Neil Young Discography Parts Sixteen & Seventeen - American Stars 'N Bars (1977), Decade (1977)
After the horrifyingly stilted Long May You Run LP with Stephen Stills (see last time!), Neil was lucky enough to come back with a pretty decent LP; not a classic but containing one or two songs that are amongst his very very best. Like the recently released Chrome Dreams II, ASNB is an album made up of material from a number of sessions and with a number of different people; in fact overall the songs were split between four different places and lineups. Strangely, the LP starts off with more recently recorded material and works backwards to songs recorded in years prior. Indeed all of side one comes from an April 1977 get-together under the name Neil Young, Crazy Horse & the Bullets; the bullets being long time collaborator Ben Keith on dobro, Carole Mayedo on voilin, and rising stars Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson on backing vocals. The first song, The Old Country Waltz, is as the title suggests one of the most traditionally country sounding songs Neil had recorded to date, and with Keith and Mayedo's playing coming together really beautifully. It's not a spectacular composition; it's all in the atmosphere really, easy and sweet and natural.
Next up comes Saddle Up The Palomino, an almost stereotypical sounding Horse romp that wouldn't have felt out of place on Tonight's The Night were it a little more wasted and the girls weren't contributing. By this point we get the feeling that ASnB is another one of these mid period post-Harvest records where Neil really doesn't give a shit what the record company's expecting, he's just happy to be able to do things differently on each record, and although that does come across as a slight negative when more mediocre compositions (and when we're talking Neil you know that means they're still fantastic) slip onto albums, but I think that's redressed by the amount he recorded and the (i use the word again!) natural sound of the records. Hey Babe is a good example of how pure and motiveless (motivation for money, for a hit!) the songwriting gets on here. It's one of my favourites on the album, and i'm not sure quite why given it's sort of unremarkable as a whole, maybe it's just that happy, mellow country sound. The production here is very sweet, very live; again David Briggs displays how he can find a suitable style regardless of the genres being explored on any particular album.
Hold Back The Tears is probably the moist anthemic sounding of the country songs on display here, and maybe if they'd worked on a more professional sounding cut (as this one is sort of wobbly and unrehearsed), it might have made a good single on country radio (for some reason Hey Babe was chosen instead, suffice to say it wasn't a big hit). Very nice harmonies between Neil and Linda. The final song on the Aside is Bite The Bullet, probably the song on this half of the record where the Horse are most obviously present, and it's nice to hear the combination of their full-flowing thump with the sweeter country elements of the Bullets. Kind of crappy lyrics, but it works. Side two begins with the oldest song on the album, Star Of Bethlehem, recorded in November 1974 with Emmylou Harris and a few of Neil's more obvious collaborators (Keith, Drummond). Very very Harvest sounding, it's something of a mini-classic. The Harris backing vocals are unobtrusive and yet hit the spot as hers always do; she never overpowers when she doesn't need to and obviously could, which is probably why everyone wants her on their albums. A nice harp solo from Neil on this one. Will To Love was recorded by Neil alone in May 1976 and is similar in sound to the later and better known Lotta Love. It's a quiet, melancholic and lonely one, with some very nice atmospheric production, with some ambient found sounds (a crackling fire being the most obvious) and a touch of organ. Later Neil describes being on stage and we get bursts of other instruments (kind reminds me of Joni's radio in her This Flight Tonight). It's quite a long one (seven minutes or so), and although not lyrically memorable, the whole piece works so well to create a mood that I return to it quite often.
Finally we have a couple of tracks recorded with the Horse in November 1975; the first of which is Like A Hurricane. It's by far the albums most famous and best song, and sort of does effect the album quite badly by being so good in comparison to whats come before; the allmusic reviewer stated that by putting it on Decade Neil automatically made the album irrelevant; whilst ol' man Christgau accused Neil of screwing up a song that had made such an impact on stage before the LP came out. He's sort of right in a way; there's no way this version could reach the peaks of the better live recordings (see Live Rust for the definitive one). However when a live band is as good as the Horse + Neil, recorded material seldom ever can match up with a song on stage. The recorded version does actually sound like a live take (with maybe an overdub or two), but it's just not quite a great one. Still, this is probably the song that really got me into Neil so I wouldn't want anyone to think I was saying anything negative about it; it's sad and majestic and mighty and happy and sums up a million ungraspable feelings, the guitar solos seeming to echo on forever as they scratch at the surface of the feeling attempting to be conveyed. The Horse sound like shit to be honest; they sound tired and beaten and stodgy, but then so much better for exactly those reasons. I've never really been able to love bands who loved themselves too much, who don't permit themselves to be imperfect (see: The Stones. Great band but as people? I can't take their emotions too seriously; they haven't suffered enough). I much prefer fat, ugly losers who hit a bum note every minute or so. Cos they feel it. Man. I'd like to point out that i'm writing this sober. Like A Hurricane is one of man's greatest achievements. It's evidence of God's existence. It's proof of infinity. After that, for some reason Neil decided he could somehow not put Hurricane as the closer, and gives us Homegrown the title of the LP he rejected way back after the release of Harvest for being too MOR. Guess what Neil? Putting it after one of your greatest songs makes it sound exactly that. You fool! Divorced from that, it ain't too shabby.
