Friday, January 16, 2009

Neil Young discography, part 2

Leaving off part 1 in 1975, this second part goes over Neil's gradual emergence back into the mainstream from the wilderness of his 1973-75 tequila-soaked adventures. In the summer of '75, the harrowing Tonight's the Night was unleashed, to the approval of critics and even Neil's famous novelist dad Scott (who named it his favourite LP of his son's in his autobio Neil and Me) but the indifference of the record-buying public... and Neil's mom Rassie (who said he she didn't listen to it because it was "the one about all the dead people"). But a more welcoming record was on the horizon as Zuma came out, featuring Neil reunited with Crazy Horse, augmented by new rhythm guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro. 

Zuma (Reprise, 1975)*
Key tracks: "Don't Cry No Tears," "Danger Bird," "Pardon My Heart," "Cortez the Killer."
Though there were certainly chemical influences factoring into the making of this album, Zuma was not the miserable, stoned and inebriated recording process that had produced Tonight's the Night, nor was it anything like the dreary "honey slide" influenced On the Beach. There was a bit of a revisiting of the garage sound, first crafted with the Horse on their first collaboration with Neil, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. "Don't Cry No Tears" was a song based on an old Neil composition called "I Wonder," which he wrote as a teenager. "I Wonder" seemed very much influenced by doo-wop of the late 50s or Roy Orbison's operatic love odes. This re-modeling of the song was less pop-oriented than it had originally intended to be, but the influence of that pre-British Invasion romantic pop and rock can be heard. 

"Don't Cry No Tears" is also one of the more peppy tracks found here, a welcome ray of sunshine after a few years of Neil wailing and moaning about his problems. The more moody Neil can be traced on grungy dirges like "Danger Bird, " which features tremendous, subtle guitar work and shows that Neil's high vocal register had returned... even if he had difficulties keeping in tune. Gloominess pervades somewhat through the rocker "Barstool Blues,"which is his best technical vocal performance on the album and maybe in years. The track is also equipped with Dylan-esque lyrics that seem a return to the poetic spin of After the Gold Rush, although here it carries a much more bitter, ominous tone. Perhaps the most honest, sincere song is also the most bittersweet, the folk gem "Pardon My Heart." It's such an alluring listen, combining some electric sludge with a softer, gentler acoustic setting and harmony vocals, plus Neil's lyrics are fantastic and his voice is in fine, expressive form. 

The somewhat bitter feelings of Neil continue through the vindictive and mocking "Stupid Girl" (not the same as the Stones song of the same name and one supposedly aimed at Neil's partner of the time, actress Carrie Snodgress). Perhaps the most popular inclusion here is the epic "Cortez the Killer," which became a long-time favourite in Neil's repertoire. "Cortez" acts as a centerpiece on the album, one of Neil's many commentaries on the uprooting of the indigenous people of the Americas. In this case, the brutal attack on the culture of the Incas in particular, spearheaded by the Spanish conquistadors, namely Hernan Cortes. Neil turns this into a slow, plodding jam that extends well past 7 minutes. In short, your typical Neil & Crazy Horse jam-fest. But here, the words take equal share of the focus. The country feel is not totally abandoned as it shows up a couple times, particularly with the would-be country classic "Lookin' for a Love," a perfect Willie Nelson dead ringer. 

The distorted guitar assault that was missing since After the Gold Rush makes a return through the riff-laden "Drive Back," which also features the kind of zany piano support heard on "When You Dance." The song has one of the top distinctive guitar riffs of Neil's career, even if the song itself isn't among the best few here. That says a lot about the quality of the LP itself because "Drive Back" is a rip-roaring time. Finally, the serene folk harmonizing of CSNY closes off the album, with the dreamy "Through My Sails," a song that was originally intended for the aborted CSNY LP Human Highway. "Through My Sails" is a refreshingly spare song for a CSNY collaboration as it merely includes congas alongside Neil's signature acoustic guitar finger-picking style (complete with various bass note melodies, slides, hammer-ons and hammer-offs in the middle of a chord sequence). It's not his greatest folk ballad, although it captures the lush sentimentality of his 1970-72 phase. Thusly, it is the right choice to end Zuma, going out with a whisper instead of a scream.
Rating: A

-Long May You Run (Stills-Young Band) (Atco, 1976)
Key tracks: "Long May You Run," "Fontainebleau"
The mutual admiration and friendship of Stephen Stills and Neil Young could often become volatile overnight, many accounts have told throughout the years. Stills' wild egotism and cocaine-induced paranoia only made the clashes more frequent and severe, though matters never became violent or too mean-spirited (perhaps the worst incident being when Young abandoned Stills in the middle of their 1976 tour in support of the album, driving off in the wrong direction with his tour bus to record in Nashville and signing off on his resignation letter with "Eat a peach"). Still, they responded to the splintering of CSNY with their own collaboration after Graham Nash and David Crosby's Wind on the Water came out the previous fall. In fact, many of the tracks started off as CSNY reunion recordings, but when the situation declined, Nash and Crosby's harmonies were wiped out. 

This is more finely produced and smoothly performed music than any hardcore fan of Neil's is used to. This doesn't necessarily mean this is a weak album, but it is not as consistently, uniformly good as most of Neil's 70s output. The title track is a modest classic from Neil, a pean to a beloved old car, the original Hearse he used for gigs and transportation back in Winnipeg that broke down around Blind River (Ontario), according to the song at least. Neil off-handedly wonders if the car was eventually rescued and revamped and wound up with the Beach Boys "Heading to the surf on time" (the song "Caroline No" being specifically name-dropped and the backing vocalists harmonize that title refrain in response). Other Young-penned tunes here, like "Midnight on the Bay," aren't as compelling or dynamic, coming off as a bit goofy and thrown together. 

