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.

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

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.

 

Neil Young – Stories Told

Neil Young – Storytone

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Diehard Neil Young fans are like any other. They’re unswervingly loyal. Which is a good thing, because on more than one occasion the greatest living Canadian has done his darnedest to divest himself of even his most devoted followers. Tonight’s The Night got rid of the Harvest set. Trans did for the hippies. Arc left only those with severe tinnitus standing. Fork In The Road encouraged others to take a different turning. Now there’s Storytone. Officially, it’s a single album with Neil plus big band or orchestra, but sans Crazy Horse and Old Black. Unofficially, it’s a double album with solo and unplugged versions of the big band and orchestral songs. Just Neil plus a single guitar, banjo, or piano, with the occasional harmonica thrown in for extra effect. What’s interesting, though, is that the ‘Deluxe’ edition, which is pretty much the standard offering in the usual outlets, places the solo versions first. These are the ones that people are going to hear the most. So, the headline news that Neil Young has gone and made an album with a cast of thousands suddenly seems to have been relegated to the back pages. Was it the right decision? Is any of it half-way decent? Or is it just another case of The Shocking Pinks? Well, there are some worthwhile solo moments. ‘When I Watch You Sleeping’ has a nice Prairie Wind-era vibe to it. And the by-now-familar ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up’ still has the best hook on the album. What’s most striking, though, is the mic’ing on this part of the album. It makes everything both pristine and intimate. You can hear the foot pedals creaking on the piano-led songs. The full-on versions, though, are more of an acquired taste. ‘Say Hello To Chicago’ is ruined with clichéd big band parping and hooting. And some of the orchestral songs are so drowned in strings that they sound like Disney scores. These versions work best when the orchestration is understated. ‘When I Watch You Sleeping’ is still worth a listen, though if you heard it on its own you’d probably think that a solo version would sound better. You’d be right. But the closer, ‘All Those Dreams’, is worth the time. Another case of restrained orchestration, it builds nicely on the solo version, even if the ‘cucumber’ lyric still jars. With Storytone Neil Young has managed to alienate a few more fans. But the diehard ones will remain, eagerly and quite rightly awaiting the next unpredictable instalment in the great man’s career.

 

The Guardian review

New York Daily News review

Neil Young – Those Were The Days

Neil Young – A Letter Home

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On After The Goldrush, Neil Young covered an old Don Gibson song, ‘Oh, Lonesome Me’. Slowing it right down, he turned it from a cute 1950s country tune to a 1970 stoner classic. It’s a trick of transformation he’s pulled off more than once. ‘Four Strong Winds’ was a safe selection and it became one of his signature tunes. ‘Farmer John’ was a more surprising choice, but it was central to the wonderful scuzzed-up sound of Ragged Glory. Now, hot on the heels of last year’s Crazy Horse reunion, Neil Young has delivered another collection of covers. Recorded at Jack White’s Third Man studios in Nashville, it’s a highly nostalgic album. It begins with an audiogram to his late mother. Just loving chit chat. It’s cheesy, but sort of affecting. And the track selection is personal too. Mainly old songs from his parental past. Rick Rubin has definitely not been choosing the set list. But how do they sound? Well, a number of tracks could be originals straight from the Neil Young Archives. Previously unheard classics from the On The Beach, Comes A Time, Chrome Dreams era. They include Phil Ochs’ ‘Changes’, Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle Of Death’, Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all because it’s so familiar, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’. But others don’t get it quite right. Neither of the Willie Nelson covers works well. ‘Crazy’ sounds just a bit too schmaltzy. And while the lyrics of ‘On The Road Again’ capture a surefire Neil Young spirit, the tune just doesn’t suit. And then there’s the by now infamous audio quality. Much has been made of the artist who champions hi-res audio putting out an album that crackles and hisses in a very lo-fi way. Recorded direct to vinyl on a 1947 Voice-o-Graph, some of the songs teeter on the unlistenable, particularly the piano-led ones. But there are also times when they underline the the pathos of the lyrics and the fragility in the voice, ‘Needle Of Death’ being the best example. The old-fi recording process is all part of the search for nostalgia on this album. It’s also, of course, a symptom of Neil Young’s general cussedness. And that’s why he’s still so compelling.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

American Songwriter review

Rolling Stone review

Uncut review

13th Floor review

Neil Young – I Love You Baby, Can I Have Some More

Neil Young – Live at the Cellar Door

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There’ll be a time when Neil Young is no longer among us. But there’s no reason to believe that his recorded output will end anytime soon. Well known for systematically recording and filming his gigs, there’s a possible world in which a new Neil Young release every, say, six months reaches the digital shelves for at least the next 300 years or thereabouts. The latest from the NYA is a set from late 1970. Actually, it’s a compilation of performances from six separate shows at the Cellar Door in DC in late November/beginning of December of that year. When everything is stacking up for the next major instalment of the NYA to focus on his mid-1980s output, it’s typical of the ornery old fellah to go back to his early 1970s roots. There’s a real historic (read geeky) interest to this release. This set of gigs took place just eleven months after a previous NYA release – Crazy Horse at The Fillmore – and a mere six weeks before yet another still – Live at Massey Hall. Even so, it offers something genuinely original. Unsurprisingly by now, we get some very different versions of standard songs. The piano version of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is a revelation. And for once ‘Bad Fog of Loneliness’ comes across as almost chipper. What’s more, while the set focuses mainly on After The Goldrush, Harvest is clearly in gestation. Indeed, we’re treated to the first ever outing of Old Man. Pleasingly, this set is also much more intimate than the Massey Hall gig. And the sound is captured just exquisitely. Overall, what’s reassuring about this release is the very Neil Young-ness of it. While he started every one of the Cellar Door gigs with ‘On The Way Home’, it’s not present here at all. As recompense, though, we get perhaps the most beautiful rendition of ‘Flying On The Ground Is Wrong’ that has been released to date. There’s no second-guessing Neil Young and that’s his very attraction. This is yet one more manifestation of the same. And more than welcome it is too.

Uncut review

Consequence of Sound review

All Music review

The Line of Best Fit review

American Songwriter review

The Guardian review