Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Visitor

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In the latter part of the 21st century when students at the future University of South-West Tulsa are completing their sophomore year in Neil Young Studies, it’s possible that they’ll consider The Visitor to be a late-career highlight. In contrast to the throwaway Peace Trail and the bombastic Storytone, The Visitor captures a band that sounds like they’ve playing together for years and includes songs that make you want to listen to them for more than just old times’ sake. For sure, the context is clear. We’re in Trumpland, or anti-Trumpland from the Youngster’s perspective. “I’m living with a game show host, Who has to brag and has to boast, ‘Bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear”. But unlike The Monsanto Years, this visitor isn’t a preachy one. That’s probably because we’re all pretty much on the same page Trumpwise. So, there’s no need to belabour the point. And this means more time for the music. The guitar break on ‘Stand Tall’ is as good as anything in recent times. ‘Almost Always’ would be perfectly at home on ‘Silver and Gold’. And the melody on ‘Already Great’ sounds like it’s been sitting in the archives for a couple of decades just waiting to find the right home. But there’s more than just a few nice sounds here and there. ‘Carnival’ could be one of the very best Neil Young tunes of all time. It’s based around a simple and potentially clichéd Mexican-style riff that continues for more than eight minutes. But there are some wonderful merry-go-round moments that harken back to songs like ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!’, or The Beach Boys pre-Pet Sounds highlight, ‘Amusement Parks USA’. More than that, it’s a lyrical blast. “I do resent, Too much time was spent, In the tent of the strange, Elephant of Enlightenment!” And better still, this is Neil Young back at his cinematic, story-telling best. Think ‘Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Pt. 1)’, or ‘Ordinary People’ without the social commentary but with plenty of characterful cackling. The sophomore year of Neil Young Studies already has a rich and very varied curriculum. But students at the future University of South-West Tulsa may well find themselves spending some time with that late-career highlight, The Visitor.

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Neil Young – Peace Trail

Neil Young – Peace Trail

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The new Neil Young album includes one sure-fire instant classic, some could-be-great protest songs, and only a couple of tracks that don’t quite fit. That’s not bad for another in-and-out-of-studio-in the-wink-of-an-eye release. The sure-fire instant classic is the title track. It’s the equivalent of ‘Goin’ Home’ from Are You Passionate? The track that lifts the rest of the album to a better place. It’s also a track that could be played in plenty of different ways live, from a scorching guitar-led Crazy Horse/POTR track right through to a more reflective acoustic solo ballad. That’s the sign of a great Neil Young song. Aside from ‘Peace Trail’ itself, there’s also a bunch of could-be-great tracks. In fact, there’s a really powerful protest album trying to fight its way out of this set of songs. Standing Rock is a common reference point, making the album a sort of The Monsanto Years for the Dakotas. But there are other themes too, notably Black Lives Matter. The disappointment, though, is that while most of the songs in this category – ‘Show Me’, ‘Indian Givers’, ‘Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders’ – have great potential, most are not sufficiently well realised to make their point as forcefully as they might. And in some cases, the presentation is more than a little approximate. ‘Texas Rangers’ being the worst offender in this category. Only ‘John Oaks’ really matches the title track for its compelling mixture of the message and the music. And then there are the tracks that don’t quite fit. ‘Glass Accident’ is strange. The melody sounds eerily like ‘Sail Away’, but the subject matter is more personal than anything else on the album. It’s a good song, but one that belongs in a different place. As for the closing track, ‘My New Robot’, this could have been a sort of protest song too, providing a sense of the anomie of modern-day living. However, with its Trans-era Vocoder sound, it just doesn’t deliver. Peace Trail is a deceptively simple album. It may include only one great song, but it’s well worth a listen. And as a commentary on Trump-era America, indeed contemporary life pretty much everywhere, it has a serious point to make. And that can’t be said of every new album, never mind one from a 71-year-old Canadian.

 

Neil Young’s Best Acoustic Albums

Oh happy day (potentially). Neil Young has announced a new album. It’s called Peace Trail and it’s primarily acoustic, or so we’re told. In anticipation, here are Neil Young’s five best primarily acoustic albums to date, live albums excluded.

