Sunday, May 13, 2007

Neil Young Discography Parts Eight & Nine - 4 Way Street (1971), Harvest (1972)

Yes it's BACK! Time to get back on track with some more Neil Young reviews. As I said before i'm gonna try to speed things up slightly by covering two albums each time, which in Neil's case is sadly very necessary! So here we go. Thanks for coming back folks :D

After Goldrush, Neil was writing so many great songs so quickly that the most obvious thing to do seemed to be to release a live record to capitalise on that albums success and the new fame Neil was gaining as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. However when ego and agent clashes meant that a followup to Deja Vu clearly wasn't on the horizon, the record company decided that a double CSNY live album would be the best way to keep people interested. Thus Neil's plans were scuppered, although luckily we can all hear what that album would have sounded like on the recent Archives release of Live At Massey Hall, which as I wrote before is absolutely stunning. So yes, the next Neil release after Gold Rush was indeed the very very live 4 Way Street. Overall it's a pretty good record, featuring some of the best CSNY material along with a song or two from each of the bands four members, which means that we get some prime Neil live action.

I'm working from the 1992 re-release of the record, which restores the full live show that was cut down for the albums original release, so please note that before leaving me sarky comments. Scorned hippies are the worst, folks. After a nice sweet intro, the first thing we get is indeed Neil with On The Way Home, probably the best of his songs from the late Buffalo Springfield era. The group harmonies on this are particularly lovely and although its nothing amazing it's a pretty nice start. Next up is the uberhippy Teach Your Children. Now although the lyrics are obviously a piece of pish, the performances and the lovely recording of the vocals on this album are so nice that even this sounds pretty good (note the pretty though). One unfortunate thing about only having one or two solo songs from each member on this record is that you might get stuck with a clunker. Personally i've never been a big fan of Crosby's Triad, which to me always seems too self-pitying and droney for what is basically a song about being pissed off about not being able to have a threesome. Heady times! Damn you Crosby for being such a fool. Thankfully The Lee Shore is utterly captivating, and goes to demonstrate how these guys could somehow make something that should sound far too hippy for anyone sound pretty damn divine. I guess we were kind of lucky that these guys could write some pretty ace melodies AND sing them like angels. One of my highlights of the record. Next up is Nash's Chicago. One of the highlights of his first solo album, this is a nice performance, although to me i've always found it to be rather sad. This album can kind of be seen as a swan-song for the idealistic late 60s era, what with it being made on the cusp of the bands dissolution into drug problems and money-related ego clashes, and in real life with the assassinations of King and Kennedy (x2) a few years before. Soon after the momentum of the Civil Rights movement would be halted for years as Black rights movements such as the Panthers were stamped out by the CIA. Those ASSHOLES. So yes, to me this performance and it's cries of We can change the world have always sounded more desperate than hopeful. Great song though!

Right Between The Eyes is a nice Nash/Crosby number that doesn't outstay its welcome, but i'm afraid it's quickly forgotten in the shape of what follows, which is of course HEAVY DUTY NEIL. First we have an acoustic version of Cowgirl In The Sand which rips the shit out of anything thats preceded it. Reaaally beautiful. You can tell on this record, and particularly with the Stills/Young guitar duel later on, that although these guys shared a lot in common (Nash and Crosby in particular have remained great friends), there was also a fair share of competition between members, and in particular between Stills and Young, whose love/hate relationship would take on somewhat epic proportions in the years to come. Luckily though, I sense that this competition makes the solo performances on Four Way even more intense and focussed. Basically, Young is really making Stills suffer with this version of Cowgirl. Don't Let It Bring You Down follows and is equally poised, and rather haunting in its desolate mood. Unfortunately what follows is Stills' medley of 49 Bye-Byes and America's Children, which starts out well and ends...pretty horrifically. BAD STEPHEN. Thank FUCK he follows it with Love The One You're With, which is far too catchy for me to insult it despite it's arguably really dumb lyrical argument. Nice harmonies on the chorus! Nash's King Midas In Reverse is bumfluff. Sorry Naza! Crosby's Laughing is nice, but still makes me wish he'd pulled another of his better songs out of the bag. Still's Black Queen is better, a nice and rather authentic blues workout that doesn't outstay its welcome despite lasting for near seven minutes.

