Bluegrass legend puts out album of Grateful Dead music

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Neil Young got to be one of the most, if not the most, gruesomely overrated solo artists in rock music. He seems to be the love and pride of every music critic – alive and dead, and, at first glance, he deserves it. There are three main points that seem to summarize all of the man’s positive value. The critics may bug unsuspecting listeners with their fake, conventional and eventually sterile panegyrics, but they don’t fool me. Sure, Neil Young isn’t the worst performer on the planet – I enjoy quite a fair share of his output, and some of his ballads and rockers are absolutely breathtaking.

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He fully deserves the solid D class rating I gave him. Maybe weak C, in a better life. Finally, his reputation as that of a ‘rocker that refuses to be washed up’ is deserved, but it’s not outstanding – contrary to rumours, Neil isn’t the only dinosaur who knew how to rock all the way and knows it still. Now that I got that off my chest, let me apologize for the roughness and say that Neil really is a serious artist – it’s just that general American critical opinion seems to recognize him as one of the two or three of its main national musical heroes, a conception that is wrong, harmful and needed to be dismissed. Just because he managed to play such a Biblical role on After The Gold Rush and Harvest doesn’t mean he really knew what the hell he was doing at the time. I’m not a big fan of the Grateful Dead either and I didn’t even like the Band at first listen, so what do I know? If you wanna worship Mr Young, who am I to stop you?

So on to the reviews, now! What’s that, symph-hard rock with folk elements or hard folk with an occasional string quartet? What Did You Do To My Life? Although this record isn’t all that diverse, you can still easily see that Neil Young had a very experimental nature from the very beginning of his prolific solo career. Apparently, on his first solo album he tries his forces in several genres as if the album’s main goal were to establish what are the things he’s best at. Thus, the record is not really all that good – for every successful gem you get a failed experiment or something. Actually, for me the question of ‘what’s best on here?

Best of the pack, however, is ‘The Loner’, which is certainly not a love ballad – it’s the first in a long row of anti-social, misanthropic compositions that Neil is quite known for. Not that the excessive use of strings on the record is a very good idea – they mar the perfectly decent introductory instrumental ‘The Emperor Of Wyoming’, and Jack Nietzsche’s ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ is a waste of tape. Otherwise, the two main inspirations for this record seem to have been soul balladeering and Bob Dylan. Neither, however, have led to particularly interesting results.

Bluegrass legend puts out album of Grateful Dead music

Songs like ‘The Old Laughing Lady’ and ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ are totally inoffensive and sometimes even pretty, but utterly unmemorable and with no edge, and ‘Here We Are In The Years’ is only a little better because, to tell you the truth, I like Neil’s subtle guitar passages on that one – so tasty and inspired. A patchy affair, this album, with enough filler to seriously lower its rating, yet it has its moments and at least it’s not as biblically self-conscious as many subsequent albums would be. Should have been called “The Best And Worst Of Neil Young” instead. Yep, Neil Young as I love him and as I seriously don’t just about totally arrives on this record. And I hate to say it, but essentially it’s also what draws the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for me on this record.

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Granted, it’s not so annoyingly self-pitying as Neil’s mid-Seventies acoustic material, but it’s equally melodyless, and no, I’m not dragging out the lyrics sheets to try and analyze the guy’s feelings on that one. But anyway, let’s just concentrate on the good side, like the crocodile said to the lichen-struck little lamb. For us, that’ll be one short song and two very long ones. Cinnamon Girl’ is probably the best-known number from the record, and it packs the “proto-grunge tension” into a brief three minutes in a very special way indeed. Two hoarse roaring guitars, one in each speaker, each of them slowly playing the same simplistic “clumsy” riff – that’s the Neil Young guitar paradise for you. As for ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, they’re pretty much interchangeable, except the second one is a little more “rough”, so I like it better. Not that it’s a spectacular achievement in the pure musical sense, but the exact solos themselves certainly are.

It’s a damn pleasure to follow Young and Whitten unwrap parts of their improvisations, so you never know where the hell they are going to turn next. Actually, the “meeker” guitar interplay on ‘Down By The River’ is probably unique never to be met again. Out of the albums I own, though, it is really the most solid and melodically rich, though it takes some time to understand it. However, this does not mean that the album isn’t enjoyable.

Like I said, it’s a bit hard to get into, but once you’ve filtered away the filler, the task won’t be so frustrating. Most of the songs look simplistic: ‘ordinary’ acoustic or piano ballads, diversified a little with a couple of moderate rockers, one on each side. But once in a while Neil really hits upon a gold mine: the opening ‘Tell Me Why’, with its sad, wistful and captivating chorus, somehow does manage to convey that gloomy, melancholic feeling of life’s uselessness, even if I’m not sure whether the lyrics really mean it. Dylan-inspired, but, unfortunately, the mood is as far from Bob as possible. I would easily have dismissed it as some kind of second-rate prog-imitating crap. The rockers are also quite interesting, and certainly have nothing to do with each other.

