more palpable. As of this time, Neil took to drowning his sorrows in tequila, which obviously affected his stage demeanour and behaviour, turning him from light-hearted and insightful to grumpy and withdrawn. With these 8 previously unheard songs, Neil retreats from the introspective singer-songwriter approach of his past two LPs in favour of a nakedly stark and frank look on life, including his childhood experiences during his parents' divorce on the sensational "Don't Be Denied." His three piano pieces are all beautiful and tremendously riveting too, as "Bridge,"  (like a more homey, less metaphorical version of "Birds"), the ruminating "Love in Mind" and the nostalgic pean "Journey Through the Past" convey yearning for love and home in such a tender, real way that it's hard to pass them off as cheesy. 

His new appreciation for the bluesy bar band sound results in the boogie of "Time Fades Away," "Yonder Stands the Sinner" and the disenchanted country of "L.A," which labels Los Angeles "city in the smog," then wrly, tongue-in-cheek asks "Don't you wish that you could be here too?" Uuuuh, I'm not sure anyone wanted to after you got through talking about it Neil. So mission accomplished I guess? His disenfranchisement with the established mainstream is quite evident in the lyrics alone. The final cut is the insanely gripping "Last Dance," a sweeping, lumbering rocker that stretches over 8 minutes. Singing of daily struggles for rock fans to get tickets as well as the often frustrating routine of touring, Neil has hardly ever sounded as wound up as he did here. The arrangement is powerful, with many rhythmic tricks to it, the most interesting being the end where Neil wails "No, no, no" constantly over feedback until the band kicks back in. Young is backed by Crosby and Nash's harmony vocals, since they were enlisted to buttress his weakened vocals at the end of the tour. 

"Last Dance" is a perfect encapsulation of the transition Neil was undergoing in the wake of Harvest's massive success. Surrounded by such glory, one thinks he would be able to translate that into happiness. But with Neil's sensitivity to attention, all this spotlight did was irritate him. He rebelled in the only way he knew how: musically. He was uncomfortable with the attention indeed, so he turned his muse in an uncommercial direction that put the emphasis on real live band interaction and capturing raw emotion, warts and all. It offended many of the fans he'd made since 1969 but caught the allure of the rock press and certain fans who found his new edgy irritableness a welcome change from the tired phony optimism of many of rock's biggest acts of the time, Neil's compadres in CSNY included. "Last Dance" is a captivating number that ends this underrated, forgotten masterful live work, which has still yet to see the light of day on CD. This makes it well worth tracking down.
Rating: A

-On the Beach (Reprise, 1974)
Key tracks: "Walk on," "See the Sky About to Rain," "For the Turnstiles," "Motion Pictures," "Ambulance Blues."
1973 was a foggy year for one Neil Young. Abandoning the good vibes of his music on After the Goldrush and Harvest, he set his sights on creating a new sort of character, a living embodiment of his alter-ego namesake Bernard Shakey. He performed a series of club dates with a new band (comprising of many who had played on his recordings before) he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers, which featured Neil alumni Ben Keith (who debuted on Harvest and has played on nearly ever Neil Young LP since), Nils Lofgren (boy wonder guitarist who Neil infamously and curiously enlisted for piano on After the Gold Rush when he was still just 17), Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina (rhythm section of Crazy Horse, in 1973 dissolved for the time being). 

He was armed with a borderline anti-social attitude, backed up by said new band and a tacky mini-Vegas stage set-up featuring neon lights and plastic cactuses and slogans adorning the props, with phrases such as "Waterface" or "Welcome to paradise. Everything is cheaper than it looks." It showed Neil's rejection of the mainstream ran deep. Neil by now had very long hair but decided to let a beard grow in too. Wearing shades indoors over his weary, baggy eyes, Neil consumed large amounts of tequila on and offstage and sang in a caterwaul unlike anything anybody expected. It was seemingly career suicide, but Reprise stood by him through the commercial rejection, because you see, back then record companies didn't dump acts for not following up a multi-platinum record with a similar selling one. According to Jimmy McDonough's bio Shakey, The Eagles opened for one of these club shows and Glenn Frey asked Neil, "Why are you doing this to yourself?" Neil seemed to be one of the only ones who didn't care how it looked on the surface or how it was a shot in the foot of his commercial fortunes.