Even though Neil is tossing in average material for his standards, "Ocean Girl," "Let it Shine" and the shimmering "Fontainebleau" are enjoyable, if not minor, tunes. Most of Stills' compositions try harder yet still can't top Neil's material as "Make Love to You," "Black Coral," "12/8 Blues" and "Guardian Angel" would all be filler on Buffalo Springfield's first two records and even early Stills solo records or CSNY projects. But by 1976, this was a minor treat and surprise considering Stills' output had become considerably more inconsistent. If it's a sign that Neil didn't put his full heart into it, then certainly Stills' skills as a songwriter were not what they used to be. Still, it managed to be a decent hit album that gave both their first gold record in over 2 years. Nothing special, but not really a disappointment if you knew that the camaraderie of CSNY was not the same bond that made their 1970-71 work their peak artistically.
Rating: B+

-American Stars n' Bars (Reprise, 1977)
Key tracks: "Star of Bethlehem," "Like a Hurricane," "Will to Love."
Riding high from a re-emergence into the spotlight, Neil finally delivered a ragtag collection of hillbilly-styled country-rock, which had been the general focus of the aborted Homegrown. The country-rock isn't exactly special while the rest consists of more eclectic, weirder material. So the first side mainly consists of throwaways, with "Hold Back the Tears" being particularly dull. "Bite the Bullet" isn't much of a song but it does have a kooky sense of humour as Neil brags of a sexual conquest of sorts with the backing of Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson. "The Old Country Waltz" and "Saddle Up the Palimino" sound like countrified Waylon Jennings party numbers but nothing more than typical cowboy saloon rock fare. The warm "Hey Babe" (benefitted by a top notch pedal steel guitar) and the biblically influenced "Star of Bethlehem" echo the warm country of Harvest, besting much of that album in fact. They are definitely the best of the country oriented tracks. 

"Homegrown," the final cut, is a down home country rock ode to growing and smoking your own stash and continues in the somewhat humourous vein of the earlier cuts. Two tracks stray from the formula a bit with the epochal "Like a Hurricane," 8 minutes of synthesizer white noise, biting feedback and effectively amateurish guitar pyrotechnics that has become perhaps Neil's most enduring rock epic. "Like a Hurricane" manages to impress and steal all the accolades for this uneven album. It's sort of a love song, sort of a cosmic trip that compares a deep, loving, longing interest in a lady to dancing on celestial bodies, hurricanes as well as time and space. Groovy? Well, the song does make liberal use of the chord progression of Del Shannon's "Runaway," which Neil admits to, but it's still a wholly different enough creation to not merit accusations of ripping off that particular golden oldie. 

"Will to Love" happens to be almost as long as "Like a Hurricane," but does it in a different way indeed. Recorded on acoustic guitar by reel-to-reel tape recorder with a few of Neil's overdubs on snare drum and vibes, Neil delivers a truly psychedelic and bizarre one where he sings of imagining himself as a salmon swimming upstream. Yeah, a little unintentionally comical lyrics-wise, but the music itself is unqiue and alluring because of its homecrafted quality. Neil recorded it in front of a crackling fireplace while the lo-fidelity of his vocals and guitar gives them an underwater, shimmering sound. "Will to Love" divides many, since some critics called it a failed experiment while many fans cherish it as one of Neil's most adventurous recordings. Either way, along with "Hurricane," it salvages the album from being a bit too one-dimensional and hokey.
Rating: B+

-Decade (3LP, 2CD retrospective-Reprise, 1977)
Key tracks (of the seven unreleased-on-LP tracks): "Sugar Mountain," "Ohio," "Winterlong," "Campaigner."
Before the age of the boxed set, Neil Young was one of the rare artists who dedicated a huge collection of his music together for one release, a comprehensive career overviews if you will. At the time, this was an approach that some critics felt was self-congratulatory and/0r self-indulgent, Dave Marsh included. But Neil, though he shunned his period in the wilderness, did an exemplary job culling his 10 years of work into a superb collection while also dropping in some essential previously unreleased songs. Those inclusions are almost all worth listening to, beginning with 1967's "Down to the Wire," which was originally set to be on Buffalo Springfield's aborted LP Stampede. In Decade's liner notes, Neil admits to being administered uppers before doing the vocals for "Down to the Wire," which probably accounts for the energetic nature of the singing. 

Although the song is rather short, despite an operatic tone to it (underscored by piano work by Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack), it is a good slice of how Neil's ambitions were leading him toward making more and more complex pop music, like that of his idols Roy Orbison, the Beatles, the Stones or Brian Wilson. The 1969 B-side "Sugar Mountain," as well as "Ohio," "Helpless" and "Long May You Run" are all found here for the first time on a Neil Young LP (the former two made the CSNY collection So Far in 1974). Side five and six (we're talking vinyl here remember) feature some formerly buried gems, headlined by "Winterlong," a song written in 1969 and tried out with Crazy Horse several times without making the grade for an LP. It has one of his most inventive chord structures as a key change occurs segueing into the bridge of the song. "Deep Forbidden Lake" is a countryish acoustic ballad that delves more into Neil's love of depicting the beauty of natural landscapes. He has never before or since done such a stunning job crafting a song around the subject and believe me, Neil has harped on that natural beauty theme a lot since the late 1970s, way more often than in his first "decade" actually. 

"Love is a Rose" is a rather simplistic hoedown that would have felt right at home on Harvest, and would have been one of the top tracks from it too. Instead, it was fully formed and laid down a couple years after Harvest's release. It was lent to Neil's friend Linda Ronstadt who scored a minor hit with it herself in 1976. Its history goes back to 1969 when it was called "Dance Dance Dance" and its lyrical matter didn't use the rose metaphor, instead settling on triter phrases such as "Never thought that love had a rainbow on it/Used to think love was a nightmare" and "Now I go around hoping you care." Even "Dance Dance Dance" had a similar sound to it and was a toe-tapping, foot-stamping bluegrass ditty in the making (see its Live at Massey Hall, 1971 performance). But from my personal standpoint, the highlight among the unreleased goodies is "Campaigner,"a diamond in the rough performed solo by Neil on acoustic guitar and harmonica and addressing the political game. For good measure, there's even a mention of Richard Nixon, as if to get in another shot at the disgraced president.

