Sunday, 26 September 2010

Don't be Denied!!! - Neil Young's 2000s

So, I'm a known Neil Young lover, and the upcoming release of his first album of the new decade, Le Noise (Reprise, 2010) is a good chance to look back at the last ten years of Young's career, which have provided us with some of the most peculiar, controversial and superlative music of the Canadian's substantial output.

Read any, even brief, biography of Neil Young, and it will almost certainly mention his "difficult eighties". This refers to the period after he signed for Geffen Records in 1981 and proceeded to delve into baffling genre experiments, from the vocoder-drenched synth-pop of Trans (1982) to Landing on Water (1986) with its souped-up stadium rock, via rockabilly and country. It got so absurd (and commercially non-viable), that David Geffen even sued him. Even after his contract with the label ended and he returned to Reprise (where he's remained ever since), he still went for full-on genre aping, with 1988's r'n'b opus, This Note's For You. For casual Young listeners, these albums are at odds with the warm folk-rock of Harvest, or the raw guitar mania he unleashes with Crazy Horse. Those of us more sympathetic to his life and unpredictable personality and muse can see the diamonds in the rough that are scattered across his 80s output. And whilst first Freedom (1989), then Ragged Glory (1990) and finally the acoustic duo of Harvest Moon (1992) and Unplugged (1993) were hailed as tremendous returns to (commercial?) form, those of us who have followed every inch of the man's career are less impressed overall (despite great music coming out of Young in the 90s), and, above all, realise that his albums over the last 10-15 years are at least as peculiar as the Geffen ones, but perhaps less easily defined.

From 1991's mini-LP of droning feedback collages Arc to the stripped-down garage-metal of Year of the Horse (1997, and a personal fave), via the dark anti-grunge paean to the departed Kurt Cobain, Sleeps with Angels (1994), Young's 90s output was varied, uncompromising and, as duds like his CSNY collaboration, Looking Forward (1999) showed, slightly inconsistent (I've never liked Unplugged). And he has carried that over into the new decades, albeit with an even more curmudgeonly attitude.

And let's get it out of the way: I'm hardly going to mention the three duds of Young's "noughties", Road Rock Friends and Relatives vol.1 (2000, and I hope to Old Black that there won't be a volume 2!), Are You Passionate? (2002, a dull attempt at blue-eyed soul that just sounded flat, uninspired and boring) and Fork in the Road (2009). Other releases have run from the uneven to the masterful, but, those three apart, regardless of ultimate quality, there has at least been a consistency of thought and message (and you could even argue that the latter two at least address two of Young's core concerns, namely his love for family and friends; and his fear for the environment. Just a shame his tunes, rushed and poorly thought-out, failed to match his good intentions). 

In the 2000s, Neil Young turned 60. In 2005, his father died, followed by two of his closest friends and collaborators, Ben Keith and L.A. Johnson, in 2010. Perhaps most affecting was his own near-death experience from a brain aneurysm. These combined events have cast a shadow over nearly everything he recorded thereafter, tainting even his most upbeat or aggressive new songs with a contemplative spirit that even the quieter moments of Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels didn't have, and which was certainly absent from the snotty grunge of Ragged Glory and his 1995 collaboration with Pearl Jam, Mirror Ball

In fact, it was even evident prior to the aneurysm and the bereavements, as we entered the new decade and new millennium. I have often felt that 2000's Silver and Gold is one of Young's most underrated albums. Like every mostly acoustic album Neil Young has done since 1972, Silver and Gold has been described as the next Harvest and, like all the others (even Harvest Moon), the similarity is purely superficial, and S&G stands up quite well on its own merits. It's possibly his quietest-ever album, but remains a full band opus, with sensitive drums, delicious lap steel licks and earthy acoustic guitar motifs. Above all, it's his first true homage to the people without whom this most solitary of superstars would surely have struggled to reach the heights he has: his fellow musicians and his friends and family. Most remarked-upon is his elegy for his first "proper" band on Buffalo Springfield Again, which is slight, but heartfelt, though the irony of the man who sabotaged them in the first place calling for a reunion was surely not lost on Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. But in this context, much of S&G, at least the bits that don't celebrate his wife Pegi (and these are some of his most touching love songs) or his family (S&G certainly points to 2005's Prairie Wind), can be seen as reflections on the Ben Keiths, Kenny Buttreys, Jack Nietzches, David Briggses, CSNs and Crazy Horses who have all, to various degrees, helped make Young the musician he is. As such, when S&G ends, it's with a note of self-reflection and melancholy that is palpable. 

