NEIL YOUNG REVIEWS:
Neil Young (1969)
Neil Young (1969)
Album Score: 10
Buffalo Springfield finally split, and Neil Young is out for solo-album blood! His contribution to the final BS album was, frankly, disappointing, and I’d imagine that he was biding his time before he could make a REAL album (i.e. one without the presence of Stephen Stills). And he comes out with THIS. An eponymous album! … And … um … it’s quite nice. I guess the only shame was that Young has a voice that threatens to conjure vomit in our children… but it’s not so awful getting used to if you’re willing to take a leap of faith.
Hear some of the songs on it! The opener is a perfectly pleasant instrumental that’s supposed to transport us to the peaceful Wild West, or something. And, for the love of god, everybody in the world has to hear “The Loner.” It’s one of the most gorgeous, creative and understated songs in the world! It’s an odd combination of soft-rock ideals, crunchy guitars and a full orchestra! The melody is gorgeous and it’s quite a deal more modest than those pretentious Moody Blues dudes. Wow! A somewhat overlookable though perfectly nice “If I Could Have Her Tonight” follows, and then there’s the most instrumentally creative track of the album: “I’ve Been Waiting For You!” I’m taken with that song, and so will you!
After that, it’s downhill, unfortunately. “The Old Laughing Woman” never takes off, a minute-long string quartet is pointless, “Here We Are in the Years” is shrug-worthy. HEY! But there’s still the beautifully surreal “What Did You Do to My Life?” tucked away safely in the second half! Hooray! Young lays a real pretentious turd at the end with a 9-minute folk “epic” that goes nowhere and is 100 percent boring. I can’t even listen to that thing the whole way through for fear that my brain would start growing mold.
So, there’s only three gems in the album… but that’s pretty good! I’d say this album is a must-have for any Neil Young fans who have avoided this for any reason. However, if you are a Neil Young newbie, do not get this album just yet. You’ll probably think he sucks.
Read the track reviews:
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)
Album Score: 11
Neil Young teamed up with a band of dead Native Americans to produce this classic rock album that changed the face of music forever! (Well at least it changed the face of a hippie whose eyes lit up.) As his second solo album, Young finally found his niche --- the melancholic rocker/cowboy guy. Even though the album’s more focused quality is a huge improvement over his debut, I very much miss Young’s crass creativity that ran throughout the work! Oh well; I guess he just wanted to make something the public and the critics would like, and he succeeded.
“Cinnamon Girl” is a rightfully well-regarded song with some memorable, heavy guitar licks, a driving beat and a catchy melody. It’s been called the first grunge song, but I’d rather not make comments about its legacy--- it’s *just* a good tune! “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” is a rather fantastic song as well with an atmosphere that’s slightly more intriguing than the melody. “Round and Round” is an interesting point of controversy among rock critics … it’s a bit overlong and repetitive, but I’ll be lying if I said the atmosphere wasn’t creepy and it didn’t get under my skin.
“Down by the River” is a rambly rock ditty that overstays its welcome a bit and favors modest guitar noodling to melody and genuine development. It’s an entertaining piece, but it’s easily forgettable. A similar thing can be said about the 10-minute closer, “Cowgirl in the Sand” except it’s all done slightly better, and it does have a decent melody whenever it’s willing to come out and play. “Running Dry” is a very depressing song that doesn’t have an alluring enough atmosphere to make up for the dreary melody and instrumentation.
Despite the downfall of creativity, this is very clearly a better developed and realized album compared to his more scattershot debut. I suppose it’s good that he grounded himself, though.
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After the Gold Rush (1970)
Album Score: 11
There are a lot of die-hard Neil Young fans out there, and most of them are snobs! I’m not willing to join the cult, so suck it up! (Now, I expect you all to send me e-mails and impress me with your vocabulary.)
Neil Young is a remarkably talented individual who writes very good songs. Not always interesting ones, but they all tap into that melancholic vibe that’s undeniably affecting. After the Gold Rush is probably one of his better albums! Unfortunately, Young’s creative glimmer has mellowed out almost entirely with this release even compared to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In its place are very disciplined and restrained songs. Some are great … some are boring … and they all feature that annoying whiny voice!
With a couple exceptions, all of these tracks beautifully understated ones featuring such instruments as the acoustic guitar and piano (occasionally there will be another instrument). Young’s lyrics are fine, and have given many of his fans pleasure! They don’t do much for me, however, because I only like lyrics that contain excessive profanity. Despite all of these deserved compliments, the one thing that works against the album is saminess! Too much DANG saminess! Even moreso than the last album. This is why I can never be a fan of this album.
“Southern Man” is easily one of the guy’s best songs to date with its crunchy guitar and snarly lyrics. It’s a lot more rock ‘n’ roll than the others, but it keeps his melancholic aims completely intact. Unlike most of the other tracks, it’s actually interesting in the musical sense in several facets which makes me wonder why he doesn’t write more songs like it. Not that the other songs aren’t appreciated. “Tell Me Why” is a gorgeous and striking opener. It’s just Young and his guitar, and he’s eight trillion times better than Joan Baez! (Not that it was hard.) The title track is pretty good… bringing in an especially organic sounding piano and singing a pretty tune. He doesn’t have the same melodic sense or sheer awesomeness as Bob Dylan… but who does?
Lovely album! I wish I could like Neil Young more… but I think that about everything I review that I don’t care for.
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Album Score: 9
A lot of critics throw the term “overrated” at this album. I read “overrated” so often that I wondered if it could still be considered overrated! But then I read a number of reviews on amazon.com and epinions.com, and I suppose the label must be maintained.
This album is overrated!!!! Before you spit poison at me, I’ll have you know that I think this is a legitimately good album. It’s very meticulous and well constructed. He went for more of a minimalist approach meaning that there were very few “wasted” notes. All of this contributes to making sitting through Harvest a decent experience. Young obviously worked very hard on this, and the result is professional! The problem is … well, it’s boring!! It’s not even the same level of boring that his previous albums; this brings it to a whole new degree. The experience is a bit like going to a very clean and big budget museum, but none of the exhibits are interesting. It’s too professional and earnest to ever warrant hurling insults at it, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.
The lyrics are fine and I can see how this album would be popular among the tone deaf, but the melodies and instrumentation overall fall short. Each song is a different case, of course! I think “Heart of Gold” has a great melody and well-conceived instrumentation. It’s a major classic rock staple, and why shouldn’t it be? “Old Man” is alright. The melody is pretty awful, but the instrumentation turned out to be well done (featuring a banjo!) and it develops well enough to keep me engaged. … Some of the album’s weaker bits included the fan-favorite “Harvest” with one of the most uninteresting melodies on the album. (I seem to be alone in my distaste for “Harvest.” I don’t know what’s wrong with me.) For “Alabama,” Young was kind enough to give us some crunchy guitars! But then he betrayed us by not doing anything else, musically, interesting with it.
Young imports the London Symphony Orchestra for two of these tracks. “A Man Needs a Maid” proved to be well orchestrated with evolving textures and an extremely beautiful piano to boot. But the LSO-accompanied “There’s a World” goes absolutely nowhere and the orchestration is just awful. That’s the worst track of the album by far, and it alone should disqualify Harvest from being on any best-of lists.
The biggest betrayal of them all was this was a terribly uncreative album, which was uncharacteristic of Young. Better rotate those crops for the next album!
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Time Fades Away (1973)
Album Score: 12
Because no prolific rock star’s discography cannot be complete with at least one impossible-to-find album with a reputation of being *very* good, Neil Young decided to follow suit with this live album that features all new material… And for my money, it’s better than anything he released previously to this point (well, it’s better than Harvest at least).
It’s been theorized that the reason this album is unavailable is because Young reportedly had a horrible time on the tour for various reasons … one of which his fans were not interested whatsoever in going to his concerts and hearing him play new tunes. Making it worse is these songs are far removed from the style of Harvest and much more rock ‘n’ roll oriented. Understandably, it betrayed the audience! Also, apparently, the group members weren’t quite on good terms with each other.
But heck! I listen to this album and think it’s awesome. I can say, unflinchingly, that this is the first Neil Young album in his discography that I’m not bored with whatsoever. The sound is rough, Young’s voice has never been uglier, the sound recording quality is murky as hell (and that’s enhanced by my copy since it’s a vinyl rip)… and the result points that this is the ultimate way to experience Neil Young: Rough & ugly. There is not one song on here that isn’t good.
The album starts with “Time Fades Away,” a throwback to Dylan with bouncy instrumentation and a very catchy melody. After that, he delivers a very heartfelt performance with just a piano in “Journey Through the Past” … he’s not concentrating on how pretty his voice sounds; he just cares about singing. “Yonder Stands the Sinner” is a bit of very sloppy riff rock … it’s probably another reason why everyone likes calling him the Godfather of grunge! Sloppiness abounds, but it’s utterly fun and catchy. The quality of the work hardly diminishes for the forth track “LA.” That’s a bit of a throwback to “Cinnamon Girl,” but it’s just about as good. That’s amazingly beautiful considering the band were reportedly not in top form. Interestingly, the nine-minute track at the end “Last Dance” is one of the best. Usually, his nine-minute songs strike me as being fillery… but it was just the ticket for this live setting.
Who the hell knows why this album hasn’t been officially released on CD… because it’s a fantastic work! Until they come to their senses and release it, then FIND A BOOTLEG OR SOMETHING!!!
Read the track reviews:
On the Beach (1974)
Album Score: 12
It’s funny that the moment when the mass populace seemed to abandon Neil Young in droves, his music gets better. In my eyes, this album is vastly superior to the following: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, Harvest and Déjà Vu. I don’t say this just to be a weirdo; it’s what I actually think. That ultra-polished, ultra-careful and ultra-boring Neil Young of Harvest is gone in favor of rawer, sloppier and more earnest replacement. What’s more, this album actually has diversity meaning that it sounds fresh throughout unlike the previous albums that suffered from saminess.
The first four songs are awesome!! “Walk On” is a rather bouncy rock song with a catchy melody and bouncy instrumentation. Before, Young rarely let himself sound so sloppy… But that’s exactly how he should sound. After all, he’s the Godfather of Grunge, right? … He already had an awful voice; ugly instrumentation was the only missing link. For Young it seems, the more undisciplined he is the better … as long as he’s keeping the well-written melodies, earnest ambitions and instrumentation ability intact. Young changes up the mood to deliver a ballad for the second track. The instrumentation is very raw and features a distorted electric piano (that gives it good texture) and a phenomenally engaging vocal melody.
As good as those two songs were, he changes things up wonderfully with the mean and driving “Revolution Blues.” It’s arguably the best song he had written until this point (it’s definitely the most hard rocking song he had ever released). Thanks to the skillful instrumentation (including a finger melting electric guitar solo), it’s a complete blast to listen to. He changes styles completely after that for the refreshing “Turnstiles,” which features Young singing to a simple banjo and a noodly guitar.
Despite all the goodness contained in the first four tracks, this isn’t quite the perfect album… Although the album’s weak spots are certainly stronger than the weak spots on his more celebrated works. “On the Beach” and “Ambulance Blues” probably constitute the weakest points, but that’s mostly because there wasn’t a compelling reason to make them so lengthy! Nonetheless, they’re fine songs, and still worth investing the time it takes to listen.
I’ve appreciated every single Neil Young album released until this point, but this (and the currently unavailable Time Fades Away) mark the earliest occasions when I actually enjoyed his work. COOL!
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Tonight's the Night (1975)
Album Score: 12
There’s a legend behind this album (and a true one, at that). Though this was released in 1975, it was recorded in 1973, before On the Beach was recorded, and meant as the follow-up to Young’s massive commercial success Harvest. The record company listened to this album and rejected it. It was completely unlike Harvest. The sound was looser, rawer and Young was singing as sloppily as ever (at one point even sounding like a frog croaking). There was next-to-no studio production; it was just Young and his band. It was shelved for a couple years and released in 1975. When that happened, the general public’s response wasn’t strong except for a number of fans and critics who thought it was his utter masterpiece. The story goes deeper than that… Young’s guitarist Danny Whitten and a roadie named Bruce Berry both died of drug overdoses, and Young was terribly depressed about it. That’s, supposedly, why the album is so sloppy!
I think this is one of his best albums, too… I kinda wish I could rate it higher, but some of the tracks are clearly more inspired than others. The first two tracks are undoubtedly the best. “Tonight’s the Night” has a fine melody, but the main attraction is the instrumentation! Utterly genuine… and it makes me imagine that I am hearing them up close and personal in a lounge club. Right after that is a mid-tempo blues with Young absolutely singing like he means it.
Unfortunately, the album doesn’t quite inspire me again like those two did… but many come alarmingly close. “Word on a String” is a half-hard rock song with a mean riff (and Young singing like it was supposed to be a ballad). “Borrowed Tune” consists of Young singing a Rolling Stones melody very passionately to a piano… genuine! “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” is notable for being a 1970 live recording that featured Whitten on vocals and guitar… It’s not a particularly soulful song--- just a very catchy hard-rock song. The album drops off rather unfortunately after that point and simply wallows in “goodness.” It sounds more like regular Neil Young instead of the “soul bearing and depressed” Neil Young, but that’s OK. The melodies are fine, but not uniformly impressive.
One MAJOR gem on the second half that needs talking about is “Tired Eyes.” That’s a soul-tugging ballad with a strange unearthly quality that I wish I could describe… It’s just one of those special songs. He really tapped into a vibe there… In conclusion, I guess this is more proof that the best Neil Young albums aren’t going to be what the record company wanted. Though I’m sure it was best to wait until 1975 to release this… Surely the public didn’t mind as much that it’s not anything like Harvest, and those who cared were probably just grateful that they were getting to hear it in the first place.
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Album Score: 10
This seems to be when Neil Young started to really take the form of the Godfather of Grunge … He lets the guitars get SLOPPY. All over the place, there’s slop!!! Of course, that’s a fitting sound for him since his voice is so ugly. I love the guitars, for the most part, but underneath it all, it’s a musically average album for Young. There seems to be an intrinsic lack of memorable melodic ideas, and the arrangements aren’t very compelling (some moments and ideas just seem bad, frankly). Apart from those fuzzy guitars, there’s nothing particularly unique about this album… It’s a lot tamer than Tonight’s the Night though just about as disciplined (and not as imaginative) as On the Beach. I’m just not thrilled with any of this… There’s a lot of grit though not enough real spirit… I take a very ho-hum attitude with Zuma.
That said, remember who we’re dealing with here. All in all, it’s quite excellent, and the weak spots are few. The guy is genuine, and you have to give him credit for getting away with such a voice and not really giving a crap about how pretty it is. He sings his songs the way he wants, and he comes off like he means it. His lyrics aren’t exactly Dylanesque, but the earnestness definitely counts for something! Though none of that forgives the fact that Zuma is musically a step down, and the music is where it counts for me, by golly!
The album opener is a mid-tempo and rather normal rocker “Don’t Cry No Tears.” It’s certainly one of the stronger and more pieces with a very brief running time, likable melody, thoughtful lyrics and modestly sloppy guitars. Can’t say I like it enough to put it on my next mix tape, but … well, it’s nice! “Danger Bird” is entertaining though plagued a bit by its unnecessary seven-minute running length. That said, the ballad “Cortez the Killer” is also seven minutes long and actually very good and even somewhat endearing. It opens with a four-minute melodic guitar solo and then Young delivers what’s probably the best melody of the album. I like “Barstool Blues” even if it’s rather inconsequential. The melody is good and Young’s weak-weak-weak vocals are kind of funny. It’s enjoyable, at least. “Stupid Girl” is also well done with interesting structure, but I don’t think that one turned out particularly well.
This album surely would have scored higher had Young kept “Lookin’ For a Love” and “Through My Sails” off. The former, especially. It’s a generic country ballad. And when I say “generic,” I mean that it’s GENERIC. There’s nothing original about it, not even a little bit. Apparently, it was meant for a Harvest clone that he recorded but never released… It would have sucked on that album, too, but here it’s worse. It doesn’t fit the rest of the material, which makes it stick out like a sore thumb. Horrible. (Actually, it’s not the world’s worst ditty… I just like to pick on it.) “Through My Sails,” though not such a bad song in itself, was the worst thing he could have ended the album with. The problem with it is not just it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the material, but it’s BORING. Zzzz!
So, that’s Zuma according to me. Essential for the fans, but anyone else can take it or leave it.
Read the track reviews:
American Stars 'N Bars (1977)
Album Score: 11
I like this quite a bit more than Zuma, and that’s comforting since I thought I might have been Neil Young’d out when I wrote that review. The first half of the album is some of the most tasteful country-rock imaginable (sometimes even breaking out of the norm and being *beautiful*), and the second half is a mixed hodgepodge… but it contains one of Young’s most signature songs “Like a Hurricane,” and that’s good enough for me!
Young gets the album off perfectly on track with “The Old Country Waltz,” a likable song with stellar instrumentation. Listen to the violinist and slide guitarist especially… The violin sounds utterly human (as opposed to playing mindless hillbilly cliches) and the slide guitarist is fantastic. In my limited experience listening to country-rock, it seems that the quality of the slide guitarist is a make-it-or-break-it thing. Too many times, I’ve listened to the genre and thought the slide guitar work was positively vomit inducing. Much more rarely, as it is here, it’s gorgeous and an utter joy to listen to. The slide guitarist makes his most impressive showing, however, in “Hey Babe.” BEAUTIFUL! It also helps that it also contains one of Young’s finest melodies!