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When You Dance You Can Really Love’ is, in fact, a conventional pop rocker – with bland love lyrics and a near-dance beat, yet it is quite catchy in its dumbness, and in addition features some incredible piano work from Jack Nietzsche in the final ‘jam’ section. And well, at least it’s stylish. A bleak collection of forced out country songs with next to no interesting melodies. Yeah, of course it’s heartfelt, but that’s understood. Are You Ready For The Country? Overrated, and again, together with Willy And The Poorboys and a couple of other notorious records, a complete mystery to me.

Unlike Willy, though, I’m easily observing that Harvest is definitely not a critics’ favourite – it might be Neil’s best-selling album ever, but the ‘intellectuals’ are usually tending to put it down, at least a little, and I eagerly raise my voice in the chorus. See, there’s really no words of praise that could prove appropriate for this record. Neil Young-country, which means it’s slow, dull, ‘serious’ and totally uninteresting musically. All right, I’ll be honest and indulgent.

It is true that the album has a single, but truly important, quality that partly redeems it: it’s an album of a man with a bleeding heart. Most of the tunes, rudimentary and spontaneous as they might be, still carry that sincere and confessive imprint that sometimes makes even a total duffer come to life. Now, on to the melodies, and this is where my backlash hits really hard – of course, I don’t know crap about good melodies, but I know sure as heck that these particular melodies just aren’t the ones I’ve been looking for all of my life. Sometimes it’s just a crazy mess with a couple uninteresting rhythm guitars and a couple of chords – even the frenzied, ’emotional’ solo doesn’t save ‘Words’ from being a non-vivacious, stoned out album closer.

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That leaves just about three or four songs that manage to attract my attention – ‘Are You Ready For The Country? By the way, notice how Neil begins singing his lines with the words ‘slippin’ and slidin”, sung exactly in the intonation needed for Little Richard’s ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’? Guess he was just going for a lil’ bit o’ spontaneity on this one – you know, trying to emulate Bob Dylan again. There’s a big difference between Neil and Bob, though – while the latter is completely unpretentious, Neil not only ‘wears his heart on his sleeve’, he tries to shove this heart right into your face in order for you to hear it going boom boom and feel the blood flowing. And I don’t particularly enjoy the sight of blood.

No, no, ‘scuse the ol’ me. Just a little fidgety, ‘s all. Neil the hitmaker is dead – long live Neil the subcultural hero! If you thought that was sort of an uncontrolled hard-to-read rant, you probably haven’t heard this album. I have, and I must say I’m impressed. Anyway, the story goes that soon after his back got better after he cracked his spine around 1972, Neil took to the road again, and the original plan was to take both the Stray Gators, with whom he’d recorded Harvest, and Crazy Horse. The reception was warm enough at first, but it was pretty hard for Mr Young to find himself in the position of a hit-churling superstar which he had accidentally transformed himself into with Harvest.

And I like it a lot. It’s not exactly rip-roaring stuff, to be sure, but it’s very humble and thoroughly inoffensive. Neil can be seriously offputting when he transforms his primitive acoustic shuffles into lengthy epics, or when he’s overproducing his stuff, but Time Fades Away doesn’t give you any of that. Besides, the backing band is good! The ‘Gators might not have been the perfect spoil for Neil while recording Harvest, but here, in a totally non-sterile atmosphere they’re on a roll!

Bluegrass legend puts out album of Grateful Dead music

Especially good is Ben Keith on slide guitar, but Jack Nitzsche adds good piano throughout, and overall, you don’t get the feeling of all that tension ruling during the tour. Take the rollickin’ title track, for instance – they seem to be having a good time out there! I think pretty much all of the “rocking” tunes are cool. For unclear reasons ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’ tends to get a lot of shit flung towards it, but I find it charming because it’s so rambling and ugly and Neil sounds like he’s drunk and his voice keeps crackling but he don’t give a damn anyway. It’s a little similar melodically to Neil’s Buffalo Springfield highlight ‘Mr Soul’, and he usually manages to get it right when he’s in that slightly sarcastic, slightly pissy mood. So, again, no revelation – no aggravation. They’re short and inobtrusive anyway and fit in well between the harder numbers.

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Comes A Time, I don’t think Neil ever made a bad album from 1973 to the end of the Seventies, even if he also never made an absolute classic. I know why it’s officially unavailable on CD. It’s too unpretentious to be available. Every once in a while, Neil Young gets off his ass and makes an album that sounds exactly like a Neil Young album, but is actually a little better than that.