In retrospect, Silver and Gold feels very much like a complete work, a concept album even, based on relationships of all kinds. In contrast, a couple of Young's "noughties" albums feel much more like hodge-podge efforts, hastily assembled, Freedom-style, notably 2007's Chrome Dreams II. Of course, Freedom, which lurched from heavily-politicised rock to weighty ballads, was a hit, and CDII is also excellent, albeit less consistent, resurrecting some old classics, in the form of "Boxcar" and "Ordinary People", and throwing in some new material, notably the spiky "Spirit Road", and the magnificent "No Hidden Path". But there's no avoiding that this was an album thrown together from various sources and sessions, a cross-section of Neil styles, but not his most coherent, despite familiar references to love and preserving the environment or protecting the less fortunate from corporate greed. I have a lot of affection for this album despite the fact that so much of it is filler, mainly because it was an excuse for a lengthy and amazing tour, during which I got to see him three times. And "No Hidden Path" really amazing, featuring Young's best guitar work of the decade by far.

But we're now seeing something of a stylistic pattern in Young's "noughties" output, and indeed maybe even one that mirrors his entire career: there are the "strong statement albums", albums based around specific events and/or precise thought processes (S&G, Greendale, Prairie Wind, Living With War, now Le Noise as we enter the new decade); one "mash-up" album, blurring styles and basically delivering a tasty but inconsistent view of Neil Young per se (Chrome Dreams II); and albums that, whilst they may stick to strong and important themes in Young's mind, were too hastily written and recorded to be more than mere "throw-aways" (Are You Passionate? and Fork in the Road). Looking at things that way, you can see why I consider these last ten years to be the most exciting as a Young fan since the seventies.

Having written all that, I have to admit that I am unsure about Prairie Wind, despite it being his most-acclaimed album of the decade, more or less. At times, it feels like it should be in the same category as Chrome Dreams II. Almost unexpectedly, given the artwork, and the context (Young reminisces of his Canadian prairie childhood in the weeks/months after his father's death and his own near-fatal aneurysm), a couple of the tracks are electric, and the album lurches between piano ballads of the deep folk variety and countryfied pop, making its vibe rather uneven, between ensemble performances worthy of a Kenny Rogers or an Emmylou Harris (who features) and hushed, personal, almost solo songs. A good friend pointed out that the album gains power when you watch the superb, Jonathan Demme-directed, Heart of Gold movie that accompanied Prairie Wind, but I still feel that, for all its consistent themes of fear of dying and dreams of lives long since revolved, this album feels undefined, almost in the same way as Chrome Dreams II. And ultimately, whilst Prairie Wind is a more coherent effort, the two best songs on CDII easily eclipse 90% of the earlier album. 

But, for all my reservations about Prairie Wind, there is no denying that it represented the culmination of the work he'd started as early as Harvest, and his preoccupations with his family and friends, as demonstrated (more solidly, in my opinion) on Silver and Gold. At least until Le Noise, I guess, although that album shows a slight return to the esoteric emotional approach of early works like After the Gold Rush and On the Beach. But, for me, Neil Young's two absolutely essential works of the 2000s are like twin barrels of the same gun: Greendale (2003) and Living With War (2006). And there is only one word for either: uncompromising.

It's a word that sits both in the same company as his greatest-ever albums, Tonight's the Night (1975) and On The Beach (1974). Don't worry, Rusties, I'm not saying they are as good! But, whether it's when he's approaching the invasive presence of the media in an ordinary family's life as they deal with crime and environmental awareness, as on Greendale; or lambasting the Bush administration's illegal war in Iraq on Living With War, Young is unflinching in his outspoken diatribes and forthright rage. Not surprisingly, both albums provided his critics with the ammunition for their most stinging vitriol, as his politics and recording techniques were put under the most scabrous of microscopes. 

And yes, both Greendale and Living with War sound rough and raw. If you like the lush strings and elegant harmonies of Prairie Wind, then the ur-thump of Greendale, recorded with two-thirds of Crazy Horse (and not the most elegant 2/3rds at that!) will make you cringe. The opening tracks are in a sort of primitive dumbass blues-rock style, whilst the second half (the two segueing into each other via the stunning ballad "Bandit") is a kind of free-form post-metal stomp, all repetitive rhythm patterns and messy guitar solos, whilst Young plays a number of different members of his fictional Green family characters. This simple-but-effective approach to American media and environmental politics (the whole album is a sort of aging hippy fable of an ordinary family -the Greens- whose lives are turned upside down by a cousin's delinquency, the media's subsequent intrusions and the daughter's environmental activism) was scorned by the Guardian/New York Times intelligentsia for its simplicity, and yes, to British ears it all sounds a bit corny, but, whether delivering his message solo (as on his 2003 European tour), or with a fuck-off revue, Young never flinched, and never backed down, resulting in various editions of the album, a film and even a comic. It's the bravest album by any major artist since the seventies, of that I have little doubt. And fuck it - the man can still write amazing tunes: "Bandit", "Grandpa's Interview" and "Sun Green" are all classic Young - angry, beautiful and moving. Greendale is a real oddity in Young's canon, a proper musical UFO. How many of the Claptons, Dylans and Jaggers can say they've managed that it the last ten years?

