Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dez's Record Guides: Bruce Springsteen

Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973) ****
Not indicative of his exhilarating live performances of the time, Bruce is shoved uncomfortably into the “New Dylan” troubadour persona that the Columbia hype machine was shilling, it’s a testament to his talent that he still put out a great record for his debut.

The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973) *****
His sophomore release should have been a revelation, too bad nobody heard it at the time; epic street tales (especially the three lengthy pieces on side 2 that work together as a seamless whole) played looser and jazzier than on any of his other studio efforts (in large part due to the presence of the soon to be booted/departing, respectively, Vinni Lopez and David Sancious). My favorite Springsteen album, and the All-Music Guide concurs, saying that Springsteen “never made a better record.”

Born To Run (1975) *****
It was make or break time for Bruce on his third effort and he knew it (Columbia was about to drop him if he didn’t have a hit here). Boy did he step up to the plate, it sounds like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound run through the engine of a dragster on the Jersey streets, with Springsteen inspiring a faithful with classics like “Thunder Road,” the title track and his epic “Jungleland.”

Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 (live) (1975/2006) *****
Always a favorite amongst bootleggers, Bruce finally decided to officially release his first European performance, where he is playing for his life (at least for his career), and he leaves everything on the stage. You can hear where the legend of his 70’s performances comes from on this two disc show. Bruce, for the love of God, release the Winterlands show from ’78!

Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) *****
After a bitter, protracted legal battle with his former manager, Springsteen was a changed man; and you can hear it on this record. Darkness is the transition from soaring hopeful escapist epics to gritty portraits of the working life, and crucially the acceptance of where you are vs. dreaming of escape.

The Promise (1978/2010) ***
Always a prolific songwriter, Bruce had a huge backlog since his legal troubles had kept him out of the studio for a couple of years leading up to Darkness. In 2010, he decided to release two discs worth of these oft bootlegged leftovers, and some of them are great.

The River (1980) ***
Strong double that would have made a stronger single.

Nebraska (1982) ****
This probably solidified his legend more than anything else, a solo acoustic demo tape that he decided to release “as is” full of meticulously crafted stories of small time criminals and on the fringes characters; “Highway Patrolman” is incredible, a five minute song with so much detail it could be a movie.

Born in the USA (1984) *****
Listened to this all of the way through today for the first time in years, just to make sure it was really that good. It is really that good.

Live 1975/85 (live box set) (1986) ****
Much of what is here is outstanding, but knowing what is still in the vaults, it could have been even better.

Tunnel of Love (1987) ***
Chimes of Freedom (live EP) (1988) **
He couldn’t really go any bigger than Born in the USA, so he wisely followed it with a more personal, low key, mature set of songs about troubles of the heart; about half of it is great.

Human Touch (1992) *
Lucky Town (1992) **
MTV Plugged (live) (1993) **

Springsteen himself has described the 90’s as his “lost decade,” where he jettisoned the E Street Band, moved to the West Coast, and tried some new sounds. If he had taken the best tunes from these two simultaneously released records, he would have had one good one.

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) ***
Lyrically, this is phenomenal and rivals, and even surpasses in some places, Nebraska in vivid storytelling; but the problem is that reading the lyrics in the booklet is more interesting than actually listening to these songs with quiet, undeveloped melodies and hushed production.

Greatest Hits (compilation) (1995) ***
Blood Brothers (EP) (1996) *
Tracks (box set compilation of rarities) (1998) ****
18 Tracks (compilation of rarities) (1999) ***
Live In New York City (live) (2001) ***

A single disc hits collection for an artist with a catalogue as rich as Springsteen’s is pretty pointless, especially when four tracks are taken up by mediocre new songs. Blood Brothers is a rather anemic studio reunion with the E Street Band, he just wasn’t writing very interesting songs at this point. The Tracks set largely delivers what fans have long wanted, an emptying out of the vaults, and there are indeed many gems in there. His full on reunion tour with the E Street Band in 2000-2001 was celebratory and outstanding in person, but for some reason it does not fully translate on disc.

