Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Year Of The Horse (1997)


It was Neil Young’s 63rd birthday last month, and as such it only seems fitting that I dedicate this post to what may just be his most underrated album, even more so than Trans or Greendale (both great, and unfairly panned, by the way).

Year of the Horse came along during a decisive time in the great artist’s life and career. Two years earlier, his producer, mentor and close friend David Briggs passed away. It was just after Young had turned 50, and been indicted into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame. Young was coming off a run of three immensely popular albums from the start of the decade (Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Unplugged), but already this return to favour was waning, as the fiercly underground Sleeps with Angels and the beyond-ragged Mirror Ball failed to keep up the chart-friendliness. Now, with Briggs gone, there was a concern that the Canadian’s muse would follow suit.

To be honest, for those wanting a repeat of the easy-listening fare of Harvest Moon, that disappointed was possibly well-founded. Briggs’ last advice to Young was “to get closer to the source”, to make the music “purer”. For a duo whose mantra had always been “the more you think, the more you stink”, this meant stripping down even further the Crazy Horse sound, taking it to its absolute ragged grunge apex. In the studio, this floundered a tad. 1996’s Broken Arrow had its moments of elegiac grunge-rock guitar beauty, but for the most part was a disappointing last tribute to Briggs’ memory and legacy. Yet, the subsequent sold-out tour would be the basis for what in my mind has to be Young and the Horse’s ultimate live opus.

Sure, Live Rust has the hits, and Weld has the volume, but Neil with the Horse was always about so much more than that. And during his Broken Arrow tour, the old master became increasingly dedicated to channeling the earthy, primitive vibe that had always characterised his collaborations with Crazy Horse. Indeed, on 1969’s Everbybody Know this Is Nowhere, their debut, the Horse’s simple rythm style provided the perfect blank canvas (“boom-boom-thack” drums, repeated guitar chords, plodding bass lines) for some of Young’s most soaring musical statements, be it on short, sharp rocker ‘Cinammon Girl’, the mysterious avant-garde folk dirge ‘Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)’ or the two epic monster workouts ‘Down by the River’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’. I could write a whole book on Young’s guitar-playing on those two tracks. It’s the stuff that very few of even the greatest guitar heroes have ever achieved, because it channels such a heady cocktail of emotions.

Year of the Horse conjures up this very same vibe to perfection. The track selection (which oddly differs from those featured in the movie -directed by Jim Jarmusch no less- that accompanied its release) is outstanding, mixing re-vamped versions of classic tracks such as ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Mr Soul’ (as a weird psychedelic folk raga for the latter, and a soaring metal ballad for the former), but above all featuring a wealth of lesser-known beauties. And these are great songs to “get closer to the source” on. One thing that characterised the great tracks on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, along with the primal rythym and sheets-of-noise guitar solos, were the lyrics. Oblique and mystical, they seemed to be beamed out of a timeless American folklore. It didn’t matter that this was some of the most forward-thinking rock music in America, it felt as unrefined and ancient as if it had been recorded before the very first white men had arrived on the continent.

And the tracks on Year of the Horse keep that very same spirit alive. If anything, it’s stronger here, with Young and the guys hitting 50+ and getting wiser, wilier and crabbier. The image on the back cover tells it all: Young leans into his microphone, face lined and grey hair swept all over his face, looking uncannily like the Old Man of the Mountain. The tracks here are long, for the most part, stretched out. Titanic. From the opening cudgeling of ‘When You Dance’ onwards, this motherfucker never stops bludgeoning, except a bloody brief acoustic interlude, which keeps the vibe going nonetheless, especially on ‘Mr Soul’.

For the rest, this is Neil at his grungiest. Scrap that, it’s beyong grunge. ‘Barstool Blues’ is a lesson in guitar mayhem. A riff is repeated over and over for the best part of ten minutes, whilst Neil roars some warped lyrics, including the monumental line “I saw you in my nightmares/but I’ll see you in my dreams”, as he rips out a non-stop avalanche of distorted, saturated solos. For nearly ten minutes! Sorry, felt I had to repeat that… ‘When Your Lonely Heart Breaks’ couldn’t be more different, yet doesn’t break the vibe. A thumping bass note repeats like a Godly heartbeat, deep and loud. Young’s voice is pained, and the song -a rarely heard gem- gains so much more potency ten years after it’s studio release, in the vastness of a concert hall, with Young the old man gasping hoarsly into his mike. You get the feeling he’s seen his fair share of broken hearts, including his own.

The rest of the album is built around three titanic workouts, two from Broken Arrow. ‘Big Time’ and ‘Slip Away’ gain so much from the live setting, the former at last achieving its true status as a great lament for the departed Briggs. It’s heavy, stripped down, meandering, rock as Briggs would have loved it. ‘Slip Away’ is a new ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ for the nineties, another elegy to a mysterious, fleeting woman, and sees Young tearing at his guitar with manic fury. But it’s a mighty, 13-minute-long rendition of ‘Dangerbird’, the most underrated track off 1975’s Zuma that really has my heart pumping and the tears flowing down my cheeks.

It emerges in a tornado of distortion and feedback from the dismembered remains of its predecessor, ‘Scattered’, the lead guitar breaking forth out of the miasma and launching immediately into surely one of the greatest solos Young has ever laid onto record. The rythm cunches, the guitars twist and entwine around each other and the cryptic, mystical lyrics soar out over the whooping audience, doom-laden and intense. It’s one of the most powerful moments in Neil Young’s discography, and he could only have achieved it with the Horse. ‘Dangerbird’ is the sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse reaching the source Briggs spoke of. Reaching it and letting it loose with full raging force.