It's not new territory since it's widely thought that Neil takes a shot at him in "Ambulance Blues" when he moans "I never knew a man/Could tell so many lies/Had a different story for every set of eyes/How can he remember/Who he's talking to?"). Hell, there's a whole verse on Nixon, stemming from Neil's interest in seeing the former prez in an emotional state when his wife Pat was rushed to a hospital over a (hence the line "Hospitals have made him cry"). "Campaigner" is mostly made up of the usual literary lyrics but also has "first person" admissions from a lifelong politician who Neil casts as almost some kind of Watergate perpetrator or savvy practitioner of politican one-upsmanship. What exactly constitutes a place "Where even Richard Nixon has got soul," I'm not sure, but I don't care because "Campaigner" is a sign that Neil could even pen great tunes with a political slant, although he would later face opposition to his pro-Reagan stance of the 80s and his entire Living with War album in 2006, which holds George W. Bush's feet to the fire. Nonetheless, Decade is a quintessential compilation that is still one of the best self-produced career postcards ever put out.
Rating: A

-Comes a Time (Reprise, 1978)
Key tracks: "Goin' Back," "Comes a Time," "Look Out for My Love," "Lotta Love," "Peace of Mind," "Four Strong Winds."
Ever since Neil went back to creating somewhat cheerier, non-depressed music, the consumer public was hoping for a second coming of Harvest. While that didn't quite occur with Comes A Time, this album was in fact a superior product to that one. After another aborted album, this one titled Chrome Dreams, Neil regrouped to create a pure folk record again, and some elements of country, blues and bluegrass creeped in during the process as is bound to happen when Neil strips away the electric guitar. It was a pleasant surprise indeed, a return to his intense brand of folk and it set the table for Neil's greatest artistic triumph yet. Neil also found a great harmony partner with Nicolette Larson throughout most of these selections. 

Here, Larson provides a perfect foil to Neil's weary voice and even is given a lead vocal on the amusing, bluesy tale, "Motorcycle Mama." Larson also provides eloquent harmony vocal for the truly excellent "Goin' Back," which makes use of strings in a subtle, yet soothing manner. Neil continues to utilize his inventiveness on acoustic guitar for this song. Larson is also found on "Comes a Time," a statement of purpose and worldliness that features a country bend to it with several fiddles. There's the sad and regretful "Peace of Mind," which manages to incorporate strings once more as well as mournful pedal steel guitar although it never gets all that sappy. It's probably one of his strongest writings on relationships and how they can be squandered. "Human Highway" is another jubilant traditional folk that was held over from the 1974 sessions for the aborted CSNY album Human Highway. "Already One" uses the string section for the third time on this album. Its an ode to his former partner Snodgress and their son Zeke. It bears melodic resemblance to "Long May You Run" but is so heartfelt and gentle that it can't really be faulted for this. 

"Field of Opportunity," is the expected brand of folk-country-bluegrass but is rather average, especially compared to the rest. Any doubts this was a stupendous bounce back from a few years of dizzying variance and detours is put to rest with the immortal "Four Strong Winds," a cover of Ian Tyson's Canadian classic torch song. "Four Strong Winds" actually was a pivotal reason for Neil immersing himself into folk in the mid-60s, infamously trading in his electric for a 12-string acoustic around 1964-65. It's not all soft, welcoming melodies and instrumental textures though. Neil manages to dispatch Crazy Horse for a couple tracks and mesh the folkiness with their ragged rock abilities, something thought impossible or at the very least unlikely. Longtime Neil Young producer David Briggs, usually at the helm for any time he teamed with Crazy Horse, shows up credited on "Look Out for My Love" and the deeply romantic "Lotta Love" (which Nicolette Larson was able to score a top 10 hit with, doing her own Vegasy, adult contemporary version in 1979). 

These two were easily the most tender things Neil did with Crazy Horse until the 90s, but they're not worse off for it, especially the stellar "Look Out for My Love," as unique and dynamic a love song as Neil ever has written. Only Neil could write a love song that warned someone about his love, to watch out for it because "it's in your neighbourhood." It includes snippets of electric guitar, creatively being used with chicken scratching on the strings to replicate the sound of the windshield wipers mentioned in the lyrics. The riffs are integral to the rhythmic tricks and Crazy Horse's harmonies are, as expected, quite complimentary "Look Out for My Love" may be the best thing here, depending on your tastes. Based on my own preferences, it's only second to "Like a Hurricane" amongst his 1975-78 work. "Lotta Love" finds Neil gravitating to the piano and a much more sentimental flavour. Because of this, it's a bit cloying, though still a fine representation of his amazing songwriting. Despite this album being a bit of a throwback for Neil, it retains all the grace and punch of Neil's greatest acoustic works of the past... and the future.
Rating: A

-Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979)*
Key tracks: "My My, Hey Hey," "Thrasher," "Ride My Llama," "Pocahontas," "Powderfinger," "Hey Hey, My My."
With Neil's three masterpiece studio releases (After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night and this one), the listener can get a different flavour from each instead of more of the same. One who enjoys the self-introspection and hippie-dippy Neil will love the first, the one who prefers his wild, untamed side will prefer the second and fans of his ambitious folk and hard rock pieces will no doubt enjoy the third. Those who prefer the prettier, country-tinged side will prefer other, inferior (though not at all ordinary) works. Here on Rust Never Sleeps, Neil hits the grand slam of his career, effectively summarizing what made him a profound, yet unlikely superstar as well as an eccentric rebel in the world of 1970s rock and roll. There's nearly everything he had stood for since his arrival on the scene well-represented here. There are a slew of anthems tailor made for classic rock radio on this nine track album. 

For his 1978-79 tour, Neil went on the road with Crazy Horse, usually first emerging by himself with an acoustic set and then trotting out his standby side band for the full force electric set. The tour was captured in a concert film which highlighted the absurd stage props: gigantic microphones and amplifiers, not to mention druids (or more specifically look-a-likes to the hooded Jawa creatures from Star Wars, then still fresh in people's minds as a new pop culture phenomenon), who acted as the stage hands. But Neil came up with the novel idea of recording his new material in concert, with audience noise turned way down in the mix. Like Tonight's the Night, the album is bookended by two versions of the same song, only this time with the lyrics and title somewhat altered: The haunting acoustic opener "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" and the crunching, rousing rock finale of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," both his greatest commentaries on the redemptive power of rock music.