After the confessional, bleed-all-over-the-mix Tonight’s The Night, Neil offered the world this, a record that’s not exactly confessional – apart from a few tunes – but exceptionally well-written, tasteful, and intelligent. No orchestration, no ambivalent ultra-pretentious lyrics, and no blatant commercialism. No obvious conceptual unity either: on here, Neil is ready to take on just about everything. Like A Hurricane’ to fully write out the picture. There are no bad songs on here really – even the unmemorable ones and the overextended ones at least don’t try to hide their simplicity in layers of strings or Linda Ronstadt’s backing vocals, and the instrumental work throughout is felt very well. It’s just that maybe with all the overextension going on, there’s simply not enough songs.

That’s at least two chances for two more different moods missed. Bring up my name, pass it ’round’ – geez, some guys can get pretty iffy, eh? Very memorable chorus, too: call that glorious hook on ‘I can’t tell them how to FEEL’ anything but terrific and I’ll tell you you’re either a crappy Caroliner Rainbow elitist or a dumb Britney Spears lover or both at the same time. Then there’s the angriest song on the album, appropriately titled ‘Revolution Blues’.

Bluegrass legend puts out album of Grateful Dead music

Anti-poverty and anti-violence at the same time, an ironic presentation of an outcast’s rebellious thoughts, and all that set to a gritty blues-rocker that’s not hard-rocking, really, not in the typical Neil Young sense, at least, yet manages to be among his angriest songs anyway. The second side, apart from the pretty acoustic ballad ‘Motion Pictures’, is essentially dedicated to two LENGTHY lyrics-heavy workouts in the title track and ‘Ambulance Blues’. This is what I meant primarily when I was complaining about the songs being overlong – they certainly should have been cut in two parts each with one part thrown out to make way for a different song. As for the nostalgic ‘Ambulance Blues’, it’s certainly my least favourite song on the album, but even that one could have made a decent folk tune if it weren’t stretched to that ridiculous eight-minute length. I can forgive Dylan for doing that, I certainly can’t forgive Neil Young.

As far as I’m convinced, Neil Young never made a fully ideal album anyway, not even for his own standards. But On The Beach comes pretty close, and all the more shameful is the fact that, like Time Fades Away and American Stars’n’Bars, it still hasn’t been made officially available on CD as of the time of this review’s writing. Apparently Neil doesn’t want to do that for some reason, although I’ve never seen the exact reasons. Err this is just a Neil Young record. Not only has this record been hailed by critics – both conventional and amateurish – the ‘prototypical’ Neil Young album, it also seems to embrace everything that I and people like me love and hate about Neil. This was recorded with Crazy Horse again, and the record is carefully and evenly divided between generic Neil Young acoustic ballads and equally generic Neil Young hard rockers. And “GENERIC” is the true word here, baby.

Understandably, this gets an overall 10 from me: nothing to get particularly excited about, but the solid balance of the record is enough to guarantee a more or less pleasant listen. Neil Young-style record’ so much that Neil forgot to throw in some interesting instrumental or vocal melodies. A couple of tracks do stand out, for better or for worse. Nash vocal harmonies for real feeling and melody. What a waste of quadruple talent – was it really worth bringing the guys into the studio on this track? But definitely for the better are the outstanding rockers ‘Drive Back’ and ‘Cortez The Killer’. Drive Back’ has a magnificent guitar tone – Neil throws on a bit more fuzz than usual and comes out with a real winner, a gritty, powerful proto-grunge number that absolutely TEARS.

In any case, these are just the last three songs, and I would face some mighty tight problems trying to come up with something substantial about the first six ones. Have I mentioned yet that Neil Young’s got such a poor voice? I mean, it isn’t all that poor, but it’s gruesomely weak for such a powerful rocker as Mr Cowboy In The Sand. Why does he strain so much all the time? Oh well, I suppose I can get used to that just like I got used to the usual style.

Not a spectacular album, but a nice one. Oh, and the title refers to Zuma Beach where Neil was residing at the time. More ‘bars’ than ‘stars’, if you get my drift. But a decent album all the same.

A ragged and messy affair that has just about the weirdest song pairings I’ve ever seen on a Neil Young album. Apparently, a big bunch of these songs were older outtakes from various jam sessions, some dating to as far back as 1974. And most of these songs are rather straightforward country-rock sendups, rendered even more ‘authentic’ by featuring Linda Ronstadt on backup vocals for more than half of the tunes. Things get seriously different on the second side, though. Wasn’t a star at all’, at least not for the song’s protagonist and his lost love.