On Year of the Horse, by getting closer to the essence of their music, Neil Young and Crazy Horse re-connect with the primeval, cosmic force of their debut, one that would constantly crop up throughout their career, but not with this regularity or intensity, as Young’s lyrics often became more “literal” after his smash 1972 success Harvest. In 1969, this band was perhaps the only one in America outside Detroit that truly matched the monstrous psychedelic vibe that the German bands (Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel, early Tangerine Dream) were also letting loose on their audiences. By 1997, a loss of innocence, and an even greater taste for volume turned The Horse into an even more spacey, quasi-doom metal outfit, close to the likes of Boris, Jesu or Nadja, but looser and with that eternal sense of melancholy and melody only Neil Young ever truly achieved.

This is all a pretty long-winded way of saying how much I love Year of the Horse. It’s rough, anything but clean-cut, and it stretches out for seemingly eons. But it reaches heights of cosmic grunge/psych/metal/folk meltdown that few albums by a mainstream artist have ever managed. Only Neil Young, and people wonder why I worship the guy!

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Year Of The Horse | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Trans (1982)


Trans’ Absence
I discovered Trans as a void, an empty space in my father’s record collection where the album may (or may not) once have sat. Did he sell it back to the store after one spin? God knows my father would have hated it, but still, the absence in his collection seemed puzzling: nearly everything else in Young’s vast discography was there and accounted for, dating back to the 1969 self-titled debut and including rarities like Time Fades Away (out-of-print since the ‘70s, and never released on CD) and the Journey from the Past soundtrack, so why not Trans?

I filled the void.

I can’t recall the precise chain of fascinations that led me to it. I know I found the LP cheap on Amazon (used, of course—the album has never been reissued, and the CD never released at all, in the US), and I know it was more than completist compulsion that drove me to Add To Cart. I was struck more, I think, by the notion of a black-sheep album so warped beyond all recognition, so incontrovertibly screwed-up, as to preclude coherent reconciliation with the rest of a beloved songwriter’s storied catalogue. How do you deal with a Neil Young album that refuses to behave like a Neil Young album?

If that seems attractive to me (and it does), it may hint at a frequent personal gravitation towards the “weird” album in the discography—the one that doesn’t quite fit. Records that ruined careers, infuriated label heads, maybe found an audience a generation later, or maybe not at all. I think of PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?, with its uncompromisingly abrasive textures and twisted character sketches that made fans question the artist’s mental well being. I think of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Slowdive’s Pygmalion, two of my personal favorite records, and two of the best records ever to end record contracts. (Though their sprawling abstractions alienated fans and critics alike, both works found eventual acclaim as landmark precursors to what would later became post-rock.)

And I think of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man, perhaps the clearest parallel to Trans by simple virtue of its abrupt divergence from the stylistic trademarks of Cohen’s rich songbook. Here, the sparse folk backdrop of “Suzanne” or “Joan of Arc” is violently subverted by Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production; the music’s swampy texture seems almost to hint at the vulgar lyrical fantasies. Most potently, there is the remorseless obscuring of an iconic, raw voice behind thick sheets of disguise (in this case, chaotic backing vocals and murky reverb) and this, intriguingly, is precisely the same offense that rendered Trans so immensely incomprehensible to so many.

If there’s a problem with the parallel, it’s that Cohen has largely been absolved of blame for Ladies’ Man’s commercial and critical failure. It was Spector’s doing, disapproving fans proclaim—the album has his fingerprints all over it. Popular legend even has the producer threatening Cohen with a crossbow, and literally locking the singer out of the studio to mix the record—to fulfill his own grotesque creative vision—without interference from, you know, Leonard Cohen himself. Trans has no such scapegoat. It was Young’s project to the end. His fingers on the buttons, his hands on the dials.

Direct the Action with the Push of a Button
And so, in 1982 Neil Young became “involved in something that [he] shouldn’t have been involved in”: electronica. Vocoders. Drum machines. Synthesizers. Lyrics about fascist robots and “computer cowboys.” Song titles like “Sample and Hold” and “We R in Control”. Mastered it, called it Trans. Sent the tapes to Geffen.

The bizarre project was to be his first release for the recently founded label.

Among casual fans and admirers, the album typically inspires more bafflement than it does ire. Bemused chuckles are the norm; shrugs of “What’ll he do next?” as trivializing as they are meaningless. It’s evoked more in the abstract, as an isolated and largely inexplicable event—something Neil did back in the ‘80s and just as quickly left behind—rather than a living, breathing album and enduring document, something one can still, in 2010, acquire and explore and formulate an opinion on.

Among professional critics, bafflement more frequently gives way to outright dismissal. William Ruhlmann, writing for AllMusic, awards the album two out of five stars and concisely affirms the popular verdict: “Trans had a few good songs… but on the whole it was an idea that just didn’t work.” The 1996 MusicHound Guide to Rock echoes the sentiment, lumping Trans together with its immediate follow-up, Everbody’s Rockin’: “[Neil Young]’s biggest failures were wild stabs at different genres.”

Thus, the record becomes a thoughtless reference point, a knee-jerk namedrop alongside other hugely successful artists’ bizarrely self-indulgent experiments that Just Didn’t Work (see: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, John Lennon’s Two Virgins, Dylan’s Self Portrait). It loses its distinctiveness. If it isn’t Neil Young’s most universally hated album, it’s certainly his most misunderstood.

That’s unfortunate. Because it’s one of my favorites. It’s a compelling and wholly singular work; it’s catchy, even, and—yes—sincerely moving, at least in parts.