The Rising (2002) ***
The Essential Bruce Springsteen (compilation) (2003) ****
Devils & Dust (2005) **
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) **
Live in Dublin (live) (2006) ***
Magic (2007) ****
Magic Tour Highlights (live EP) (2008) ***
Working on a Dream (2009) **
Wrecking Ball (2012) ***

High Hopes (2014) ***1/2
American Beauty (EP) (2014) *

Since 2002, if you believe the critics, Springsteen has had a creative renaissance, releasing one new classic after another. I think this is a gross overreaction to some decent, but hardly earthshattering, work. The Rising was a welcome return to form and a very good and carefully constructed rumination on the emotional aftermath of 9/11, while Devils & Dust goes further and takes the perspective of veterans of the Iraq War, lyrically very interesting but musically underwhelming. He took a detour with the joyful but ultimately unimportant Seeger covers album and accompanying live release, before releasing his strongest record since Born in the USA, the fantastic Magic. Working on a Dream, however, was worse than bad (only Human Touch is worse in his catalogue), he unintentionally becomes a parody of himself on some of these songs. Wrecking Ball redeems him somewhat, but his Occupy Wall Street sympathies and working man laments get old and the record veers dangerously towards preachiness. High Hopes was a wonderful surprise, a collection of outtakes from the last ten years. Many of these songs were stronger than most tracks on the records they didn't make. Essential Bruce Springsteen is the best compilation available, using two discs to give the listener a broad but accurate introduction to his work through The Rising.

Bottom Line: Almost unassailable through '84, but tread carefully after that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oscar Thoughts

In the old days, I had a lot invested in the Oscars. I religiously watched them, I participated (or ran) Oscar Pools, I fervently rooted for my favorites to be victorious. Because out of all of the awards shows out there, the Oscars is one of the few that still means something. The Grammys have long been a joke due to tone deaf and historically laughable choices, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, Actors Screen Guild…meh. But the Oscars have still retained some of the glamour and awe that was originally intended. Although you could argue that they have been trying really hard to lose it in recent years.

I won’t really comment on the actually winners and losers. Why? Because I’ve hardly seen any of them. In fact, I have not seen a single one of the nine Best Picture nominees. I love movies, but due to child and family obligations, we just don’t get to the theater any more. And for whatever reason, the exciting world of television has supplanted the viewing of movies for us. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Big Love, Sopranos…a lot of the excitement in entertainment has been on the small screen in the past decade. I want to (and will) see "Argo" and "Lincoln," at least. "Silver Linings Playbook" has sparked my interest.

But I did watch the broadcast, so I can talk about that. First of all, hosting the Oscars is akin to playing the half time show at the Super Bowl. Any intelligent person would simply turn the opportunity down, no matter the exposure you get. It is virtually impossible to come out looking great, the best you can hope for is a draw. Seth MacFarlane was, how shall we say, not good. It is not the forum for him to really cut loose on what he does best, so it was all just watered down yet still inappropriate humor. They are trying to pull in a younger demographic, which is also why they did the disasterous duo of James “I wish I were anywhere else but here” Franco and Anne “please, please, please like me” Hathaway a couple of years back. (At least Seth wasn’t that bad). But the Oscars is one of the few things where the old timey, somewhat classy feel is actually a plus. We don’t tune in to the Oscars for humor and hosts we can relate to. We tune in for a bit of that classic Hollywood magic of yesteryear. That is why, although I didn’t actually watch them, the broadcasts from many years ago with someone like Johnny Carson or Bob Hope hosting, that just feels and sounds right.

Some of MacFarlane’s humor fell flat and was fairly cringe-inducing. White guys doing racial humor, at least on that size of a stage, I’d suggest just steering clear. It could work in a comedy club or even in a film or on cable, but not at the Oscars. Domestic violence jokes (“Django Unchained” as a date movie for Chris Brown and Rhianna), probably not good either in that forum. The Lincoln assassination joke, it wasn’t so much that it was inappropriate, it was that it just wasn’t really funny and looked like he was trying way too hard. He wasn’t the worst host ever, but it was not a great night for him. When they try to be hip and appeal to different demographics, like with MacFarlane, Franco/Hathaway (or Chevy Chase and Letterman when they did it)…it usually falls pretty flat. You need a seasoned professional who doesn’t really ruffle too many feathers but can still poke light fun, a deft skill harder than it seems. That is why, in my head, Johnny Carson fits the ultimate Oscar host bill. But he’s dead.

As far as everything else, no real shocking moments or anything. Daniel Day-Lewis’s speech was endearingly awkward and quite funny too. And surprise, Quentin Tarantino’s speech was one of the classiest of the night. Jennifer Lawrence recovered nicely from her (drunken?) fall. Was Kristen Stewart high? She looked like she just finished a five day bender in Vegas. The Bond tribute was underwhelming after so much hype. I think they did intend to gather all six actors together, but since they couldn’t get all of them to appear, they scrapped the whole thing and did the video montage. I enjoyed Shirley Bassey’s brassy rendition of “Goldfinger.” Some called it over the top, but that is like saying Jimi Hendrix’s albums have too much flashy guitar playing. Always a favorite moment for me, the In Memoriam segment, inexplicably left out Andy Griffith (“A Face in the Crowd,” anyone?)