But if people thought the music on Greendale was primitive, the rushed, in-your-face fury of Living With War is something else altogether! Recorded in a matter of days, with overdubbed trumpet and choir, it's a forceful, angry album, perhaps the most vitriolic political album of the last 20-30 years, no less. Of course, in deeply polarised America, it was bound to divide audiences, whilst in the UK such overt, simplistic messaging is frowned upon. But to condemn Young for these -relative- foibles is cheap and unfair. The fact is, Young stood up and was counted. He saw the cost of the war in Iraq, read the lies of the Bush administration, and said, resoundingly, "NO!". The lyrics may occasionally be simple ("Don't need no shadow man/running the government/don't need no stinking war!" is a personal fave), but don't think this is some bone-headed sub-Dylan. The two best tracks, "Restless Consumer" and "Roger and Out" stand up perfectly alongside his very best electric tunes, from "Cinammon Girl" to "Slip Away", with stirring lyrics on both, backed by unstoppable melodies and emotionally potent guitar magic. I'd even be so bold as to say both are among his best tracks in years, maybe even since Sleeps With Angels. That's saying something! As for the rest, well, the guy predicted Obama's emergence, shouted down the war (the immense title track) and had the guts, in possibly his most controversial moment ever, to call for the impeachment of George W Bush. This alone deserves our respect. 

The music on both Greendale and Living With War is unsubtle, and the lyrics so direct as to be downright blunt. But that's what we need sometimes. The war in Iraq was a travesty, and the rape of our planet is a scandal. In these days of hawkish Tea Partiers and vicious spending cuts, an angry voice such as Young's is a strong and refreshing tonic, a voice of grumpy hope in the darkness of spin and cynicism. And, lest we think he's just some miserable old hippy goat, listen to "Roger and Out". Has the personal cost of human folly ever seemed so real?

In a way, more than Prairie Wind's fly-on-the-wall post-illness confessionals, it's the emotional nudity of Silver and Gold, coupled with the militancy of Greendale and Living with War, that most define Neil's current output. But, in the deep reflections of "Restless Consumer", "Roger and Out", "Bandit", "Falling off the face of the Earth" or "No Hidden Path", he demonstrates that he is about more than facile nostalgia or basic righteous anger. This is a man who has has been through much in the last ten years, and suffered more than most. But he is still alive, still singing, still playing that guitar and, as Le Noise demonstrates, ready to attack the next ten years with even more wisdom, rage and love. Long may he fucking run! 

PS - And yes, I'm aware that the "noughties" were also the decade of the Archives and the reissues of great live recordings from decades past, but the emphasis today was on a -possibly flawed- contemporaneous look at his most recent output. Though, for what it's worth, At the Fillmore 1970 and Live at Massey Hall 1971 are simply essential. Peace and Love - RUST xx

NEIL YOUNG'S TOP 10 SONGS, 2000-2009:

1/ "Roger and Out", Living With War
2/ "Bandit", Greendale
3/ "Razor Love", Silver and Gold
4/ "Restless Consumer", Living With War
5/ "No Hidden Path", Chrome Dreams II
6/ "Grandpa's Interview, Greendale
7/ "Goin' Home, Are You Passionate?
8/ "No Wonder", Prairie Wind
9/ "Horseshoe Man", Silver and Gold
10/ "Ordinary People", Chrome Dreams II

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Great Unsung or Underappreciated Albums 11: Didn't It Rain by Songs: Ohia (2002)

The imminent release of Neil Young's latest album, Le Noise -which is a stunner, by the way- is somewhat topical insofar as this review (yet another one I've been wanting to do for a while) is concerned. Le Noise has been described by Young himself as "folk-metal", and, as a completely solo album (albeit with ample help from Daniel Lanois' remarkable production), it's particularly notable for its edification of the electric guitar as a central element to the expression of solo folk.

This is of course, not completely new, though I would argue that Young and Lanois take things to the next level, a topic perhaps for another time. But hearing Le Noise for the first time immediately brought Didn't It Rain (2002, Secretly Canadian) to my mind, and I feel that, whilst Jason Molina employs a band on his album, as opposed to Young creating (with Lanois' help) his sonic maelstrom on his own, there is a similarity in the styles of the two artists. In true "folk-metal" style, Didn't It Rain plays a deceptive game, with the first two tracks being driven by acoustic guitars and little else, before the rumble of electricity creeps over the horizon. 