So I mount my defense.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Trans | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Lucky Thirteen (1993)

15fb7d5266b404ed0069ecfdd20da63467eea0abFrom Rolling Stone

The album tracks, remixes and live recordings on Lucky Thirteen come from Neil Young’s trying affiliation through the Eighties with Geffen Records, a period that found him more slagged than celebrated. In fact, that passage only clarified Young’s passionate, career-long commitment to emotion over style; it offered the genre experiments of someone who countered early-Seventies Eagles-style pop, for example, with music that sounds like Sonic Youth playing country rock. Lucky Thirteen resequences and rethinks the imperfect but important Eighties work of an artist who recently contended that “deep inside” his acoustic pleasantries, his distorted raveups, his troubled techno, his symphonic flights, lies “the same stuff.” It’s an extraordinary view for a Sixties-based rock musician to take — a refusal to moralize about genre — and on this compilation, Young begins to set his artistic record straight.

Compiled by Young himself, Lucky Thirteen is more concerned with demonstrating the value of eclecticism than showing off Young’s finest Geffen copyrights; many memorable songs don’t appear. Instead, Young tries to show how the emotional impulses behind his songwriting, performing and recording methods remain constant as his styles vary. Beginning with a spectacular remix, firm and echoing, of “Sample and Hold” (Trans, 1982), followed by the blend of romantic yearning and technological severity in “Transformer Man,” from the same album, Young makes the bold transition into the analog guitar-and-harmonica vibe of the previously unreleased “Depression Blues.” In context, the dramatic effect of a narrative shot through with worries and hope that mourns the loss of “magic” in today’s world is impossible to overstate. These songs alone make Young’s point extremely well: that when you’re not married to one particular style, your music can then be free to develop itself totally, without fear of too much attention to what Young calls “surface.”

On the rest of Lucky Thirteen, Young further wins his case not with theory but with music: In a live, gnarly, previously unreleased version of “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me,” he stretches out words in a George Jones kind of way. On “Hippie Dream” and “Pressure” (Landing on Water, 1986) he sings country aches into songs governed by involved, gritty electric guitar. And in a patch of his famous indigestibility, he tells the tale of “Mideast Vacation” (Life, 1987), rolling out that metal-sired “Like a Hurricane” float that could be, in the end, Young’s greatest musical contribution.

A longer retrospective called Neil Young Archives will follow Lucky Thirteen. Meantime, there is this extraordinary album, which lays out the crucial reasons why Neil Young perseveres and triumphs.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Lucky Thirteen | | Leave a comment

Genesis Selling England By The Pound (1973)

download (14)From

Sound: “Selling England By The Pound”, is what I consider the best album Genesis ever made. Tony Banks discovers synthesizers and real soloing, Steve Hackett introduced sweep picking to progressive rock, and Peter Gabriel’s vocals were at their best. The album is started with the two radio hits, “Dancing With The Moonlit Night” and “I Know What I Like”, considered the greatest works in the Hackett/Gabriel era. The rest of the album fluidly runs with little error, with “Firth Of Fifth”, “After The Ordeal” and “The Cinema Show”, one of Banks’ greatest keyboard solos. // 9

Lyrics and Singing: Even after writing “Suppers Ready” for Foxtrot, Peter Gabriel was still full of amazing songs, and his vocals were just as good if not better. His reference to pop culture destroying Britain’s music in “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” is genius, and his writing about mythology and classical Shakespear in “The Cinema Show” is especially good. Even Phil Collins’ vocals in “more fool me” is Beautiful. // 9

Impression: Compared to the sometimes more drawn out songs in previous albums, “Selling England By The Pound” is essential. “Firth Of Fifth” was the first song that got me into Genesis, with the piano intro, the amazing lyrics, synthesizer jam session showing off Phil Collins’ worth as a drummer, and the amazing guitar solo at the end, this song is my personal favorite song of any Genesis song. If there is anything on this album that’s not perfect, it’s “Battle Of Epping Forrest”, one of those songs where the band got a little carried away with their jamming. If someone stole this from me I would probably slit their wrists with a rusty fish hook! If you are not sure what Genesis album to get, “Selling England By The Pound” is a good start! // 10

Sound: Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) is commonly know as one of the greatest progressive rock bands out there. After you listen to this album, it will be difficult for you to disagree. “Selling England by the Pound” is Genesis’ fifth studio album, and was a large step forward for the band. Out of the eight tracks on the album (clocking just over 50 minutes), only one comes to mind that is a bit of a let down, being “The Battle of Epping Forest” (there is such a thing as TOO much jamming).

Each member of the band has grown as a musician, and the band itself has grown much tighter. You can really tell these guys know each others styles and easily make all of their parts fit wonderfully with each other. It’s very rare that you hear a band that is this close together in terms of sound.

This album has a ton of great songs, and many of them you will want to listen to again. The great thing about them is that they’re constantly moving. Often a song ends in an entirely different way then it started, and this constant change really makes the music interesting to listen to. From the flute solos, to the guitar solos, to the piano solos, this band really pulls off great music. The music is catchy, while at the same time being interesting and techinically complicated.

In terms of actual instrumentation, Genesis is no let down. Tony Banks, the pianist / synthist, begins to play a more dominant part in the band, having more complex solos and parts in the songs. His playing has definitely gotten even better from the last album, and even when his part isn’t as important he manages to make it sound amazing. Phil Collins does a fantastic job on drums, able to keep up with strange time signature while still keeping things interesting and moving. Steve Hackett’s guitar playing is also nearly flawless. He is able to acheive a very amazing tone, and while for the most part his guitar playing is not overly complicated, the feeling and emotion in it can really be heard. It may be strange to say, but I almost felt like there wasn’t enough guitar however.. Other than that though, the guitar is fantastic. Mike Rutherford’s bass is good.. when it’s there. When he plays, he plays beautifully, but there could definitely be a lot more of it. Many songs feel slightly lacking without a powerful bass part. Finally, Peter Gabriel’s flute parts are breathtaking. They fit in perfectly with the style of song and sound amazing.