Overall, not a very memorable Oscars. The entertainment segments were mediocre and forgettable, as were most of the acceptance speeches, and the all important host was a bust. I did quite enjoy the “Jaws” hook music to shut down acceptance speeches that went too long…

Saturday, February 23, 2013


I had always heard other parents talk about “bedtime” as if it were some ritual set in stone, akin to worshipping on Sundays or Monday Night Football. Well, it is. I think each family has their own particulars, but the perennials usually include a bath, reading and tucking in.

My three year old daughter’s bath has become more and more involved as she has gotten older. In her younger days, it was indeed simply a bath, the purpose of which was to clean your body from the day’s detritus. Now she and I have different purposes in mind. For her, bath is prime play time. I’m still trying to get her clean. There is hardly room for her in the tub due to her impressive arsenal of bath toys. This is my fault, of course, I like buying her sh*t. In the bath tub she has the following: a basketball hoop suction-cupped to the tile along with three balls to use, five Elmo faces that you suction to the bottom of the tub to prevent slipping (but she likes to put the Elmo’s on the wall instead, thereby negating their true purpose), lots of sea creatures like dolphins, whales and sharks (one is a Great White, and I tried to introduce her to the concept of ‘Jaws’ by having the Great White chase the smaller sharks and whales around the tub and eating them, but she said “no, he’s not doing that,” and then grabbed the former ‘Jaws’ from me and had him hug and cuddle the smaller Hammerhead shark saying “that’s his Daddy”…with a slight feeling of shame I then encouraged the kinder and gentler Jaws) and some other animals that stick to the wall. With all of this, she still does manage to stretch out and “swim” in her bath. That must have been fun, when you were small enough to actually swim around in your bathtub.

By the way, I have very much upset my wife. What I have done, judging by her reaction, may be grounds for divorce. When taking out my daughter’s rubber bands in her hair holding the ponytails in place, I sometimes use scissors to just cut them (as opposed to yanking them out and having her shriek in alleged excruciating pain). Well, occasionally my cutting is not heart surgeon-precise enough, and I accidently clip a few individual strands of hair along with the rubber band. You should have seen my wife’s reaction when she found a very small clump of hair on the bathroom floor. It was like CSI and she had just discovered evidence left behind by a vicious serial killer. “It will take years for this hair to grow back!” Then, taking her cue from Mommy, my daughter chimed in berating me for cutting her hair (is this my future? Attacked from all sides by a gaggle of women? And another one on the way?) Evidently she will have a few hairs out of place in the years to come, and this will make her an outcast to society. I tried to be contrite and keep the smile off my face to show that I understood the severity of the situation. I still don’t. Speaking of taking cues from Mommy, you've got to be careful what you say around kids this age. They repeat it. My wife was pissed at me about something awhile ago and said "it's a fine line, Dez." Ever since then, whenever my daughter is pissed at me, she looks sternly at me and says "it's a fine line, Daddy." I'm guilty of it too. Actually worse. They repeat swear words, I have figured out.

I gotta say, I dig bedtime. Due to my wife’s pregnancy condition, I’m doing bedtime mostly these days. It is great bonding time. We brush her teeth (well, I brush them and then she sucks on the toothbrush and thinks she is also brushing). We get her into the bodysuit jammies (man, those look comfortable) and then it is reading time. I want genius children, so I have been reading to her since the day she was born. That’s what all the books say to do. Little kids get obsessed with books. So once she likes a book, it is probably close to a month of reading that same book every night until I can convince her to move on to a new one. She likes the predictability, and she thinks she’s reading along with me by telling me the story that she has memorized by this time.

Currently we are on the Disney version of ‘The Gingerbread Man.’ This is the one where Daisy makes Donald Duck a Gingerbread Man for his birthday, but the Gingerbread Man comes to life through some dark art and then runs off, only to have Daisy, Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Chip and Dale all join chase as the Gingerbread Man joyfully taunts them, and I don’t understand why he is so joyful as this whole group of people are chasing him with the sole purpose of devouring him, and then he comes across the Big Bad Wolf relaxing by the river. Life Tip #34: don’t trust someone whose name starts with “Big Bad.” Big Bad offers the Man a ride across the river to escape his pursuers, and coaxes the Man closer to his jaws to avoid getting wet on the crossing and…well you know what happens. My daughter shrieks with glee when the Big Bad Wolf chomps the Gingerbread Man (probably in part due to my added sound effects), the same Gingerbread Man she had been rooting for the entire story by repeating his taunts to Mickey and Co. Anyway, that has been February’s book.