5. ) Silver and Gold

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This is a strong set, but there’s a nagging sense that it’s trying to be Harvest 3. Nonetheless, ‘Razor Love’ and the title track itself are worth the admission fee. And it was good to see ‘Red Sun’ being resurrected on a recent tour.

4.) Comes A Time

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Some classic tracks, yet an album that somehow ends up being slightly less than the sum of its considerable parts. But Nicolette Larson’s vocals are always a joy. And listening to ‘Human Highway’ makes you wonder just how good that lost CSNY album would have been.

3.) Prairie Wind

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It’s usually the long electric songs that are hypnotic enough to get totally lost in, but ‘Prairie Wind’ has the same effect here. Written in the context of family death and personal illness, this is an album that reimagines old times and reflects on uncertain futures.

2.) Harvest Moon

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Coming after his epic return to form with Crazy Horse, Harvest Moon was an abrupt change of tack. Nothing new there. ‘Unknown Legend’ is one of his best songs, but it’s a great collection overall. Check out the change in the running order on Dreaming Man.

1.) Mixtape of sides 1 of Rust Never Sleeps and Hawks And Doves

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These albums followed each other chronologically (Live Rust excluded). In both cases, a number of the songs had been written some years back. And, without exception, all of them still sound great. They make a perfect match. The argument doesn’t generalise, though, because the electric side of Hawks and Doves is a complete dud and under no circumstances should ever be paired with side 2 of Rust Never Sleeps.

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – Earth

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – Earth

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Promise of the Real have given Neil Young a new lease of life. After the rather stilted orchestral outing that was Storytone, Canada’s greatest export since beaver fur has been re-energised by his collaboration with Lukas Nelson + the band. The combination seems to work best live. This 98-minute-long collection comes from the recent US shows. Perhaps it’s the bass, but there’s a bounciness to the live sets that hasn’t been present for a while. Here, the version of ‘Love and Only Love’ is the best example. It’s full-on danceworthy for at least the first 10 of its 28 minutes. The song selection has also been revelatory. The Old Man of the Canyons has always been ready to blow the dust off classic tracks and take them for a spin, but the Rebel Content tours have seen the return of some long-lost friends. Here, we’re treated to ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘Western Hero’, both of which had only ever been played live once before in 1974 and 1995 respectively. There’s also a version of ‘Hippie Dream’, which hadn’t been performed since 1997, and ‘Country Home’, which had been played on only a few occasions since about the same time. Along with songs from The Monsanto Years, this is a really nice setlist, even if the inclusion of ‘Time Fades Away’ or ‘Alabama’, would have been the ultimate treat. But this is a Neil Young album. And befitting his recent mindset, there’s more than a little quirkiness to the production as well. Backing vocals have been overdubbed and a selection of animal sounds and other earthly noises have been added to the mix. We’re treated to bees, frogs, crows, turkeys, and not just between the tracks, but sometimes in the middle of them too. It’s all a little strange and unnecessary. But it doesn’t spoil things. In the end, Earth doesn’t quite recapture the thrilling live experience of the Promise of the Real tours. We’ll have to wait for an Archives version for that. But it’s a more than worthy document of yet another exciting period in Neil Young’s long and unique career.

Best of 2015 … Big names

‘Tis the season to divulge one’s end-of-year lists. Here’s part 1: Great albums by big names.

Big names often disappoint. Oh, how I once looked forward to the latest release from Sting. Well, in an alternate universe anyway. Sometimes, though, the big artists continue to deliver great work. Here’s a selection from 2015. (Spoiler alert: Adele is not included in the following list.)

Neil Young + Promise of the Real – The Monsanto Years

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Following Neil Young is like being on a rollercoaster ride. After a couple of duds – Storytone, A Letter Home – he came back with a scorcher. A little preachy, to be sure. But with some fine tunes and playing that hits the heights of the great Crazy Horse, The Monsanto Years was so good it almost made me want to eat GMO food. Did I miss something?