So basically, this album is great. The band obviously consists of very talented musicians who know what they’re doing and do it well. There are a few downsides, including some of the extended jamming and lack of guitar solos and bass, but these are relatively minor when compared to all of the good parts. // 9

Lyrics and Singing: The lyrics on this album are really great. Catchy, but not too catchy. Deep, but not so deep you don’t understand what they’re talking about. Intelligent, but not so intelligent you need a new dictionary. The lyrics avoid the two extremes, and fall almost perfectly in the middle. The lyrics go along with the music too, and cover a variety of topics, making the album even more of an enjoyable experience.

On actual vocals, we have Peter Gabriel (and Phil Collins on “More Fool Me”). Peter Gabriel is obviously a professional at what he does and is clearly an amazing singer. His voice fits perfectly with the music, and it is outstanding the way his voice can really make the song. Phil Collins also does a great job on the one song he sings on the album.

The lyrics and vocals are a strong point of the album, and I think without Peter Gabriel, Genesis wouldn’t be the same (as is proven by Genesis turning into a lame pop band after his leave). // 9

Impression: This album is great. It is probably my absolute favourite Genesis album. It’s very progressive, but it’s not just limited to that. Some of my favourite songs from the album (and probably favourite Genesis songs ever) include the amazing “Firth of Fifth” with all of its solos and sheer awesomness, and the mellow instrumental “After the Ordeal”. “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” also deserves some honourable mention. So if you’re a fan of prog, rock in general, or Genesis, this is a great album. In my opinion it is the greatest Genesis album made, and although it is lacking in some parts, overall it’s fantastic. //9

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Selling England By The Pound | | Leave a comment

Neil Young American Stars ‘n’ Bars (1977)

556ae51211c6d2ced940505e2538140f1eebfdb7From Rolling Stone

Right now, I think it would be just about impossible to overrate Neil Young. In the last few years he has web the most avant-garde styles to the corniest of archetypes — and deliberately ignored the public’s penchant for pasteurized product by rampantly (im)perfecting Bob Dylan’s crude but spontaneous recording technique. Seething with psychic dynamite, his raw and passionate electric-guitar playing boasts a tactility and uniqueness unmatched by any guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. Young has written songs as sensitive and beautiful as any by the most fragile and aesthetic singer/songwriter, yet he has played life-and-death rock & roll with the delirious ferociousness of the Rolling Stones at their most sordid and seedy. Of course, he has been misunderstood too quickly.

Since After the Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972), many erstwhile admirers have filed strong charges of morbid self-indulgence and drugged-out incomprehensiveness against the later LPs. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Janet Maslin wrote: “With On the Beach, 1974, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma, both from 1975, Young’s progressively more rudimentary music did little more than reiterate the murkiness of his lyrics. His renunciation of artifice was so absolute it left him no room for either drama or tension.” In the New York Times, John Rockwell, in a highly favorable review, characterized Young as “the quintessential hippie-cowboy loner, a hopeless romantic struggling to build bridges out from himself to women and through them to cosmic archetypes of the past and of myth.” Well, no.

Unless one understands the “On the Beach”/”Motion Pictures”/”Ambulance Blues” trilogy from On the Beach (and “Don’t Be Denied” from Time Fades Away), one simply cannot write intelligently about Neil Young. But when one understands these songs, one begins to perceive the exciting possibility that perhaps Young is rock & roll’s first (and only?) postromantic. That he knows something that we don’t, but should. Indeed, I suspect that Young took one of the longest journeys without maps on record, never even slowed up at the point of no return, but somehow got back anyway, a better man with all senses intact. When nearly overwhelmed by marital difficulties and the death of friends, he apparently looked into himself and managed an instinctive or willed act of Jungian purification that put him somewhat safely on the far side of paradise, if not paradox. I’m not saying he’s happy, but who the hell is happy? For Young, being a postromantic probably means he still loves the war, but knows exactly how and where to invest his combat pay — he may lose it, but never hopelessly. Romanticism is a foreign country; they do things differently there. It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Too homicidal.

Having gotten through the more self-destructive aspects of romanticism, Neil Young certainly takes full advantage of his revisiting privileges, pointing out the highlights and contradictions of his itinerary to all who will listen. Perhaps only a man who has known the answers can really see both sides of the questions. At any rate, Young’s Mona Lisa smile from the barroom floor on the curious American Stars ‘n Bars isn’t so much arrogant (“If you can’t cut it/Don’t pick up the knife”) as it is inclusive (“I know that all things pass/Let’s try to make this last”). So inclusive, in fact, that the album can almost be taken as a sampler, but not a summation, of Young’s various styles from After the Gold Rush and Harvest (much of the country rock) through On the Beach (the incredible “Will to Love”) to Zuma (“Like a Hurricane” is a worthy successor to “Cortez the Killer” as a guitar showcase), with a lot of overlap within the songs.

If one can divide American Stars ‘n Bars into major and minor Neil Young, I think that it breaks down this way: “The Old Country Waltz,” “Saddle Up the Palomino,” “Hey Babe,” “Bite the Bullet” and “Homegrown” are excellent examples of country rock at its most pleasant and muscular. While these songs abstain from cloyingness and retain the artist’s characteristic idiosyncrasies (Young is nothing if not quirky), they lack the necessary resonance to stand up to the LP’s four masterpieces.