This world-worn, drunken confessional style was attempted for a new album, as Neil recorded several disillusioned songs that would eventually make up Tonight's the Night. The album was recorded amidst a similar smoky atmosphere of tequila, cheeseburgers and playing pool and cards. But the finished product, as rawly resounding as it proved to be, was rejected by Warner Bros., the parent company to Reprise, Neil's record label. The depressed musical direction did not subside when Neil went back into the studio in 1974, on the heels of a failed reunion attempt with CSN for an (aborted) album called Human Highway. A tour was eventually set up, promoting a greatest hits album instead of one with new material. All those involved admitted it was done for financial purposes. Further bothered by those sessions, where a coke-maniacal Stills and crack-addled Crosby proved difficult to work with, Neil went back and cut an album perhaps more depressing than Tonight's the Night in its own way, using a few of the CSNY hired hands for support.

On the Beach, long unreleased on CD until 2003, sees Neil address his critics on the up-tempo, nostalgic country-rocker "Walk on," which features weary, but endearing harmonies and a sweet walking bass coda. "See the Sky About to Rain" is another example of Neil's unique brand of lonely prairie country and a gem indeed, a composition dating back to 1970-71. It features Ben Keith's essential pedal steel guitar and a ice Wurlitzer piano backing from Graham Nash. Increasingly dark and savage subject matter was at the focus of many songs as Charles Manson's violent hippie cadre was alluded to through the first-person narrative of a domestic terrorist on "Revolution Blues," which has David Crosby on rhythm guitar. As well, there was a mopey, somewhat self-indulgent confessional on the winding, near eight-minute title track, an attack on greedy oilmen (the slinking, sadistic "Vampire Blues"), as well as a raging rumination on washouts and burn-outs (the bluegrass-tinged "For the Turnstiles" played and sung just by Neil and Ben Keith on banjo and dobro respectively). 

The last two songs were on the short, three-track second side. The dreary, sometimes off-putting "On the Beach," redeemed by its relaxed, jazz-influenced demeanour and Neil admitting that although "hangups aren't so bad/That don't make them go away," gives way to even more languid, floating music. He addresses the not-so-splendid experience of living on the road away from one's lover, "Motion Pictures (For Carrie)." Neil's deep registered vocals and almost perverse approach to slow, lazy country make this a true winner, although it might take some getting used to from those who prefer the sunny side of Neil. He perfectly captures the tired routine of touring, going between hotels on the road all over the map. With fare like this, On the Beach was definitely not as bright or positive-sounding as what Harvest had to offer no doubt, but it went for the jugular and was a huge artistic achievement for Neil. The frequency of "honey slides" being smoked by those involved in recording might have contributed to the languid songs, according to legend. 

Indeed, the participants were quite buzzed on a concoction that was smoked like a marijuana joint only after the cannabis contents had been basted in honey and cooked on a frying pan. No song represents this more than the finale, the nine-minute masterpiece "Ambulance Blues." A bone-chilling rant on all things that were bothering Neil at the time, including references to his past days playing coffee clubs like The Riverboat, "Ambulance Blues" is on par with any of Dylan's acoustic masterworks, punctuated by Neil's deep bullfrog vocals, his finger-picking chord structure, eerie harmonica, haunting hand drums from Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina in the background and a mournful fiddle provided by Doug Kershaw. It's an immaculate ambient musical atmosphere if there ever was one. It's his best album closer and the lasting memory from an overlooked masterpiece album. Some have derided it for whininess or Neil reveling in his own blues, wallowing in misery if you will. But the fact he could take such feelings and create such a stupendous album does nothing but boost this album's rep in my mind.
Rating: A+

-So Far (Hit Compilation by CSNY) (Atlantic, 1974)
Rating: B+

-Tonight's the Night (Reprise, 1975)
Key tracks: "Tonight's the Night, Part I," "Speakin' Out," "Borrowed Tune," "Mellow My Mind," "New Mama," "Tired Eyes."
As described in the review of On the Beach, Neil Young's attempt to create a totally off-the-cuff album was rejected by Warner Bros. The tapes revealed vocals not projected into the mic, instruments bleeding over into other mics, blown chords, strained vocals and a generally lethargic, stoned style of playing. This was not far from the truth, as Neil has quipped, "Tequila and hamburgers, that was the input." No doubt there was a fair amount of weed involved too, but the band usually stayed up late, got high, a little drunk and a little loose just to get into the mood of recording songs that dealt with the memory of drug casualties Neil had been friends with. The harsh memory of the deaths of Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten propelled Neil to great heights of expression. He also was familiar with the heroin addiction struggles of CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor, and the crack-cocaine addictions of David Crosby.