As I lay down in bed with her as she goes to sleep we review the day’s events. I also picked this up from some parenting book, but I really like this one. She tells me about her day at Day Care. Here’s the text of a recent note we received from her teacher: “She was climbing on the table, running around the classroom. At naptime she jumped up and down on her cot, running around the class and would not lay down. She told another teacher that she does not listen to Mrs. X because ‘she does not play games.’” (I couldn’t figure out whether that meant that Mrs. X doesn’t play fun games, or whether that was a threat from my three year old along the lines of “I ain’t playin’ no games with you!”) So I ask as she drifts off to peaceful slumber, “how was school today?” “I had fun at school today, Daddy. I love you.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Five Years

I am sure that my loyal readers have already noted the significance of this February. It marks five years of GNABB. 609 posts later, we are still chugging along. I thought that I would go back through and link to some of my favorite posts over the years, but then I decided that I did not want to look through 609 posts. So, onward, always onward. I don't really look at the dwindling readership here as less interest. Oh no. It means that we here at GNABB are simply catering to a more select, elite customer. But on a more serious note, I do appreciate the regular and occasional visitors here, this has been a great forum not only as an outlet for my musings, but in the best of times, for great conversation with your comments. It is also a way to keep in touch with some good friends who live as far away as the West, East and South coasts. I try and keep the topics varied here, although I am well aware that it does lean heavily on music. That has always been my comfort zone, even though some of the best discussions here have unfolded from posts on other topics, especially political ones. So you tell me. What kind of stuff would you like to read in the future? Is it good as it is? Less music? I'm excited about the Record Guide series I've got in mind, but is that really of interest or helpful? I know, I know. The blog needs more NASCAR analysis. But any other suggestions?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Vinyl Manifesto

NOTE: I think I wrote a post like this at some point. But forget that one. This is better. Read this one. That’s what happens when you go on five years running a blog.

The invention of the compact disc will be seen as the turning point. That was when we crossed the great sonic chasm from warm, engaging, living mediums over to the cold and lonely digital world. The music industry was joyful at the time, and it did produce about a decade of high profits. Now, everyone had to go back and buy music they already owned! Reissue those back catalogues! The sound is clearer and distinct, they told us (as if being able to isolate instruments like a sonic surgeon from what was always intended to be an organic whole is a good thing). They provide us with a “lifetime of entertainment” (CD booklets usually had that phrase somewhere), because the sound quality did not deteriorate over repeated listenings, like tape or vinyl. (OK, that’s still pretty cool. But, we have discovered that unless cared for under very specific conditions, CDs also deteriorate).

Little did the music industry know that in the late 80’s when they started pushing the CD that they were sealing their own fate. Or, at least changing the industry from what it profitably and comfortably was for them. The industry controlled the medium with vinyl (and to a lesser degree, tape). But by selling music that could be reduced to the 1’s and 0’s of the digital language, they were giving up control of the medium. I have ranted obliquely and directly here on this topic at different times, but it is time that I set out my manifesto.

Digital sucks. I acknowledge the benefits. I can, and do, walk around with over 25,000 songs in my pocket all day long. The lack of sound deterioration over repeated use, as discussed above, is a plus. I do like that I can go on iTunes and pick and choose to download a song here or there, vs. buying an entire record like in the old days. I enjoy making and perfecting endlessly my “box set” playlists. All cool.

But the big question remains: do records really sound better than CDs, digital files, etc? The answer is yes. Scientifically, yes. Here’s why. Sound travels in sound waves, which by definition are analog in nature. A vinyl record has a groove carved in it that captures exactly the entire form of the wave. Nothing is lost. It captures the sound wave in analog, it is sent to your amplifier as analog and then to your speakers. There is no real conversion that must be done. CD’s, on the other hand, require snapshots and conversions. You are not listening to the entire sound wave. The CD takes snapshots of the sound wave (about 44,100 per second) and then approximates the holes. So you are getting an approximation of the sound, not the entire sound. Then these digital signals are converted to analog and amplified so you can hear them. More sound is lost in the conversion. With a record, you are looking at the Mona Lisa. With CD’s, you are looking at a picture taken of the Mona Lisa by a tourist with a disposable camera. When people talk about vinyl sound being “warmer” and “fuller,” that is why. It is the entire soundwave form, not snapshots and approximations of it. End of science lesson.

Records used to be a visual experience as well as audio. The artwork for album covers meant something, as well as the gatefolds, inserts, etc. Even the record label. Buying a record stimulates all of the senses, not just your ears. Your eyes take in all of the artwork and information that a large canvas of the cover and sleeves and gatefolds can provide. Entire essays used to be written within album gatefolds. The album cover was so important that often that alone would persuade someone to buy the record. The smell of opening new vinyl is also distinctive, taking the plastic off and taking a whiff of the newly printed cardboard and vinyl. Taking out a record to play was also a part of the process. Gingerly sliding the disc out and holding it from the label so as not to blemish the surface. And even if you did blemish the surface over time, there was something inviting even from the pops that came with many spins. (I’ve got nothing for the taste sense, sorry).