Nothing else so special on the first side, unfortunately, but everything is solid and likable. “Saddle Up the Palomino” is nicely instrumented but I don’t care much for that riff and melody. “Hold Back the Tears” strikes me as being too common, and “Star of Bethlehem” is a tad boring. … Of course these are all good songs anyway!
After that, things start getting inconsistent. Apparently it’s a bunch of leftovers from earlier recording sessions and albums never recorded. I can’t bring myself to hate “Will to Love,” but it is a positively underwhelming song consisting of Young strumming his acoustic guitar and rambling for seven minutes by the campfire (apparently). “Meh” to that one. The album closer “Homegrown” isn’t too great, either… it’s average. I wouldn’t have even liked it from someone other than Neil Young.
But then there’s “Like a Hurricane!” Talk about a mixed second half, this is (so far) my favorite Neil Young song! The melody is catchier than anything and that electric guitar solo (which takes up a significant chunk of its eight minutes) is phenomenal. If nothing else, you should listen to that one!!
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Comes a Time (1978)
Album Score: 10
Gotta love the way this starts! (This album; not this shoddy review I’m writing.) “Goin’ Back” and “Comes a Time” are two of the most laid-back and tuneful songs I’ve heard come out of Neil Young’s mouth… frankly, I’m surprised that neither of them are more highly acclaimed. The first one, especially, features wonderful arrangements! Those strings beat out similar types of arrangements that he did in Harvest hugely. The latter even has nice string arrangements and especially nice back-up vocals from Nicolette Larson (who he kept around after American Stars ‘N Bars). I’m also fond of the album closer, “Four Strong Winds.” The melody doesn’t strike such a chord, but it’s still pretty good… It’s a breezy sort of song that you can space out to it and it’ll put a smile on your face.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn’t follow suit with the compelling nature of them. ‘Tis a shame! “Look Out For Love” is fine enough, and he’s bringing back the fuzz guitars, but I miss the melody more than anything… “Lotta Love” has got to be the shoddiest thing on the whole album… a pounding thing that does absolutely nothing! “Human Highway” marks a nice return to the laid-back mentality of the two openers even though there’s a somewhat empty quality about it (remember, I’m not talking about the lyrics… which I’m sure are fine…). But at least he does the instrumentation right there; if that’s for one reason, it’s the BANJO!
“Field of Opportunity” suffers from being utterly generic. It seems like every country western song has a melody like it… Not that there’s anything extremely wrong with being generic, but he’s sort of playing in default mode there. He does nothing special to it, so I don’t have to especially like it. “Motorcycle Mama” is a nice bit of roots-rock, though it fails to inspire me, and it also suffers from its overabundance of cliches (though give credit to Larson whose pretty, soulful vocals overpowers Young’s troublesome whine)!
This was obviously meant as a follow-up to Harvest, six years later. As you might expect, it sold like hotcakes!!! Well… the fans got a few good tunes out of this, I think, but this work is pretty far from his best.
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Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Album Score: 13
Well, this is something that doesn’t happen too often. As soon as an artist realizes he’s irrelevant he does nothing in terms of changing his sound, but he comes to terms with it… and ends up releasing an album that destroys his back catalogue. It’s not a perfect album by any means, but … well, it’s great. Lemme splain.
Not only does Young sound more honest (and stable) than he’s ever been before, but the overall melodies haven’t been richer. The lyrics are such that I became intensely interested in delving into them more deeply meaning that this will be an album I will be revisiting frequently in the future, above most others. Sure, a handful of the tracks are clearly less-than-perfect, and there was only one song that I felt wholly deserved a coveted A+ rating, but … hell, this is a great, classic album that everybody should hear.
The most appealing aspect of it, to me, is that it’s easily his best put-together ALBUM. This is far from having a patchy, leftover feel of Zuma or American Stars ‘N Bars. It starts out as a simple folk album with just Young, his guitar and harmonica. But the album actually evolves to eventually incorporate fuzz guitars louder and uglier than he had ever done before. This transition is surprisingly subtle, and rather brilliant!
He delivers the lines to the opening track, “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue),” with as much earnestness as I’ve ever heard from him… There, he’s revealing his whole outlook on the then-current music biz, which was then-overrun with the freshly emerged second wave. Though, already by 1979, the punk rockers had already made their mark and were “burning out” (as opposed to “fading away” like he says Elvis did). This is followed-up with the endearing “Thrasher,” which continues to sound earnest (though not as solidly melodic).
“Pocahontas” is the mark of something a little more interesting… Though another light, folky number by heart, there’s the hint of new on the horizon, musically. Hear those weird sound effects that sounds like someone’s rasping an electric guitar the wrong way… Call me crazy, but I also think I hear someone playing a recorder and someone else playing … er … bongos? (Oh that’s a great song by the way… yeah, I’m talking about the melody.)
“Sail Away” ends up being somewhat shrug-worthy, but you hear a real drumbeat for the first time. Even somewhat missable, but it’s there… And then, he subtly turns electric with the sensational song “Powderfinger!” Oh, and he does it right too, even delivering a lengthy, beautiful electric guitar solo. Wonderful! “Welfare Mothers” turns up the rock ‘n’ roll up another notch … maybe too much of a notch since that’s the only song on the album that’s not especially endearing. It’s not a bad tune, but it’s the only thing here that actually sounds somewhat banal. Still, it’s hard to deny that I can’t get caught up in the beat, and it does have plenty of spirit.
Knowing that he couldn’t get harder rocking than that one, he decides to turn up the fuzz with the absolutely mean sounding “Sedan Delivery,” which makes similar work done in Zuma sound like small potatoes. It’s the sort of ugly song that really gives this Godfather of Grunge title plenty of credence… It’s also very melodic, which means it’s better than the majority of grunge songs.
But it’s not until the very end that Young delivers the album’s real gem… And, the funny part is that we’ve actually heard it before. Yes, it’s a reworking of the album opener except with lotsa electric guitars. The guitar tones are even fuzzier than the previous track even though it sounds rather robotic and industrial… These rhythms are interesting and even somewhat innovative (especially considering “industrial” is an actual genre that would emerge sometime in the ‘80s). Of course, the electric guitars make that song what it is.
That interesting album development is exactly the sort of thing I long to hear in albums… and I can’t say I’ve heard it done like this before. And this well, too! I’ve done a pretty thorough job telling the world that I’m not much of a Neil Young fan… but this album really seemed to have changed my mind. …Oh, and I haven’t told you the punch line yet; this was all done live. Yup.
Read the track reviews:
Live Rust (1979)
Album Score: 12
Neil Young was no stranger to making live albums. By my calculation this is fourth official live release. However, this is his first one he did that contained material from his back catalogue... What can I say? The guy loved the rough and raw sound, and it's probably best to get that sound when you have a killer band in front of an audience!
This was the immediate follow-up to his wildly successful Rust Never Sleeps (also a live album), and this even contains quite a few songs from it. There are “Powderfinger,” “Sedan Delivery” and both versions of “My My, Hey Hey.” It does seem odd that he'd record so many live versions the same year especially when these versions are going to sound worse than the originals! But let's not dwell on it. Also like Rust Never Sleeps, Young's repeating his idea to start the album with his acoustic songs and ending with the harder rocking, heavily distorted stuff. I like that idea, and it's fine that he's doing it again albeit not quite as effective this time around.
Despite that this is a traditional live album, he still found time to give us two songs here that we haven't heard before, and they open the album. Today, “Sugar Mountain” seems to be one of his more well-known tunes, and why not? It has a likable melody! “I Am a Child” is weaker and probably the worst overall section on the album, but it's still pretty good. I probably wouldn't have opened the album with those, but it doesn't really make a major difference anyhow.
The third track is a stripped down version of “Comes a Time.” I loved the melody to begin with, and he gives it a lovely rendition here. I probably would have chosen this to open the album, but what do I know? Next, he plays “After the Gold Rush,” a song that I never cared much for and this live album confirmed those sentiments. But, proving that I will ultimately never understand Neil Young fans, the crowd goes hog-wild throughout this performance. Dorks.
In the middle of the album, he surprises me and pulls up “The Loner” from his debut. He does away with those cinematic arrangements that gave me such delight in the original, and just uses 'lectric guitar accompaniment. But that doesn't stop it from being a great rendition! This version sounds much meaner, too, and I'd understand why some fans would like this version better. I think his rendition of “The Needle and the Damage Done” (the only selection from his bestseller Harvest) is much better than the original, which I had written off as BORING. But this version sounds much meatier. That is, it isn't soul-sucking, and I'm left to enjoy its well-written melody.
“Cinnamon Girl” isn't nearly as good as the original, however. Part of me thinks he had to obligingly play it, because that's what the fans wanted to hear. Eh. Anyway, he didn't give it nearly the amount of attention as his superb adaption of “Like a Hurricane!” I heard it on the album version and immediately fell in love with it! Well, here it is again in all its glory with its thunderous melody and the most rollicking guitar solo ever. Hair metal fans, if they dare get a load of that, should note that their favorite guitarists are girls.
“Cortez the Killer” is also worth mentioning. While I have to prefer the original version on a sonic basis, this new rendition is particularly engaging. Perhaps it's even more soul-tugging, because I curiously want to hang onto his words more closely. He saves the best for last, “Tonight's the Night.” HOLY CRAP, THAT GUITAR SOLO! ... And that's it to say about it! Even though I think many of these songs sounded better on the original versions, Young-heads would be at a severe loss without this album in their collection. His revisions of some of this material are easily worth their weight.
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Hawks & Doves (1980)
Album Score: 9
Neil Young is the sort of artist who can do almost anything, and I can't criticize him too much. I get the impression that every turn that he made in his career, for better or worse, had been wholly intentional... And, who the hell am I to criticize Young for doing something that he wanted to! Especially if it's something as starkly noncommercial as Hawks & Doves.
In fact, this seems so insubstantial that it's proud of it. There's no other way to explain it. It's like a demo tape. It isn't even a half-hour long! The first half is either folk or folk-rock, and it contains material written between 1974 to 1977. It opens up with “Little Wing,” a too-brief acoustic folk song. I do like the melody, but I wish it was a little bit more memorable and substantive. But sure, the laid-back atmosphere does sit nicely with me, and I can enjoy it fine as long as I'm not expecting too much from it.
“The Old Homestead,” however, is much more difficult to like. It goes on for a whopping seven minutes, and it repeats the same old ideas over and over again. It sounds to me like he was trying to channel Bob Dylan, but he didn't quite manage it. Nonetheless, the song doesn't actually bomb, which is surprising considering its length. “Lost in Space” was nothing but a lost opportunity. The chorus is beautiful, but the rest of it is toneless, and Young seems to get in these awful, acoustic-guitar ruts all the time. They keep bogging it down! “Captain Kennedy,” a British folk number, is easily the most out-of-place song here. It's wholly generic, but I ended up enjoying it, because I'm a sucker for British folk!
The second half contains material that was written recently and was actually intended for this album. It is country oriented. The purest highlight is “Union Man.” Sure, the melody is a little hokey, but I enjoyed Young's surprisingly spirited, lighthearted performance. That performance was so warmly welcomed that a very similar song without the warm performance, “Comin' Apart at Every Nail,” doesn't come even remotely close to topping it. “Stayin' Power” is OK Americana, and “Coastline” is fairly decent boogie-woogie, but both of their reasons of being is that gorgeous violin, which turns up occasionally to treats us to a real show!
The final track is also the title track, and it's easily the most Young-like composition. The guitar tones are much darker (though a very far cry from Rust Never Sleeps sounds), and his characteristic harmonic style can be picked up from a mile's distance. Even though I really enjoy how it started, it becomes quickly evident that he wasn't going to take it anywhere interesting. It just sort of hovers and then fizzes out. The end result is a lost opportunity... it's a potentially brilliant song that was spoiled due to a lack of imagination. Oh well.
I can't say this is a *bad* album since Neil Young didn't have any ambitions for it. However, I can say with a degree of confidence that this isn't a *good* album! Its only audience is the fans... Fortunately for them, there's surely enough here to make it worth their while. But I don't think even the die-hard fans would find this coming out of their stereos that often.
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Album Score: 10
Neil Young's previous album was a half-baked folk and country album Hawks & Doves. Re-ac-tor is more of a half-baked hard-rock album. I'm sure all his fans were delighted with Young in the early '80s. Here they were, sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping that Young would record another Americana album. And they were all treated to this goofy thing. No matter how you look at it, Re-ac-tor is an utterly inconsequential album that has many shortcomings. You can live a perfectly fantastic life without ever listening to it.
But then again, isn't life inconsequential? We're all going to die and get sucked back into the earth in the end, so what's the big deal? I listened to Re-ac-tor, and I thought it was a blast-and-a-half! I'd imagine that Young was finished being touted as “important” throughout his career, and he just wanted to be a dumb old rock star. What else could explain a song like “T-Bone?” It consists of a single riff repeated for nine-minutes straight whilst Young continuously belts out “Got mashed potato!! Ain't got no t-bone!” Normally, I have trouble sitting through nine-minute songs that just repeats the same freaking thing over and over again, but not this time. When it's over, I have already joined in the merry mayhem! I want to do the air guitar and scream “AIN'T GOT NO T-BONE!!!!” (I don't, though, because I'm too much of a victim of rationality.) Besides, the guitar is impressive, and they do a fantastic job littering it up with different tones and textures.
That was a lot of fun, but the best song of the album is easily “Opera Star.” Simply put, it has the best melody; it is incredibly catchy and even memorable. It's difficult not to also mention those crunchy and excellent guitars. Plus, unlike many of the other songs, it's not just a single riff being repeated over and over again... it actually has a chorus! Plus, the lyrics are funny and so is Young, who is sounding spirited and more-cartoonish-than-usual.
A lot of fans enjoy “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleeze,” and I like it, too. That melody is catchy, and it does have somewhat of an aura of “greatness,” but unfortunately it ended up coming a little short in that goal. That one would have needed some more studio work, and I just don't find it nearly as gut-bustingly enjoyable as the two other songs I highlighted. “Get Back On It” is an ordinary and non-noteworthy boogie, which is a really odd thing to hear Young do. (That is, if you haven't gotten a load of Everybody's Rockin' yet.) “Rapid Transit” is another guitar-heavy number that revisits those aimless proto-metal psychedelic days, and it's not bad. And just to be cute, “Southern Pacific” has drum beat that sounds like a train. I'd say 70 percent of the world's population will dislike the album closer, “Shots.” Like “T-Bone” is an incredibly over-extended guitar-heavy piece... except about every 10 seconds, there's some sort of machine gun sound effect. Some listeners might be annoyed with that, but others will concentrate their attention to that 'lectric guitar, which continues to play through the whole thing. Why, it's patriotic in a way.
I did like Re-ac-tor, but I'm not going to recommend it. For Young newbies, this is completely uncharacteristic of him. And the Young oldies probably resent his entire career in the '80s. But speaking for me, when it's all said and done, I believe I'd rather listen to Young act like a total doofus than write another album of bloated, pretentious country songs! But that's just me.
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Album Score: 10
This album has been so fondly embraced by the music listening community that you can't even find it on CD anymore. But just because Neil Young decided to enter the Kraftwerk territory of Electronica, it doesn't mean that people shouldn't listen to it! I understand the objections to it, though. I can imagine some still-devoted fan in 1982 buying this album and feeling absolutely horrified when it was first put on the turntable. ELECTRONIC STUFF IN A NEIL YOUNG RECORD! GAHH!!!! Young's fanbase were making the transformation into middle-aged yuppies, and electronica wasn't cool to them. You might think Young would've picked up some younger fans in the process, but everything he tried in Trans had been pretty well-covered since the mid-'70s. Compare it to the likes of Sweet Dreams and The Age of Plastic and it's immediately obvious how primitive this album is...
But I like Trans! It's charming and frequently melodious. These electronic experiments are not actually bad whatsoever. Yes! Everyone in the world should like Trans! However, the album opener, “The Thing Called Love,” isn't electronic at all. It's a straightforward and simple pop-rock ditty. Call it trite, if you wish, but I enjoy the melody, the upbeat pace and that catchy riff. But after that, it's electronica-ville! “Computer Age” is the first one, and it's catchy!!! That simple synthesizer and drum machine pattern is quiet, charming and rather alluring. Plus, if you listen closely enough, you can hear him noodling around with his guitar! Neil Young, it is you! He sings much of this through a vocoder ... which manages to sound both ridiculous and awesome.
If you still have doubts about this electronica turn, then you should at least give “We R in Control” a listen. That snyth-groove is not only catchy, but it's menacing. I think if he was a little more skilled in electronica, there might have been a thicker atmosphere there, but it's perfectly fine the way it is. Incredibly simple but fun to listen to. His vocoder takes on a robot role as it declares that it controls pretty much everything in the world. That's a fun little ode to the technical age! (Those electronic beep noises toward the end were a nice touch, too. The robots don't have to speak English anymore... they can do whatever they want.)
“Transformer Man” is ballad sung entirely with the vocoder. There, the experiment had grown a little tiresome. But even that song isn't without its charm! If you thought those electronic songs were “bad,” you haven't heard anything yet until you get a load of “Sample and Hold.” That's an eight-minute-long electro-pop monstrosity! Well, it would have surely made a better four-minute song, but I did enjoy listening to that dark and distorted electro world Young invented for himself there. That vocoder-ridden chorus also comes out as utterly charming.