Of course, perhaps drinking alcohol to excess at times as well as smoking pot and snorting cocaine occasionally may have been hypocritical, but these drugs had been innocent in comparison to heroin and harder drugs, although cocaine would eventually be seen as a particularly harmful drug and at the time it seemed perfectly fine and dandy. Neil would eschew cocaine once he realized what a monster it had turned Crosby and Stills into. Nearly two years after the shelved album, in 1975 Neil had laid down an album of hillbilly country entitled Homegrown. He had already begun work on Zuma, which was with a reformed Crazy Horse and the new resurgence of a happy Neil made Reprise willing to let Neil release his own oddball LP a few months beforehand. When deciding which one to put out, Neil played a tape of Tonight's the Night at a party and The Band's bassist Rick Danko convinced him this was the proper one. Neil obliged to Danko's rave review and Tonight's the Night was unleashed. 

His worst charting album between 1970 and 1981, Tonight's the Night would find little acceptance commercially but would soon be praised by critics as a tremendous accomplishment and a brave excursion for the same man who struck approval in the hearts of record buyers 3 years earlier (one year when you consider when it was laid down). Tonight's the Night is thought of by many as Neil's peak, or at least the height of his artistry. Bookended by two different versions of the bluesy, intense title track (which directly addresses Bruce Berry's life and death), the album was chocked full of the usual brand of great, lonely prairie country. The tormented "Mellow My Mind" featuring Neil's hoarse vocals cracking with the high notes is the perfect example of that. There's some kind of raggedy mood to this album. Sometimes is it charming, sometimes it is depressing. "Roll Another Number,"  which claims he is a million miles away from the helicopter ride he took arriving at Woodstock as part of CSNY, is one of those charming ones. 

"Albuquerque" is one of those that isn't totally dreary, as at one point Neil wryly claims he wants to find a place where he can get "some fried eggs/And country ham/Somewhere, where they don't know/Who I am." When it wasn't barroom country, it was rock with a country twist on the ragtag "Lookout Joe," which sounds like something that could have been spun off by Dylan and the Band in their Basement Tapes. There's also the pained storytelling of "Tired Eyes," where Neil talks, literally, about a strange back story of crime, druggies and a man who "tried his best, but he could not," a line which is left open-ended. He also constantly bleats out "Please take my advice" before it segues into the chorus, the only part that actually is based on melodic singing. "New Mama," a powerful but short track, revealed some of the old affinity for harmony and apocalyptic folk, while the incredible solo piano ballad "Borrowed Tune" is Neil at his most vulnerable and honest, claiming he was too wasted in his hotel room to write his own melody, so he took one from the Rolling Stones ("Lady Jane" to be exact). 

The great "Borrowed Tune" is one of those powerful, spare moments that has to be heard to be believed and understood. Without actually addressing a specific problem, it probably cuts closer to home than most of the tracks. A newfound love of bluesy, boozy boogie can be seen with the magnificent "Speakin' Out" and "World on a String." "Speakin Out" highlights Neil's honky-tonk bluesy piano, while Nils Lofgren provides perhaps the best guitar solo on any Neil Young recording, at least technique-wise. As if to ram home the point, we also get "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown," a live recording with Crazy Horse from 1970 featuring a voice from the grave: Danny Whitten singing lead. The song itself was revived for Crazy Horse's 1972 debut and its lyrics are a bit disturbing in retrospect since they appear to deal with going downtown to score drugs, although apparently it was Neil who coined the line "Sure 'nuff they'll be selling stuff." 

Neil turned his torment and anguish over the pressures of fame and dealing with death into one of the most unique of rock's great albums. Neil released quite a few albums that can be considered amongst the greatest rock & roll records ever, but this one is probably one of those that can crack the top 100 of most critics' lists and this critic is no different. It is an essential listen that grows on you with every listen until you understand the beauty around all the ugliness this album is draped in, whether lyrically or musically. Whatever it lacks in polish, it makes up for in expression and sincere emotion. Neil is a master at taking what could be considered trash, junk, simple throwaway material and making it brilliant. A true stud, yet again, from Neil in the 70s and though he would make many great records after this, few ever lived up to the standard of this one. Few ever came nearly as close to this in terms of capturing a feel, a moment in time in the (at the time) wild professional and personal life of Neil Young.
Rating: A+

No comments:

Post a Comment