Most important, though, is connectedness. Being a music fan today is lonelier than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the more engaged and interactive experience of placing the record on your turntable, gently placing the needle where you want it (real fans personally place the needle, don’t use that auto crap), and then waiting for the first song to burst through your speakers. Not to mention flipping the disc over for the second side. (That’s another thing: records have distinct sides, with their own story to tell).

No, what I mean is a community that has been lost. Many of you have seen (or read) the loving ode to record store culture in ‘High Fidelity.’ The experience of walking into a record store, browsing for as long as you are able, listening to the music-snob customers and clerks extol the greatness of Springsteen’s second album or dismiss post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd…there was a distinct culture there. I spent many blissful hours of my life in the record store sanctuary, a place for fellow believers to share fellowship. (You have a similar loss with the disappearance of the video store for film buffs). Sure, I can blog and go in chat rooms to talk tunes, but in the end, you are alone in front of your computer screen, when you should be physically walking the aisles, listening to the music over the store system, trading suggestions with real breathing people. That is musical fellowship. It is a connectedness that is lost. I have fond childhood memories of riding my bike to and from Sound Warehouse, grabbing the latest LP’s that I wanted to explore, and then riding back home, with the wind banging the yellow bag against the bike. Later I got in the car…but it was always still a journey. I had to get up and go with purpose. Not just sit passively in front of my computer screen and click “purchase.”

I sound like some old-timer whining about how things ain’t what they used to be. But they ain’t. I know it isn’t the end of music, things are always evolving. But I do miss the era that has just passed. As someone who has experienced both the heyday and end of the old and the start of the new, I can definitely say which I prefer, for all of the conveniences today’s technology provides. I prefer warmth, connectedness, purpose, using all of the senses to experience music and fellowship. That was the old days.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Dez's Record Guide: Neil Young, Pt. II

For an explanation of these guides and Pt. I, see the post below.

I’m a defender of Neil’s 80’s work, as difficult a job as that can be. I actually defend his 80’s output more than his much more celebrated 90’s work, because it was more interesting. It is one of the most eclectic, haphazard discographies in most any major artist’s catalogue. The 20 years that followed started strong, then got a bit complacent, with a quiet renaissance in recent years…

‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ soundtrack (1980) *
Rightfully an obscurity, Neil composed hokey guitar music for this offbeat Bill Murray film.

Hawks and Doves (1980) **
Re-Act-Tor (with Crazy Horse) (1981) **
Neil awkwardly enters the 80’s and tries to marry Crazy Horse to some New Wave elements…interesting in theory but both records are marred by weak compositions.

Trans (1982) ***
Perhaps the most notorious release in his entire catalogue, Neil goes Kraftwerk (including singing through a vocador through half of the record); drenched in synths and sequencers with his guitar slashing through, and then augmented by three tunes recorded in Hawaii from totally unrelated sessions from an earlier abandoned album…it is a marvelously strange record and I love it.

Everybody’s Rockin’ (with the Shocking Pinks) (1983) **
Old Ways (1985) **
A Treasure (live, with the International Harvesters) (1985/2011 Archives series) ***

He recorded a country album around ‘83 that was rejected by Geffen, they wanted “rock and roll.” Fine. So he records a rockabilly record instead (Everybody’s Rockin’), and further alienates himself from his former 60’s compadres by seemingly embracing Reaganism. I love how he takes one of his old trunk songs, “Wonderin’,” and turns it into a fantastic rockabilly/doo-wop tune. Old Ways was his second try at a straight country record, and this time Geffen let him put it out. “Misfits” is awesome, and he even duets with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on some tunes. Neil’s shows on his Old Ways tour were semi-legendary, and indeed the live work is more exciting than its studio counterpart.

Landing On Water (1986) *
Life (with Crazy Horse) (1987) **

Landing on Water is possibly his worst record, he sounds totally at a loss trying to play rock in an 80’s world. The one exception is probably his best song of the decade, the savage “Hippie Dream” where he pointedly rips David Crosby and others for being hypocrites and drowning in their own excesses. Life is also a weak effort, but includes probably his second best song of the period, “Mideast Vacation”: “I was Rambo in the disco / I was shootin’ to the beat / when they burned me in effigy / my vacation was complete.”

This Note’s For You (with The Bluenotes) (1988) ***
Why not try a big band blues record next? It is actually pretty good and creates a nice atmosphere. The title track is his third best tune of the period, a great attack on rock commercialism that savages MTV (the video was first banned by the network, and then won Video of the Year at its awards).