He waxes philosophically at times, cautioning that "There's more to the picture/Than meets the eye." Mentioning recent luminaries like Johnny Rotten and eulogizing Elvis, Neil claims "It's better to burn out than to fade away" (or "Than it is to rust"). "It's better to burn out cause rust never sleeps" is the substitute line in "Hey Hey, My My."  The first side captures his acoustic compositions with the sweeping "Thrasher" telling a poetic story that has been speculated to be about the bickering involved in the CSNY dynamic and the need for Neil to get away from that negative rut. "Ride My Llama," is one that is even weirder and uses alternate tunings and strange chords to perfection. It may be way weirder than "Thrasher" even, going on about running into an alien from Mars and sharing his ancient stash with him, but it's still a real winner. It makes "A Horse with No Name" sound like a larf on the carousel and puts all pretentious singer-songwriters of the era to shame. 

"Ride My Llama" is a bit perplexing, a bit odd, but certainly a notch on his belt as rock's reisdent flaky genius. His oddball charm heavily figures into this LP but no more evident than on "Ride My Llama." A revival of his passion for Native American narratives, first brought up with "Broken Arrow," is heard on the studio recording "Pocahontas," a tremendous piece of music that offers many acoustic guitar overdubs, like the previous three live numbers, as well as bird sound effects. "Pocahontas" was left over from the 1976-77 sessions for the aborted Chrome Dreams. Dropping himself back in time, like with "Cortez the Killer," Neil imagines himself as the European love of Pocohontas. It works because of his delivery of the words and the tongue-in-cheekness behind it, which saves a line like "I wish I were a trapper/I would give a thousand pelts/To sleep with Pocohontas/And find out how she felt/In the morning..." from being lecherous and in bad taste. 

In addition, Neil uses this dream sequence to depict the massacres of the Buffalo and Natives themselves as well as assimilation of the First Nation Peoples. If that isn't dizzying enough for you, he then segues off to reference more modern wonders like the Astrodome and talking with Marlon Brando (probably inspired by Brando's compassion for the exploitation of the Native, which culminated in his 1972 Oscar being accepted by a Native woman as a protest of the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood films). This continues the trend of Neil's strangest album, when it comes to lyrics that is. Only this silly "Hoser" Canadian could get away with such overtures and boy does he ever! A similarly naturalist theme is found in the following track "Sail Away," a leftover from the sessions that spawned Comes A Time. "Sail Away" benefits from a strong melody, emboldened by Nicolette Larson's harmony vocals and an arrangement worthy of any Ian & Sylvia record. 

Then comes the TKO of the electric side, every bit the equal of the stunning first side. It may not pack the soulful or mystical punch of that acoustic side but it is certainly the most satisfying side of electric music Neil ever did, even better than side one of Everybody Knows... and he didn't come close to reaching such levels again until 1990's Ragged Glory, also with the Horse. The storyteller approach of "Powderfinger" seems to paint a picture of Civil War strife and is another of Neil's period piece extravaganzas. "Powderfinger" was originally intended for Lynyrd Skynyrd but the tragic death of a few band members, including lead singer and avowed Neil Young fan Ronnie Van Zant, put a stop to those plans. Famously of course, Skynyrd wrote their anthem "Sweet Home Alabama" in response to Young's attack on the South for its racist past "Southern Man" (and for that matter its twin piece "Alabama" from Harvest). However, the respect between the two was mutual and the exchange more light-hearted than vengeful. 

Neil seems to capture the essence of a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd with the electric music here and "Powderfinger" is no different. He also offered "Sedan Delivery" to the group, which is a song that goes from a double-time boogie into a slow, 4/4 tempo change everyti time it switches to the bridge (chorus?). It's perhaps the most loose, the most sloppy of the electric songs, featuring jubilant participation from the other members of the Horse shouting out "Hard to find!" Crazy Horse also contributes some backing vocals in a splendid role for "Welfare Mothers." "Welfare Mothers" is almost a ringer for Queen, if they shed the operatic overtones, glam, pomp and campy flair, what with the chugging riff-rock of the verses and the semi-operatic vocals on the "Di-vor-cee" refrain. It's another one of Neil's more tongue-in-cheek tunes as he insists that welfare mothers "make better lovers" and instructs on how to go pick them up at any local laundromat. Again, Neil's in a sly, sleazy frame of mind and it's damn appealing for whatever reason. 

"Welfare Mothers" provides more good-natured humour for a vital and important album. It's simply a good laugh and a good load of fun to boot, showing not everything had to be all serious, indulgent or personal in Neil's oeuvre. A fitting finale for Rust comes with the electric sludge of the guitars on "Hey Hey, My My." With this electric reshaping of the harrowing acoustic opener, sans harmonica and with a whole band inserted into the picture, Neil finally hit upon an immortal sound that seems to draw on his past as well as a more contemporary awareness of punk as a viable medium for rock and roll. Indeed, Neil embraced and was embraced by punks in a way that most "fossils" and "dinosaurs" of the Woodstock era were not. Why was it Neil who fell into such good steed with the usually vitriolic, anarchistic punks? Well, Neil's choice to reject the vanity, pomp and pagentry and the nouveau-riche aura to rock stars in the 1970s seemed to win him more fans for the future than anyone could have known. Because of his attitude, he would gain staying power and cult approval. 

Rust Never Sleeps was greeted with perhaps the most positive reviews of his career. Critics raved about Neil's longevity and vibrant, relevant voice in the world of rock/pop. It seemed while many other 60s icons had faded off, Neil had only gotten stronger and even surpassed Dylan, at this point commencing a controversial born again Christian phase, in the popularity ranks. This album still stands as a signpost of his career's greatness and it only seemed fitting that he would wander through the next several years, nearly all of the 1980s, struggling to regain his touch for various reasons (some were out of his control- like his second son Ben's severe cerebral palsy that left him non-oral, spastic and partially paralyzed). 1979 was not the end for Neil as an artistic force, but it was the end of an era. An era was no doubt his prime and this was the peak, climax and denouement to it, unless you count Hawks & Doves... thus making this album a true must-have.
Rating: A+

-Live Rust (Reprise, 1979)
Key tracks: "I Am a Child," "When You Dance," "The Loner," "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Cinammon Girl," "Like a Hurricane."
Neil is one of those artists who delivers the goods in concert, always has and still does. Putting a restrained, yet eloquent touch on his softer, generally more acoustic output gets the crowd at ease before he bowls them over with his punishing brand of garage rock that is elevated by the tremendous energy he puts in. Conscientious of this live routine, he eases the listener in with the softer, acoustic-based material, only breaking the trend by inserting "The Needle and the Damage Done" in between two ensemble performances. Rather than divvy it up, he brings along Crazy Horse along after an assorted goodie box of acoustic faves. Live Rust shows Neil at a significant point in his career but today, even at 63, Neil is a beacon of inspired fury on the concert stage. 