Just to smite his fans, I think, he also comes out with a very choppy, electro version of “Mr. Soul,” one of his more well-revered compositions from those golden Buffalo Springfield years. I would love to say that this version is somehow superior to the original, but the gimmick becomes old quickly, unfortunately. But even then, it's really not as bad as you think it would be.
And then there was the 10-minute closer, “Like an Inca.” The most surprising thing about that one is it's the most typical Neil Young song recorded ever since Rust Never Sleeps! No synthesizers, no vocoder, no drum machines—nothing but electric guitars, drums and Young's voice. That obviously freakishly huge running length is my biggest complaint about the song, but I do dig that song's catchy riff and excellent flow. Young even noodles his electric guitar through this, which is always something that pleases the fans. ... So, the betrayed the former hippie who was still faithfully buying Young's records wasn't completely out of luck. I just hope he or she didn't destroy the record before getting to the end.
Of course, I gave this album review a lot of praise mostly because it's such an under-loved album! This falls quite a distance short of what's needed to be a *great* album. But Trans has all that's necessary to be a good album, and it deserves that recognition.
Just to add, in 85 percent of the reviews of this album I read, everyone seems to mention that the whole vocoder experiment was Young's means to find a way to communicate with his newly born son with cerebral palsy. The public didn't know that his personal life was in such turmoil at the time, either, and I guess that also might explain this so-called turbulent period of his career. (But these albums are pretty fun! Whoever says that Young released only bad albums in the '80s will get popped in the mouth BY ME!)
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Everybody's Rockin' (1983)
Album Score: 8
An epinions user was kind enough to point out that in one of my Band reviews, I had been writing “rockability” instead of “rockabilly.” I've been writing “rockability” instead of “rockabilly” ever since I started writing music reviews. (I've also been known to write “straight-laced” instead of “straitlaced” and “dribble” instead of “drivel.” I really appreciate that correction! So, to all you grammar nerds out there: If there are anymore things you see that I'm repeatedly doing wrong, please correct me! It won't make me feel bad, and it would be a good chance for you to flex your ego.)
That came just in time, because I was just about to review Neil Young's rockabilly 1983 album Everybody's Rockin' ..................... Er, wait. What's that? Neil Young had a rockabilly album? Yes sir, he did! After his discombobulating decision to release an electronica album in 1982, he follows it up with old school rockabilly! (I'm still getting used to that term, so I have to write it in italics. Don't worry—it's only temporary.)
The story behind this album is more interesting than the album itself. Right after Young released it, he was sued by the record label, Geffen, for making these unexpected and “uncharacteristic” albums! It's one of the most notorious artist/company battles in history and one that continues to fascinate us to this day. (There's a rumor going around that the only reason that Young recorded that Phil Collins-esque 1986 album Landing on Water was just to further piss them off.) The story doesn't end there... Geffen wouldn't even let Young finish the album, which explains why this thing is only 25 minutes long!
It's nice that the album has an interesting history behind it, because I sure don't care for the songs. You can get a chuckle out of that whole lawsuit business, but you can't deny that the record company had a point. Who the heck wants to hear a Neil Young do rockabilly with that Mickey Mouse voice of his? Furthermore, he had no connection to that genre, either, so this decision was completely out of left-field. At least John Lennon had those credentials before he released Rock 'n' Roll. What's more, many of these are covers... I don't ever remember Neil Young doing covers before! But anyway, like it or not, here it is: Rockabilly. (OK, I've graduated. I can write the word without italics now.)
The album opens with an incredibly annoying rendition of “Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes.” Neil Young's whiny little voice isn't the main problem (although that certainly contributes). It's that freaking saxophone that comes in during the final third! It's mixed very loudly and plays a five-note loop that eventually grows very grating to the nerves! Yeouch! “Rainin' in My Heart” has a pianist that screws everything up. He's pounding away at that freaking instrument like he's in a freaking earthquake. I mean... Geez! Give it a rest, daddy-o, willya? The worst song of them all is surprisingly one of the originals, and it's the album's least generic. “Wonderin'” is done using the exact same sort of instrumentation as the other tracks, but that chord progression is completely wrong for it. It might have worked with different instruments, but as it stands, that's such a confused little song that's utterly painful to hear.
Almost as if Young learned his lesson, the album's second half is considerably better than the first. Well, the sort of the songs are still derivative, but they're far less annoying. “Jellyroll Man” is a fun doo-wop tune with a catchy melody and some actual drive in the instrumentation. The presentation of “Mystery Train” is cute with an appropriate “chugga chugga” drum beat and some “woo-woos” from the back-up singers. However, the real highlight is “Everybody's Rockin'.” Surely, Young lifted that melody and style from the royalty-free format that every pop star in the '50s was stealing from. But at least it's a fun tune with some cute lyrics for anyone willing to pay attention to those. What really made the song was that final squeal from the saxophone. ... You can tell how bored I was to be delighted with little things like that...
I will close this review by restating something I said in an earlier Neil Young review: I can't really fault him for this album, because this was really something he wanted to do. It sounds half-baked, but we have to give him some slack because of his family situation, and the fact that this was a beefy middle finger to his record label who kept on trying to press him to make “characteristic” albums. So, it's not like he thought this was going to be any good. As far as rockabilly goes, this is OK. It's nothing I'm ever going to listen to again, and I would be surprised if there are more than two people in the world who listen to this more than once a year...
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Old Ways (1985)
Album Score: 9
Oh, how I hate country music! I used to live in the Midwest, and they would play this stuff all the time in church services and convenience store rest rooms. I'm so glad to have been liberated from country-western's evil grasp ... until now. I was minding my own business listening to Neil Young's discography, and he sics a country-western album on me! Boooooooooo!
Yup, I have a bias, and you can adjust the tone of this review to fit your own views of country western. Despite the fact that I hate the genre, at least Neil Young seemed more at home here than he had been in previous albums. Surely, doing a straight country album was the closest he had gotten to his classic sound ever since Comes a Time. Nonetheless, this still wasn't what the critics and his long-time fans longed to hear, and this certainly isn't what his label wanted. According to Young, he tried releasing a country album titled Old Ways a few years before this release, but they rejected it and wanted a rock album instead. Young, being a smartass, released Everybody's Rockin'. So I guess that must be why the label finally caved in and let him do a country album rather than bearing through whatever horrors the dude would unleash next!
Even as someone who professes to hating the genre, half of these songs are worth hearing. The opener “The Wayward Wind,” the album's only cover, is as pleasant as warm sunshine! It's also fairly cliché, but Young's decision to put in these scaling string tracks (that sound like the wind) lends it a unique texture. “Get Back to the Country” is a bona fide hillbilly hoedown song, and of course those things are fun to begin with! But that Jew's harp boinging around makes it even more giddy and bubbly.
“Old Ways” is closer to The Rolling Stones circa Beggars Banquet than straight country, and it's better for that. Young's vocal performance actually has a bit of a snarl to it, and he's surprisingly convincing at it! That's clearly one of the album's highlights, but nothing can get better than that bittersweet “My Boy,” which is easily one of Young's best '80s songs. It is very close to his classic style, and it's better for that in my opinion. Not only is the melody original (thus far removed from being genuine *country*), but so are the chord progressions. The instrumentals feature some brilliant, melancholic fiddle and slide guitar... this is a strong example of great ways to utilize those instrumentals.
I also enjoyed listening to “Bound For Glory.” The rhythm might be way too simplistic, and its running length seems too overextended, but I really like the melody! That's another songs that isn't *really* country. (Or maybe it is ... I'm probably just calling the songs I like “not really country” to justify liking them!)
OK, let's talk about the crap now. “Once an Angel” is terrible. It's a gospel-country song that trudges along at a snail's pace. The slide guitar is well-played, but it ends up just making it more dreary. Icky, icky stuff. “Misfits” has interesting orchestration (most notably a female back-up singer that sounds a little like a ghost). For that reason, it had a lot of potential, but it was misfired a bit. The melody is very repetitive and boring, and I would have rethought that very clunky rhythm. I like “California Sunset,” but it doesn't do anything that any old country musician could do. I don't want to listen to any old country musician! I want to listen to Neil Young!!! The second half of this album is overwhelmingly better than the first, but the closing track, “Where is the Highway Tonight,” is very weak. That's an incredibly dull country-western tune with a boring melody, and it also goes at a snail's pace... I mean, if you're going to write all these slow songs, the least you could do is make them beautiful instead of flat and dreary. Bluh!
In the end, Old Ways is hardly a bad album, and I certainly like it more than that quizzical Everybody's Rockin'. At least Young seems like he's in his element. It's certainly worth listening to, especially if you're a Neil Young fan who had avoided this record for some reason. I'm sure you'll enjoy listening to half of this album, so that's worth something.
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Landing on Water (1986)
Album Score: 9
It was 1986, and Young's unpredictable stylistic turns were hardly ready to end! After releasing that country album, Old Ways he took another 180-degree turn and made an '80s pop album in a similar vein of Michael Jackson, Phil Collins and Madonna. Synthesizers, robo-rhythms and stupid chord progressions abounds in this release! Of course, Young already had an electronic album under his belt, Trans, but that album sounded like Kraftwerk. This sounds like he was trying to mimic what was currently on the pop radio.
I'm going to subscribe to the fan theory about this album. As I mentioned in previous Young reviews, his record label Geffen had sued Young for making “uncharacteristic” albums, and Landing on Water was just another way to piss them off! That's hilarious, but people were still subject to the music in it! Unfortunately, this album continued to alienate his longtime fans (who probably abandon him at this point), and this album is so clunky and amateurish sounding that there's no way Phil-Collins-loving teenagers would ever want to hear it. So, is there an audience for this album?
Yes. Me! There are a handful of songs that get on my nerves, but I get a kick out of the rest of them. They're so goofy and sardonic that I have giggled frequently. Young probably wasn't given much of a budget for this album and so he and his lead guitarist was left to produce it themselves. That explains why this thing sounds so homemade... Since he fashioned much of this off of '80s stadium rock, he has loud drums. But instead of that full-bodied sound that you would have commonly heard from the era, these seem tinny. They're not even drum machines, but a real guy thwacking at them in a robotic fashion. Generally, I like the drums, and there are some interesting, intricate rhythms. But occasionally, this sound will get on my nerves, and the rhythms they find don't work that well with the overall song.
They were also favoring the raw guitar sound to those ultra-polished keyboard sounds probably also due to the lack of budget. There are also a few times when Young shreds his guitar. These parts are usually reduced to background “noise,” but they're quite impressive and fun to hear. Even though the guitar is the central sound, there are keyboards, but they tend to be really weak sounding and occasionally annoying.
In the end, I can't say that I've heard an album quite like Landing on Water. Take that for what its worth! He opens the album with an especially weak number titled “Weight of the World.” The groove is very odd. The drum beat contains a few tight rolls in it, and it features a keyboard riff that seems muted. I listened to that song a number of times thinking that I might finally get into it after awhile, but it only ended up just annoying me. I like the ideas, but I hate the clumsiness of it. The second track is “Violent Side,” which sounds much smoother and both the groove and the melody are interesting to me. Again, that tinny drum set is a bit too loud, but I can take it there! “Bad News Beat” isn't bad for a song consisting of two chords (and two other chords for a brief chorus). I like that rapid keyboard groove and that uncouth drum beat.
“Touch the Night” is the highlight of the whole album. There, Young breaks out the electric guitars for some awesomely wimpy heavy metal. That idea to bring out a children's chorus gives it an extra texture ... it's definitely better than those horrible keyboard sounds he used for some of these other tracks! Other parts consist of a crunchy string section, which also works well. I can tell Young was using some of his creative juices for that one, and they worked well. Unfortunately, that one's followed-up with the worst song from the album, “Touch the Night,” which sounds like Young turned on the radio to hear a Michael Jackson song once and did a half-assed interpretation of it right after. The groove gets monotonous, and there's no energy in it.
“I Got a Problem” probably has the best drum loop on the whole disc. It's a towering sound, and it's rather ear-catching. Although, that four-note riff that's constantly repeating gets terribly on my nerves. “Drifter,” the album closer, probably has the album's best synth-groove (which is average, on most standards). What I like best about that song, however, is not the groove. It's that guitar solo toward the end! There's also a keyboard solo, but its brassy sound is a bit ear-piercing.
I had some good words to say about Landing on Water, but I have a sneaking suspicion that 98 percent of the people who listen to it will hate it. Neil Young's fans will hate it for sounding too '80s mainstream. '80s mainstream fans will hate it for sounding too amateurish. Other music fans wouldn't have any interest in hearing it. I'm not touting Landing on Water as a lost masterpiece ... or even as a recommendable album. I liked certain parts of it, but this album as a whole is so weak that I can already tell I'm probably never going to listen to it again. The only people who should consider hearing this album are the chronically curious.
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Album Score: 10
Here's another album that Neil Young fans seem to have avoided like the plague, but I don't think it's so bad! It was his final record for Geffen, which he had constantly been fighting with. But this was the end of that, and Life seems to show he was ready to start returning to the critical success that he once enjoyed all those years ago. ...But the critics still hate this album. He's still stuck in those terrible '80s, and there are STADIUM DRUMS and KEYBOARDS on this album! Oh, for shame!
But I don't really mind stadium drums and keyboards. They're just fine if they're done well. Young has reunited with Crazy Horse for this release (the first time he had done so since they recorded that novelty-rock album Re-ac-tor), and they did their '80s pop homework. These stadium songs sound good. This is a far cry from those weirdo arrangements he came up with in Landing in Water. And Young spent some time to come up with a few catchy melodies. ... Hey this album is pretty good! Why do people dislike it, again?
The album opens so well that I was beginning to suspect that Life was some sort of lost masterpiece. The first three songs are amazingly good A-level compositions; I love hearing those immensely! But then I listened to the rest of the album, and that shattered my dreams. Alas, Life is an average album, after all!
So, let's talk about these first three songs! “Mideast Vacation” opens the festivities. It is a keyboard-led song that's very well-polished and features a strange array of sound effects ... you hear rubbery synthesizers, gun shot sounds, airplane noises, etc. Young tried similar things in a few of these '80s albums, notably in Re-ac-tor and Landing in Water. But for once, he actually did them just right. The song sounds great! Furthermore, that melody is an utterly captivating one.
“Long Walk Home” isn't very '80s sounding at all apart from those synthesizers heard briefly during a bridge. It's is a ballad sort of like Young used to do ... he plays a melancholy piano, and a harmonica occasionally blares away. I do like the melody he sings—especially that chorus. “Around the World” is Young's best attempt at trying to emulate Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA sound. It's very loud, there's a prominent stadium drum beat and keyboards well integrated in the background. There's a sudden shift to a synth-pop section, which is actually a little better than the stadium part. The flow between these sections is surprisingly well-done. Young's vocal melody is rather banal, but it's delivered rather well. Naturally, there were some vocal enhancements to keep his voice sounding passable for such a song! It's surprisingly likable!
Things start to go downhill once “Inca Queen” pops up. It would have been a perfectly nice four minute song, but they keep it going, on life support, through eight minutes. The instrumentation has an elevator music effect. I was willing to have let that slide, but that sterile mood just got too annoying at the end. The melody is pretty captivating, but it loses its power and I grow very bored with it. It's not the worst song ever invented, but it sure could have used some serious pruning! “Too Lonely” is another attempt at a banal rocker except it's not nearly as creative as “Around the World” was. Interestingly, that song obviously rips off the riff of The Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction,” which he had also ripped off when he wrote “Mr. Soul” when he was in Buffalo Springfield. Mick Jagger says “Stop it, man!” There's also a mention of “big lips” in those lyrics. Dude!
“Prisoners of Rock N Roll” is Neil Young's excuse for his album-making behavior in the '80s. He bluntly states that he was purposefully making uncharacteristic albums because the record company kept trying to control him! So the rumors were right, after all! It has a fine melody, albeit it's also banal. In this case, that was probably done on purpose! At least there's a wicked-cool, wired-up guitar solo in that one!
The last half of the album was going just fine until “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” popped up. That's a terrible attempt at creating a Bon-Jovi-style power ballad, and it fell flat on its face. That's a terrible genre to begin with, and Young's dabbling in the genre is just awful. I was nice to his '80s stuff, but that took the cake. The melody is stupid, and those very loud MTV drums just made matters worse. There's not even anything funny or sarcastic about the lyrics... Why did he record this? Luckily, the album ends on a much better note. “We Never Danced” is another very '80s sounding ballad, but at least the melody is good, and the arrangements were on acid. It's not a perfect composition, but I enjoyed it at least.
I can understand why Young's fans have shied away from this album... After all, he tries to emulate a '80s pop star through much of this! But if you don't mind the '80s in general, and if you enjoyed a lot of Young's previous works, it might be well worth your effort to take a look at Life.
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This Note's For You (1988)
Album Score: 9
Neil Young might have quit the Geffen label, but that doesn't mean he knew when to quit! This Note's For You marked yet another instance of Young extreme genre leaps. This time he found himself in the territory of '80s cheese-blues. That's right. We have the ultra-polished, swinging rhythm sections, the blaring horn sections and about zero-percent originality. Yucky! But let's be fair. While this album isn't particularly good, it's not particularly bad, either. At least the instrumentation sounds good, which is what keeps it a fair distance away from so many similar albums of the era.