MWAHAHA NEXT we have the king again. Sorry C, S and N, but Neil really does rule this album. The next Neil selection is what i've decided to put up as an mp3; an acoustic medley of The Loner, Cinammon Girl, and Down By The River. All three are *SUPERB*, but don't take my word for it, please download and enjoy. That's what these blog thingies are about, right? Right? Right? Right? Right. The electric portion of the album begins with a spirited runthrough of Pre-Road Downs, followed by a stunning Long Time Gone, which has got some of the prettiest vocal harmonies of the whole album. This is followed by what for many is the highlight of the album, a fourteen minute take on Neil's Southern Man featuring some absolutely beautiful guitar solo sparring between Stills and Young. It's epic, overstated, stupidly ambitious and yet utterly wonderful for every minute of its duration. Neil's vocals are really tortured, there are some nice new backing vocals from Stills, and overall it just goes to show what an incredible band CSNY could be at times, and in particular during a live electric set. Utterly transcendent, and at times equalling some of Neil's best guitar epics with the Horse, it gets maximum points from me. The version of Ohio that follows it sounds almost perfunctory in comparison, although in its last minute it sounds truly stunning and vivacious. The second of the albums big electric epics is Carry On, and unfortunately it doesn't fare as well as Southern. It really works on record, but live, 14 plus minutes is just too much Carry On for anyone. The guitar duels are again cool, but a bit too Allman Brothersie in places for my punk-affected ears. One final acoustic short-but-sweet burst of Find The Cost Of Freedom is all that's left on Four Way, and then its over. The verdict? Pretty worthwhile, and Neil's contributions are stellar. Still I would have been pretty pissed off at the time to have had this released if i'd known how good the Massey Hall tapes were.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - The Loner & Cinnamon Girl & Down By The River medley (live)

In all likelihood, the majority of people in the world who own a Neil Young record, own this one, and this one alone. Sad but true, and although I wouldn't say that this points to it being the best Neil Young record, I would say that it shows its consistency and appeal. It's hard to be that popular for such a long time without having something good going for you! (Dire Straits is the exception to this). I would actually agree with an awful lot of what Sam Inglis writes in his recent volume of the 33 1/3 series on the album; that it is has been unfairly treated by a lot of music fans and critics compared to the albums surrounding it. Music fans seem to have a tendency to dismiss anything that becomes too popular as somehow being inferior, as if an album's value could depreciate with every copy sold. Frankly, I couldn't give a shit, and truly believe that Harvest is a flawed semi-masterpiece. By the time of it's release Neil's star was rising pretty high. CSNY were huge, and with the success of this albums singles he would become one of the biggest (and biggest selling!) artists in America.

Now note that I said flawed masterpiece before, because Harvest is somewhat of a confusing hodge-podge (what an odd phrase that is) of styles and sounds. It was recorded in three different studios, with three different backing bands and I believe two or three different producers. Much of it is transcendent; some of it is awful. But let's go into that further as we have a proper look through it...

Out On The Weekend is a great opener. Very natural sounding, very off the cuff. Lots of the album was recorded with Nashville musicians only vaguely aware of Neil's music, and many of the takes were performed live in the studio after only a few performances to hone the arrangements. Weekend is a great example of this. The band, soon to be dubbed The Stray Gators, would later appear on a number of other albums, but their best work as a whole is probably this record. Ben Keith's pedal steel is really lovely, and really lays down a great foundation for the record. The lyrics on this one set the scene rather well; with Neil leaving the city to buy the ranch where he would write a number of the lyrics for this album. Overall it's not a spectacular lyric in itself; but as a moodsetter it's great. Harvest is better. Neil's vocal is probably one of his best 'country' performances. The loping, slow drums are relaxing enough without turning dirgey. The band are again dead-on without sounding too professionally Nashville. What's nice about the first two songs are the relaxed mood; they allow you to settle into the album; to get to know the band/singer/sound and to guess about the overall scope of the lyrics before the onslaught of more intense songs can begin.

