Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Neil Young 1968 -> mid 1972

Ok, I've spent a month or so with the first eight Neil Young albums, and have some thoughts.

Neil Young (December 1968) - C+
Meh. If you love Neil Young, this is a tough record. It's long-time complaint has been that it's over produced (which is true), but it's also just clearly an album written by a twenty-two year old. By a YOUNG twenty-two year old. Compare it to 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' which came out in 1963, when Dylan was 22 and you'll see what I mean.

It's chock full of teenage pseudo poetry stuff. Even the titles of the songs point to a guy trying way too hard. There's not much subtlety in 'The Loner', 'If I Could Have Her Tonight', 'I've Been Waiting for You', or 'I've Loved Her So Long'.

There are a couple tracks I dug. 'The Old Laughing Lady', 'Here We Are In the Years', and even 'The Last Trip to Tulsa' -- but mostly I wished I could hear them as done solo on piano, or with Crazy Horse, around 1970-71.

This album IS notable, however, because it brought Neil together with Jack Nitzsche, the incredible (and tragic) keyboardist, and the man who would become synonymous with Neil Young albums, producing basically every Neil Young album until his death in 1995, David Briggs.

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (May 1969) - A+
Released a scant six months after his solo debut, this album is to its predecessor what Neil Armstrong was to Orville Wright. Talk about one giant step for Neil Young. From the crunchy guitar and hand clap opening of 'Cinnamon Girl' to the winding down guitar solo of 'Cowgirl in the Sand', the seven songs in 40.5 minutes that make up this album are damn close to perfection.

This was Young's first album with Crazy Horse (formerly 'The Rockets', hence the title of 'Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)'), and you can tell the band really set up the sonic space they needed to let their sound hit the tape exactly right. Young's vocals are much more open, his guitar work is both more focused and more relaxed at the same time, and the addition of the incredibly Crazy Horse gives his song the direction they needed.

As a lyricist, Young seems to improve quite a bit on this album over his predecessor. 'Down By The River' a song where the singer kills his lover, and seems to relish in it, is amazingly counterbalanced by the plaintive almost-sobbing of 'Running Dry's' "I left my love with ribbons on, and water in her eyes. I took from her the love I'd won, and turned it to the sky'.

This is my most-listened to Neil Young album. If you don't have it, get it. It's really good. I think it's perhaps the perfect album to listen to when it's really hot, kind of dusty, and you've got a can of beer in your hand.

After the Gold Rush (August 1970) - A+
Two home runs in a row? Seems unlikely, but it's true. This is Young's first stab at the acoustic/ballad-y side that would gain him worldwide fame with 'Harvest' (released eighteen months after this LP), but is counterbalanced with plenty of 'Everybody Knows'-era fuzz guitar tunes. Of course, the album goes much deeper than 'it's half electric and half acoustic'.

At thirty-five minutes, ten seconds, the elven songs on this record pack a real punch. Kicking off with the the heartbreak trinity of 'Tell Me Why', 'After the Gold Rush' & 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart', side one takes a sharp left into the overtly political 'Southern Man' -- a rocker calling out racism in the south -- and lands on the jaunty piano ditty, 'Till the Morning Comes'.

Side two kicks off with the harmonica wail of Neil's incredible cover of the country tune 'Oh, Lonesome Me' and continues in the heartbreak vein right on through. This album may be the best break up album of all time, but it ends with the raucous sing-along of 'Cripple Creek Ferry'.

This album flows so wonderfully, that as soon as the first track starts, you know you're going to listen to it all the way through. And, somehow, this album which is full of heartbreak, loss, sorrow and anger leaves you at the end…..smiling? It's crazy. Great work Neil. Allegedly the project started as the soundtrack to an unmade movie written by the great Dean Stockwell, but even the script has been lost.

This album features an incredible line up of players. Nils Lofgren in his first released recording at the age of 19, the incredible (and incredible messed up) Jack Nitzsche, Stephen Stills, and then the folks from Crazy Horse are all here as well -- Bill Talbot, Ralph Molina, and in what I think is the last released studio work with Young, Danny Whitten, who would die of a heroin overdose in 1972, and send Neil on a strange three year musical journey.

Fun aside: Lynard Skynard famously sang 'I hope Neil Young will remember, southern man don't need him around anyhow' in 1974. Warren Zevon responded in 1980 (in 'Play it All Night Long') with 'Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band's song, turn the speakers up full blast, play it all night long'.

Harvest (February 1972) B+ 
In the eighteen months between records, Neil had hooked himself up with the folks over at Crosby, Stills & Nash and put out one studio album (Deja Vu) and one live album (4 Way Street) and while there are many folks who love CSNY (myself being one of them), I wonder if it wasn't too much of a distraction for him, at (arguably) the height of his powers.

I think Harvest is a great album, but it's all over the place. While on Gold Rush, he was able to mix styles, themes and sounds seamlessly, 'Harvest' feels like a compilation album -- in fact, I'd argue it's the  logical predecessor to the next two NY releases which are SO all over the place, he's never bothered to released them on CD or digitally (Journey Through the Past & Time Fades Away).

Harvest has some great tunes, and was the best selling album of 1972 in the U.S. Obviously, 'Heart of Gold' and 'Old Man' are the two insanely popular songs from this record, but the other cuts are just as good -- however, the albums lacks cohesion.

He's got a couple tunes with the London Symphony backing him up -- 'A Man Needs a Maid' and 'There's a World' - which I can't stand at all. He's got the live acoustic 'The Needle and the Damage Done', his classic song about heroin abuse, which is great, but sonically is very out of place on this album.

Then there's the folk-country James Taylor blueprint 'Harvest' a pretty song, and his continuing battle with the south in fuzz rocker 'Alabama' (which I believe is the inspiration for 'Sweet Home Alabama'), and the piano rocker 'Are You Ready for the Country?'.

Personally, my two favorites are the opener 'Out on the Weekend', which kicks off the country/folk theme of the album, but is a great song of resignation, and the molasses dirge of the album's closer, 'Words', which I've always blown off until I dug into the 16-minute version that shows up in '72's 'Journey through the Past'.

The tunes are great on here, but as Neil said himself (paraphrased by me) 'With Harvest I was in the middle of the road. I can't stay there, and I can't go back'. It's his most popular album and the one I think he feels furthest from.

Next installment:
Journey through the Past (November 1972)
Time Fades Away (October 1973)
On the Beach (July 1974)
Tonight's the Night (Recorded Sept-Oct 1973/Released June 75)

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