Young has released many live albums that pay a nod to his heady back catalogue. Time Fades Away was really the only exception, although the 2007 "Archives series" Live at Massey Hall reveals a prolific, eager songwriter as Neil unveils half a set worth of new (at that time) material that, for the most part, would become well regarded. His incredible 1969-72 output, consisting of oodles of released and unreleased gems, was probably only matched by his 1976-78 work. Time Fades Away, as far as all live albums go, was a perverse middle finger to the throngs of people insistent on hearing some good 'ol Harvest music adapted to the stage. Instead, he gave them pessimistic, off-the-wall bar band bluesy rock that most were apprehensive, unresponsive or just indifferent to. By 1979, it seemed right for a career-spanning live disc, now that with he had re-emerged into critical and commercial prominence, a rarer trick to pull in those days than we're used to today (with marketing, record company promotion and funding being a different kettle of fish than in the 70s). 

Originally a double album, Live Rust is a collection of recordings from the same tour that Rust Never Sleeps was derived from, if you didn't catch the link (though I'm sure most of you did). Some of the performances here are of songs that can be found on subsequent live releases by Neil and yet most of the versions on Live Rust stand out as the best ones to this day. He sounds decidedly upbeat and sunny doing his warhorses "Sugar Mountain," "I Am a Child," "Comes a Time" and even the mournful piano-based "After the Gold Rush," with its allusions to drugs, medieval warfare and UFO encounters, sounds positively hopeful in this rendition. This would be the case for years and he drew cheers when he adapted one line for the next decade by singing "Look at Mother Nature on the run/In the 1980s." Furthermore, "Lotta Love" is done justice, while "The Needle and the Damage Done," gets extended a bit longer than the original (also recorded in live form for its version on Harvest). At this point, "The Needle" also has the gift of perspective to it, as Neil could look back on how he survived all the surrounding drug-related deaths and addictions killing his sense of achievement earlier in the decade. 

Something about 1978-79 saw Neil looking up for a change and whereas earlier in the decade he was a bit more forlorn, sensitive, introverted and found appreciation among the James Taylor/John Denver folk crowd, a mass consumer power of the early 1970s, he managed to find a happy medium between that and his balls-to-the-wall style that won him an underground, cultist legion of fans in the mid-70s. "When You Dance I Can Really Love" and "The Loner" find new life here, and as far as full band versions, aren't available on any other live disc Neil has put out. "The Loner" is a delight because it manages to add a grittier, more menacing bite to the music compared to the psychedelia acid wash of the original. Also, the flute bits from "The Loner" are replicated here by dueling guitars in harmony, a la Allman Bros. Of course, "Cortez the Killer" makes its first of many appearances on a live N.Y. record, as does "Cinammon Girl" and "Like a Hurricane," which is perhaps more enthralling here live than on the sonically overpowering studio cut. 

Lastly, it's hard to replicate for the stage that late-night bluesy vibe that helped conjure up the sound of Tonight's the Night, so it can be forgiven if the 7-minute capper, the title track of said LP, sounds a little more cheery or foot-stomping than the grim portrait the lyrics convey. No one would really prefer to hear Neil moan and drunkenly croak in 1978-79 anyway. "Tonight's the Night" is still a nice enough version even if it doesn't pack the shattered, tense delivery of the studio original. All that aside, it finishes off an exemplary live release in appropriate fashion. In the end, Live Rust gets docked a mark by moi because it doesn't transcend many of the originals and also includes alternate, yet nearly identitcal renditions of some of Rust Never Sleep's selections (in fact containing all of side 2 except "Welfare Mothers." Also omitted are side 1's "Thrasher," "Pochahontas," "Sail Away" and "Ride My Llama"), only this time with the ambience of the crowd noise kept in. Starting in 1977, Neil seemed to develop a panache for giving his career a fairly thorough representation without ever succumbing to releasing a conventional "Best of" or "Greatest Hits" album on the market per se (until 2005's 25-track Greatest Hits). 

In 1972, Neil had tried his hand at self-analysis with the lousy film Journey Through the Past but there was just something that much more ambitious about his late 70s renaissance, which include a concert film for Rust, an LP derived from the tour and a double live that captured the rest of the tour. As well, he had begun the making of another weirdo docudrama called Human Highway, which came out in 1982 with all sorts of musical pals and Hollywood outcasts, including Devo and Dennis Hopper. Neil lost some sweet cash on the project, which was sort of his own Renaldo and Clara, meaning it had a sketchy plot and was savaged by critics. Perhaps it was different for him in the late 70s because he had more stature and experience, therefore allowing him creative detours. If so, he'd take it too far because the 80s would be all about those detours. After the 1978 birth of his first child with his wife (to this very day) Pegi, a son named Ben born with severe cerebral palsy, Neil must have become aware that his career would not be the same for many years. All the goodwill earned in the late 70s could only last so long, as he'd battle family struggles and songwriter's malaise. Where can one go from the highest of highs anyway? Answer: The next 9 years of Neil Young's career.
Rating: A-

-Hawks & Doves (Reprise, 1980)
Key tracks: "Little Wing," "The Old Homestead," "Captain Kennedy," "Union Man," "Comin' Apart at Every Nail."
Keeping up his pace of doing an LP every year (broken only by 1973 when Tonight's the Night was rejected for release initially and 1971 when Neil's post-polio syndrome resulted in a back injury that had him in traction, then a brace, for several months), Neil dropped this quickie less than a year after the landmark Rust Never Sleeps. Perhaps he could have waited until he had better material, but that is a cardinal sin in the ground rules for Neil's hectic artistic drive. If he has something to say, he'll say it and then make sure it gets out to the public. In this case, a newfound unabashed patriotism for his adopted homeland, the U.S. of A. The cover that features what looks like a star on the blue banner of the American flag is the first indication that something is different with this one. 