Lucky Thirteen (compilation of 80’s period) (1982-88/1993) ***
You would think Neil would take this opportunity to present his dizzying 80’s genre jumping in a nice compilation, just to make some sense of it all, but he of course picks random album tracks, unreleased songs and live tunes instead. It is as chaotic as the decade of Neil’s work that it purports to anthologize.

Eldorado (EP, with The Restless, 1989, Japan only release) ****
His most earsplitting, savage playing, even more ramshackle than Crazy Horse. A preview of the masterpiece that was about to arrive…

Freedom (1989) *****
The last truly brilliant Neil Young record, a bold declaration after the interesting wilderness years of the 80’s; this stands toe to toe with the best of his 70’s work.

Ragged Glory (with Crazy Horse) (1990) ***
Weld (live, with Crazy Horse) (1991) ****
Arc (live, with Crazy Horse) (1991) *

Critics fawned over Ragged Glory (with Rolling Stone’s five star review claiming that Neil Young has single-handedly saved rock and roll for the new decade), but in reality, it is simply a solid but not stellar set of plodding Crazy Horse numbers that would have been deep album cuts on the better 70’s records. Weld is better. Arc is an interesting thirty minute pastiche of feedback and distortion sound collage…but are you ever really going to listen to it from start to finish? Well, I have, but would you?

Harvest Moon (with Stray Gators) (1992) ***
Dreamin’ Man ’92 (live) (1992/2007 Archives series) **
Unplugged (live) (1993) ***

More critical fawning for the much ballyhooed “follow-up” to Harvest; it is actually more akin to the slick and more mediocre Comes a Time. The title track may be his prettiest song, though, a mature and not cheesy ode to domestic happiness. Dreamin’ Man is solo acoustic renditions of the entire Harvest Moon album. They’re fine, but the point? With so much amazing stuff still in the vault, I was expecting better choices for the Archives releases. Where is a show from the Tonight’s the Night tour? Release Time Fades Away on disc. The much bootlegged Bluenote CafĂ©. Why this? Unplugged is cool with a few surprises, like the pump organ version of “Like a Hurricane.”

Sleeps With Angels (with Crazy Horse) (1994) **
I keep thinking I need to revisit this. Then I do. And it is still just OK.

Mirror Ball (with Pearl Jam) (1995) **
Definitely a lost opportunity, what should have been a summit of kindred spirits turns out a batch of riffs disguised as songs and half-baked ideas.

Broken Arrow (with Crazy Horse) (1996) ***
More of the same. But it’s pretty good.

‘Dead Man’ soundtrack (1996) *
Ambient guitar noodling.

Year of the Horse (live, with Crazy Horse) (1997) **
Do we need another of these? As Neil says before the opening song, “they’re all the same song!” Yep.

Silver and Gold (2000) ***
A very nice acoustic record comprised of trunk songs that he dusted off and finally recorded. I really like this, even if it is not that important of a record.

Road Rock, vol. 1 (live) (2000) **
Are You Passionate? (with Booker T. and the MGs) (2002) *
Greendale (with Crazy Horse) (2003) *
Greatest Hits (compilation) (2004) ***
Prairie Wind (2005) *
Living With War (2006) *
Living With War: In The Beginning (2006) *
Chrome Dreams II (2007) **

Perhaps I am too harsh on ’02-’07, but I find it to be his most boring set of records. Critics were quite pleased with these. Yes, the 80’s were bad (spectacularly in some cases), but at least it was interesting. I saw the tour with Booker T. and it was great, but the record they made together is so dull. Greendale is a stupid concept album that I won’t waste space even explaining. Prairie Wind is slick Comes a Time-like professionalism. Living With War is embarrassing, an anti-Iraq War/"I hate George W. Bush" toss-off that is infantile in both writing and execution. Finally Chrome Dreams II (Chrome Dreams is the name of one of his most sought after bootlegs, so the title is a cheeky reference to that) is a collection of songs he had accumulated over the years and finally decided to record…most of them could have stayed in the vaults. With an artist with as much work as Neil, a single disc Greatest Hits collection is really pointless, especially when you put “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By the River” back to back. Who picked that sequencing? Neil probably.

Fork in the Road (2009) ****
A concept record with songs about how much he digs his electric car. And it is loose, fun, witty and rockin’. As I said in my original review, it is record as blog post.

Le Noise (with Daniel Lanois) (2010) ****
Neil alone with an electric guitar (mostly) getting the Daniel Lanois atmospheric treatment on a strong set of songs.

Americana (with Crazy Horse) (2012) ****
Some of the American folk song canon getting run though the Crazy Horse barn; loose, loud, fun and very American.