Well, my job reviewing this album is easy, because most of you already knows what this album sounds like without hearing it! Other than switching to a new label, it's not even an important one for Neil Young since it's pretty clear that he's just treading water ... again. There are a few candidates for “best song” in this album, but I went along with “Sunny Inside” partly because it's one of the few tracks here that couldn't be described as '80s cheese-blues. Rather, that's a cheesy '80s version of '60s sunshine pop! It's nothing too special, but at least Young forced himself to gravitate away from those predictable chord progressions. Although the back-up band pretty much plays the same sort of thing in that track as the others, so you might not even notice that he switched genres! Very, very sneaky...
Funnily, the only other song on the album that isn't blues turns out to be a total piece of garbage. “Twilight” seems to be an attempt at trying on Dire Straits' atmospheric cosmic-rock underpants... except instead of Mark Knopfer's light-fingered twinkles, we get these clumsy clomps. It's pretty obvious the band didn't plan anything before going to the studio with it... The track is long, boring, long and boring ... and even the atmosphere is non-developed, which might have helped matters. Come to think of it, I didn't even care for Dire Strait's atmospheric stuff, so what was Neil Young thinking?
The title track is a fun song even though it's a little too short. The lyrics seem to be a message to his new label that he doesn't want to be forced into doing things. I guess they complied, which could explain why Young would soon begin to start seriously writing his sort of music. I also enjoy the generic blues-rocker “Hey Hey” a little more than usual because it has an especially enjoyable horn section, the rhythm section swings as mightily as it ever has, and he brings in a few awesome, wobbly electric guitar licks here and there!
The album opener “Ten Men Workin'” is an OK for an opener --- it's upbeat and it also has a swing to it. Though that particular one has a disadvantage, because any listener hearing this album for the first time is bound to be disturbed at that first instance when they hear Neil Young doing this sort of music. So, I gave it a B-. Maybe it would have been a B in the middle of the album? Well, that's not a big deal anyway. The closing song, “One Thing,” is a massive, massive bore, though. It's six minutes long and not interesting for even one second. Although that seems like small potatoes compared to the eighth track, “Can't Believe Your Lyin',” which is about as interesting as Bill Clinton giving a speech not about sex. And it's semi-embarrassing hearing Young trying to do slow jazz like he was some sort of female sex siren. To say the least, that's slightly disturbing since he was already getting pretty old and wrinkly.
While this album has some merits and is not as bad as it could have been, there's really no reason for anyone to hear it. This didn't inspire any of his disgruntled ex-fans to return to him nor did he attract a new audience. About all this album is good for is existing.
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Album Score: 11
It was 1989, the year of the fake-comeback for old rock stars who had career slumps in the '80s, but Neil's comeback might have been a real one. After nearly a decade of flagrant genre-hopping and intentionally cutting albums that didn't sell, Freedom marks a much-heralded return to form. He went back to composing anthems, introspective ballads and feedback-heavy numbers. And practically overnight, he regained his critical acclaim and mass popularity. It was as though Neil Young had just gotten out of his coma, or something. But most people who listened to it, his '80s career wasn't that bad. It was vastly unpredictable, sure, and Young seemed out-of-his-element through most of it. Perhaps there's a little bit of me that misses the insane diversity I was subject to ... but the other part of me is thrilled that I'm listening to Neil Young back to his old self again.
Young apparently wanted to make sure that everyone knew that he was back considering Freedom is a very calculated remake of Rust Never Sleeps. It had been his last album to have made an impact in the public conscious, so releasing this gives almost a symbolic “I am back now!” message. The most uncanny similarity between this album and Rust Never Sleeps is both albums open with an acoustic anthem and end with an electrified version of the same song. Naturally, Freedom doesn't even come close to matching Rust Never Sleeps, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But considering how unbearably awesome that album was, it doesn't come to any surprise that Freedom makes an excellent listen as well. Let's take a closer look at the songs...
“Rockin' in the Free World” is the already mentioned bookending anthem. I like the song's melody, most of all, and Young delivers a confident vocal performance. A lot of people like to call the electric version of it a very early example of grunge. I would have said that about the electric version of “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black),” maybe, but “Rockin'” sounds a lot more like hair metal! Anyway, “Rockin' in the Free World” might have been completely calculated, but they remain an enjoyable and high-class pair of songs. “Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero)” is only the album's second song, and he's already starting to do these rambly nine-minute epics. Though that song is actually very fun to sit through. I like hearing that trotting drum rhythm, and Young comes up with more than his fair share of hooks to keep me entertained. So, despite the odds, that song gets a hearty thumbs-up.
Excellent as those were, “Don't Cry” is the highlight of the whole album. It's a sort of power-ballad that features a guitar so deep and distorted that you can almost not hear it. This guitar is another point people make when comparing this to grunge music, and they could have a point. But all I'm hearing is a really bizarre guitar solo. Other than that, the song is very conventional. But that guitar teams up with the melody and its confident, straightforward rhythm to turn the experience into something thunderous and completely awesome. Cool! I do really like Young's hard-rock cover version of “On Broadway.” It's something you wouldn't expect him to do, and I think he pulled it off pretty well. It starts out bouncy and confident, but by the end he's brought back that severely dark guitar and his vocals get madder. It's a very cool rendition!
Things get boring in the middle of the album, though. The acoustic duet with Linda Ronstadt in “Hangin' on a Limb” isn't particularly interesting, melodically, and it makes me sleepy. Even worse is “Wrecking Ball,” which is all that plus it has a really, really generic melody that sounds like it was lifted from a toneless adult contemporary ballad. “Eldorado” has its ups and downs... I like the chorus and the verses just fine, but it goes on for too long. And that introduction sequence is really awful. “Someday” has a similar really-awful intro sequence that undermines the otherwise enjoyable track.
I want to make it clear that I am glad that Neil Young finally got around to a return-to-form. He's actually concentrating on writing his sort of music, and that's what he's best at. I don't think as much of Freedom as a lot of people do. It's only a weakened carbon copy of Rust Never Sleeps, but I'll gladly listen to a billion of those.
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Ragged Glory (1990)
Album Score: 11
Around the early '90s, it seemed an awful lot of artists were excited about the new CD format and thought they had to release albums with enough material to fill up all that extra space they had. After hearing Ragged Glory, I have to wonder if Neil Young was guilty of doing that, too. There are only 10 tracks in this album, and most of them are very good! ... But about three or four of them just seem to keep going. To fill up the time, Neil Young does nothing to change the hook, chord progressions or texture ... he just gives us an extended version of one of his wonky solos on an extremely distorted guitar. Of course, he's talented enough to keep it interesting most of the time, but other times I just want him to shut the hell up and get on with the next song. I realize how anti-Young I'm being ...Well, I guess I was never a rabid fan of his to begin with... Excuse me if I don't worship every single one of his wonks.
You could say this album is a little more effective as background music than for intense listening. But even as I was listening to it casually, a lot of it just seemed like it went well past its expiration date. “Over and Over,” for example, is just a single groove that's *ahem* being repeated over and over. It's a neat groove, and his ultra-distorted guitar is cool, but why is it so much to ask that he changes the textures and melodies around a little bit? ... Why are we forced to endure the same repeated ideas for eight minutes?? It's not hypnotizing or anything. “Love to Burn” is 10-minutes long, but at least it has a more workable hook, and some more impressive guitar noodling. I only get tired of that song after, er, six minutes! It manages to generate enough momentum to keep it fun. So, I'm only complaining about it a little bit. “Love and Only Love” is also a 10-minute song... and it's pretty indistinguishable from “Love to Burn.” I have the exact same comments and the exact same complaints. That brings me to my next point. All of these songs sound the same!
“The Days That Used to Be” is really well-written, but that's because it's ripped-off from Bob Dylan's “My Back Pages.” I do like the way he worked in that crunchy guitar riff in there. “F*!#in' Up” might not be quite as engagingly melodic, but it has the meanest guitar riff of the whole album, so therefore it is my favorite track. That's just a really cool song to hear. Of course the guitar is incredibly distorted there, and really does sound like he was trying to show those young grunge boys a thing or two about awesome ugliness... and succeeding to a considerable degree. “Mansion on a Hill” is about the only song here with pop-appeal (if you want to call it that). The guitar riff is catchy, and I guess it doesn't sound that distorted. The vocal melody is pretty good, and it's accented by these haunting “ooooo” noises that have a tendency to stick in my mind. Nice one!
I had a lot of negative things to say about this album, but that's not my fault. There were a lot of negative things to be said!! However, truth be told, I liked this album, and all of the songs I talked about thus far in the review have overall been good ones. The only terrible song on the album is the closing number called “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem).” It just consists of Neil Young and his back-up band singing alone with an incredibly distorted electric guitar. I mean, these lyrics were pompous already without such treatment!
The only way you're going to fall hopelessly in love with Ragged Glory is if you love the electric guitar, and you want to listen to Neil Young play with it for 70 minutes straight. There is next-to-no musical diversity in here... the melodies are usually fine, but most of them consist of one hook that's repeated forever. I do like listening to electric guitar solos very much, but in order to appreciate this album you have to reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally appreciate the electric guitar. And I mean reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally.
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Album Score: 12
This is a really good live album, but it makes a really tough listen. Young continues his thesis from Ragged Glory that the more ultra-distorted guitar, the better. And, after sitting through this album several times, I’ve gotten so much guitar that my head is pounding from it. Most of these guitar solos, I’d say, are very good. Young has a good idea how to make them cool without sounding cliche. Even at times he seems to let that electric guitar be an extension of his own warped personality, which is undoubtedly the reason a lot of people enjoy Weld so much!
But at other times, he seems to go off on these overextended, ear-piercing tangents that are aimless and terrible. I’m specifically talking about the times when he makes that guitar screeeeeeech like some sort of evil demon that’s trying to suck my soul out of my nostrils. That’s right; my soul out of my nostrils. Do people actually enjoy listening to that? Other times, he’s doing these sloppy, one-tone wonky things for many many minutes, and they come very close to driving me completely nuts! Why must he do that? So, if you’re going to listen to Weld and you don’t worship the electric guitar, then there’s going to be a price to pay.
But you probably noticed by the exceptionally high album score, these complaints ended up only having minor bearing on my overall impression of the album. So what made this live album so great to deserve such a high score? It was the song selection!! For the most part, he only covers songs that I already liked to begin with ... Even the ones I didn’t like at least had pretty strong hooks, and he tended to improve them. So, yes, I did like the album. It was also an entirely crowd-pleasing effort since he completely ignored all of his 1980-1988 albums, which his big fans never liked, but he borrows freely from his 1969-1979 and 1989-1990 material. (Oh man! And I was really itching for something from Everybody’s Rockin’!)
It’s also a loooooooong live album. It’s a double one that clocks in at an incredible 115 minutes. If you scan the track listing, there are only 16... Yeah, and many of them are extended to 10 minutes. Luckily, most of them are far from tedious. As I already said, they usually have a good hook or a good riff to keep it chugging along, and of course Young’s guitar noodles do what they can to elevate them. “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” is the first song and my favorite one seeing that it was my favorite song on my favorite Neil Young album. He opens it with those super dark and distorted guitar tones, the sort that infested Ragged Glory like cockroaches, but it’s still great to hear them in limited supply... which is what he does. After the intro, he tends to adopt more usual (though still dark) guitar tones.
“F*!#in’ Up,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Mansion on the Hill” were each from Young’s previous two albums, and highlights of them For the most part, they keep that good central hook, and the electric guitar work throughout keeps them engaging for their entire REALLY LONG track lengths. Other songs like “Love and Only Love” and “Crime in the City” didn’t impress me much at all, originally, but they had a lot more life put into them here... so I like them now! “Welfare Mothers,” the worst of the bunch from Rust Never Sleeps, starts out to be much smoother and electrifying than the original version, but they do this curious thing at the end. It’s a really ugly symphony of guitar distortion and feedback and play-acting tacked on the end completely ruined what was otherwise a decent song (albeit that riff still isn’t the greatest).
The version of “Cortez the Killer” in Zuma was much more engaging and emotive than this version, but I really like hearing it all the same. It’s probably the album’s only slow song ... the guitars come off more contemplative instead of psychologically maladjusted ... So, its position smack dab in the middle of the album is a much-appreciated “intermission.” The most surprising track of the album is undoubtedly the cover of the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It is played incredibly slowly and Young and Crazy Horse essentially sing it a cappella. (They strum a super-distorted guitar throughout it, but it sounds utterly detached from the melody.) I started listening to that rendition hating it, but after listening to it for awhile, I found the experience to be almost frighteningly engaging. Yeah, I don’t understand it either.
I’ll just repeat the point that you’re REALLY going to have to like the electric guitar if you’re going to like Weld. Honestly, I prefer to just listen to a bunch of foofy British guys with hair-dos plomp around with synthesizers and cheesy drum machines... But even the non-dork inside of me really enjoys much of this mean guitar that Neil Young is able to play, even if he tries my patience now and again.
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Album Score: 2
Remember in my Weld review, I kept on saying that the most tedious things to sit through were those two-minute codas that consisted mainly of aimless guitar noodles and feedback noises? If listening to those were enough to numb your brain, here’s something that will render you comatose for the next six dozen years. It’s called Arc, and it is an entire album full of those noises. AN ENTIRE ALBUM. Granted, it’s a relatively short album, 35 minutes, but ............... THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES FULL OF THOSE TERRIBLE NOISES?!?!?!....... And I wish I was kidding.
The idea for this album reportedly came from Sonic Youth. They thought all that feedback noises at the end of Neil’s live songs were cool, for whatever reason, and they told Neil that he should make an album full of them. Of course, Young and Crazy Horse didn’t play this entire 35-minutes just like you’re hearing it; it was actually cut and pasted from the ends of the various songs. Yeah, well, that idea sucked, and Sonic Youth just murdered their good reputations! It’s a mystery why anyone would have thought this was a good idea. Even James Carville wouldn’t have thought this was a good idea. If an album like this was to be done successfully, I’m pretty sure that it would have to not exist. There are my two-cents!
You’d probably call this an avant-garde release. True, it’s in the same sort of league as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. But Arc is much, much, much, much, much, much worse than those. Zappa’s album has the benefit of being entertaining and wild. And Lou Reed’s album, while not entertaining in the least bit, has a hypnotic quality. But this is just stupid and aimless. Arc is bad, bad, bad.
Even if you consider this to be an avant-garde release, it’s not even done well. You can tell that it was just copied and pasted together from his live shows with absolutely no direction to it. It’s just a lot of aimless noise. I don’t get anything from listening to it other than the urge to bang my head against someone else’s head, and for that I could get arrested. So, exercise extreme caution before approaching this album. I cannot stand listening to this aimless noise for so long. I just can’t. It’s terrrrrrrrrrrrrrrible! Would you like me to describe this noise? ....OK, but I warn you: I don’t think I can do it without vomiting.
Throughout the disc, the guitars go completely nuts. They play wobbly stuff, power-chord stuff, quivering stuff, quick jabbing stuff, etc. The drums seem to patter along aimlessly as though manic squirrels were trapped inside. The feedback noise that is present constantly through this disc is ear piercing and squeaky... You know that terrible sound that you get when you put the microphone too close to the speakers? Yeah, imagine sitting through that for thirty-five whole minutes. Sometimes, we can hear a clueless-sounding Neil Young still muttering the melody of whatever song he had happened to be finishing up. We can occasionally even hear an audience cheering in the distance... Only, they were actually cheerful, because they got to hear the song that came before the miserable feedback noise! On a few occasions, a splashing of keyboard is evident and, even more occasionally, you can hear a groove or a riff play a bit. None of this is worth hearing. None. This is without a doubt the most unpleasant album I ever sat through. I definitely try to listen to albums at least three times before I review it, but I only did two for this one. I violated the rules, but at least I’m alive! OH THANK SWEET GOD FOR MY LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!
Arc was originally attached to Weld when it was released. Nowadays, the two albums are sold separately. Definitely get Weld, but if you see Arc in the stores, you should smash it against the nearest wall and get outta there before security catches you. I regret reviewing this, but you cannot deny that they brought it upon themselves... If the two albums were still sold together, I could have just dismissed Arc as one of Neil’s stupid whims. But you’ll find it there in the stores, it will have an expensive price tag, and it will try to lure you. Oh man, I need some electroshock therapy.
The question of what I was going to score this was a tough issues. I settled on a '2,' because that's the same rating that Madonna's American Life got, and I think Arc was a slightly better idea.
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Harvest Moon (1992)
Album Score: 12
Forget all that grunge stuff. (If you don't want to, you should at least forget Arc ever existed.) Neil Young was a cranky old fogie, and it was high time that he started acting like one! He throws away that ultra dark and distorted guitar that so tormented my eardrums in Freedom, Ragged Glory, Weld and Arc, took out an acoustic guitar, brought in Linda Ronstadt for backup vocal duties, and recruited one of the archangels to play a minimal slide guitar. Together, they create some gorgeous, mellow country-western tunes that's for the ages! This 48-year-old version of Neil Young really seems to have gotten better with age. Instead of being this young dude singing pretentious country ballads, now he comes off as a world-weary cowpoke reminiscing of the days long past. Upping this nostalgic atmosphere is the massive amounts of reverb he used in the studio... It's like most of this album came out of his very pleasant dreams.
As you probably either knew or guessed, this album title's similarity to Young's classic album Harvest wasn't consequential; this was a bona fide sequel! It's also head-over-heels better than that album, which was frequently dull and without very compelling melodies and harmonies. This album is more atmospheric and the melodies are frequently mesmerizing! The superiority of this album is so obvious that even most stringent defenders of his classic albums agree with that. It's also better than Comes a Time, which I thought was supposed to be the sequel, but maybe that was actually Harvest 1.5. Like a Lion King sequel. Hm. (Say, wouldn't “Like a Lion King Sequel” be a good Neil Young song title? I think he should get on that right away.)