In “Hold Back the Tears” and “Star of Bethlehem,” two songs about how it feels when you’ve just been left and didn’t want to be, a corrosive view of love metamorphoses into hopefulness (“Hold back the tears and keep on trying/Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love”), with a final metaphor equating the inevitability of the quest for a meaningful relationship with the apotheosis of the religious experience.

Which leads right into the shining “Will to Love,” a song that flies into the face of reason by flaunting the seemingly ridiculous — the thoughts of the singer as a salmon swimming upstream — in order to gain the truly sublime. And it works. (When was the last time you heard something like this on record?) Starting with a typical Young epigram (“It has often been my dream/To live with one who wasn’t there”), the song moves from the manic to the depressive (the two lines about “a fire in the night”) to a combination of both (“Now my fins are in the air/And my belly’s scraping on the rocks”) before homing in on the universal plight (“I remember the ocean from where I came/Just one of millions all the same …”) and promise (“. . . but somewhere someone calls my name”).

If Young’s triumph is that he will never lose the way to love, his need to locate that special someone can certainly cause tribulations. “Like a Hurricane,” with its gale-force guitar playing, is a perfect either/or, neither/nor description of a modern-day Gatsby caught between the tangible idea of transcendental love and the intangible reality of it. Everything is “hazy,” “foggy,” lit by “moonbeam” and “the light from star to star.”

I am just a dreamer
But you are just a dream
And you could have been anyone to me
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us and our foggy trip

The first three lines imply that the singer’s need to invent someone to love may be far greater than the someone he finds. One can infer from the last three lines that the feeling gained from the creation and the chance taken is undoubtedly worth it, no matter what the cost. Is there a happy ending? I don’t think so. “I want to love you/But I’m getting blown away,” Young sings. It’s like Key Largo with feedback.

Although he may be circling in a peculiar and seemingly haphazard manner (some claim he has as many as nine unreleased albums), Neil Young has a very good chance to be the most important American rock & roll artist in the Seventies. Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and others must be considered, of course, but I don’t know anyone who goes after the essences with as much daring as Young. I don’t know anyone who finds them like he does either.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young American Stars 'n' Bars | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Mirrorball (1995)


There comes a time when the penny drops and you realise the age you are in and you do a spot of self-assessment. You look around, get in touch with your peers and just see what they are up to. Are they the same people you knew 20 years ago? Did the values and ideals they sported still hold up or have they been changed, whether by “selling out” or by the realisation that they weren’t feasible?

Now imagine you are someone who has been through thick and thin. You played in a couple of legendary concerts, you lost people close to you to drugs and you had a hillbilly band diss you in a couple of songs. You’ve experimented loads of genres, just because you wanted the freedom of embracing the evolution of music. The acclaim you never got from your peers is slowly creeping in and a new generation is discovering your oeuvre thanks to a bunch of rag tags wearing flannel who are using feedback in ways you’ve never thought someone else would do. Surely not since you were on stage with a couple of Jawas.

One of these upstarts asks you to drop by and play with them at the MTV Video Music Awards. You jam out a bonafide classic and find that the age gap doesn’t mean fuck if the music is tuned in the same wavelength and if the passion is sported by the people you share the stage with.

So after the media’s chosen figurehead of this generation of rag tags passes away (murder or suicide, still debated) and you hear that he mentions you in the text of his suicide note, what do you? You record one album, partially based on the worries of his generation. You immerse yourself into their Zeitgeist and try to “pay it forward”. Your album, called Sleeps with angels, sounds harsh, moody, full of gloom but still breaches the sarcasm of a younger generation. But still, you want to do more.

Once you’ve tapped into them and understood them, you record an album, with your feelings dripping from your flannel sleeve, like you always did. You get those younglings who you jammed with at VMA ceremony and record an album in four days with some songs that you wrote and some that were born from those 96 hours. A jammy, organic album full of honest lyrics and your usual chord progressions, with the added kick of a young generation that utterly adores you.

You are Neil Young and in the studio is also Pearl Jam (minus Eddie Vedder, hiding from a stupid stalker), working as your backing band. The result is Mirrorball, an album with lyrical teams ranging from abortion (‘Act of love’, ‘Song X’), selling out and age (‘Downtown’), wars (‘Throw your hatred down’) and how the more things change, the more they stay the same (‘I’m the ocean’).

For starters, it has to be said that Pearl Jam really pull it through. Jeff Ament and Jack Irons rhythm section is a force to be reckoned with, specially considering the short time for rehearsal and recordings (although by the sound of the banter in some tracks, there probably was no rehearsal). Mike McCready and Stone Gossard manage not to choke up when being paired with a bonafide guitar genius, who also manages to never upstage anyone in the album. All instruments get their respective place, and, like previously stated, it’s a very organic album. And, hey, Eddie Vedder does manage to contribute for a bit (he’s “blink and you miss” in ‘Peace and love’).

They all feel free, like good friends just having fun in a garage. No constraints, no self-imposed rules nor tunnel vision, just eleven tracks with a lot of reflectiveness and some serious solos (check the one in ‘Throw your hatred down’, the song streaming right now).

Young‘s lyrics are never self-righteous and they never look down on the listener. Lyrics-wise, my heart will always be with ‘I’m the ocean’, a song inspired by Neil Young driving around Los Angeles during O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial (“…the testimony of/ Expert witnesses on the brutal crimes of love”). His observations are like a page from a diary, wondering about the Vietnam generation (“Homeless heroes walk the streets of their own town”), the numbing down of our collective lives through television (“Need random violence, need Entertainment Tonight”) , how he might be an outsider to his own peers (“People my age, they don’t do the things I do”) and conceding that although the generation gap is there, he will pay attention (“I can’t hear you, but I feel the things you say /I can’t see you, but I know what’s sin my way”). It’s a seven minute monster but the whole song is a slice of an era of confusion, seen from the eyes of someone who survived an even more confusing and cruel time.

