Tag Archives: Neil Young

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / Hamell on Trial

Men alone with their thoughts (and guitars)

Neil Young – Hitchhiker (Reprise)

Lost recordings, my ass. In a patented move favored by Boomer acts, Neil Young has exploited the past to disguise the fact the creative well is dry. These 10 songs were recorded in 1976 during a day-long session fueled by an iconoclast on a hot streak and a few lines of cocaine. The tapes were inexplicably shelved, and the album-that-never-was grew into one of rock’s many myths.  Gripes about nostalgia and marketing gags aside, this is his most cohesive and affecting batch of songs in five years. Thing is, we’ve already heard all but two of them elsewhere in Young’s scattershot discography. From 1979’s seminal Rust Never Sleeps and up to 2010’s experimental Le Noise, the bones of this album have been picked clean. What dates this record are the characters Young populates his songs with — Nixon, Marlon Brando and Pocahontas live at the Astro Dome! But the tranquility of the performances and strength of the material shakes off the grime of history. “Powderfinger” is no-less devastating when stripped of Crazy Horse’s hungover guitars, and rarely has his quivering voice been so haunting on “Captain Kennedy.” The production is unadorned, the mood is bleak and the auteur seems weathered and weary.  I’ll be damned if this doesn’t rock nonetheless. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Powderfinger” / “Pocahontas” / “Hitchhiker”

Hamell on Trial – Big Mouth Strikes Again (New West)

This live disc is included as a bonus for those who purchase the vinyl copy of Tackle Box but is available on streaming services, too. Regardless of format, these songs are a preview to get your keister in the seats when Edward Hamell visits your town. His anti-folk polemics translate to the stage without losing an ounce of vigor, and being in front a paying audience strengthens his funny bone and sharpens his sarcasm. While humor is found in the macabre, the best laughs regard fatherhood on “Inquiring Minds,” in which Hamell attempts to save face for his inquisitive son. “So when he asks me about my past, and did I get high / I’ve been seriously thinking about my reply / I’m gonna lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.” But he’s not joking when he claims to be the happiest man in the world in spite of a devastating divorce (“When you got nothing, you got nothing they can take away”) and he’s dead set against racism, jingoism and Dancing with the Stars. But notice his most solemn lyrics come in the form of a tribute to Matthew Shephard and other victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Like every great songwriter before him, he knows sympathy is for others. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Happiest Man in the World” / “Inquiring Minds” / “Hail”

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Sound ‘Round: Todd Snider / Neil Young

Protest albums from yesteryear for the Age of Trump

Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables (Aimless, 2012)

todd-snider-agnostic-hymns-and-stoner-fables
Classism is America’s secret shame, a topic kept away from the dinner table by people who view the lottery as their 401k. So consider Snider the humorist-in-chief for schlubs like you and me. His rag-tag brand of folk recalls John Prine and Steve Earle, but his sardonic lyricism and funny bone make him the anti-hero we need. This album capped a mid-life renaissance that began in 2004 after he ditched opiates and features his best material regarding his favorite subject matter. “In the Beginning” is a morality play in which religion is created by the wealthy to trick the poor, and “In Between Jobs” opens with the truism, “If I had a nickel for every dime you have / I’d have half of your money.” He one-ups himself a few tracks later when mocking a cliché regurgitated by privileged folk everywhere: “They say that living well is the best revenge / I say bullshit / The best revenge is revenge.” But give him a golden parachute for “New York Banker,” about a high school teacher swindled of his pension by Wall Street tricksters. “Good things happen to bad people,” goes the chorus. It’s a line so sad and prophetic it will be a fitting title for Trump’s presidential memoir. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “New York Banker” / “Too Soon to Tell” / “In Between Jobs”