Jason Molina is first and foremost one of the most talented exponents of what is generally termed "Americana". His music is deeply anchored in the folk, country and rock traditions of his home country, with perhaps only the slightest of nods to the blues. This is earthy, downbeat and humane music, anchored in the tradition of Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and Uncle Tupelo. A tradition of saying things as they are. But also a tradition of mystery and dark recesses, a tradition of deep spirituality and murky landscapes. From the opening seconds of the title track, the listener is confronted with Molina's brutal honesty. His lyrics deal with pain, despair, loss, fear, depression and doubt, with "Didn't It Rain" even taking a broadside at capitalism and injustice. At times, this is oblique and impenetrable, as on the mystical "Cross the Road, Molina", with lyrics hinting at primeval mythology and the kind of spirits that people the literature of Stephen King, the Jeepers Creepers movies or Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. An Americana laden with ancient, pre-white man forces and strange natural phenomena.

But for the most part, Didn't It Rain, in the same manner as Cash's Solitary Man or the debut album by Great Lake Swimmers, remorselessly lays bear the emotions of its creator, whipping into gear the moment the electric guitar kicks in, on "Ring the Bell", perhaps the highest-tempo of all the tracks on the album, which isn't saying much, as it's only a few steps up from "funereal". This is not an album you should go to if you want a bit of a let-up amongst the downers. Like Tonight's the Night or Richmond Fontaine's The Fitzgerald, Didn't It Rain doesn't let up from its bleak and remorseless vibe. "Ring the Bell" is actually the most upbeat track, not just in its pace, but in the stubborn refusal of Molina, via his lyrics, to give up on life and a glimpse of happiness he seems to have had at some point. "Why wouldn't I try?" he moans, as he rails against double-tongues and watches his world crumble and collapse around his ears. It's a stirring moment, brilliantly eradicating the slow-burning mournfulness of the two acoustic tracks that preceded it under a deluge of grim cello drones and jangly guitars that are like The Stone Roses after a half-bottle of Valium. The tone is defiance, but Jason Molina at the same time does not shirk away from bleak realities, be they the mysterious forces of "Cross the Road, Molina", or the more tangible realities of a desperately sad life.

Depression is a major theme here, and as someone who has felt the dark shadow of that illness weigh on his poor mind since age 17, I was struck by the honesty Molina shows here. "I am paralyzed - by emptiness" he wails on "Blue Factory Flame", the album's doom-laden, eight-minute centrepiece. It's a fantastic dirge, an endless parade of minor chords, aching vocals (Molina ably supported by the keening high range of Jennie Beckford), and a plodding, subdued rhythm section, like Crazy Horse after three days without sleep. There are no frills here, we're not allowed them, it's as if we're being told: "life is hard, it's a fucker, I'm not gonna let you pretend it's not". It's a truly chilling song, and I am hard-pressed to think of a sadder one (maybe Neil Young's "Borrowed Tune" or "On the Beach").

And, as I mentioned before, we are not allowed to forget how much hurt this guy has been through. The dismally slow pace of all the songs is surely deliberate, as punishing and unrelenting as the most extreme noise, and Didn't It Rain is a similarly potent assault, coming from the other end of the "fuck you" scale. But it is not all bleakness. If "Ring The Bell" sees Molina fighting with the army of snakes, determined to win, closer "Blue Chicago Moon" is perhaps even more defiant. Like "Blue Factory Flame", it kicks off with a trudging, but fierce, pace, but where that song wallows in pure misery, this one takes that tack ("...the endless, endless, endless, endless, endless depression") and then allows a glorious shaft of light to pierce the cathedral of murk. "You are not helpless / Tryyyyyyyyy to beat it!" Molina and Beckford rail, as if they're trying to burst through the shadows using the force of their glorious voices. I'm not sure if Molina is talking to his audience, or to himself, but the effect is enthralling.

Throughout the song, and the album, the central focus, apart from the bleak-yet-hopeful lyrics, is Molina's electric guitar. Like Neil Young, he is no virtuoso. He does not pour out torrents of notes at Steve Vai speed. Nor would that be appropriate for this music. But you get the distinct feeling that, even on the full band songs, Didn't It Rain could, like Le Noise, work as just a man and his guitar. The notes are clear, but grungy; harsh but elegant. They are almost as drenched in meaning and sensitivity as the lyrics, and just as capable of piercing a line straight to your heart. So, whilst Young may be taking folk-metal to a new level on his latest opus (and I'm still not sure I like it as much - yet), I would say the road had already been rather gloriously, and heart-breakingly, paved way back in 2002 on Didn't It Rain. Can I get an "amen"?