Björk – Vulnicura

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I shall lay my heart bare. Indeed, I shall portray it as such on the cover of my album. There wasn’t much subtext on Björk’s album, but it was certainly raw and confessional. This was a Björk sans affectation, sans happening, sans the usual Björk. And all the better for that.

Don Henley – Cass County

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Don Henley isn’t a huge name in his own recording right, but the point is that he delivered a really nice album this year. The version of Tift Merrit’s ‘Bramble Rose’ was worth the price of admission on its own. Overall, there was a sense of an artist who wasn’t afraid to show that he was in the latter stages of his career. That’s refreshing. Especially when the tunes are as good as these.

Ryan Adams – 1989

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In my world, Ryan Adams is the biggest artist. This year he surprised us with a full cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Great cover songs transform the originals. And here was a whole album of same. It raised the idea of Taylor Swift covering Heartbreaker in its entirety. Oh be still my beating heart.

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Neil Young & Bluenote Café – Bluenotes

Neil Young & Bluenote Café – Bluenote Café

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The latest release from the Neil Young Archives is a real treasure. Compiled from the tours with the Bluenotes bands between November 1987 and August 1988, we’re treated to two-and-a-half hours of music and 21 songs. They include no fewer than 6 previously unreleased tracks, 1 obscure b-side (‘I’m Goin”), 2 that appeared on albums only years later (‘Fool For Your Love’ and ‘Ordinary People’), 2 others that can be found only on the long-forgotten Lucky Thirteen compilation (‘Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me’ and ‘Ain’t It The Truth’), 1 work-in-progress version of a soon-to-be classic (‘Crime In The City’), and a couple of old, but greatly reworked stalwarts (‘On The Way Home’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’). Oh and 7 tracks from This Note’s For You, including an unrecognisable version of the title track, at least if you’ve haven’t heard it since the early days of MTV or if you never made it through to the end of Lucky Thirteen. Together, the tracks are a sort of mash up of the set as it developed over those relatively short tours. This is the blues and R’n’B period. It’s all big riffs and a horn section. And when it works, it’s completely revelatory. ‘Welcome To The Big Room’ and ‘Don’t Take Your Love Away from Me’ get things off to a powerful start. ‘Ordinary People’ sounds more authentic in its original form. ‘Crime In The City’ is even snarkier here than on Freedom. And ‘On The Way Home’ is more reminiscent of the Buffalo Springfield Richie Furay version than any of the folky Neil Young releases since. But when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. This isn’t because of the style, it’s because some of the familiar songs just don’t have the legs and never did (‘Married Man’) and because a couple of the unreleased tracks are equally unremarkable (‘Hello Lonely Woman’, ‘Soul Of A Woman’). Bluenote Café isn’t a release for fans of ’70s-era Neil Young. In fact, he played only a couple of other songs from that era on the whole of the ’87-’88 tours. Instead, this is a release that shows how even if the 1980s weren’t perhaps Neil Young’s best years in the studio, there was still plenty of greatness happening live. So, let’s hope that the next release is a selection from the Life tour with Crazy Horse. Now that was a real blast.

 

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real – The Monsanto Years

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real – The Monsanto Years

Any new album by Neil Young is welcome. But some are more welcome than others. Fork In The Road had the door slammed in its face. Storytone wiped its feet, but wasn’t allowed to stay. Psychedelic Pill was found a quiet place in a corner to sit down and recover. In fact, Chrome Dreams II was the last to be let into the drawing room for a nice cup of tea in the best china. For its part, The Monsanto Years is one of those Neil Young albums that you greet with the door only slightly ajar and the safety chain still firmly on. Like Greendale, it’s not entirely clear whether or not it’s safe to let it in. Well, after sizing it up for a while, the decision has finally been made. Come on in The Monsanto Years. You’re very welcome. Why? Well, partly because there’s a real Crazy Horse vibe at times. True, there are never enough riffs to get Ragged Glory lost in, but the rhythm section is great and there’s some fine guitar work and not just from the frets of Old Black. Plus, there are some memorable songs. ‘A New Day For Love’ wouldn’t be out of place on Broken Arrow, that most maligned of Crazy Horse albums. ‘Wolf Moon’ has clear and present Harvest Moon echoes. And the frazzled country sounds of American Stars ‘n’ Bars can be made out on some of the tracks, not least ‘A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop’. But the centrepiece is ‘Big Box’. This is one of Neil’s story-telling tracks, reminiscent of ‘Crime In The City’, or ‘Ordinary People’. It’s utterly effervescent, keeping up a breathtaking pace until the very end. Too often recently, Neil Young albums have got lost in the very idea alone. A Letter Home with the Voice-o-Graph. Storytone with the orchestra and big band. The Monsanto Years could have gone the same way. But the song-writing and the playing keep it more than honest. Credit to Neil Young. Credit to Promise of the Real.

