Sunday, April 26, 2009

Artist Spotlight Neil Young 1999 - 2009

Taking a look at the Old Man's life.

Most of my life I've been indifferent to Neil Young. I didn't have anything against him, I just didn't have anything for him either. I mean, except for "Rockin' In The Free World" and his collaborations with Pearl Jam there just wasn't that much to get excited about. My wife was a bigger fan than I was, as she used to listen to Harvest Moon (1992) frequently and later bought Harvest (1972) as well. Then in 2005 I saw Young perform at the Bridge School Benefit concert and found myself really enjoying his performance both solo and with Crosby, Stills and Nash. After that I delved into his recent catalog and became a fan, which is unusual for me because I normally drift towards a classic rocker's older material.

What I like about Neil Young' music is that it is full of life. His music can be chaotic and random or mellow and relaxed. He often writes about whatever inspires him at that moment. Sometimes he is fully focused, other times he is scattered-hitting on flashes of brilliance in between rough spots I guess you can say that about a lot of musicians, yet with Young it seems more noticeable.

Earlier today I spent about 90 minutes writing this post out only to have my computer not save 3/4ths of it! I had it all written out with nice detailed notes and my usual half assed analysis, I was quite happy with it. Now here's take two of that post.
Crosby Stills Nash and Young - Looking Forward (1999)

The Inspiration? - Revisiting old friends and hey, pay day!

Young regrouped with his legendary cohorts in 1999 for their self financed disc Looking Forward. As a whole, the album was real generic post hippie junk ("Stand And Be Counted" people!) with uninspired song writing. For Young's part, his title track was the lead single and gave the false impression that it was going to be a good album. It's weathered and measured tone allowed for them to harmonize in a setting that didn't force them to sing hard. At the other end of the spectrum was "Slowpoke", a lame rewrite of "Heart of Gold". His guitar keeps some life running through the shellac of crap on this record. Then they went on tour and made a buttload of moolah.

Silver and Gold (2000)

The Inspiration? - I dunno.

I didn't know this album existed until I read his discography, I've never heard it so I have no idea if this is any good or not. Lost classic or buried shame? I wonder.

Are You Passionate? (2002)

The Inspiration? - Neil loves his wife and old school Soul

Young gets his R&B groove on with this album a collection of songs that follow a semi story arc of disillusionment, hope and fulfillment of personal romantic love. A focus on the almighty beat rules this disc as horns pump, organs glide and guitars careen while never straying from the dance. Even the big political song, the patriotic 9/11 inspired "Let's Roll" keeps its eye on the love these heroes had for their families and America. What undercuts the album is forgettable songs, making the little nods to 60's party music the most enjoyable parts of Are You Passionate? (the song "Be With Me" had me thinking Four Tops while the opener "You Are My Lady" apes the guitar line from the R&B classic "Rescue Me".). There is one moment of awesomeness when Crazy Horse guests on the charging "Goin' Home". While you can't question Neil Young's passion, the execution is a little lacking here.

Greendale (2003)

The Inspiration? - Baby Boomer Fantasy

Young went for the gusto with an extremely ambitious concept record and film to match. Greendale is a dense concept record about...I've heard this a few times and never got a strong fix on what it was about. What I got out of it was there is this young hippie girl named Sun Green, the kind of young hippie girl that only exists in the imaginations of old guys that used to fight The Man and now write entertainment, and her surroundings of a conservative small town. I read on Wikipedia that its about a Police Officer's murder and its affects on the town's occupants. I totally did not get that, but maybe if I bothered to dissect this album closely I would have. Crazy Horse continues to give Young a strong foundation to work with, it was just way more story than I felt like absorbing.

Greatest Hits (2004)

The Inspiration? - You will have a single disc Greatest Hits, oh yes, you WILL have one

Neil Young finally released a one CD Greatest Hits comp which offended some purists. Fortunately, I'm not a purist! I had the two CD Decades set already which naturally is more comprehensive and covers only his most famous period. Greatest Hits covers much of the same ground faster and with more consistency in terms of radio hits. This worked better for me because though I like his old stuff I actually prefer his more recent material, so a single disc gets me all the thrills without digging too hard into his past.

Prairie Wind (2005)

The Inspiration? - Happy to be here.

After a few albums of flexing his guitar hero muscles, Young reverted to his most popular sound-the reflective Country rocker. During the making of this album Young had an aneurysm which probably affected the mood of this piece. Prairie Wind is a sort of taking stock of his life, bits of childhood remembrances of family and Elvis come in with a sense of sentimentality. The point of view, as illustrated by "The Painter", is firmly in the present with a fond look back at the past. When I saw him perform "This Old Guitar" at the Bridge School Benefit with Emmylou Harris, I was hooked on the simple beauty of that tune. Even the hymn like "When God Made Me" was genuinely affecting. Prairie Wind is the Young album I've played the most, an album where the songwriting has enough focus to match the vision.
Living With War (2006)

The Inspiration? - A Love letter for President Bush

In 2006 the Iraq War was becoming increasingly unpopular and Young was apparently tired of waiting for the generation of Sun Greens to do anything. So Young quickly slapped together a full on shout down the establishment protest album. Fired up ragged guitar riffs back ranting lyrics about the evils of the Iraq War and Bush administration. There aren't quite songs to speak of, just a stream of righteous outrage that's pretty hit or miss, often in the same song. If you need an indicator to tell you which direction Young is leaning, one of the songs is called "Let's Impeach The President." Still, you've gotta give props for having the foresight to name check Obama in "Looking For A Leader" two years before the election. Living With War has some strong moments, yet it left me wishing for better songs to truly unleash the beast burning in this one.

Chrome Dreams II (2007)

The Inspiration? - A look backwards towards the future

While Prairie Wind dealt with a look into the past and Living With War the present, Chrome Dreams II gets ready for the future. Ironically, it does this by taking songs that were written in the past but previously unreleased. It gets off to a soft start with two slow numbers that focus a lot on birds, but after the 18 minute "Ordinary People" Young hits his stride. "Ordinary People", apparently recorded in the 80's, takes an inclusive look at folk of various walks of life. From there the "Dirty Old Man" takes the "Spirit Road" to uncover "The Way". Second only to Prairie Wind in quality from the last decade, Chrome Dreams II has Neil Young in all his ragged glory.

Fork In The Road (2009)

The Inspiration? - Plug In, Tune Out

Inspired by his personal electric car project of making a hybrid out of a 1959 Lincoln Continental, Fork In The Road takes an approach similar to Living With War. On Road, Young cranks up the guitars with muscular riffs and spits out whatever is on his mind. It also yields the same results, songs fly by with a great lyric or melody followed by rambling noodling. "Just Singing A Song" holds together well, but with three (count 'em, three!) songs ending with "The Road" in the title it seems a little lazy in the song writing department. Some of the good parts include the repetitive yet fun "Johnny Magic" and the acerbic "Cough Up The Bucks" taking to task the gatekeepers to the economy.

Like Springsteen, Neil Young is the rare kind of classic rocker that can put out new material that has relevance in today's world. Sure he's as scatter shot as a sprinkler missing it's head, that's actually part of his appeal for me. He creates music as lively and random as life.


Jeannie said...

There are some Neil Young songs that I absolutely love and others I think, "Eh." But without him, music would have been a heck of a lot different. Glad you took a look at him. I think the more you listen to his stuff (especially the older stuff), the more you'll like him.

Mr. Mike said...

I know you liked the Harvest Moon CD a lot, I think you liked the song about the motorcycle. I'll definitely have to look into more of our Young back catalog.