The first side does nothing to hint at this change in philosophy and message, as it trudges up some old chestnuts from the Homegrown and Chrome Dreams sessions. These songs are heavily mysterious and echo his earlier work in their elegiac, dream-like take on folk. The first side of tunes gives these feelings all in their own unique fashion. Firstly, the short, but gorgeous "Little Wing" (not the Hendrix song). No one writes metaphors based on our flight-iclined, winged, feathery friends better than Neil I would wager. Then there's the 7.5 minute narrative "The Old Homestead" (with an acoustic guitar melody line he would cop for several future songs, including Prairie Wind's "No Wonder") that offers up the usual cornucopia of odd situations, such as Neil talking to a bird (he sure loves those members of the animal kingdom best of all... them and dogs) and the spotting of a naked horse rider. Yep, it's weird, but compelling at the same time in a fashion only Neil could pull off. It has been interpreted as a response to those who wondered why he chose to play with rank amateurs such as Crazy Horse when he could have assembled his choice of any studio pros. 

David Crosby is speculated to be the main voice of question that Neil is addressing, as only Neil and his closest friends, allies and fans could understand his need and purpose for using Crazy Horse. "Lost in Space" is the weaker of the four as it tells a goofy, quasi-children's story about the "unknown danger" of being "out on the ocean floor," sung amidst underwater bubbly sound effects and a voice doctored by vari-speed. If its lyrics weren't strange enough, the production on "Lost in Space" certainly rammed the point across. Thanks to its weaved acoustic guitar parts, it's far from stupidly goofy. Think inclusion on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack and you've got a candidate right here. Neil was 12 years late, although this song's roots stretched back nearly that far before its official release. "Captain Kennedy" sounds vaguely like an old folk melody someone like Dylan or Pete Seeger could have dug up. Here, it's simply the tale of an old war vet who "lost his wooden schooner to the Germans on the sea" and how he'd like to one day see it again. 

"Captain Kennedy" is prime Hootenanny material but it's also an effective, bone-chilling song no doubt and the last of the four acoustic tracks which feature no one but Neil. That stripped back atmosphere isn't the case for side two, the red coloured "Hawks" side (this Hawks side vs. Doves side is lost with the CD now being the mode of technology for listening... unless you track down a copy of the original vinyl with the original artwork). This second side sees an enlistment of a rowdy ensemble to perform the purest hillbilly C&W music to that point for Neil. It makes American Stars n' Bars and everything before it sound mainstream by comparison as the fiddles, backing singers, honky tonk pianos, pedal steel guitars and precious few rock influences (probably only some of Neil's guitar lines) are, you might say, unfurled for the flag-waving occasion. The new batch of tunes are mostly throwaway, consisting of Neil's homilies about freedom, liberty and justice, etc. 

His songs seem to take on a right-wing stance as they bemoan the state of America, but espouse the belief that the working man can drag himself out of the mud to make a success of himself and support his family. It sounds like a John McCain speech if McCain were a long-haired, semi-Hippie folkie with a taste for the rah-rah country. The overall presentation of the tossed-off music and the messages within is, surprisingly enough, a mildly rewarding one. If you can get over that this is no masterpiece or even a self-conscious hippie ego trip (if you gravitate to the CSNY nuances of Neil), you will somewhat dig the "Hawks" selections. "Stayin' Power" introduces some piano triplets that recall doo-wop if it met Buck Owens. "Coastline" is something like a real "Southern man" would enjoy, at a local diner or bar somewhere in Texas. It's honky-tonk bliss, although the song is nothing if not average. Neil did his best to capture a sound that coincidentally got put out in a year where the film Urban Cowboy sparked a renewed national interest in country fashion and music. 

Still, Neil is not riding a mechanized horse or bull anywhere here and is not encouraging one to get all into the C&W ethos either. He's just using the music as a forum for his American pride and concerns. The subject matter gets even more political with "Union Man," a song that isn't really anything too heavy. It's merely a playful look at labour issues that finds Neil championing the working man yet again while somewhat tongue-in-cheek celebrating the benefits packages that come with a union. Ben Keith carries on a call-and-response segment with Neil on the nature of these benefits in fact. The best of these somewhat outlaw country numbers is probably "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" which looks at the downside of recession and how politics often fails people in that situation, although the mood of the song is so gleeful that it's hard not to think Neil was still offering hope and sunshine as the future. Pessimistic attitudes had completely been forgone by Neil by this point. 

"Hawks and Doves" is the ninth and final song and although it is indeed the biggest throwaway of the five "Hawks" it isn't all bad as the lyrics pledge to stay and not give up the fight. At 29 minutes this is a brief album at best, but Hawks & Doves is a brave step for Neil to take, considering the tide of approval he was riding going into the 1980s. His Reagan support would not subside though, as he became more vocal about it and sometimes to a rather uncomfortable level (once comically, and controversially, remarking that he didn't like having to go the supermarket and being served by a cashier queer with purple hair and piercings. John Rocker, move over. You were 15 years too late! But in all seriousness, Neil's bantering was often rather tiresome in the 80s). Then again, Neil the actor has been known to say and do some stupid things and he also brashly tried to dip his toes in two pools at once, with the Reagan support and a role as the outlaw country rebel, a la Waylon & Willie (not exactly two bible-thumping Republicans themselves). 

It seems that becoming a family man (though he had an 8 year old son by then, he did not settle down and get married until the end of the 70s) encouraged Neil to drop the vain snorting of cocaine, cut back on his tobacco, marijuana and alcohol intake and take up the cause of the average American. In reality, Neil was staying back at home now because of his son's cerebral palsy. Amazingly, both his sons were afflicted by it, only Zeke's caused epilepsy and a minor walking handicap that he grew out of. Strange that despite all the glory and success Neil has earned over a 40-plus year career, he was also unlucky enough to see so many friends pass on, have two sons born with differing forms of cerebral palsy, suffer through polio as a young boy (and it's post-polio syndrome years later), be afflicted by a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him before surgery to correct it in 2005, and experience epilepsy causing violent seizures during the early days of his fame. Neil's brushes with death seem trivial compared to the excessive behaviour of dead rock stars, but no doubt he has persevered. Ben's problems led to his parents enrolling him in an experimental form of physical therapy that demanded constant parent surveillance and participation. 