The only thing that anyone could possibly have against this album is saminess. If you don't think you can handle 51-minutes worth of mid-tempo, mellow country-rock ballads, then you should look elsewhere for your cheap thrills. Admittedly, the formula starts to wear on me in its final 10 or 15 minutes. The penultimate track “Dreamin' Man” does what the previous eight tracks had done a lot better. The final track “Natural Beauty” might be a fine composition, but that's one of those inexplicable cases where Young takes what would have been a perfectly nice five-minute song and extends it to 10 minutes. Meh. It's also done live, so it misses the same sort of atmosphere that I adored about the other songs.
“Unknown Legend” is the sort of song that is best heard whilst sitting under the shade of a cottonwood tree in the prairie. Unless I move back to the Mid West, I'll never be able to put that to the test, but I can still vividly remember what shade in the prairie felt like. The melody Young comes up with sounds so incredibly sweet and simple, but it still manages to be original enough to avoid the 'cliché' pitfall that often plagues this genre. A very plain drum beat keeps a steady pace, and turns out to be an important factor in keeping the song punchy. The haunting female back-up singers pop up at the perfect times, and that archangel slide-guitarist couldn't possibly have been more heavenly! This guy does the exact same sort of thing on most of these songs, so the beauty doesn't end there! The second track, “From Hank to Hendrix,” is so similar to the first one that I almost didn't know that song actually changed. But I can listen to these sorts of songs until the day I die. Gosh, I even love listening to that harmonica. Imagine that! The harmonica has been known to annoy the crap out of me, but that instrument is a godsend here.
The title is probably the most captivating song of the bunch. Its rhythm has a nice shuffle to it, and the jangly acoustic guitars are about as pleasant as it gets. Making it better is Ronstadt's perfect, haunting back-up vocals. That song is quite a thing! “One of These Days” is perhaps a tad too lengthy and the instrumentation a tad too down-key, but it's impossible to deny that it's utterly captivating in spite of the fact. Plus, the melody is very sweet. He breaks out with a full orchestra in “Such a Woman,” but he doesn't abuse it like he oftentimes did in Harvest. That song also has some of the most compelling harmonies that I remember hearing from Neil Young. Excellent!
Really, the pure songwriting here is so exquisite that I wonder why the hell it took him this long to release an album of this caliber. His previous great albums were more impressive by merits of his superb electric guitar skills... but none of his other ballad albums really comes close to this. Apart from the final song whose only fault is it's too dang long. Other than that, this is Neil Young's most captivating album this far. It's haunting. It's mellow. It's gorgeous.
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Album Score: 11
Listening to this live album from MTV's Unplugged series proved to me one thing: Harvest Moon was by far Neil Young's greatest acoustic album to date. I know, some people might think I'm nuts or something, but I swear, the best songs on this album also happen to be the ones from Harvest Moon! Give me “Harvest Moon,” “Unknown Legend” and “From Hank to Hendrix” over his more universally beloved “The Needle and the Damage Done” any freaking time of the day.
The way that this album is programmed is exactly the same way that Rust Never Sleeps was programmed. Except whereas that album stated acoustic and ended electric, this album started acoustic and ended with a more participatory backing band. This is pure formula, but it's an effective formula. The first track that the female back-up singers come in (“Helpless”) always manages to sweep me away. Then, later, a drummer suddenly appears, which helps the album become a little more entertaining! Yes, I like this formula.
The most common criticism I've read of this album is that Neil only seems to be performing songs that were pretty much acoustic to begin with. That's not a deal-breaker for me, but that does go against everything that the Unplugged series was supposed to be. Young was supposed to perform his classic songs in radically different ways! As it states on the All-Music Guide, Neil Young was pretty much just performing his Harvest Moon tour set-list.
But at least he gives us a radically different way of looking at “Like a Hurricane.” The original, of course, was a freaking masterpiece for the electric guitar. Here, he brings in a dreary accordion sound, which makes it seem like a crusty old sea shanty. This has nothing on the electric version of it, of course, but that's just one reason Young's longtime fans might just treasure this album. I'm also really surprised that a rendition of “Transformer Man,” from his much-maligned Trans, absolutely rules. Of course, he plays it completely straight and without the vocoder, so we're left with nothing but Young's pure voice and an oddly mesmerizing backing band. And what a melody!
“Mr. Soul” is also different from the original version, although I find it to be somewhat boring. On the other hand, the piano-led rendition “Helpless,” from Deja Vu, is beautiful here. It's much rawer, of course, and I might actually like it better! (As you can tell, I'm not dwelling on it enough to form an actual opinion on that!) It's very captivating at any rate. I also think his rendition of “Pocahontas” is gorgeous, and certainly one of the top acoustic songs that he ever composed.
One of the primary reasons a hardcore Neil Young fans would want to get this release, probably, is for an unreleased song that he wrote in 1976 called “Stringman.” Unfortunately, the world wasn't missing much the 18 years the song went unreleased; it's a respectable piano ballad, but it's boring. Its appeal is left strictly to his fans. I'd say the most **boring** song of the album is a ballad from Comes a Time called “Look Out For My Love.” It's so boring that I can feel my brain collecting dust when I listen to it. He also pulled out “Old Laughing Lady” from his debut album, which I suppose is a fairly obscure pick! It's not one of his better songs, though, but at least it has a really cool harmonica solo. I always like a good harmonica solo.
I can't fault Neil Young for picking and choosing from a wide variety of his back catalog. I suppose I prefer this approach to just playing live versions of a greatest hits album. On the other hand, he did pick some mightily dull songs to play, so that's one of Unplugged's primary drawbacks... Oh, if only I could have chosen the set-list! Aw... I guess I can dream all I want...
This might be a fairly dull album from time to time, but I still overwhelmingly enjoyed the experience. Still, you're going to have to be more than a casual Neil Young fan to really have a hankering to get this in your collection. This is surely one of his minor releases. But if you do happen to pick this up, I'm sure that you'll be at least mildly delighted at this. And you'll probably also come to the conclusion that this version of “Transformer Man” completely rules!
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Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Album Score: 11
Respect! That's what this Neil Young dude deserves for releasing this album. It's filled to the brim with mid-tempo ballads, sort of similar to Harvest Moon, but that Crazy Horse band came back, so you can expect it to be more electric guitar centered. Yup, remember that crazy distorted guitar that characterized his early '90s releases? You can hear a lot of that in this album. Fortunately, that guitar doesn't seem to completely steal the spotlight like it did so frequently on previous albums, so we can concentrate exclusively on Neil Young's songwriting!
But Neil Young has always been a fairly limited songwriter, and that's very evident in this release. He comes up with good melodies, but he also frequently comes up with boring and indistinguishable ones. I know that melodies aren't the only thing to songwriting, but great melodies only help matters! I really adore that rugged piano sound he came up with in the album opener, “My Heart” and the closer “A Dream that Can Last.” That piano sound was unusual and engaging enough for both of those songs to earn A-minuses in the track reviews. The melodies are OK, but they're not exactly anything I'll find myself humming under my breath after I'm finished with this review.
The best melody of this album probably occurs in “Change Your Mind.” If Young was going to put an engaging melody anywhere in this album, then it's a good thing he picked that one, because it's 14-minutes long! That running length is probably overkill, but it is engaging enough that I hardly notice the time pass. You see, that's the power of a good melody! As you would expect from 14-minute songs, it is filled to the brim with some more of Young's wonky guitar solos. I almost don't even think the wonky guitar style was very appropriate for a song like that, which seemed as though it would be better off as a jangle-pop thing. But it's impossible to deny that the guitar noodling is 100 percent cool!
I'm also a fan of “Prime of Life,” which gets a very good groove going. It also has a lot of interesting guitar tones and patterns throughout and it has a mightily good melody too. But my favorite thing about it is that ultra high-pitched recorder that whistles around occasionally! If Neil Young would come up with more cool ideas like that recorder, then I think more of his songs would be memorable. I mean, most of these songs are slowly-paced ballads, but I remember “Prime of Life” specifically because of that recorder.
That brings me to discussing this album's primary weakness: The saminess. Midway through the album, I start to get awfully tired of all these mid-tempo ballads coming on top of one another. ...They're all very nice ballads and they're great to listen to if you want a low-key though dark album to sit back and soak up, but it would have been nice if this album had a little more diversity in it. There is one quickly paced song in here, called “Piece of Crap,” and I always seem to get incredibly excited whenever it pops up! Not to say that these slowly paced songs are terrible or anything. Songs like “Western Hero” and “Blue Eden” make excellent listens. There's absolutely nothing cheapish about them. As I said earlier, they're 100 percent respectable.
Though some of these ballads are clearly better than others. “Safeway Cart” is one of the most brilliant and engaging things the man has ever written. It's intimate atmosphere immediately draws me in! I also approve of his use of his ultra-distorted guitar in that one... Instead of noodling around constantly like he has done many times before, the guitar only comes in occasionally. It's more effective that way, methinks. One of the more notable songs on the album is the title track, which hints at Kurt Cobain and his suicide. Certainly, that was a matter that disturbed Young greatly. (I mean, if Kurt Cobain quoted something I had written in his suicide note, I would have gotten terribly depressed to say the least.) That's a pretty scary song, too, with its strange electric guitar tone.
I gotta say, this is a very, very strong 11. I very nearly gave it a 12, but that was only because it seems like it should have a higher rating than Ragged Glory. But this really is quite a bit weaker than Harvest Moon in my book, so I'll keep it at an 11. I think if Neil Young would have diversified this album up a bit, it would have been better for all of us! ... It's a very good album, though, and I heartily recommend it to casual fans.
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Mirror Ball (1995)
Album Score: 12
Yikes!! What an album! As far as Neil's '90s grunge outings go, give me Mirror Ball over anything else. As a matter of fact, you can give me Mirror Ball over any grunge album on the Planet Earth! (OK, I'm ignorant. I need to listen to more grunge albums. And I guess Nevermind is probably better anyway.) But seriously. After giving this album four full listens, I've come to the conclusion that Mr. Neil Young is one bad-ass mofo.
Before I can truly get to heart of discussing the awesomeness of Mirror Ball, I first must discuss one of its primary shortcomings. I'm pretty sure I complained in earlier Neil Young reviews that his songs have an awful tendency to repeat the same hook over and over again approximately eight billion times. Believe me, that's more true about the songs on Mirror Ball than it was on anything. The good news is that these hooks are generally quite compelling, and they all seem to put me in a trance.
While the hypnotizing attributes of these melodies are an integral part of Mirror Ball, the true star of the album is of course the electric guitar. Considering I still get pretty violent Arc flashbacks, it took quite a lot out of me to listen another one of his grungy guitar albums. But, here, he seemed to get the sound of those guitars just right. They're very deep and very dark, but they also don't sound so much like the Devil's helicopter. ...I don't know how I can praise these guitars more: Everything about them are positively awesome. I read all the time that Neil Young is one of rock 'n' roll's finest electric guitar soloists. After listening to Mirror Ball, I can do nothing but agree with this assessment 100 percent. They not only sound cool, but they have their very own personalities. I know I'm listening to a good solo whenever I can imagine its personality!
My only complaint about the guitars is that some of the tracks have those overextended, distorted codas that plagued a bunch of his early '90s albums as well as the entirety of Arc. Luckily there are only a few of them, but as you can tell in the track reviews, I complained whenever they popped up! What can I say? I quit reviewing Neil Young albums for an entire year because of those distorted codas, and hearing them again was like picking at my scabs!! (...Oooo, I'm being melodramatic!)
Oh god, I haven't even mentioned a single song yet. Let's start at the beginning. “Song X” is by far the most distinctive song of the album, sounding like a grungified version of a sea shanty. Without even listening to that song, I would think that was a novel concept. When you think about it, some of the grungiest people in the world are, literally, sailors! They are out there in the high seas with nothing but the sea air and their own stench. And, once you take a listen to that song, you can tell right away that it was nothing less than a stroke of genius. The guitar is rough, wind-worn and disturbed. Neil Young's lead vocals even fit the material perfectly. Come to think of it, Young has always sounded like he was some sort of pirate! Oh and the band members joining in the chorus, singing “Heigh ho, away we go/we're on the road to never” fit the spirit just perfectly. I could go on about that song forever. And I almost have.
Another major highlight is “I'm the Ocean,” a terribly engaging song with, I think, the coolest bass-line ever to be featured in a Neil Young album. (Excuse me if I don't re-listen to every single song of his to make sure that statement is true.) It goes on for seven minutes repeating the same old things and, amazingly, I never grow tired of it. “Big Green Country” is a similarly awe-inspiring song with a catchy hook, incredible guitar and incredible drive!
OK, now I'm going to tell you why I'm only giving this album a 12 even though I've done little else than praise it with my praisiest words: It's just so gosh-durn samey! I get a tad tired of this album by the very end... And, even in the songs I singled out as the “highlights,” they do seem a little bit like one huge blur. That's not a particular problem if you're really big into grunge music... You'd think of that as a bonus more than anything else. But it's the slightest problem for me. At the same time, I think it's pretty amazing feat that I enjoyed such a heavy guitar centered album this much. Remember, I'm a pretty big Elton John fan! ...At any rate, this is a great Neil Young album, and it's a close 13. Perhaps the most amazing thing of them all is that he was freaking 50 when he recorded this! Neil Young wasn't going to fade away anytime soon!
Read the track reviews:
Dead Man (1996)
Album Score: 7
This harrr be a soundtrack that Neil Young penned for a Jim Jarmusch movie, me matey. (Eergh, sorry. I'm still trying to get over the sea shanty he did in his previous album. I'm pretty sure that is the greatest song of all time.) Fortunately or unfortunately, Young didn't go all Randy Newman-ish and create elaborate, sweeping arrangements; he just noodled around with his grungy electric guitar. I don't even think he even planned any of this; he just improvised as he watched the movie.
Now, I've actually seen this movie. It was roughly two years ago, and I didn't like it very much. I respected it for its weirdness and (I guess) all that freaking poetry, but, in the end, it was tedious. That's a bit of a surprise, since I've liked every other Jarmusch movie that I've seen, and I also like watching Johnny Depp in movies. But Dead Man just didn't click with me. I think a big reason for that might have been this soundtrack. I mean, why the hell would I want to sit through a whole lotta some guy noodling around with his guitar? I like the guitar. I respect the guitar. But we're not on such intimate terms that I can say that the guitar is the only thing I ever want to listen to. Give me some drums too, man! ...And give me melody! Bah, Neil Young, yer a cranky old fogey...
So, here I am, actually sitting through the soundtrack right now, and I'm enjoying it about as much as I enjoyed the movie. It's all extremely dark, depressing, and boring. And these solos go on FOREVER. Naturally, I respect this album, because after all, Neil Young actually dared to try this sort of thing and put his name on it. I suppose this is similar to what those piano players did in the silent movie era. Many of them didn't actually have written sheet music to perform with the scenes... they just made stuff up! I suppose it is interesting, on an academic level, to hear what Young comes up with on-the-spot. But obviously, the only people who are going to be truly curious are those who absolutely worship him. I am not one of these people.
There's a bit in the middle when Young gives the guitar a break and starts noodling with an organ. I recognize this organ from his previous few albums and I believe that I identified it as an “accordion.” ...Well, it fooled me! That organ sounds an awful lot like an accordion! ...So, there's the only important thing I got out of this album: I now know the identity of that low-pitched buzzing instrument that surfaces in many of his '90s albums. (I'm too lazy to edit my previous reviews, though. ...In fact, since that's the only useful thing I got out of Dead Man, then it's probably best that I leave them alone!)
Interspersed with Young's solos, there's a lot of dialog. It's mostly between Johnny Depp and some Indian guy who calls himself “Nobody.” Dead Man is one of the artiest art-house movies that I've ever seen, so none of this dialog actually makes sense. (And don't think that actually watching the movie is going to clear any of this up. If anything, it'll confuse you more.) I suppose if you're a high school English teacher, then you might appreciate hearing Johnny Depp reciting some of William Blake's poetry. ...They're pretty much the only people in the world who would like that... High school English teachers are all diseased... (OK, I take that back. My high school English teacher ruled. ...But most of the other ones have a disease. Syphilis mostly. That's the most literary of diseases.)
I gave this album the mandatory three full listens, but it feels like I had the gist of it only halfway through the first listen. ...This is just Neil playing with his noodle. I got so bored with this album that I couldn't even get myself to pay very close attention to it when I wrote the track reviews. (Although at one point I did watch a video of a cat playing a keyboard with the sound off... That was even nuttier watching it with this guitar soundtrack!)
So, I really didn't appreciate Dead Man. ...What's more, I can't even claim that you might appreciate this soundtrack more if you watched the movie, because I've seen it, and know that it doesn't. ...As I said, you'd have to be completely nuts and/or a Neil Young fan to appreciate this album. Turn me on, dead man!
Read the track reviews:
Broken Arrow (1996)
Album Score: 10
Boring! Sorry to be so bluntly dismissive like that, but how the hell else am I going to describe Neil Young's Broken Arrow? I'm sure that any big fan of it would tell me that I haven't listened to it enough, and thus it hasn't had the proper chance to sink in. That could very well be the case. But, alas, I am a mere mortal. Based on the four very close listens that I gave, I don't project that I'll become a major fan of it anytime soon. I'm open for it to grow on me, but it seems too much like you'd have to be really into Neil Young to appreciate it. That's not to say this is a terrible record; just like most of his albums, it's nothing if it isn't 100 percent respectable.