Psychedelic Pill (with Crazy Horse) (2012) **
What the f***, Neil?

A Letter Home (2014) ***
Gimmicky, but oddly effective. Neil visited Jack White's studio where White had a vintage 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine which allowed people to make their own scratchy records. Armed with some odd covers, Neil entered the phone booth and recorded an affecting in places, loose, ramshackle set that captures an era gone by. His rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" is the highlight.

Storytone (2014) **
Another headscratching detour, this time Neil works with a 92-piece orchestra on most tracks, and with a blues big band on three others. Mot very good, and the lyrics are often a mismatch for the setting, although the fun "I Want To Drive My Car" and the gorgeous "When i Watch You Sleep" are keepers.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Neil Young, Pt. I

I’m going to put together some Record Guides for some of my favorite artists from time to time for you here. As true fans of the album format continue to dwindle in our ADD digital music age, it is important to still be able to look at an artist’s entire catalogue of records, not just random songs. It is funny that we think we have progressed, yet we are back to where we were in the 1950’s: disposable pop once again rules the airwaves and it is all about the singles. OK, off my soapbox.

Appropriately, I’ll start with the #1 slot on my relatively recent favorite artists list, Neil Young. I say “appropriately” in part because cranky Uncle Neil has been a leading critic of all things digital in music. I will focus on his rather large solo discography, so his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is not here. Neil’s discography is extensive, so it will be divided into two posts. This first one will cover his most important period, 1968-79. Part II will cover the other three decades.

Recall a discussion we have had here several times regarding a statement made by JMW that rock/pop artists generally have a decade, give or take, to really make their mark and most vital work. I believe that JMW has since backed away from that theory, but he shouldn’t. I subscribe to it. I think that Neil has proven the exception to the rule, but undeniably, his most important period is 1968-79. He has finally started releasing shows and compilations of rarities (in his Archives series) after talking about doing it for about 20 years. I have included the Archives releases where the material chronologically would go, but also noting the year of actual release (such as 1968/2008 for Sugar Mountain). As with my Five Star Album list from awhile back, I will do my best keep commentary for each record to one sentence only. The ratings are on a scale of * to *****, as usual.

Neil Young (1968) ***
Lush, overproduced debut finds an uncharacteristically tentative Neil not straying too far from his countrified/slightly psychedelic Buffalo Springfield roots, although it does contain some keepers (“The Loner,” “Old Laughing Lady” and “I’ve Been Waiting For You”).

Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968 (live) (1968/2008 Archives series) **
Interesting early, loose solo acoustic set, but for diehards only. And I don’t even pop it in much.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (with Crazy Horse) (1969) *****
Neil’s first outing with his ultimate garage band Crazy Horse contains some of his most enduring songs, like tight rocker “Cinnamon Girl” and the feverish sprawl of “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”…God I wish Danny Whitten had lived longer.

Live at the Fillmore East (live, with Crazy Horse) (1970/2006 Archives series) ****
What is here is raw, early Crazy Horse at its best, but for some unfathomable reason it is only one disc and not near to a whole show, so it is no better than an appetizer that leaves you wanting the meal; 16-minute “Cowgirl in the Sand” is a keeper and leaves the studio version in the dust…err, sand.

* Live at the Cellar Door (live) (1970/2013 Archives Series) ***
Another very good acoustic set from the Archives series. I don't rate it higher simply because I think Massey Hall (see below) covers very similar ground better.

After the Goldrush (1970) ****
A favorite amongst fans and critics alike, and it is certainly eclectic, but I just have never connected with it very strongly. I am certainly in the minority on that sentiment (best track: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”)

Live at Massey Hall 1971 (live) (1971/2007 Archives series) *****
For what this is, it is absolutely perfect: an intimate solo acoustic show from Neil at an early peak, he is loose and often banters hilariously with the audience as he casually previews songs that will eventually become the core of Harvest.

‘Journey Through the Past’ soundtrack (1972) **
This is a really strange release (and has still not been put out on CD, although I’ve got the LP), comprised of drastically alternate takes of some familiars, jams, Buffalo Springfield and CSNY live cuts and some new songs (plus some Handel and Beach Boys); the best moments are available elsewhere (like the haunting “Soldier”).

Harvest (with Stray Gators) (1972) *****
Neil throws out his back and has to remain seated for six months, goes to Nashville and hires slick session musicians, and records a folk rock classic and commercial hit (the type of album most musicians would then have made a career out of replicating and one that his record company begged him to repeat), but one that he would spend the rest of the decade running away from.