Yeah, I really like that song. It’s one of those songs that strikes a chord in your heart and although Neil Young has an impressive back catalogue, this album is the one I revisit the most. Not only because I’m a big fan of Pearl Jam, but because I can really identify with the songs in this album (I’m from that generation). So many ideas rushing through my head seem to be plastered all over this. A couple of songs inspired me to write short stories too, so the least I could do to pay it forward to this album is to write about it.

I really like how between the distortion and rock moments, there is time to do some slow, calm pieces. There’s two and they re-use musical motifs from the album, but in a minimalistic approach: it’s only an organ and Neil Young‘s brittle voice, doing a little segue (‘What happened yesterday’) and a epilogue (‘Fallen angel’). Anger and frustration paired with reflectiveness and acceptance. It’s a couple of beautiful moments in an already stunning album. If you like how this sounds, I really gotta recommend you check Neil Young‘s unplugged: he deconstructs ‘Like a hurricane’ into a haunting piece (again, only organ and voice).

A consequence of Mirrorball was the change in style for Pearl Jam. If they were already professed fans of Neil Young (again, I mention that VMA 93 performance with him, superb), Young‘s presence and songwriting sensibilities stuck and they show perfectly on Pearl Jam‘s next album, 1996′s amazing No code (the one with the polaroids). Songs like ‘Smile’, ‘Off he goes’ (dedicated to Young) and ‘Red Mosquito’ (which sounds like an alternate take of ‘Song x’) feel like they are paying it forward to the grandfather of grunge, while still having their own identity. That’s all I will say for the meantime as next week’s Lost gems will be about this Pearl Jam album (with a mention to the transition single Merkin ball).

All in all, do yourself a favour and check Mirrorball. It’s a true gem of the 90′s, a perfect piece of grunge and a primary example of how a band can gel together so well that it stops being different individuals and becomes just a collective being, speaking musical platitudes about this life.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Mirrorball | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon (1997)


Among those who care, rumour often circulates the month or so before a new Rolling Stones album about what “direction” the leathery old warriors have taken this time. Thus, in the same way that some reckon that It’s Only Rock’n’Roll and Goats Head Soup are “camp” and Their Satanic Majesties Request is “psychedelic”, we have heard the unlikely epithet “techno” mooted about Bridges To Babylon. Certainly it features three contributions from The Dust Brothers and certainly there is a sense of post-modern knowingness on some tracks, At last, though, it can be told: the new Stones tour may come courtesy of Sprint communication technologies, but its accompanying CD artifact is more Dr. John than Dr. Who.

Bridges To Babylon is an entirely competent modern rock record saved from mediocrity by a handful of stand-out songs and the Stones’ innate cachet. The air of dissolution, tended carefully over three decades of Hell’s Angel murders and sexual hi-jinx, lends a raffish air to fairly ordinary songs like “Low Down” and “Might As Well Get Juiced”, “Gunface”, featuring Jagger at his playful best and “Flip The Switch” are better, both getting a jolt from nicely discordant guitar riffs. “Anybody Seen My Baby” and “Already Over Me” manage to get away with their mix of wounded male pride and sexual bluster. Whether they would were it not for their Stones imprimatur is another matter entirely, but you can’t disinvent 33 years of album making.

Perhaps the most genuinely likeable tunes here are both sung by Keith Richards and both, to varying degrees, are exercises in pastiche. “You Don’t Have To Mean It” shows the band audibly kicking off their shoes and having fun with a featherweight but musically perfect recreation of a Trojan Records single, circa 1974. And better still is the concluding track, “How Can I Stop” : beautifully moody, ersatz soul whose emotional punch is 100 percent authentic. Producer and pianist Don Was, Detroit born and bred, understands this stuff like few others and even he hasn’t done it so well since Was (Not Was)’s What Up Dog? album in 1988.

Strangely, Bridges To Babylon often recalls R.E.M.’s Monster album, Both are functional and capable and both will be absorbed into fans’ collections but neither will be remembered by neutrals in a year or two or win new admirers. But as several thousand people discovered last night somewhere in the midwest, Bridges To Babylon does the job it was made for.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Dirty Work (1986)


For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Let’s start with the cover: the five Rolling Stones, in harlequin haberdashery, scattered like spent shells across a couch. To a man they look dreadful. Mick Jagger, bare feet protruding from Winnie the Pooh-colored pants, holds the camera with insolent, tight-lipped scorn. Bill Wyman and Ron Wood pose like middle-aged leches. Even the redoubtable Charlie Watts can barely contain his disinterest.

Only Keith Richards manages to keep his equipoise—no small feat when you’re wearing a sports jacket Sonny Crockett would gladly have sold at a rummage sale. It’s to Keith (and, to a lesser degree, Ronnie) that we must turn as we try to defend Dirty Work, an album which, then and now, inspires nothing but loathing. Everyone knows the back story: Jagger, ego swollen by the moderate success of his first solo album (the pneumatic She’s The Boss) and Live Aid performance opposite Tina Turner (“sizzling” in a New York Rockettes kind of way), could barely hold his contempt for the four men whose combined assets paid for all the blow Jagger snorted in Studio 54. Richards and Wood cobbled together 10 tracks (two covers!) which in most cases relied on outsiders like Jimmy Page and Anton Fig to play the parts Wyman and Watts were too bored or strung out to play. Journeyman producer Steve Lillywhite’s hamfisted mix and cavernous drum sound accentuate what’s missing.