Here’s Haskell Wexler’s documentary that captures the making of the album. It’s quirky. Worth it.

Pitchfork review

Paste review

Pop Matters review

The Line of Best Fit review

American Songwriter review

Consequence of Sound review

Blitzen Trapper – Harvest

There’s already been at least one complete cover version of Neil Young’s Harvest album. In 2011, Mojo Music Magazine asked various artists to reprise the songs. They included such luminaries as Villagers, Phosphorescent, Doug Paisley, Smoke Fairies, and Sam Amidon. With that sort of line up, some of the versions were extraordinary. As a whole, though, it didn’t quite capture the ethos of the original. Now, Harvest has been covered from start to finish once again. This time, the great Blitzen Trapper have taken everything upon themselves. The result is a really cohesive and respectful set. Without simply copying the originals, they’ve been very true to the sound of the classic versions. And it works really well. And it would. After all, Blitzen Trapper are pretty much halfway there already with some of their songs. Paradoxically, though, perhaps the best moment is when they’re furthest away from the Neil Young version. On ‘A Man Needs A Maid’, they don’t try to repeat the full orchestral grandiosity of the original. Instead, they play it like the long-lost, laid-back cousin of ‘Out On The Weekend’. It sounds really great. Blitzen Trapper seem really committed to this project. They released a vinyl edition of the album for Record Store Day this year. They’ve also performed it live. In fact, NYC Taper has made a live version of their April 17 gig at City Winery available to download. The added bonus of this version is that you get to hear some other Blitzen Trapper wonders too, including ‘Black River Killer’ and a particular favourite, ‘Furr’. Well worth checking out.

The 10 Best Neil Young albums

It’s a fallow time of year. The release cupboard is almost bare. Thoughts inevitably turn to would-be releases. Will we ever hear again from Beach House, Bowerbirds, Cotton Jones, East River Pipe, Elvis Perkins, Feist, Fleet Foxes, Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter, Jill Andrews, Richard Hawley, Sufjan Stevens, Vetiver? In the meantime, the only recourse is to lists. Here are my top 10 Neil Young albums.

10. Broken Arrow

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Golden moment: Side 1. “It’s all one song”.

9. Sleeps with Angels

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Golden moment: ‘Change Your Mind’ at 7:37. The song has built up to a natural conclusion only for Neil and the boys to say ‘to hell with it, let’s play it all again’. And they do, for another seven minutes.

8. After the Gold Rush

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Golden moment: ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’. A song “that’s guaranteed to bring you right down”.

7. American Stars ‘n’ Bars

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 Golden moment: ‘Like A Hurricane’ at 2:23. The best one-note guitar solo ever.

6. Harvest

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Golden moment: ‘Words (Between The Lines Of Age)’. Another song where time can stand still. Mind you, the definitive version is on the ‘Journey Through The Past’ soundtrack.

5. Zuma

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Golden moment: “What A Killer”.

4. On the Beach

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 Golden moment: ‘Revolution Blues’, “I see bloody fountains, And ten million dune buggies, comin’ down the mountains”

3. Rust Never Sleeps

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Golden moment: The last verse of ‘Powderfinger’. But how come the narrator is still telling the story when he’s just told us he’s been shot dead.

2. Ragged Glory

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Golden moment: ‘Why do I keep F*!#In’ Up?’

1. Tonight’s the Night

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Golden moment: “I’ve got time to roll a number
and rent a car.” Avis have since officially distanced themselves from this sort of behaviour.