The Archives vol. 1, 1963-72 (compilation of hits, album tracks, alternate takes, rarities, live shows) (1963-72/2009 Archives series) ****
Exhaustive and for the diehard only, this 8-disc extravaganza delivers what is promised, but it could be distilled down to about two discs worth of killer rarities.

Time Fades Away (live, new material) (1973) ***
For some ridiculous reason Neil refuses to issue this on CD or in digital form, and that is a shame, as it is a wonderful, drunken, rambling live set that makes the first entry in his famed ‘Ditch Trilogy’; also features two gorgeous largely unheard piano tunes (“Love In Mind,” “Journey Through the Past.”) He promises this will be included in its entirety in Archives, vol. 2, whenever that comes out.

On the Beach (1974) ****
Neil is bummed and burned out, but that is often the best Neil; a biting record about violent hippies, environmental decay, disintegrating relationships and L.A. weariness.

Tonight’s the Night (1975) *****
The ditch masterpiece, Neil at his most despairing and in career-suicide mode, where he of course makes one of the most acclaimed records of the 70’s (in retrospect; his record company refused to release it for two years), all while singing and playing horribly out of tune on songs of delicate beauty and rawness, songs that sound like they will fall apart any second (typical perverse decision: hire young guitar stud Nils Lofgren to be in the band, but tell him he can only play piano, an instrument he had never played before).

Zuma (with Crazy Horse) (1975) ****
Out of the ditch and back with his Crazy Horse stalwarts, they make a straight rock record that is lighter than his ditch period (how could it not be?) and full of hooks and melodies, and includes his greatest guitar song, “Cortez the Killer” (even if the lyrics are historically inaccurate).

Long May You Run (with Stephen Stills as Stills-Young Band) (1976) *
Bad. Neil isn’t into it and only offers leftovers not good enough for his own records (with the beautiful exception of the title track), and Stills is too wasted by this point to really produce much of note.

American Stars ‘n Bars (1977) ***
An odds ‘n sods-type placeholder of sorts, but its lack of cohesion is its charm; includes two stunners in the beautiful quiet epic “Will To Love” and the roaring “Like a Hurricane.”

Decade (compilation) (1977) *****
The perfect entry point into Neilworld, including his best known hits, worthy rarities, and essential tracks from his Buffalo Springfield and CSNY days, covering '67-'77. This is one of those rare almost perfect compilations that gives you more than a mere taste, but really gives you an accurate portrait of an artist up to that point (originally on three LPs, now two CDs).

Comes a Time (1978) ***
The album his record company wished had followed Harvest, it is Neil as The Eagles; a slick country/folk rock record this is just OK (the wonderful title track is better on Live Rust.)

Rust Never Sleeps (part live, with Crazy Horse) (1979) *****
On some days, I think this is his best record from start to finish.

Live Rust (live, with Crazy Horse) (1979) *****
Critically derided at the time as a money grab, in hindsight it serves as a perfect Neil Young mid to late 70’s primer, split evenly between engaging acoustic numbers and raging rockers. If you want to get a decent portrait without spending too much cash, you can't go wrong buying Decade and Live Rust to start.

Disagree with some of these ratings? Then screw you. No, kidding. Please comment and we can get into some great music discussions. Coming soon…part two of the NY record guide.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This Shouldn't Work, But It Does

Ok, check this out. Sample a dizzying amount of random Elton John vocals/music from his peak period in the 70's and then create brand new melodies and remix them into moody dance music, and that is "Elton John vs. Pnau's" Good Morning to the Night. Pnau is a successful dance music duo hailing from down under who Elton has taken under his wing. This gimmick would be nothing more than a mere gimmick if the music were not so melodic, catchy and distinctive. It is a step ahead of merely sampling and adding dance beats, they actually wrote new music, painstakingly pulling Elton's vocals and music from an array of his tunes to help forge their own. For instance, the title track pulls either vocal samples or musical elements of Elton's from "Philadelphia Freedom," "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," "Tonight," "Gulliver/It's Hay Chewed," "Sixty Years On," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," all within a tight 3:21. And it is tight. If you don't include the remixed bonus tracks that you can download, the core record clocks in with eight tunes at slightly under thirty minutes. Pretty concise for dance music. All of the songs have something to recommend them, and they are each distinctive enough to where they do not blend into each other (as dance music often does). I especially like the lovely instrumental closer, "Sixty," which takes elements from three different versions of Elton's brooding "Sixty Years On." If you are a fan of Elton's 70's work, it is a fun treasure hunt to listen to these tunes and try and identify which of his originals were used. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a very important record, but it is quite infectious, and a fun concept that was successfully executed.

Here's the appropriately trippy video for "Sad"...

Dez's Rating for Elton John vs. Pnau's Good Morning to the Night: *** out of *****