Neil Young – Living With War (Reprise, 2006)

neil-young-living-with-warYoung is idiosyncratic and cantankerous, a combustive combination that makes him a spirited geezer and an old kook.  His post-Y2K releases are in his wheelhouse — anti-war and pro-environment — but his obsessions have gotten the better of him. No matter your support for electric cars, does the world need an entire album about them? Young thought so on 2009’s Fork in the Road. But his impulsiveness is also inspirational, just like this hyper-political album released as the Bush administration plunged into catastrophe. Recorded in nine days with a 100-person choir, this is his most urgent collection of songs. With lyrics as direct as the music is steadfast, this captures the zeitgeist in a way American idiot Billie Joe Armstrong never did. His grievances are aimed at Dubya, but he always sympathizes with the little guy, like the soon-to-be-dead soldier who wishes he was home (“Families). “Let’s Impeach the President” states its case well and is a worthy protest sign, but give Neil credit for extending an olive branch to the warmongers. When contemplating who will succeed Bush, he dares namecheck Colin Powell so long as he “rights what he’s done wrong.” Putting “America the Beautiful” as the finale is icing on the patriotic cake. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Families” / “Flags of Freedom” / “Let’s Impeach the President”

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / The Everly Brothers

Songs to mom, songs from dad

Neil Young – A Letter Home (Third Man)

neil young - a letter homeAlways feisty and with a cause to champion, Young’s disdain of late has been aimed at a music biz perceived as a black hole devoid of “musical authenticity” – a cringe worthy phrase too often used by hipsters and dilettantes. For the auteur, however, the phrase damn well means everything. That this smattering of acoustic covers performed in a Voice-O-Graph at Jack White’s Third Man headquarters sounds straight out of Dust Bowl America is no gimmick. Rather, it’s a scrapbook of memories forged while singing as a child with his now-deceased mother whom he affectionately addresses in the intro. The audio pops and fizzes like a Depression-era anthem, his guitar bends in and out of tune, and his braying timbre is muffled by laughably archaic recording technology. The song selection, an assortment of obscure protests and iconic standards, were written by old-timers who share his enthusiasm for the craft: Dylan, Nelson, Springsteen, Everly and others. The whole thing would reek of fogeyism were it not for Young’s lighthearted and reverential approach to the material. Close to 70 years of age, it’s charming to hear him giddy with approval after a rendition of “On the Road Again.” As said to the former White Stripes front man who accompanies him on piano: “That was a funky one.” Agreed. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Girl From the North Country” / “Crazy” / “Early Morning Rain

The Everly Brothers – Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (Cadence, 1958)

the everly brohters - songs our daddy taught usThe lithe and insatiable rumble of their rockabilly peak is unexpectedly paused on this quaint collection of folk ballads – a progressive artistic choice with risky marketing implications at the time. The songs are penned by writers obscure and unknown ranging from the era of the New Deal to the Round Table, each one worming its way through oceans and bloodlines. The subject matter is often melancholy and the characters often doomed: A son who can’t afford a train ticket home to his dying mother, a murderer who faces the gallows after drowning his wife, a hopeless romantic ever-optimistic despite a lifetime of unrequited love. Moody, no doubt, but the morose verses are counteracted by graceful harmonies brimming with a hymnal and jubilant quality. Such earnest fragility pays dividends on the tunes absent death or wrongdoing – specifically those concerned with familial bonds and the stirring tribute to their Bluegrass home. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Long Time Gone” / “Barbara Allen” / “Kentucky

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / The Jimi Hendrix Experience

The sound and the furyNeil Young – Live at the Cellar Door (Reprise, 2013)

neil young - live at the cellar doorThe latest in Young’s archives performance series is culled from six solo gigs at a compact D.C. club in December, 1970. The bulk of these 13 songs are found on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) and After The Gold Rush (1970). The blocky guitar arrangements of the former are softened by Young’s preoccupation with the piano – a nine-foot Steinway provided by the venue. The bare-bones attitude of the latter are enhanced by Young’s brooding demeanor – he was addicted to pain pills at the time and still troubled by the fallout of Buffalo Springfield. Blame it on the editing, Young’s disposition, a bored audience, the post-‘60s hangover or a combination of all four, but the pacing is too business casual: in and out in as straight a line as possible. His lone attempt at humor comes before the finale. “This song is about dope,” he says as he rakes the piano strings for a disharmonious effect. “It’s mostly about grass.” The audience laughs. “You’d laugh too if this is what you did for a living.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “After the Gold Rush” / “Old Man” / “Tell Me Why”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968)