Neil Young - Will To Love
Neil Young - Like A Hurricane
Decade is undoubtedly one of the better anthology compilations of a classic artist, both as a well compiled triple-record of fantastic music and as product, compiling as it does work from 1966-1976, taking in every LP save Time Fades and Four Way as well as managing to give us a bunch of exclusive stuff AND through its use of handwritten liner notes feel like a work rather than a product. In fact it might be one of the first artist specific compilations to do some of those things (no others really spring to mind). It starts off with one of those exclusives. Down To The Wire is an outtake from the abandoned fourth Buffalo Springfield record Stampede, featuring piano from Dr John. It's a goodish start despite the slightly lo-fi nature of it (although thats probably the slightly myth-making intention, to show the evolution of Neil's work), some decent melodies there, and the circular nature of it kind of recalls Broken Arrow from the same era. Next up we get Burned, notable for being Neil's first released recorded vocal. A rather underrated Buffalo song. Third is another semi-rarity in a recorded TV show broadcast of Mr Soul, which I believe is the same version as that found on Journey Through The Past, although Wikipedia claims its a live recording, which I guess calls into question my assumption that the Journey version was a mime job? Nevertheless, it's another good song to get the first side of the first record started. Two other great Buffalo songs follow, the incomparable Broken Arrow and Expecting To Fly.
The first Neil solo performance comes with an exclusive live acoustic performance of Sugar Mountain, a song which would long feature in Neil's live set but would never get a proper recorded release, which is strange considering that it's a big fan favourite. The BS version of I Am A Child makes a fitting track to follow it. A couple of tracks from Neil's self titled debut follow (The Loner, Old Laughing Lady). I can see why they picked the former, but as for the latter i'd have much preferred the inclusion of something like I've Been Waiting For You or Here We Are In The Years. Three tracks from Everybody Knows follow, including the double blast of the full length Cowgirl and River, which is a pretty mindblowing combo, and it's at this point that things really get going for me. They're followed by three from Gold Rush, and then a track that couldn't really be left out; the CSNY cut Helpless, which all things considered is probably the best song he contributed to that groups records. Next up comes something of a rarity in the shape of the Ohio single, which although it featured in a live cut on Four Way, hadn't been put on any Neil album in its recorded version. This song is reason enough alone to buy Decade. A true classic of the era, it even makes Stephen Stills sound like he's got soul, and after the horrors of Make Love To You, that's something we need to be reminded of. Solder is another semi-rarity given the impossible to find nature of the Journey LP. One of my favourite underrated Neil songs. It's followed by the four hits from Harvest. Well, three hits, and A Man Needs A Maid, perhaps not included here because it was a hit but because, as the liner notes say, Bob Dylan told Neil he liked it. But that's no excuse. Curiously Neil then decides to ignore album releases and put in Star Of Bethlehem, which as I stated above was recorded way back in '74. And then it's back to another Harvest song, which begs the question of whether he thought he should have just stuck Star on there in the first place to stop it being overlooked in the wake of Hurricane.
The title track of Tonight hits next, and then the very nice and unexpected inclusion of the utterly uncommercial and very good Tired Eyes, which is a welcome break from hearing 'the hits'. Unfortunately it's then followed by the most commercial songs he could have picked from Beach in the shape of Walk On and Turnstiles. Winterlong is one of the totally unreleased songs, and something of a special moment. Who knows why it was never issued on an album; later covers by Pixies and a few others go to show how much of an effect its inclusion here had. A grrrreat track. Deep Forbidden Lake, another prev-unreleased one, and to be honest it's not that great. Next, Neil again totally ignores chronology and shoves in the wonderful Like A Hurricane. See above for platitudes. Love Is A Rose was written back in 1974, and given to Linda Ronstadt to create a #5 country radio hit a year later. The Neil version presented here doesn't quite match hers; the melody is cribbed from an earlier Neil + Horse song called Dance, Dance, Dance (now available on the great Fillmore live release), which to be honest i've never been a big fan of. Next up comes Cortez (off Zuma Neil! before Stars N Bars Neil! and definitely recorded a few months before too, before some nerd comes to correct me), which is again, sheer perfection. Our final totally unreleased cut is Campaigner, a song critical of Nixon and his blinded followers (thats right conservative Neil fans reading this, you suck!), it's got a grrrreat main melody to it, and the insistent guitar is pretty decent too. Decade finishes up with a previously unreleased version of Long May You Run featuring both S and Y as well as C and N, thus thankfully making the album of the same name completely irrelevant. Good job. In conclusion? One of the best 2 and a bit hours you could ever spend listening to recorded music.
Neil Young - Winterlong
Neil Young - Campaigner