Why was this important to the quality and subect matter of his musical output? Well, Neil kept this all a big secret but the 18 month physical rehab program that proved fruitless kept him off touring during 1980-81 and made the recording process of his next LP arduous at best. As for Hawks & Doves, one with cynical viewpoints on rockers that go political or sing of populist ideals might think Neil is pandering to the middle class or trying to find more fans in places where his music might normally be shunned. They'd think he's attempting to be a transplanted American version of Springsteen. But since Neil usually is so locked in to what he's trying to achieve, it's hard for this reviewer to believe that Neil wasn't somewhat passionate about the things he said. Hawks & Doves is no milestone, nor is it even a worthy follow-up to Rust, but it is adequate and draws on his acoustic, folkie tendencies while highlighting his new outlook on politics in the land of the free, home of the brave. 

And really, are the country knock-offs on Harvest ("Out on the Weekend," "Are You Ready for the Country?") much better than this? Not so. In fact, the second half of Hawks & Doves is preferable listening to the more indulgent hippie tracks "Words," "Alabama" and "There's a World." It's apples and oranges comparing the two, but Hawks & Doves comes out as nearly the equal of the much ballyhooed Harvest, Young's most overrated album (until maybe 2000's Silver & Gold, Harvest for aging, mellow old farts who forgot how to rock or age without sounding worn out and boring). Nonetheless, Neil's call to arms of Middle America is neither emberassing like some might say, nor is it the glorious showing some, namely Robert Christgau, have claimed it to be. It's somewhere in the middle in my opinion. Personally, I'm not so sure what the impact would have been like for me as a Neil fan to hear this LP in 1980. For that to be known, I would have had to be politically conscious in 1980... as well as alive.
Rating: A-

-Re-ac-tor (Reprise, 1981)*
Key tracks: "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze," "Southern Pacific," "Shots." Avoid: "Opera Star," "T-Bone."
Neil had responded to punk in 1978-79 and the results were outstanding. Now, what to do about new wave? Well, why not just keep the classic Crazy Horse sound, only with some nuances and some cooler chord changes thrown in? Oh, and how about songs that go endlessly like some "lather, rinse, repeat" strategy, as if ordained in a manual? Oh and make sure some of them go on for over 7 minutes! Yes, Neil pulled out some crazy stuff for Crazy Horse. The sessions weren't particularly memorable and the band would not get back with him for an unheard of five years afterward. Neil was understandably busy with his personal life and was darting in and out of availability. The repetitive process of working with his disabled son Ben has often been brought up as an influence for Re-ac-tor, the worst record and the worst songs he'd done with Crazy Horse to that point. 

Re-ac-tor even has a couple of tracks I urge you to avoid, yes avoid! Yep this album is repetitive. It's not the most primitive music Neil has ever written, in fact it's quite layered and chugs along quite nicely. The lyrics, on the other hand, are like Kindergarten word games at times. Mind you, Re-ac-tor's not terrible, as in fact there are some redeeming values in certain shit-kicker songs like "Motor City" and "Rapid Transit" (which consists of verses that blurt out single words like "containment" and "meltdown," all led into by Neil stuttering the first letter of the word) that would have been perfect for Hawks & Doves if fiddles and pianos were included instead of turbo-charged electric guitar. "Motor City" has a country-tempoed (boom-chick-boom-chick) beat with harmonizing guitar melodies, but with a message inside: Neil insisting that Detroit still makes good cars and Japan isn't the only place to find top quality automobiles. 

The good times roll on those songs, as well as the near senseless, party-revving nugget "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" where Neil tells of two fictional characters then remarks "We're all going on a pleasure cruise/Plenty of women, plenty of booze." This tune would have made for a better opener than the leaden "Opera Star," a silly, yet not very appealing joke song substituting grizzled rockers for opera singers as the protagonist. It's bested by Neil's usual panache for social commentary on "Southern Pacific" which started his upfront adoration for the train, an adoration he later turned into a hobby and part-time career when it came to high-gadget model trains. It's one of the least regimented, least repetitive tunes on a repetitive album... because this LP is quite repetitive. Repetition is its forte. It repeats itself, you see. Repeating itself over and over, again and again... Now, where was I? Ah yes. "Southern Pacific" opens with a train whistle and the train rolling down the tracks set to the drum beat as Neil fondly recalls the history of travel by train. 

"Get Back on it" is another driving song, although it's pretty lackluster as it boogies along for 2:14 without impressing too much. The much maligned "T-Bone" is a tough one to decide on because it's so brazen and a big "fuck you" to those expecting another "Hey Hey, My My" or something akin to that. It's literally 9 minutes of aimless jamming that you could hear any bar band do with their eyes closed while they're loaded to the nines... But with one caveat: you get to hear Neil whine "Got mashed potato, ain't got no T-bone" over and over, with no other words to be enjoyed. Did I mention this album was repetitive? Yeah, so there are your reasons for skipping "T-Bone." Probably the best is saved for last with the chaotic "Shots," a furious cacophony of heavily distorted guitars, feedback and gun sound effects from a synclavier. Sometimes the sound effects clash too much with the rest of the song, but Neil's impassioned vocal delivery also saves this from being a forgettable sound experiment. 

"Shots" seems to be the only indication of Neil's dissatisfaction with the world as he saw it, not to mention his guilt and anger over his son's debilitating illness. Crazy Horse throws in their usual garage charm and fun time backing vocals, but this seems more of a Neil project that he decided to let Crazy Horse in on, rather than an organic creation with lots of input from the band itself. Billy Talbot would join Neil for his follow-up album, the even more experimental Trans, and provide bass and synthesizer on the tour that followed. But drummer Ralph Molina and Frank "Poncho" Sampedro would not show up on a N.Y. project for a while, a gap made wider when an attempted 1984 reunion did not pan out, likely because Neil was deadset on going in another wild eccentric direction. If it was frustrating to fans, imagine how his longtime side group felt!
Rating: B

-Trans (Geffen, 1982)
If fans of N.Y. were a bit put off or stunned with the directions his previous two albums took him in, then this 1982 album Trans was a downright shock. Becoming interested in the techno and electronic music emerging in the wake of disco during the 80s, Neil took it as an opportunity to make music that expressed the frustration he had with not being able to communicate with his son. He discovered that the vocoder, a synthesizer that alternated the sound of a human voice, was similar to the disconnect and he also found that the vocoder actually got more of a response with his son than his normal voice. Now, it's hard for me to say how good this album is or isn't because I have not heard it entirely, only hearing the decent slabs of techno "Sample and Hold" and "Transformer Man." They're completely out of the ordinary but damn good robot techno. The CD is only available via Japanese import. Otherwise, it is a hard item to be had. This is notable for being the first release Neil made during a contract with his new label, Geffen Records. It was a relationship that would sour within a few years due to the constant genre-hopping ambitions of Neil.