Crazy Horse is back, they're still very much in grunge-mode. But all of these songs are very slowwwwwwwwwww particularly when Young sings as though he's ready to fall asleep, which makes it seem even slower. That's an interesting idea, I suppose; if anyone is going to write an album full of sleepy songs, then it should be Neil Young. He sort of sounds like he's falling asleep anyway!
There are some mightily decent moments, particularly “Scattered” with its sloppy riff and engaging vocal melody. But even then, the pacing is slow and plodding. So I can claim to even get a little bit bored with my favorite song of the album. Whoah boy! Another highlight is the three-minute, bouncy country tune, “Changing Highways.” It's quite strange although hardly fascinating songwriting. It's the only 'happy' song in this overall bleak and depressing album. So, I appreciate it!
The album's biggest songs happen to be VERY big, spanning more than seven minutes. So, this tests even the hardiest Neil Young fans' attention spans! The trick to enjoying a song like the seven-minute “Big Time,” which plods along at a never-changing mood, is to allow the groove to hypnotize you. I can't really tell if Young was playing the same thing over and over and over on purpose, or he was just being lazy. (If it was done on purpose, then I guess you can call it a sort of grungified version of Philip Glass!) Whatever the case, I can't claim that it puts me enough in a trance for me to love it. But I can at least appreciate all of the guitar noodling, which Young hardly skimps out on.
The one song that our attention spans are really put to the test is “Loose Change.” For 10 minutes, it repeats the same freaking groove without end. Does it take you up in its trance, or do you get deathly bored through it? For me, I get bored. Sorry. On the other hand, the eight-minute “Slip Away” has a soaring melody that interests me as well as a mightily OK riff. Still, I really wish that it would hypnotize me better. ...Then again, I also wish I could swing around on skyscrapers like Spider-Man!
The final track is eight minutes long, and that's the only part of this album that I can't seem to respect very much. It's a live cover of “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” and it sounds like it was recorded in the back of a nightclub. You can hear the audience talk, whistle and cheer much more clearly than you can hear Young's voice. I can't be too sure what the point of that was, and I suspect that there wasn't one. It was just something weird (and lazy) to do. Also, like everything else on this album, it is done at an extremely slow-moving pace, which goes to confirm my beliefs that this album is boring.
By now, I think I adequately summed up my assessment that Broken Arrow will only appeal to hardcore Neil Young types who are fascinated with these slow-moving songs. As a mere casual fan, I can say that this is either one of Young's worst albums or it just went completely over my head. At this point, I can't really tell. Though I suspect the former, since it sounds an awful lot like he was half-assing it. At any rate, I'm somewhat confident that my sentiments toward this album will likely be shared with other casual fans. So, only listen to Broken Arrow if albums like Ragged Glory, Weld and Mirror Ball didn't drive you mad. And I'm not talking about the highlights of those albums, either.
Read the track reviews:
Year of the Horse (1997)
Album Score: 11
You know, I really didn't expect to like this live album. It has a reputation of being done in the same style as Broken Arrow, which I found rather tedious, and what's more this is a double album. But, call me crazy, I actually like this. It seems to me that Year of the Horse is exactly what Broken Arrow wanted to be; it is a slow but thoughtful album where Neil plays his grungy guitar a lot and sings as though he's an old coot about to fall asleep. As I mentioned in the Broken Arrow review, this is not necessarily a bad sound for him!
The important thing that sets Year of the Horse apart from Broken Arrow is simply the songs on it. Broken Arrow was not Neil's finest example of songwriting; he seemed to repeat himself endlessly in a sort of weird, possibly unintentional attempt to grungify Philip Glass. Year of the Horse, on the other hand, is a live album where he gets to pull out songs from his extensive and impressive back catalog. So, he actually gives me songs that can and do hypnotize me. Thus, I extend my royalest of honors to thee, Neil.
If you listen not-that-closely at the beginning of the album's opening track, “When You Dance,” you can hear an audience member screaming “They all sound the same!” to which Neil replies “It's all the same song!” ...So there you go; this is the whole purpose of the album. Just to be one long, mid-tempo blur. But that's alright with me if he continues to pull out songs like the excellent “When You Dance!” That had a much better chance of actually taking me in its hazy mid-tempo trance than anything from Broken Arrow since it actually has a great melody, and those guitars don't get too grungy and ugly. “Barstool Blues,” similarly, was an excellent selection from way back in Zuma. It takes him 10 freaking minutes to finally resolve the thing, but I don't find myself itching for it to be over with as much as I would have thought. That song has a good melody, also, and the band finds quite a solid groove to keep it going without ever sounding like they were running out of steam.
Things start to get a little more tedious when he pulls out a version of that wannabe '80s power-ballad “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks.” (Holy moly, that guy is really reaching for some obscure stuff!) Of course it's better than the original, since that bass guitar is grittier and Neil comes in with a few noodles by the end, but it's not particularly more exciting than the original. I like this version of “Mr. Soul,” even though he performs it mostly the same way he did in his previous live album, Unplugged. It's a pleasurable song to listen to at least. He also happened to do a version of “Pocahontas” in Unplugged. Great song, but does he think nobody bought Unplugged, or something? How about a version of “Cinnamon Girl” or “Tonight's the Night?” Or was Neil afraid that people might actually want to hear these songs?
Since this album was done right after Broken Arrow, you can expect a fair amount of songs from there. There are three, and they sound exactly like the originals. Luckily, he spares us from some of that album's worst moments! “Slip Away” was quite a good song, and “Big Time” never makes a bad listen. Best of all, he brings us “Scattered,” which continues to have a killer riff! Another cool moment is the end when he resurrects “Sedan Delivery” from Rust Never Sleeps. That's the one song on here that rocks the most, so treasure the moment!!
Maybe I just like Year of the Horse, because Crazy Horse was finally beginning to lay off all those outlandishly freaky grunge guitar tones. I know I mention this in pretty much every review, but I still get a little bit nuts before listening to a new Neil Young grunge album considering that Arc raped my brain about a year ago. (Have I ever told you that listening to Arc is never a good idea?) Up until the very end, the insanely distorted guitar is kept mostly thrust into the background, which actually helps some of these songs keep their groove going for so long. So, Year of the Horse, I think, has that grunge sound just about right.
Would I recommend this to you? If you are a casual Young fan, probably not. You're going to have to assess how much you think you'll enjoy a double album's worth of mid-tempo songs featuring Neil's endless noodles. Granted, he's a kung-fu noodler, but I also understand that only a select population of music nuts actually go for that sort of thing.
Read the track reviews:
Silver & Gold (2000)
Album Score: 10
What the!!!! This is an album full of Neil Young singing to an acoustic guitar! I guess it's been 10 long years since the grunge movement took a hold of the '90s and Neil Young's career, but now that it became the decade with no pronounceable name, I guess it was time for him to go back doing the quieter, introspective stuff. I stand by my earlier statement that I'd rather listen to his maddening grungy albums than boring folky music, but as someone who had spent the previous month reviewing a bunch of those grunge albums in a row, it's admittedly quite a relief to listen to him just sitting back and delivering some nice, quiet tunes for a change.
But this ain't no Harvest Moon. That album featured some of Young's finest melodies, and it had the ability to haunt my dreams. Silver & Gold is little more than a collection of passive and unoriginal folk and country tunes that he could have written and performed in his sleep. And he probably did, by the sound of it. It all seems very lazy.
The fans sure liked this, though, and that's probably because Neil Young has the ability to make himself sound extremely important. And I'll have to admit, I get caught up in a little bit of that grandeur at times. He also had the ability to bore the living crap out of me, and he does that a lot here, too. The one song on here that everybody should listen to is “The Great Divide,” which is one of those Neil Young songs that just seems to *get me* right at the center of my soul. Even though Neil Young had a lot of great songs in his career, I can't say that there were too many of them that quite affected me like that. It has such a nice melody with a sweet vocal delivery, and a solid, shuffly rhythm that's quite easy to get caught up in.
I also like that nostalgia-ridden “Buffalo Springfield Again,” which Neil seems to hint to his old bandmates that he wouldn't mind having a reunion! It has a nice melody, too, and if the reunion had ever happened, it would have been a perfect song for them to perform in concert. “Good to See You” is an overwhelmingly sweet and pleasant ditty and it makes a nice album opener. The title track is also a good 'un with a nice melody, and it constitutes another special treat for any fan of Young's folkish works. “Razor Love” has been one of the more widely celebrated songs of the album, and that's for good reason: It's quite a mesmerizing little tune! But the down-side of it is that it goes past six minutes, and there wasn't great reason for it. Other than, perhaps, to fill up space since this album is a startlingly short 39 minutes.
For every song that's sweet and captivating, there's at least one that's absolutely boring. “Daddy Went Walkin'” not only makes a boring experience, but the melody was ripped off of some old folk song from the early 20th Century. (I'm not apt enough in such music to be able to point out where this melody comes from, but you'll know what I mean if you ever hear it. It's so common!) “Red Sun” had an interesting idea to usher in a subtle bagpipe sound, but that melody is so dull and clunky that it's rather difficult to listen to. The album closer, “Without Rings,” couldn't have ended things on a drabber note. It's just a plodding acoustic guitar song without an interesting melody or captivating instrumentation. Blahhhhhhhh... I mean, the least he could have done there was to have Mr. Slide Guitar perform some noodles in the background, or do a depressed harmonica solo. Why make it so plain?
But whatever. This is a good album. Neil Young has always been known for releasing good albums, and his longtime fans will surely find enough about Silver & Gold to treasure listening to it from time to time. He never released anything close to resembling a perfect album, anyway! The Neil Young of the '00s was not only as scraggly and scruffy as he'd ever been, but he also finally became a grand old coot. That might have given him permission to be lazier and less original than he used to be, but I sort of like him taking on that image. Somehow, I don't think anybody made a better old coot than Neil! Except maybe Randy Newman, but in a different way.
This might not be a terribly exciting album, but it's a nice album. I don't think it's quite as hopelessly dull as many critics point out, but I also think Neil could have worked a little harder developing these songs a little better. I mean, he wrote Harvest Moon, after all, so I know he had it in him! But anyway, Silver & Gold remains a nice experience to sit back and soak up one sunny afternoon with headphones. It might put you to sleep, but it'll give you pleasant dreams.
Read the track reviews:
Road Rock Vol. 1 (2000)
Album Score: 10
Yet another live album, although this might actually be one that his olden-day fans might enjoy listening to. He actually plays a bunch of songs that people know! There's “Cowgirl in the Sand” from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, “Words” from Harvest, the title track from Tonight's the Night, and a few songs from Comes a Time. There's nothing on here from his most recent album, Silver & Gold. I don't think anybody missed it. Probably the nicest treat to longtime fans is the addition of an unreleased song, “Fool For Love,” as well as a grungified cover of Bob Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower.”
Let's talk about the unreleased song first, because that's the one that I'd imagine that fans would be most curious about. It's called “Fool For Love” and it was written around the time of This Note's For You. It's nothing particularly special; the melody is flat and it's paced pretty boringly. But at least I like listening to that electric guitar crunch around, and it only lasts for three and a half minutes. ...That is pretty much the extent of my compliments for it! I didn't particularly like This Note's For You, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that I don't care much for an unreleased song from that era. It's OK, though. Nothing anybody really needs to go out of their way to hear.
On the other hand, the Bob Dylan cover positively rules! It seems like Neil's grungy days were coming to an end by 2000, and that song doesn't make a half bad final bow for that era. The backing band, which consists of an array of renown musicians in their 60s including bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, organist Spooner Oldham, and drummer Jim Keltner, create quite a ruckus, and Neil Young's signature wonky guitar solos are as good as ever! (Alright, if you read the track reviews, I've made it abundantly clear that I'm pretty freaking sick to death of Neil Young's wonky guitar noodles right now........ but the fact that I can still get myself to enjoy it on the Dylan cover says quite a lot about it!) Maybe some listeners might be interested in knowing that Chrissie Hynde makes a guest appearance there on vocals an on guitar. How should I know? People like Chrissie Hynde!
“Cowgirl in the Sand” is probably one of Neil's most celebrated songs from one of his most celebrated albums. It was insanely long in its original form, but he made it even longer here. It's pushing 20 minutes. You really don't need me to tell you if you'll enjoy such a thing; you already know. Either you're drooling at the prospect of hearing Young go at it for that long, or you're getting ready to bang your head in with a frying pan. Speaking as someone who is probably from the latter camp, I've got to say that song reallllllllllllly didn't need to be that long. But I can think of worse ways to spend 20 minutes. I could make paper cranes; I could watch half an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess; I could pick my belly button. In other words, this version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” ain't half bad! (OK, I'll stop pretending. I like Xena: Warrior Princess. What are you going to do about it?)
While nothing else on here is quite as obscenely long, there are plenty of other tracks that push the limits of our attention span. There's an 11-minute version of “Words.” I never cared much for the original, so I pretty much just sit through the whole thing looking at the little second hand go around my wristwatch. On the other hand, the 11-minute version of “Tonight's the Night” can really rustle up my feathers! I suppose it's a bit slow at times, but the band sounds positively evil and menacing throughout! Yummy!! I'm also thrilled to hear him do a rendition of “Walk On” from On the Beach, even though I wish the band gave it the same sort of dedication as they did on “Tonight's the Night.” It's a great song, but this performance is a bit flat.
Again, the appeal of this album is extremely limited to his fans. As someone who is just a casual fan of his, I don't find anything particularly worthwhile about having this album in my collection. I wouldn't get this over Weld or Live Rust, for example, unless you happen to like this song selection better. Even though I'm a little less than thrilled about Road Rock Vol. 1, I once again have to compliment Neil Young for pulling out yet another quality live album. Man, I don't think this guy is ever going to rest!
Read the track reviews:
Are You Passionate? (2002)
Album Score: 9
Have you ever listened to an album with nothing but mid-tempo songs in it? Whether you have or haven't, you should do yourself a favor and don't even touch Neil Young's Are You Passionate? with a 10-foot pole. (Although I'd imagine that it would be pretty difficult to find a 10-foot pole to touch this album with even if you wanted to. Come to think of it, I don't know where that expression came from. How many people do you know walk around touching things with 10-foot poles?) But seriously; if you are the type of person who gets bored easily, I'd stay well away from this album. I'm not even talking about ADD types. I'm talking about normal people who had a tough time making it through Gettysburg. Yeah, that movie SUCKS.
Neil Young teamed up with Booker T. and the MGs to create this album. That seems like such a cool idea at first, since it might be somewhat interesting to hear good old Neil getting an old school R&B groove on! ... But, yeah, this album is about as exciting as a nature documentary that isn't about sex or violence. These songs just plod along, plod along, plod along, and plod along. It's a lot like Broken Arrow except there's not very much grunge guitar. I know, I mentioned in my previous Neil Young albums that I had been getting tired of all that grunge guitar. But now. I'm starting to miss the grunge guitar!
I suppose it's easy to get caught up in that ultra-clean groove that they conjure for the opening track “You're My Girl.” The bassist plays a bouncy little line, and the lead guitarist compliments that with some high-pitched guitar stabs at regular intervals. Neil Young comes in with his signature eunuch vocals with a spattering of an interesting melody. It's all a tad underwhelming, but just like most Neil Young songs, it seems fairly confident and thoughtful. (Hey, you can never fault this guy for sounding like he was doing exactly what he wanted to do!) It's a breezy, light, and throwaway song. It's the sort of song that I listen to once, and I never want to hear it again. Ever. But then Neil Young decides he wants to torture me and he brings in two other songs that sound exactly the same. ...I mean, there are subtle changes such as slightly different chords or tempos. But listen to “You're My Girl,” “Differently” and “Be With You” back to back and tell me that they are different from each other. Was he really so hard-up for ideas?
That said, the most trouble Neil Young seemed to be getting into with this album were the ballads. They're even more slow moving than the “R&B” songs, and they take FOREVER to finally be over with. “Mr. Disappointment” and “Two Old Friends” strike me as intelligent songs, but if I told you I wasn't feeling anything other than excruciating tedium while listening to those songs, I'd be lyin'. Easily the most depressing things about “Two Old Friends” are the guitar noodles. In the past when Neil Young was playing a dead-boring, he'd usually be reliable enough to come up with an interesting guitar noodle or two! But I listen to “Two Old Friends,” and I can't perish the thought that his soloing belongs in an elevator somewhere. BLUH!!!!!!!!
But there are some good songs in here, which are so strong that they make this album a more or less worthwhile. “Let's Roll” might have terrible, hastily written lyrics about the United 93 tragedy, but I like that creepy and menacing mid-tempo groove they come up with! I also like that guitar-heavy “Goin' Home” with that gruff and dark Indian-war-chant riff. Come to think of it, that song sounds like it was written for Broken Arrow, and it would have surely been one of that album's highlights. The best song of this album has to be the mildly jazzy nine-minute closer “She's a Healer.” Most of these songs are insanely long, but at least Neil's able to come up with a haunting vibe that draws me in, and his minimalist guitar noodles throughout are 100 percent cool. ...So, there you go. There are three good reasons to listen to Are You Passionate?. Well, four, since “Quit” is pretty good also.
I want to say that I can still consider Are You Passionate? another decent album in Young's impressive discography, but I can't. This album seems to have BORED me more than it actually engaged me. This album is so frequently mind-numbing that I have to force myself to pay attention to it, and that's just not the sort of album that I would ever recommend to anybody. This album rather seems like it was designed for listeners who don't want to listen to anything at all.