None of this sounds appetizing; but Dirty Work is a tattered, embarrassed triumph, by far the most interesting Stones album since Some Girls at every level: lyrical, conceptual, instrumental. For one, Dirty Work lacks any concession calculated to win a segment of the marketplace: no disco crossovers like “Emotional Rescue”, no AOR anthems like “Start Me Up”. What gives Dirty Work its fitful power is the aggression the Stones’ handlers have hyped since they were supposedly the anti-Beatles. Except now they’re not “channeling” (read “exploiting”) anger, as they did on the marvelous secondhand belligerence of Some Girls: they’ve surrendered to it; they’ve agreed to loathe each other. Hence the most venomous guitar sound of the Stones’ career, and Jagger’s most committed vocals. Despite copping to tired ‘80s subjects like nuclear apocalypse (“Back to Zero,” the album’s lone turd), all this aggression is reflexive. As Robert Christgau—still the album’s most lucid defender—noted, these are songs of conscience only well-known sons of bitches can get away with.

The obscure second single “One Hit (To The Body)” is an ideal introduction, remembered for the infamous video (in which Jagger and Richards duck and feint like Ali and Foreman). What a striking opening! An acoustic strum, followed by an electric crackle that’s like an elbow to the ribs, and then Jagger, making the explicit case for love-as-violence that 1983’s Undercover argued in more puerile a fashion. “Fight” and “Dirty Work” are more of the same, although the latter’s pointed condemnations are remarkable coming from a man for whom emotional stonewalling is as natural as fucking models: “Let somebody do the dirty work…find some jerk, do it all for free”.

But it’s on “Hold Back” where Jagger, the “voice of experience”, really lets it rip. That Keith and Ronnie add particularly sympathetic fills to a song defending self-interest underscores its malevolent irony. Jagger, “caught in this tree of promises for over 40 years”, gives us lesser mortals the sort of advice that only a plutocrat who’s never worked a day in his life can offer. See, since Stalin and Roosevelt “each took their chances”, you gotta trust your gut reaction, so don’t hold back. Mick’s performance is irony-free; he’s pissed about something, shouting and braying like he wants to gnaw at the microphone. Lilywhite earns his paycheck: the guitars surround, taunt, and goad; the drumming by Watts or Wood or whoever shoves Jagger down a flight of stairs. The rhythm guitar coda is superfluous, an afterthought; how could it be anything else? In “Hold Back” the Stones, finally, embrace their image: they’re dangerous, they don’t wanna hold your hand, they want your money. It’s a masterpiece.

Richards is rarely given credit as a singer; he doesn’t sound a thing like Jagger, and that’s a plus. Whether it’s Exile on Main Street’s “Happy”, Emotional Rescue’s “All About You” or his tear-inducing segment on “Memory Motel”, he wipes the irony his partner smears indiscriminately like cum on a rag. When “Sleep Tonight” creeps in, ushered by ghostly piano, it’s like tomato juice for a hangover. Possibly Keith’s best ballad, it offers the reconciliation that “Had It With You” (in which Jagger refers to you-know-who as a “dirty, dirty rat scum” and “mean mistreater”) denies. But with Jagger so defenseless on most of Dirty Work, Richards’ junkie-Dean-Martin vocals echo instead of foil, conferring grace on an album which embraces the deadly sins with diabolical abandon.

It’s “Sleep Tonight”’s most poignant irony that two songwriters who’ve spent 40 minutes bitching like Golden Girls affirm their partnership’s continuing vitality. “Those thoughts of you / They’re chilling me / The moon grows cold in memory”, Richards croaks, and you know why the dirty, dirty rat scum is smiling: Steel Wheels awaits three years later, and then Voodoo Lounge, followed by—somebody stop me. Plutocrats never know when to quit.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Dirty Work | | Leave a comment

The Who Live At Hull 1970


Between Pete Townshend’s book, the upcoming Quadrophenia tour, and a flood of reissues and otherwise newly unearthed material this year, 2012 has become something of a goldmine for fans of The Who.

Live At Hull 1970 joins a long list of new Who releases that includes the recent Live In Texas ’75 DVD and an upcoming boxed set of all the band’s studio albums.

But this release stands apart from the others – not only because it captures The Who during what most acknowledge was their peak period as a live concert act – but also because it was recorded the night after the legendary Live At Leeds show.

Regarded by many as the greatest live rock and roll album ever made, The Who Live At Leeds is, if nothing else, going to be a tough act to follow, even by the same band who created it. Live At Hull 1970 is a worthy, if non-essential, companion piece to that classic.

As the story goes, both performances were recorded for the planned live album, but the Hull tapes were either lost or deemed unworthy of release. There are even rumors that some of John Entwistle’s bass parts heard here, actually came from the Live At Leeds recording, and were duplicated in later studio overdubs for this album.

The main thing you notice about Live At Hull 1970 though – particularly if you own the deluxe version of Live At Leeds released decades after the original single disc album – is that the setlists from the two performances are nearly identical. The biggest difference on Hull is the omission of “Magic Bus,” which was a standout on the original Live At Leeds album. That one is sorely missed on Live At Hull 1970.

But there are other noticeable differences between the two. The version of “Shakin’ All Over” here includes parts of “Spoonful” in the middle, which are missing from the Leeds recording. The blazing, fifteen minute version of “My Generation” heard here is also – incredibly – even more ferociously played than the one heard on Leeds. Townshend simply takes his slash and burn power chording to another level here, and Entwistle and Keith Moon don’t miss a single beat in matching the ensuing pyro note for chaotic note.