-Everybody's Rockin' (Geffen, 1983) (Neil & the Shocking Pinks)
Key tracks: "Wonderin," "Payola Blues." Avoid: "Jellyroll Man," "Everybody's Rockin'" "Kinda Fonda Wanda."
Neil was just maddeningly all over the place in the 1980s. His goals weren't clear and he seemed intent on dipping into every style he could, though accordingly did so with disappointing results. Probably the biggest head scratcher would be this 1983 dud Everybody's Rockin'. It's not just that it's your run-of-the-mill 50s rockabilly revival in that the covers aren't so special and the originals aren't that good (though here, some of the original tunes are the highlights of a dim batch). It also just sounds awful, with the newly minted digital production being utilized, much to the future chagrin of Neil who has bemoaned how digital production cheapened and sanitized the sound of recorded music, taking out much of the warmth and live ambience in favour of crystal clear precision and technical superiority. The production just makes this sound dead from the get-go with the fake echo revealing all the flaws in early digital production. 

Neil culls together another group, this one he dubs the Shocking Pinks (which is a good way to describe the colour of the room on the cover, where Neil stands with a vintage Gibson, a duck tail and pompadour in his greased-up hair as he wears a cream-coloured tuxedo). There's a backup singing duo provided by Anthony Crawford and Larry Byrom, that acts like the Sweet Inspirations or the Jordanaires or something. But here, they just sound really cheesy and white-bred. It's no wonder that "Wonderin'" is the best thing here, and it also had a nice video clip for MTV directed by Jonathan Demme. "Wonderin'", wouldn't you know it, was written back in 1969 and often pulled out for the live gigs of Crazy Horse in the Danny Whitten days. So much for a fresh new splash of creativity from Neil. Legend goes that when David Geffen impatiently requested a more rocking album for his next release, Neil gave him as literal a rock and roll record as he could. Too bad he didn't put as much thought into the album as he did the back-handed joke toward Geffen. 

The other original, "Payola Blues," is a humourous anecdote about a struggling rocker using bribes to get his song on the air and the DJs negotiations, a commentary on the crooked practice of the 50s before the Payola trials (just a front for weakening the rock & roll influence on America's youth, a move that worked until Beatlemania arrived). His others, "Kinda Fonda Wanda," "Jellyroll Man," "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Everybody's Rockin'" are pretty substandard 50s homages. Of his covers, only "Rainin' in My Heart" and "Mystery Train" stand out. "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes" and "Bright Lights, Big City" are just filler. There are few things to be excited about with this album. In fact, bootlegs have gone toward proving that when Neil took the Shocking Pinks on the road and added a horn section, the touring outfit for this record produced much better music. Neil actually kept the wardrobe and pretended to be a 50s act on the road, though this was usually preceded or followed by a set of old favourites. Definitely one of his worst, although it's a toss-up between this and Landing on Water, still to come in the reviews.
Rating: C+

-Old Ways (Geffen, 1985)
Key tracks: "Get Back to the Country," "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" "Once an Angel." Avoid: "Misfits," "The Wayward Wind."
Neil veered off into another avenue of genre experimenting, taking it from techno to rockabilly and back around to country. But this time, instead of relying on the raucous crew of Ben Keiths and Rufus Thibodeauxs, he enlisted slick Nashville session men to create his first true attempt at a country crossover. The original Old Ways was aborted some time in 1984 and Neil attempted to regroup but the results were again not up to par. Before this album came out, Neil was slapped with a lawsuit from his own label's boss David Geffen, who sued for Neil making uncommercial music that was uncharacteristic of his previous work. Such a bold move went over like a lead balloon, even convincing R.E.M. to sign with Warner Bros. instead. If Geffen had a problem with the quality of the music, he was at least bang on about that. 

Here, Neil's opening cover of "The Wayward Wind" is a bit corny, what with the distracting oscillating string arrangement. As well, "Misfits" is throwaway country junk. Truthfully, side one is actually a top notch side for the most part, probably in the B+ range. There are some tender love songs on the album, with "Once an Angel" being the standout, although "My Boy" is a fairly spot-on tender song dedicated to his young son Ben. "Bound for Glory" is a real oddball one, though that's par for the course sometimes with Neil. It's a decent mix of charm and bizarreness as Neil speaks of astronauts in space watching Muhammed Ali box on TV amongst other things. Neil, who had taken to wearing his hair in a bandana, appropriately enough duets with Willie Nelson on this album's best track, the lamenting "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?". Neil's passion for the plight of the common man eventually made him one of the leading proponents for Farm Aid, a yearly event to provide relief for farmers hit hard by economic struggles. 

"Get Back to the Country" is a song more akin to the ragtag Hawks & Doves while "Where is the Highway Tonight?" "Old Ways" and "California Sunset" are just typically pedestrian mainstream Nashville country ballads. Well, if he offered them to Kenny Rogers he could have at least made some big money off of them but instead they're remembered as forgettable country excursions and failed attempts at making in-roads to the Nashville market. Neil had been touring these songs throughout 1984-85 with a pure country band supporting him; fiddle, pedal steel guitar, cowpoke drums and all. This band, the International Harvesters, was not entirely used for the album and once again Neil's live outfit outshone his studio support. This album was a step up over previous ones, but is still too unoriginal and unassuming to be considered anywhere near Hawks & Doves and it's only a marginal improvement on the cruddy Everybody's Rockin'.
Rating: B-

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