Read the track reviews:
Album Score: 10
Superman might be the Man of Steel, but I don't think he would be able to listen to Neil Young's Greendale without getting overwhelmed by its boringness. I don't know much about the science of being born under the influence of Planet Krypton's gravity, but I seriously doubt it could have prepared him for this. Not that the songs on this album are particularly terrible—they're just so LONG that it's insane. You might look at the song-listing and immediately think that it's a very digestible 10-tracks. But then you notice that the album's running length, at 78 minutes, pushes the limits of a compact disc. If you're anything like me, you slapped your palm on your forehead and exclaimed “Errghh!”
Look, Mr. Canadian. I thought we went over this in the '90s. Just because you have 78 minutes to make an album, it doesn't mean that you had to use all of it! Seriously, man, if you keep this up in your subsequent albums, I'll have to start calling him Old Geezer Windbags. He's like the old guy you cross paths with at the supermarket who starts talking to you and never shuts up. I'm still glad that Neil finally got out of his murky grunge phase, but, seriously, is this dude trying to torture me or something?
This is a rock opera, according to Wikipedia. When I first read that statement, I had to blink my eyes once or twice to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. (Although, come to think of it, the one time in my life that I have hallucinated, blinking my eyes didn't do anything.) Not that I was surprised that Neil Young would try to put out a rock opera, but Greendale doesn't sound like I'd think a rock opera would sound. When I think of a rock opera, I think of extravagant events like The Who's Tommy or Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But here, Neil Young only plays a bunch of worn-out blues riffs for a billion minutes and sings melodies that sounds like he made them up off the top of his head.
Listening to Greendale can, indeed, be a trying experience, but at least Crazy Horse manages to keep the experience crunchy by playing a bunch of admittedly cool mid-tempo rhythms, and Neil comes in often enough with reliably good, personality-ridden guitar noodles. (Ah, what would one of his albums be like without his solos?) The guitar solo that takes the cake is “Be the Rain,” the nine-minute closing song. While the gruff texture and nice Crazy Horse rhythm keep the experience determined and menacing, Young's guitar noodles are so freaking absorbing that I hardly notice the time go by! It also helps that the song's vocal melody is pretty dang hooky. That's a stark contrast to most of these other songs, such as the seven-minute “Leave the Driving,” which the melody consists of (I'm not kidding) the same three notes repeated over and over.
If you want my opinion, and I assume that you do, the main problem with Greendale was that it had to be a ROCK OPERA. Maybe if Neil wasn't so busy telling us some story that I don't care about, he wouldn't have felt the need to drag on these songs for so long. I mean, perhaps “Grandpa Interview” wouldn't have been 13 minutes of all the same thing if he didn't have so many freaking stanzas of lyrics to go through!! (Actually that's one of the more “rock-opera-ish” songs of the album, since you can pretty distinctly hear Neil doing some play acting! He's not bad!!) Yeah, so you can tell that I'm not particularly thrilled about the concept, but is it possible I'm listening to this album wrong? Many of the overwhelmingly positive reviews of it I read on amazon.com talk extensively about the tragic story depicted in these lyrics, and how they are so moving. They also seem to appreciate how this album offers some rich insight into Neil Young's view of the universe. (“Be the Rain” is notably an environmental anthem.) And here I am, writing a review of Greendale, without bothering to even mention the lyrics until now! I'm a freaking rock 'n' roll heathen!! ...However, if you love Neil Young for his lyrics, then I can see why you might treasure Greendale. I read through them, and they're alright. (I'm not much of a lyrics man, myself. If you couldn't tell.)
It has a classy album cover, though. This album has that going for it. It looks like something you would buy from a National Park gift shop. And these are pretty good songs, anyway. Despite my sometimes bitter cynicism throughout this review, I can't honestly say that I find Greendale to be such an excruciating experience. It's just needlessly longer than it had to be. That's all I'm sayin'. It has the tendency to wear out its welcome.
Read the track reviews:
Greendale Live at Vicar St. (2003)
Album Score: 6
I should probably tell you that I have no idea where Vicar Street is. Your guess is as good as mine. Is it the street where all the vicars live? Or maybe the audience of around 200 is only comprised of vicars? Or maybe the street is literally paved with vicars? I have no idea. All I know is that “Vicar St.” is the place where Neil Young was physically located in when he recorded this album. But you probably could have gathered that from the album title, Greendale Live at Vicar St, just as I did. So, what use am I?
There are two very important questions regarding this album: one—what is it, and two—what is it for? As some of you may or may not know, I stream many of the albums I review from Audiogalaxy Rhapsody, and they just happened to have this album on their system. I looked on amazon.com, and it doesn't seem like this thing was ever released on CD. If that wasn't enough proof that this is the weirdest, obscurest album in the world, then here is the real corker: Mark Prindle didn't even review it.
To answer the second question, I think this album was specifically put on Rhapsody to torture me. Back in the old days, if I didn't want to review an album, I didn't. For example, I adamantly refused to review Queen's Flash Gordon even though it's a dues paying member of the Queen discography. Since then, I've gotten older, balder, and more meticulous. Neil Young obviously knew this about me, and he wanted to preemptively get back at me for the lukewarm review of Greendale that I was bound to write. Seem far-fetched? That's how it seemed to me at first. But then I started to reason with myself. I'll eventually believe anything if I reason with myself enough. And here's the conclusion I came up with: I fully believe that Neil Young is some sort of an extra-terrestrial who can peer into the future. It makes perfect sense.
Well, I am now halfway through this review, and I haven't even talked about the music yet. That should give you some sort of indication of how intensely bored I am with this. (I always make things up if I'm bored, if you couldn't tell! Album review padding!) I gave this album three full listens prior to writing the review, and I never even remotely enjoyed the experience once. I had my own troubles putting up with the boringness of Greendale, but having to review this live version of it was tedium to the extreme. If you're a Neil Young fan, I know what you're probably thinking: “This is Neil Young! How could it possibly be bad? His live albums are never bad!” ...I know, that's what I thought during those holy microseconds before I pressed the “play” button. But then the actual experience of listening to it proved it wrong.
The first thing that came to my mind was: “Er, where the hell is Crazy Horse?” They at least lent Greendale a little bit of back-up magic. But here in Greendale Live in Vicar St, it is just Neil going strummy strummy with his acoustic guitar singing songs that were never very interesting to begin with. Bluhhhhhh! But am I being fair to this album? Obviously, this is only something the hardcore fans would ever scout out, so what about them? I'll tell you that there might be something valuable for the fans to take away from this. They might appreciate the chance to hear these lyrics a bit more clearly and intimately. What's more, Neil takes a lot of time talking about the plot to this “rock opera” at the beginning of these tracks. So, if you're completely unlike me and intrigued with these lyrics, then maybe you should consider this. Just a warning, though; you're going to have to turn up the volume really high to hear what he says. He mutters ever-so-softly! ...And then you're going to have to remember to turn the volume back down, or risk blowing out your speakers. My speakers are expensive, so they don't get blown out, but ...oof, it's loud to mah ears!
I can tell you, if I was there in Vicar St. that day, I would have thought it was cool that I was seeing Neil Young in person. But I would have spent that time continuously shifting in my chair and glancing at my wristwatch wondering “Why isn't he singing or saying anything interesting? Is this a Neil Young concert, or is this some sort of long-drawn out educational presentation? Listening to this album is like sitting through a middle school assembly featuring some boring American Indian guy. He might be completely dull, but you sort of have to respect him. But then again, that American Indian guy would have at least gotten the entire school out of class for a few hours. I can say a lot of things about Neil Young, but he never got me out of class. He never even tried. ...OK, this review is long enough now, so I'll stop it. Have a nice rest of the day!
Read the track reviews:
Prairie Wind (2005)
Album Score: 11
The gods are smiling upon me now. Neil Young's lengthy sting of albums have been mind-numbingly unremarkable ever since 1996's Mirrorball, and I'm thrilled to be listening to a Neil Young album that's kind of awesome for a change. While I wouldn't exactly call Prairie Wind remarkable, it's at least a likable and breezy country album just like Harvest Moon. I don't care what anyone else thinks; Harvest Moon is my second favorite Neil Young album, and I gladly welcome any clones of it. ...And when I say “clone” I actually mean it: “This Old Guitar,” for instance, is the exact same song as “Harvest Moon.” Except that song ruled, and this song is boring.
Well, not boring, but a little too uneventful for my taste. The important thing that set Harvest Moon apart from every other album in the world was its entrancing, haunting atmospheres. Unfortunately in the '00s, Neil Young didn't seem to be interested anymore in coming up with music that challenges our brains in any profound way. He pretty much spends this entire album muttering quietly over quieter instrumentation. Sometimes his melodies are interesting, or it has a nice, thoughtful slide guitar in the background or something. But, as a whole, I get bored over Prairie Wind.
Now, this is a respectable album. All of his albums are respectable. Even the ones in the '80s that seemed pretty stupid were respectable. But screw it. I'm tired of respecting Neil Young. Maybe I should trash this album. Just for kicks. ...OK, now I feel bad for writing that; I just read that Neil Young experienced a pretty serious brain aneurysm before recording this album, and he's reflecting on his life here. So, I'll excuse him for an album or two of creating unremarkable music. But just so you know, you're hanging by a thread, old buddy old pal!
Actually, this is a pretty good album. Pretty, pretty, pretty good. The best he had done in awhile. Most of these songs are well orchestrated, and they are written with distinct verses and chorus sections. (He deserves kudos for bringing out a Vegasy horn section in “He Was the King.” That's something fun and flashy that we don't get from him too often.) As far as Neil Young songs have been going lately, this is a good thing! The album starts off with “The Painter,” which is a sweet and laid-back country ditty with an interesting melody and an engaging slide-guitar in the background. It's very slow moving and boring, but I'm at least entranced enough by it to keep with it. “No Wonder” is even better since its atmosphere is more tense than most of the other songs on this album, and (whoah) it even has a pretty loud rhythm section!
But the album's slow-moving quality starts to get the better of me mid-way through. Specifically the six-and-a-half-minute piano ballad “The Dream” seems to go on forever without doing anything interesting. While the title track is a much more memorable song than that, at seven-and-a-half minutes it still seems to overstay its welcome. ...At this point in his discography, I really shouldn't act so surprised that a Neil Young album contains overlong, repetitive songs in it. But I've got to keep repeating this hang-up. This goes to show why I can never be a true fan of his.
Even though I get weary of Neil Young's muttered, castrated cowboy vocals, there is an unquestionable charm to it. He has a real knack of sounding absolutely sincere when he sings, which is a quality that comes off pretty damn well in this release. The lyrics throughout this album even seem pretty cliche compared to most of his stuff, but I'm actually able to get caught up in his words in spite of that. If Janet Jackson, for instance, were to sing the same lyrics, I might get a little agitated by the cliches. But Neil Young sounds like he's speaking to me. When he talks about the long, winding road of life in “The Painter,” I genuinely want to reflect on my own long, winding life... That's cool.
Naturally, Prairie Wind is a highly recommendable album to his longtime fans; it is practically impossible for a longtime Neil Young fan to be disappointed with one of his albums, and I'm sure they'll love Prairie Wind bits. Even casual fans might enjoy this album, particularly those who enjoyed Harvest Moon so much that they would gladly take a pale imitator of it. So, go forth and listen to Prairie Wind all ye fans.
Read the track reviews:
Living With War (2006)
Album Score: 11
For such a raging peacenik hippie, I don't recall Neil Young writing too many protest songs during the Vietnam War era. He might have written or performed one or two, but he certainly never released an album of all protest songs until now. He must have been feeling bad about that, so when this new war popped up in 2003 that got Neil Young's goat, he decided the time was right to rectify that previous mistake. He also didn't seem to care much for the American president, ole Dubya. God knows why.
I remember reading about this album in 2006 when it was released, particularly about the song “Let's Impeach the President.” The conservative pundits then told him to run off to Canada, which should be easy for him 'cos that's where he's from. But Neil Young is a member of the world, and members of the world ought to be able to exercise free speech about the leaders of the free world. I believe in free speech and freedom of expression, and I enjoy hearing the things people come up with under the protection of these freedoms. Even if they get rude and nasty sometimes. (Sometimes I claim I don't, but I'm only trying to be funny.) .......I even like hearing people exercise their freedom of speech after political parties have switched power, and there is a new voice of dissent. (Seriously, nothing irks me more than listening to the same people who nastily protested Bush all these years telling people who are now protesting Obama that they should shut up and do something else. Bah!!!) But I digress.
There is one side-effect of any album that tries to influence national policy: it is usually melodious. I mean, it has to be, if there's any chance that any of these songs will get stuck in our heads and influence our thinking! Neil Young's Living With War is no exception. This is his most sing-songey album. EVER. He even hired a crowd of back-up singers to sing throughout this album to simulate the feeling of standing in a crowd, watching Neil Young on stage while all the hippies surrounding you are singing along with the war protest lyrics. (And WHOAH!! I can't stress enough to you how thrilled I am that these songs have choruses. Keep it up, Neil Young!)
Unfortunately, even though he is concentrating on strong melodies for perhaps the first time in his career, it doesn't mean that they are great ones. I'm happening to be writing this review a few hours after completing the track reviews, and I honestly can't recall how a single one of these ditties goes. Even the only song I gave an A to, “Families,” I don't remember the melody. All I remember is I enjoyed listening to it quite a lot, and I found its lyrics poignant. That song is about the only one that I really like based on the lyrics. Most of the others are too bitter, too cynical, or too political for me to take them to heart. But I did find them interesting to read. I spent a lot of time in the track reviews extracting portions of my favorite lyrics, because I found them intriguing. But another reason I did that was because there wasn't a whole lot else to talk about.
That brings me to what's by far the biggest flaw of Living With War: all of these songs (except two) sound exactly the same. Oh, there are subtle differences here and there, but when you boil them down, they're all mid-tempo, sing-songey songs. The good news is that I like the way they sound. Neil Young brings back his ultra-distorted grunge guitar from the '90s, but instead of torturing us with it, he keeps it strictly in the background to lend all these songs a gritty texture. Interestingly, I'm not too fascinated with the two deviant songs. One is a straight choral rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which technically might be a fitting conclusion for the album, but everybody in the world has heard that song a billion times and Young adds nothing new to it. The other is the slowly paced “Roger and Out,” which has thoughtful lyrics about dead soldiers, but it has a tedious, plodding pace and a not-too-fascinating melody.
When it's all said and done, this is another good Neil Young album and certainly one of his best of the '00s. Most of the songs are upbeat and enjoyable, which is a good thing! But most of these songs sound the same, which could get tiring to some listeners. Of course, the main focus on the album is not the melodies, but the lyrics, which are frequently bitter and biting. Not that any of them had any effect on government policy, whatsoever. Really, I don't even know why celebrities even try. People might take a few minutes to listen to what they have to say, but in reality nobody really cares. ...Then again, come to think of it, President Bush was ousted from office after Neil Young had released “Let's Impeach the President” ......Shall we say, “Mission Accomplished?”
Read the track reviews:
Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Album Score: 11
This album is a whole lot of jammy jammy jam jam jam with the 'lectric guitar, but at least it's smooth and satisfying. This album is overflowing with mid-tempo, mild-mannered rock songs, and it's sure go down easily without causing audio indigestion like his grunge albums did for some of us. It's very long-winded, though, which is its main drawback. That's 66 minutes for a 10-track album that would have been much better at 40 minutes, but this is Neil Young, and he isn't exactly known for his brevity.
You might have also noticed that this album was christened with the title Chrome Dreams II, indicating that it is a sequel to a 1977 album that was scrapped and left unreleased. I'd say it's a pretty goofy idea to write a sequel to an album that wasn't released, but Young has had far goofier ideas in his career. Really, it's amazing what this guy gets away with.
This is a strange album for him, too, considering that it contains a song “Shining Light” that sounds to me like a cross between Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Memory” and The Bee Gee's 1969 hit “First of May.” Young might have tried a weird brand of pop music before in the '80s, but I never remember him going after that golden sunshine-boy pop sound. Even weirder is the closing track “The Way,” which features a children's choir (!!!) and sounds like something out of a hokey Christmas pageant. I'm also somewhat perplexed over “The Believer” which seems slightly like a mid '70s Marvin Gaye R&B song. I can't say I'm too wild over the R&B attempt, but the other two are lovely!
The other songs range from laid back country-ish to overlong jammy tunes, which are sure to please his longtime fans. The opening tune “Beautiful Bluebird” is a pleasant thing to sit through, and it features some of the loveliest acoustic guitar picking that I've ever heard out of him! “Boxcar” is a short and sweet tune with a deeply thumping drum, a nice melody and more of that awesome finger-pickin' acoustic guitar. When it comes to picking my favorite piece of the whole album, I am immediately drawn to “Dirty Old Man” with its dirty riff and Young's humorous delivery of its funny lyrics. I wouldn't be surprised if his longtime fans would love “Spirit Road” the most since it's the most “typical Neil Young” with its gritty and rambly guitar structure. Personally, I find it to be somewhat forgettable, but I am entertained by it!
I don't have much to complain about regarding the short songs (with the somewhat minor exception of the sluggishly paced country ballad “Ever After”). What gets my goat are two songs that Young dragged on well past their respective expiration dates for no good reason. At least the 18-minute “Ordinary People” has a rhythm that's kept punchy and some evolving guitar solos, but I start to completely space out after five minutes of it. The 14-minute “No Hidden Path” similarly starts out somewhat awesome, but I'm not even half way through it before my eyes start to glaze over. These songs are by no means painful to sit through... I just get the nagging impression that I could be doing other things instead of sitting through 'em.