It's also nice to have some consistency of sound before things start to get a little crazy. Which is where A Man Needs A Maid comes in. Neil teamed up with Jack Nitzsche again for two songs on this album. He wrote some songs; Jack orchestrated them, and they were then performed with the full London Symphony Orchestra. In big style. In big Scott Walker-esque style. Which really doesn't fit the fragile sound, or fit in with the production style of the album. I think this song comes off sounding better than There's A World, but it still makes a very fragile song sound far too majestic and pompous. Can anyone say they really prefer the chorus to the solo piano parts? I rather doubt it. This song really sounds nice as part of an early medley with Heart Of Gold that was recently released on the Live at Massey Hall set mentioned somewhere above.

Luckily, next up we have Heart of Gold, which truly is deserving of every single bit of airtime, every cover version and every platitude that has been heaped upon it. Every second is pure *ahem* gold. The lyric is faultless; the music fitting whilst also slightly edgy, and the production is very live sounding, the drums and acoustic guitar sounding particularly vivid. Somehow i'm still not bored of it; certainly not in the way that i'm bored of so many Beatles songs. Ben Keith's contribution on steel is again exactly what is needed. And those Linda Rondstadt backing vocals later on: wowsome. Are You Ready For The Country? is a nice short country stomp that fits the Crazy Horse mould pretty well, but unfortunately by this time Horse' guitarist Danny Whitten's heroin problems were becoming severe, and would soon come to a head when he overdosed in the year following the release of this album. Luckily though the Gators, as well as being mega-professional could also play pretty loose and sloppy when needed. Old Man is another 100% perfect single. James Taylor's banjo is wonderful, despite the fact that he'd never played one before (a task that Neil quite often asked people to do around this time, with a variety of instruments). The lyric is probably better than Gold, but it's easy to see why that was the bigger hit; Hearts of Gold being that bit more romantic than Old Men. Again, stunning backing vocals here.

There's A World is a complete mess; the only really bad song on this album, and made 20 times worse by the cackhanded orchestration put on top by Nitzsche and the Symphony. How on earth this got onto the record I have no idea; even outtakes like Bad Fog Of Loneliness are a lot better. I suspect that Neil was nonplussed as to what other songs would fit the orchestral sound and wrote it in a hurry. Or at least I hope that's the case. I really find it hard to stomach. My god. Unlike Maid, even the quiet bits don't work! Bad Neil!!! Thank God it's only 3 minutes long.

The only good thing about World is that it makes Alabama sound so much better afterwards. Basically a rehash of Southern Man, the passion and energy put into the performance makes any criticism seem really pretty facile. Another criticism of racism in the south, it's lyrics are indeed a little shabby and thoughtless (are all Alabamans that evil Neil?), but I guess the good intentions are there. The low end is really nice, the guitar rather spikey for the first time on the album, and surprisingly the Horse aren't missed that much. It's kind of a shame that the Gators didn't get to do more heavy stuff like this on record. There are such great juxtapositions between quiet and loud on this one that all of the Godfather of Grunge labels become a little clearer; I could easily see Pearl Jam or Built To Spill covering this.

The Needle And The Damage Done, about Whitten's heroin addiction, is one of Neil's most idiosyncratic and oft-covered songs, and deservedly so. The melody is really special, the fingerpicking very clever and unique, the lyric pointed and melancholy. And I can play it on guitar (so it automatically wins more points, see how this works?). A very nice live performance, which cuts very suddenly into Words. This song is really the great forgotten Neil guitar anthem. Maybe because its on the end of a poppy album, maybe because it's not that catchy or easy to understand, or maybe because it's not the Horse. But oh shit it's good. Definitely a slowburner (I didn't really 'get' it for ages), but once you get it; oh shit it's good. The electric is recorded in a really stunning fashion, just beautifully produced; echoing and shaking and screaming. This is the Neil sound that I hear in my head when i'm not listening to him. This passion and intensity and depth of feeling. And 6 minutes later it's over. It should have gone on for 6 more.

Okay! There we have it. According to Neil, he was now in the middle of the road. The album was the biggest selling American album of 1972. The singles were huge hits. However the death of Whitten and the pressures of fame would soon send Neil off on a far different path. Can you feel the tension folks?

Neil Young - Harvest
Neil Young - Words (Between The Lines Of Age)


Blogger Great Gifts said...

A true classic. One of the best albums ever made.

9:22 pm, May 20, 2008  
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1:42 am, June 24, 2009  

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