Classic Rock Review

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Neil Young Old Ways (1985)


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.

March 15, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Old Ways | | Leave a comment

Neil Young Old Ways (1985)

fc370d48f1d49ba428f69b7545c9e4e67fb2a6a1From Rolling Stone

Are you ready for the country? Neil Young posed the question way back when, on Harvest; now, thirteen years later, he’s restated it as a command: “Get Back to the Country,” he urges on Old Ways, with Waylon Jennings seconding that emotion. Jennings provides legitimizing C&W ballast for Young on Old Ways, singing and/or playing on six of ten tracks. Willie Nelson adds his unmistakable nasal quaver on another tune, a lament with the barely believable title “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?”

Lord knows Young could use the credibility, at least with the country audience, which is probably at least mildly wary of this latest incarnation of his. Still the proof is in the hearing, and this turns out to be his most carefully crafted album since Comes a Time. On some levels, it’s even arguably conceptual, although Young’s deeper musings will be missed if you listen only to the polished surface of this ostensibly purist C&W exercise. “Get Back to the Country,” for instance, is more than just a rabble-rousing bluegrass breakdown; in it, Young asserts that a return to roots after his quixotic rock & roll fame was inevitable.

Now he sings with an audible smirk that he’s “back in the barn again” as a jew’s-harp boings away idiotically. One is left wondering how seriously to take him. Not very, I’d guess. Young opens the album with “The Wayward Wind,” a Number One pop-schlock hit from 1956, dressing it up in slick Nashville duds, right down to the swooping strings and corny duet vocals. But if this is a put-on, why do so many lines ring true? What is Neil Young if not “a restless wind that’s born to wander”?

Both songs make references to “younger days” and being “a younger man,” and in “My Boy” he addresses the subject of his son’s vanishing youth, in his tenderest vocal, with an almost despondent incredulity. Could it be that he’s feeling his age and that country music, with its solid grounding in the sort of adult values and verities that outlast the fires of youth, has given him a forum in which to chew on these matters? Looked at this way, “California Sunset” isn’t just another drippy, fiddle-happy ode to Young’s home state but a potent image of a native son whose days of roaming are behind him. And “Where Is the Highway Tonight?,” with understated ensemble playing and an enticing wisp of a Fifties pop melody in the vocal, finds Young looking back and wondering, “Where are those old days and crazy nights?”

But just when you think he’s ready for the old rocker’s rest home, he throws in a few curves. In the title track, with Young picking slow and hard at his acoustic over bluesy accompaniment, he allows that “old ways can be a ball and chain.” Come to think of it, Willie Nelson doesn’t sound entirely comfortable on “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” — which might be more tongue in cheek than it appears.

“Bound for Glory,” a story about a hitchhiker-truck-driver romance, sends up “Me and Bobby McGee.” And “Misfits” is as strange as a meteor falling on the farm. It’s kind of a space-age parable, retold as Indian lore to the rumble of a double bass and the tribal thump of a single drum, with the occasional apocalyptic wail of a woman’s voice. So disarming is “Misfits” that you don’t notice the violins. Or Waylon Jennings. Pretty amazing.

February 24, 2013 Posted by | Neil Young Old Ways | | Leave a comment