While I find Chrome Dreams II to be a strong enough of an album to elicit a positive review out of me, I also can't forget that those two freakishly long tracks constitute nearly one-half of the album's entire running length. Thus I spend way too much time listening to this with a happily blank expression on my face like I'm some sort of comatose retard. I can't claim that any of this is ugly or inaccessible whatsoever, but it seems like I wasted a lot of time listening to it. I ask you, what does Young have against brevity? Brevity is nice! Ah, but I guess a good number of aged, acid-fried hippies listened to this and love every second of it, so who am I to argue with them? My idea of a great song is a two-and-a-half-minute ditty from the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols rule.
Read the track reviews:
Fork in the Road (2009)
Album Score: 11
If Neil Young is known for one thing, it's that he does whatever the hell he wants, and he doesn't care what anybody else thinks about it. And yet here I am as an amateur web critic trying to tell people what I think about it! Yeah, I'm living the tough life. Here is Neil Young's 2009 album, filled with an assortment of ballads and chuggy rockers, and it doesn't seem to have any overarching purpose or theme or drive to it. It's a seemingly tossed-off album that he made for no other reason than he just felt like it. Inconsequential might be a good word for it, but I don't think that inconsequential things are necessarily bad. Life is full of inconsequential things, and I rather like it. (I guess I should mention that the lyrics largely have to do with the government, the environment, the economy... You know, the typical old man Neil Young grumbling...)
I shouldn't insinuate that Young just haphazardly tossed this off. All things considering, he was one of the hardest working people in rock 'n' roll in the late '00s with his touring, the impressive string of archival releases, and his apparent family life. So it's pretty commendable that still found the time to make another album, and it's a pretty good one at that. Maybe one of the ballads could have been improved a mite, but you can't go wrong when he just wants to chug along with his guitar for a bit, which is what he does for eight of these 10 tracks.
For my money, the most enjoyable song of the lot is “Fuel Line” with its tight, menacing riff and catchy melody. It's an extremely simple, perhaps primitive rock 'n' roll song, but I can't stop myself from tapping my foot when I'm listening to it. Therefore, I declare, it is a great song. “Just Singing a Song” seems to be hinting back to Young's early '90s grunge days except the distorted guitar is more smoother and dreamy as opposed to gritty. If he's going to return to the grunge music in future releases, I hope he experiments more with this sound instead of the helicopter noises. I'm ***still*** sick of those helicopters.
The album closer “Fork in the Road” is a hoot from beginning to end. He's using a riff that I'm sure Chuck Berry used except the guitars are a lot sloppier. Although I'm not completely appreciating the other obvious '50s throwback in this album, “Get Behind the Wheel,” which for whatever reason comes off as more generic. Although that's a fun song as well.
The only track I don't like is the extremely slow and plodding ballad “Off the Road.” He only uses the minimal amount of instruments to orchestrate it, and the drum beat is so slow that it starts to get on my nerves. At least Young proves that he didn't forget how to write ballads altogether with the lovely country number “Light a Candle.” Sure, it's also a little uneventful and it seems weak compared to the stuff he gave us on Harvest Moon, but it's a perfectly nice song and I enjoy listening to it.
Based on what I've been reading about Fork in the Road from other critics, I was expecting this to suck. Perhaps I haven't been as gushy over all his supposedly great albums like Harvest or Freedom, so it maybe it makes sense that I would gravitate toward an album full of simple rock 'n' roll numbers. ...Well, I ended up giving it the same rating that I gave Chrome Dreams II and Prairie Wind, but those deserved 11s for their distinguished accomplishments. Fork in the Road deserves an 11, because it's fun listening to.
Read the track reviews:
Le Noise (2010)
Album Score: 11
Neil Young, prolific as ever, has entered his sixth decade in the music biz armed with a brand new album. Le Noise shows him returning to that HUGE and DISTORTED electric guitar sound that he had previously explored in the early '90s for albums like Ragged Glory and Weld. (Fortunately for my sanity, these songs aren't distorted so much that they sound like helicopter noises, but these are some pretty heavy guitar tones nevertheless.)
The weird thing about Le Noise is that it actually contains... er... songs. You know, things that have verses and choruses. Moreover, many of them are quite catchy, too. Ragged Glory, on the other hand, was more or less groove-based and he used his mega-distorted guitar as a means of providing a part of its texture. Here, he plays that guitar the same I way I expect he would play an acoustic guitar. That frequently creates some pretty cool effects in this album. I know, for instance, that some of his longtime fans would place Neil Young just one notch beneath God himself on the totem poles in their brains. ...Well, they're gonna flip when they hear Young doing a song like “Sign of Love” that features a reverb effect to his vocals coupled with a THUNDERING electric guitar, which makes it sound quite literally like he's God singing to the universe. ...And, oh yeah, those lyrics are pretty universalist as well. That's hardly a perfect song, but the melody is interesting enough to keep my attention and the riffs are good.
I like the album's opening number “Walk With Me” even more, because it's positively butt-whomping. For most of these songs, the only orchestration he uses is one guitar. (No drums, no keyboards, no washboards, etc.) But for that song, he pulls out two guitars. The more the merrier. (Well merrier perhaps isn't a good word to describe Neil Young music... I'm going to replace “merrier” with the phrase “more wrist-slitting.”) The stereo effect he creates with two guitars are really cool, so make sure you have a nice pair of headphones to get their full effect.
Fortunately for my poor, abused eardrums, not all of these songs feature heavily distorted guitar. “Love and War” is an extremely sullen ballad where it's just Young playing with a single acoustic guitar. ...And wow!!! It's one of the finest acoustic ballads I've ever heard him do. Musically it's quite simple and I swear I've heard its melody somewhere before, but the lyrics are a very personal account of how he's witnessed the effects of war on other people's lives through his years. There's a second acoustic song in this album, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” that features his typical sort of namby-pamby, tree-hugging environmentalist lyrics... But even so, it's a nice song to sit back and soak up, and I'm sure his fans will be immensely pleased with it. My only complaint is that it seems to drag on for far too long (seven minutes). (Speaking of Global Warming, how many hours do you think you could power an average air conditioner unit for every second it takes to power one of Neil Young's mega-distorted guitars?)
“Angry World” could very well be the scariest song Young has ever done. At least I can't immediately recall a scarier one. It's characterized by an eerie voice sample that loops endlessly throughout it; I can't decide if it's saying “Hate Me” or “He Ate Me.” Or maybe another listener thinks something entirely differently? “Hitchhiker” is another spooky song in which his mega-distorted guitar is used to illustrate seedy lyrics about his history of drug use. Once again, these lyrics are very personal, which I'm sure the fans are going to love to pieces. Unfortunately, I'm not a huge fan of the closing song, “Rumblin',” where the distorted guitar seems a bit too blurry for me
But anyway, congratulations to Neil Young for creating his most bad-ass record in more than a decade, since 1995's Mirrorball. I was strongly considering awarding it a 12, in my infinite wisdom, because most of these songs are good, and many of them are completely unlike anything I've ever heard him do before. ...But I inevitably held back, because there are a few too many draggy bits for my taste. With that said, everyone who had been a Neil Young fan for ages, must hear Le Noise. You will like it. I give you my word as a former Boy Scout. (The goofy album title, by the way, is a pun on the name of the producer, Daniel Lanois. Most reviews I've read of this album begin with this factoid, but I decided to end with it, because I'm cool like that.)
Read the track reviews:
Neil Young Live in Seattle with Los Lobos and Everest (November 10, 2012)
When the Del McCoury and Dala concert was still fresh in my memories, a couple of weeks later, it was already time for the next one. Did I live life in between these concerts? By process of elimination, I know I must have. For if I had blacked out that two weeks, that would have been a notable event. Since I have no memory of this, I must assume my existence was mundane, as usual. But then I found myself at Seattle Center (which is nearby the Space Needle, for those unfamiliar with the mildew-glazed town I live in). We'd just had an election that legalized pot which wasn't supposed to go into effect until December 6; however, that didn't stop invisible people from creating heavy clouds of it as I made my way to Key Arena. That haze of marijuana smoke was so dense I was quite literally choking on it. Marijuana vapors are not a known hallucinogen. Which is good, because that must mean what I saw at the concert wasn't a hallucination.
But now I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As you might have surmised up there, Neil Young was touring with two opening acts. In other words, it took a long-ass time for this concert to actually get started. And let me tell you something: I don't know if it was because I was only one week shy from turning 30, but this concert was loud as hell. The opening act, Everest, particularly murdered my eardrums. I mean, it's like they only played endless waves of noise. And it wasn't the sort of noise that was worth it. It was as though they knew the bland songs they were singing weren't interesting enough, so they would try to force it to be interesting by injecting these lengthy, squeaky jams in the middle of their songs. Except it didn't serve to energize their songs at all but make it an incoherent cacophony.
With that said, I did find myself enjoying about a third of their songs. What set those particular songs apart from the others was that they had a groove. One of these songs that had a groove must have been "Let Go." It is currently listed their most-played song on Rhapsody. ...Well, the studio cut of that is actually quite good. I suppose the fact I wasn't able to enjoy this band that much is either because opening acts (not to mention acts that are third on the roster) are on purpose supposed to suck or I just wasn't ready for these guys.
This concert took place at a major stadium and so far the largest venue I've ever been to in Seattle. There were still a few nosebleed seats open, but the place was otherwise quite full. I arrived to my seat about halfway down the bleachers early enough to watch the people populate the floor area. I'd never seen a higher concentration of plaid shirts in my life. I bought tickets roughly the second they went on sale, and was set back $400 for two tickets. By far, the most expensive tickets I've ever bought--obliterating my previous record of $125. They were good seats at least. It was to the side of the stage but close enough that the people on stage looked like cockroaches, and we could even look behind it. The stage had these giant crates sitting on it that were as large as a two story building. Right to my left, there was a giant screen that was situated inside of a giant, two-dimensional representation of a '50s style TV set. I had no idea what those crates were for, and those screens were left unused for the opening acts.
Considering how expensive these tickets were, it was nice to see another name-brand act on the bill: Los Lobos. I hadn't spent a whole lot of time listening to their albums, but I knew these guys well enough through reputation. And what do you know? They were far better than Everest! I didn't recognize a single thing they played. But thanks to somebody who published their setlist online, I know there were eight songs they played in total. They were as follows: "The Neighborhood," "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes," "Down on the Riverbed," "Chuco's Cumbia," "Tin Can Trust," "Wicked Rain," "Mas Y Mas," and "Don't Worry Baby." And no; the latter was not a Beach Boys cover. It was a fast-paced song you can do a jig to! Of course, I didn't do a jig to it. I don't even specifically remember listening to it. Most likely, I was probably sitting in my chair listening to it and regretting that I didn't bring earplugs. Because these speakers were turned up even more to 11 than they were before. Los Lobos weren't quite as prone to littering their songs with crazy noise-jams, but they did their fair share. While I wasn't a huge listener of their work, I knew it well enough to know that their studio work has a distinctly crisp quality to it. Were they grunging things up special for Neil Young? ...If anything, I wish they wouldn't have; I knew I was going to get plenty of that for the man himself.
I've never really claimed to be a huge Neil Young fan. Well, perhaps an admirer. Of course, he is a major figure who somehow manages to keep releasing at least one entirely decent per year. And the man can pack giant stadiums. He was notable enough at least to me to want to go to this show since I (for whatever reason) reviewed more than 40 of his albums. The process of reviewing all that stuff did drive me a little bit crazy, but it was in all good fun. And perhaps even spiritually enlivening. ...With that said, however, the real reason I went to this was to accompanying my dad, who said Neil Young is his favorite.
Oh, and this leads me to talking about the giant crates. Once Los Lobos shut down, I saw a bunch of guys in white lab coats and other guys wearing yellow helmets frantically running around the stage while The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" blared out of the sound system. One guy in particular had wiry white hair and coke bottle glasses. I could tell he was in charge, because he was the one with the clipboard. At first, I thought there was an actual, technical reason for them to be there. Like they were setting up some kind of obstacle course for motorbikes, and Neil Young would be blazing around it whilst singing his tunes. But that would have been confusing him for Meat Loaf.What they were really doing wasn't nearly as complicated as that. In fact, they weren't actually doing anything. They were actors. Their tasks were to wave their arms around while some unseen tech pushed a button that operated a pulley system that lifted those giant crates into the air. Revealed inside of those giant crates were towering faux-Fender speakers. In between those speakers, there was an elaborate drum kit. (From where I was positioned, I could not see the drum kit whatsoever, because the giant fender speaker was in the way. The only reason I knew it was there was because I had that giant TV screen right next to me that I could glance at.) In addition to those speakers, they set up a giant microphone. ...This had me wondering if Neil Young was taller than he appeared on those album covers.
Well, no, it turned out Neil Young was quite normal-size--from my position, he looked like an action-figure. But boy could he make that guitar roar! Which was unfortunate, because my eardrums were already tattered enough from those two opening acts! However, my eardrum sacrifice was worth it, because Neil Young had far better songs. (I also noticed that the guitarists contributing to all that noise were continually being reduced by one. Everest had five guitarists making noise. Los Lobos had four. Neil Young only needed three. So I guess less is more as far as noisy guitarists are concerned.)
But fewer guitarists would only give Young more room to go gangbusters. He peaked out, in that regard, spending what seemed like five minutes blasting out these massive guitar chords whilst striding about on stage during "Walk Like a Giant." It was a great effect in its first minute, but after that, major overkill. Then again, I suppose he was performing on stage with giant fender speakers and a massive microphone. When you're in that environment, I suppose you're going to be prone to indulging yourself.
I was close enough to the stage that I didn't want to spent a whole lot of time staring at a TV screen. I did glance at it every once in awhile. As I suspected, Young was in his mid 60s, placing him comfortably in the crusty-old-coot stage of his life. He's looking more and more like Yoda every day. Appropriate enough, as he is as wise as he is mischievous. He's also far more energetic than he looks. Or you could also say he looks like a guy in the American South who sits on his porch all day with a shotgun to one side and motionless hound dog to the other. When he'd rip out a guitar solo, he would be intensely into it. He could even dance about the stage as he played. When he'd get to a final chord (after an epoch of noodling) even jump a bit. Young has been around forever, and the way things were looking at this show, he'll be around forever.
I did have it in my mind that there were two Neil Young songs I especially wanted to hear, but considering his recorded output is bigger than The Bible (both in length and in scope), I was more than well prepared to go out of thus concert disappointed. These two songs were "Cinnamon Girl" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)." ...And hey, guess what? He played both of them! They showed themselves right toward the end of the concert, as well, right about the time I'd started to write in my head the part of this review half-jokingly complaining that he neglected my two favorite songs. After performing those, my brain thoughts got greedy and wished for "We R in Control." But I guess those kinds of wishes are reserved only for wildest dreams.
Additionally, he performed a number of other great songs that I'd instantly recognized. Those included "Mr. Soul," "Fuckin' Up," and "The Needle and the Damage Done." I remember before playing "Mr. Soul," Young was playing scratchy scales with his guitar telling us that we were going far back in time--naming a number of albums or songs that he'd released along the way. ([Guitar scratches] "We just went by Rockin' in the Free World," [More guitar scratches] "Heart of Gold," gone! [Guitar scratches, etc.] "We've landed" And then with faux-surprised bug eyes, he said "Far out!") "The Needle and the Damage Done" marked a moment 0f the concert when he put away his thunder grunge guitars and played with just a simple acoustic guitar, giving my ears the much needed break that they were yearning for. I'm four months late writing this review, but if I remember correctly, I sighed a sigh of relief.
Other songs he played? "Love and Only Love," "Powderfinger," "Born in Ontario," "Twisted Road," "Singer Without a Song" and "Ramada Inn." Most of these are selections from his latest album, Psychedelic Pill. The rest were older songs I'd forgotten about.
So then Neil Young left the stage and everybody in the crowd applauded and cheered like ninnies. And then he came out again. ...But he might have come out sooner if only those weird guys in the white lab coats didn't come back on stage to perform their wandering about stage, aimlessly. While the real unseen technicians were putting the giant crates back on the towering speakers. However, I guess there was a fake malfunction when the crate landed on top of the speaker with a thud. The weird lab coat guys looked confused and frazzled and I guess had to go backstage to regroup. This left Young unencumbered to play a few more tunes.
And guess what he played? It was only one of his best songs ever: "Tonight's the Night." My brain-wishes didn't even specifically log an entry for that song, but the fact he played it was just about the best thing that could have happened. A particular reason for that was because he was assuredly in his grunge-mode during this concert, and that was the mother of grunge songs. It was a fantastic performance of a phenomenal song. A perfect way to end the show! (Even more perfect, my mind wishes had to concede, than a rousing rendition of "We R in Control" would have been.)
So anyway. The lab-coat guys came back after and started putting the giant crates on the fake speakers ... for realsies, this time. That meant I guess it was back to the real world for most of us. But I wasn't really into watching them do that. Since I was conveniently seated on the aisles, I took the opportunity to hightail it out of there while the flow of traffic out of the stadium was still relatively loose. And then it was out the stadium and into the Seattle cold. ...I would also like to take this moment to mention that this would be the final concert I'd ever attend as a 20-something. Farewell, youth. Hello, middle age.
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