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However, my complaints certainly do not extend to the album’s lone masterpiece, certainly Neil’s best love song and a very strong candidate for best Neil Young song ever. The real lyrical hook comes when the major chords switch to minor in the chorus, with the “happy” part of ‘you are like a hurricane, there’s calm in your eye’ replaced by the ominous part of ‘I wanna love you, but I’m getting blown away’ – that’s a hell of a hook, if you ask me. So that’s that, a masterful masterpiece oddly inserted among a very questionable musical background. It’s as if you took ‘Layla’ out of its context and plunged it right inside, I dunno, Clapton’s 1976 country-rock sendup No Reason To Cry or something. Oh well, at the very least this musical background isn’t offensive or drastically overproduced, and it doesn’t build up on generic country lyrics either.

An improvement over Harvest, but that’s not really saying much. And again, six years after Harvest, Neil goes with a pure country-folk album in more or less the same style, as if he thought Harvest had left something unsaid. Even so, if there’s little to add to that previous effort, I easily welcome Comes A Time as a relative improvement. I know this decision will be severely unpopular among Neil Young fans, but I have my ground to stand on and I’m gonna stand on it in any case. Not so, at least, not quite so with Comes A Time.

Normally, though, the music here is just plain untampered country – acoustic guitars, mellow piano, soft drums, fiddles and diddles, and every now and then an orchestrated arrangement pops up, but that’s not a very big problem. He’s also joined by Crazy Horse on a couple tracks, but you really wouldn’t know – after all, they don’t jam anywhere, so what difference does it make? In any case, the album is very even, so that it’s hard to pick any favourites or any special duffers. So I really prefer listening to the faster stuff, first of all, because it’s faster, and second, because it’s more generic country, and I like generic fast country ’cause it gets you going. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but they say it consistently and say it better. Nothing great here, but definitely worth a listen. You know why it is better than Harvest?


You can’t safely put Harvest on as background music – you’re supposed to be listening to that one, and since it’s so painful to listen to, I just hate it. This one, though, well, you’re not supposed to take this as a serious music dissertation. You just have to put it on and then go and play a game of Tetris. Young’s take on Dylan intensifies, but, according to Young’s standards, this is as high as Rock and Folk can get. For my money, this is the best Neil Young that money can buy. Harvest is preachy, and After The Gold Rush is a bit dull, so make sure this one’s among your first buys.

In fact, I’d go as far as to state this should be your first buy, because no other album captures the whole Young experience so well. What matters here is the very statement made by this album. By 1979, punk rock was already fading, but the ‘dinosaur rockers’ had already faded away several years ago, and Neil rises up to defend the positions of both. It’s rather hard to pick out a highlight on the first, acoustic side: the songs are rather even, with nothing to stand out in a particular way. My My Hey Hey’ goes off splendidly, with a very Dylanesque harmonica solo and vocals that are undoubtedly heartfelt and, this time around, fully convincing – after all, Neil is just defending himself, and he stands the test. I don’t know yet if it’s really the best Neil Young album ever – I still miss out quite a lot. And, come to think of it, After The Gold Rush and others, hell, even his debut album had much stronger melodies overall.

But, on the other hand, they all had a lot of painful duffer material, while here there’s only one seriously offensive track, and none of the other albums are as strongly compelling as Rust Never Sleeps. Critics panned the live documentary which accompanied this release at the time, but, while I can’t say anything about the film, not having seen it, I can’t really tell what the problem with the actual album would be. Of course, they serve different purposes. Rust Never Sleeps was a live album, but its being ‘live’ was more like a vital symbol – to show the world that not only was Neil Young still writing relevant and poignant material, he was also writing and performing it completely in touch with the audiences. In a standard situation, Neil is supposed to kick some real ass in concert, and he usually does. There are some problems connected with that, though.

Neil already pulls all the stops in the studio – unlike, say, Deep Purple, who were always saving their most “brutal” side for live performances. The album here was culled from several performances, but is actually structured like a complete concert. When he gets real big, it’s just one excellent rendition after another. When You Dance I Can Really Love’ actually shines through all the distortion as one of the most complex rockers to ever have been penned by Neil. The Loner’ gives a good opportunity to remember Neil’s debut – remember that one, with the ugly mug on the front cover?

Bluegrass legend puts out album of Grateful Dead music

Hey, it was a good album, and ‘The Loner’ was the best song off it. Bet your life most of the folks on that tour never even heard it before. I assume that everybody’s favourite section, how could it be otherwise? 12 and continues right until the very end.

This is where Neil plays all of those really great improvisational rockers, lengthy, plodding mastodonts that he’s the absolute master of. Apparently, Mr Young thought so too, because his next decade of work would prove to be radically different from the first. Don’t laugh it’s not as far from the truth as you’d suspect. The worst year in rock music caught Neil Young engaging, respectively, in the worst sub-category of rock music: generic synth-pop. Predictably, the album flopped and the critics panned the old boy even further, because, of all things, who on Earth needs Neil Young doing synth-pop? And yet, while I quite predictably hated the album on first listen, it’s turned out not to be as horrendous as it originally promised to be – positively amazing.