Like the deluxe version of Live At Leeds, the second disc here is devoted entirely to a complete run-through of the rock opera Tommy. As was the case there, Tommy takes on a much edgier, rock sound live than on the studio album. Keith Moon is also nothing short of astonishing here. On the extended instrumental parts like “Sparks” and the “Overture,” he pounds the crap out of his drums like a wildman.

That said, making comparisons between these two performances from back-to-back nights, though perhaps a bit unfair, is also inevitable. Mostly, they are so slight as to be almost non-existent. But hardcore Who nerds will certainly notice the differences in recording quality. Those weird little clicks you hear between some of the tracks for one thing. Those are actually the sound of Keith Moon’s sticks hitting the rims of his drums.

If The Who Live At Leeds is considered by many to be the greatest live rock and roll record of all time, the performance here is so close that you could almost mount a decent argument for Live At Hull 1970 as a strong contender for the number two spot. That’s how close these two recordings sound.

Some fans will also argue that Live At Hull is the better performance, due to its rarer, more obscure status compared to the much more celebrated Live At Leeds. But it’s basically the same show.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | The Who Live At Hull 1970 | | Leave a comment

The Who Quadrophenia (1973)


With internal bust-ups and tranquilizer overdoses punctuating a continuous creative power-struggle, The Who’s ‘rock opera’ Quadrophenia pushed the definition of a concept album to its limits while demonstrating the transparency of youth subculture.

The album told the story of Jimmy, an archetypal Sixties mod. With sharp gear, tailored suits and slim-line Italian scooters key to mod life it was difficult for kids like Jimmy to keep up with the head ‘faces’. It was the inadequacy felt by those unable to meet these high expectations that provided the album’s narrative, particularly on ‘I’m One’ and ‘Cut My Hair’. For inspiration, Townshend revisited the band’s early days when, in 1964, they fell under the watchful eye of a new manager. Pete Meaden, a publicist and major mod ‘face’, had a vision to make The Who the focal point of his scene. He dressed them in Ivy League and Levi’s, cut their hair, and taught them how to dance, walk and talk, projecting his image onto the group.

Unable to keep up with the ‘faces’ Jimmy spirals out of control, descending into quadrophenia – a form of schizophrenia dividing the patient’s personality into four. This also represents the clashing personalities of The Who’s four members. After trashing his scooter and absconding to mod hacienda Brighton on ‘5:15’, Jimmy is saved by the realisation that Brighton’s iconic Ace, who he idolised, is just a hotel bell boy, a discovery that forces Jimmy to accept the transparency of a scene that for him has been a religion. After realising London’s existing recording studios would not be able to accommodate the scale of Townshend’s vision, the band chose to build their own state-of-the-art facility in Battersea which, although still unfinished when the sessions began, was capable of meeting the sophisticated production demands of ‘Sea And Sand’ and ‘Love Reign O’er Me’.

The studio was awaiting a new sixteen-track desk that would enable Townshend to create the most complex work of their career. However as work commenced the place looked like a war zone and it was necessary to bring in [The Faces’] Ronnie Lane’s mobile studio in order to record around the unfolding chaos.

As the album was recorded among the debris it became clear to the band that Townshend saw ‘Quadrophenia’ as ‘his’ record. After six months of megalomania and no finished product, other members spoke to Townshend about his autocratic control. The most vitriolic complaint came from singer Roger Daltrey regarding his vocals being recorded low in the mix. At the time, Townshend merely dismissed these complaints as “ungrateful” but during the rehearsals for the ‘Quadrophenia’ live shows the bad feeling boiled over into violence. Pete swung for the singer several times before Daltrey, a tough Shepherds Bush bruiser, hospitalised him with a well-timed uppercut.

This animosity leaked into the sold-out live shows, cultivating a tense and bitter atmosphere where the smallest of mistakes could blow the band apart. With the album’s material relying heavily on complex technology to be reproduced live, disaster soon struck. During a show in Newcastle the spot tapes failed, spiralling Townshend into a state of anger and despair.

As the band took the live show to America the problems festered like an open wound. The behaviour of drummer Keith Moon was causing grave concern. While playing in San Francisco, Moon suddenly collapsed on stage after having been ‘spiked’ with an alarmingly high dose of monkey tranquilizer, which hospitalised him for three days.
Following the jailing of the whole band in Montreal, Townshend banished ‘Quadrophenia’ from their live shows for twenty years, adding a ghostly mythology to the story of a young mod’s mind coming apart at the seams.

The story, all self-destruction and mental breakdowns, bore an eerie resemblance to the life of Pete Meaden who, after losing control of the band in 1964, descended into a downward spiral of drug abuse and depression. which saw him detained under the Mental Health Act during the early Seventies.

However, fast-forward to 1978 and Meaden was again working with the band on the film version of ‘Quadrophenia’. Working on the film reinvigorated his passion but he never really recovered from losing the band and unfortunately, the character who many believe Jimmy to have been truly based upon, soon succumbed to the album’s curse.
He was found in the bedroom of his parents’ house in Edmonton after taking a barbiturates overdose. In 1979 NME’s Steve Turner described Meaden’s death – in the teenage bedroom of his parent’s cramped terraced house – as a very mod way to die. What is clear is his untimely death drew parallels with Jimmy’s demise in ‘Quadrophenia’ in that it explained the emptiness of his chosen religion’s utopia and proved, to both Meaden and Jimmy, that mod was nothing more than deception and pretence.

Meaden, who said of ‘Quadrophenia’: “It’s me, Townshend’s writing about my life”, was laid to rest at Southgate Cemetery, where his scattergun mind finally found peace.

February 23, 2013 Posted by | The Who Quadrophenia | | Leave a comment