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 + 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 + 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