jimi henrix - electric ladylandOnly a genius and a visionary could pull off a record this adventurous: psychedelic blues jams, playful Brit-rock, melancholic pop, sci-fi prog, stoned jazz and volcanic feedback are all encompassed on a 75 minute double album that never outstays its welcome. Only a studied studio man could weather the circumstances. Frustrated with Hendrix’s laissez-faire schedule and intake of drugs, bassist Noel Redding and manager Chas Chandler quit midway through recording. Steve Winwood, Buddy Miles, Al Kooper, Jack Casady and the Sweet Inspirations make guest appearances, but Jimi’s towering presence renders their respective cameos afterthoughts. Only the most brilliant axe man of all time could propel his genre into the future with such tenacity. As he cut down mountains with the edge of his hand, The Who were riding the magic bus, The Beatles were misguided in India, The Stones were stuck with the blues and Clapton stumbled into a heroin addiction. This is a masterpiece only Jimi Hendrix could make. His guitar playing is powerful, inventive and sublime. His colorful lyrics are the best they would ever be. His ambition is audacious as his talent. His vocals are playful and resolute. His final album released in his lifetime is his greatest testament. What a hell of a way to burn out. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” / “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” / “Crosstown Traffic

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young and Crazy Horse / Van Morrison

The perks of doing whatever the hell pleases you. 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)

Neil Young - Psychadelic PillStating the obvious first, this record is too damn long. At a tedious 87 minutes, Young and his galloping band of hippie gypsies’ first album of new material in a decade is nothing more than a long winded journey into nostalgia land. And with nearly two-thirds of the running time centered in three of the nine tracks, including “Driftin’ Back,” a half hour of Young making known his disdain for .mp3s and modern technology while pining for “the way things were,” it’s a chore to sit through from start to finish. But where he can be crotchety, he’s also sweetly reminiscent, as he is on “Twisted Road,” a sentimental recollection of the first time he heard Dylan’s “Rolling Stone,” and listened to the Dead on the radio. With so much time spent looking back, his story telling is centralized on “Ramada Inn,” a 16:50 slow burn about a couple of empty nesters who have nothing to do but love each other simply because  they have no choice. He mixes past and present on the 16:27 “Walk Like A Giant,” a sludge ballad which finds Young striving to dust off artistic complacency. “I used to walk like a giant on the land / Now I feel like a leaf in a stream.” The guitar solos (all four of ‘em) appease his belief in bigger being better, while the final four minutes of noise and feedback are the sounds of a legend stomping like hell because he’s earned the right to do so. Call it self-gratification. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: Twisted RoadWalk Like A Giant” / “Ramada Inn

Van Morrison – Born to Sing: No Plan B (Blue Note)

van morrison born to sing no plan bFrom the man who exchanged pop stardom and brown eyed girls for soul-searching and moondancing, comes a record that’s every bit as confident as the title suggests. Absent any big hooks, there are plenty of smaller, consistently tuneful moments sprinkled throughout; the bass runs on the protest jam “If In Money We Trust,” the ebb and flow of the horns on “Close Enough for Jazz,” the melody of “Open the Door (To Your Heart) and the piano fills on “End of the Rainbow”. Yet, for all of the cool-jazz charm to be found, the album peaks too early and sags too much the final two songs. Still, he knows how to make cruise control swing. Mostly because cruise control is the name of his game, and in jazz, as he says himself, sometimes that gets you close enough. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: Born to Sing” / “Open the Door (To Your Heart)” / “End of the Rainbow”