Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dez Reviews Neil Young + Promise of the Real’s ‘Earth’ and Neil Young's 'Peace Trail', both 2016

Neil Young is releasing records at such a clip these days, perhaps it is easier just to do one post at the end of each year covering all of that year’s releases. Even though I am as big a fan of Neil's as you will find, even I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. Neil is in the midst of a decade of releases that are as puzzling and as frustrating (and often as bad) as his infamous 80’s stretch.

In fact, his last two studio albums (The Monsanto Years and Storytone) have to rank amongst his very worst. So, the fact that these two new records are mediocre and at least each have a few songs and moments that I will actually return to, that is a small blessing.

We’ll start with Earth. One of the very disappointing things about The Monsanto Years was that the band that Neil recorded with is awesome. Promise of the Real features Willie Nelson’s sons, and they offer backing that sounds like a more polished and younger Crazy Horse. So they are given another shot with this double live record, capturing them on their recent tour.

Neil has always been concerned with environmental issues, so he put together a concept live record of sorts, featuring some songs from Monsanto Years and other environmentally-themed tunes from his vast catalogue. Oddly, he decided also to intersperse animal and nature sounds seemingly at random throughout the record. So they may be blazing away on “Vampire Blues,” and for no discernible reason other than Neil's whimsy screeching crows will come in and out of the mix, or chirping crickets, or a little rainstorm. I guess he’s trying to maintain the natural theme, but it sounds very unnatural actually. Just one of Neil’s crazy ideas that fluttered into his overactive mind and he pondered for about ten seconds before making the decision to add it to the record. But whatever, it does add a bit of quirkiness to the proceedings, and is not as distracting as you might expect.

ABOVE: Cawing crows feature prominently on Neil Young's Earth

As for the music, the thematic approach works well. Even the bad Monsanto Years tracks are better here, because at least they have some more drive in the live setting and are surrounded by better songs (if that makes sense). And Neil wisely chooses a mix of the obscure (“Hippie Dream” (one of his best 80’s tracks), “Western Hero,” “Vampire Blues” and “Human Highway”) with a few golden oldies like “After the Goldrush” to maintain a consistent nature/environmental theme throughout. And the performances are spirited, with Promise of the Real adding fire to Neil’s music. Things do drag with the closing 30 minute “Love and Only Love,” though.

Neil recorded Peace Trail in four days, and it sounds like it. He has been very active in the Dakota Pipeline protests, so not surprisingly, several of these songs directly address that issue. But at least he does rediscover some (just some) subtlety in his message (say, vs. Monsanto Years or Living With War). While he still does preach and lecture (“Indian Giver”), a song like “Show Me” really works well.

His lyrics remain his weak spot nowadays, but I do like the instrumentation and overall sound here. He uses Paul Bushnell on bass and Jim Keltner on drums. Keltner is crucial to the sound, adding as much with his toms as Neil does with his guitars. I have always loved Keltner’s drumming, with his seemingly so-loose-he-might-lose-it style, but always staying right in the pocket. Neil continues to experiment with sounds, amplifying his harmonica to such a degree that it sounds like jarring, stabbing distortion. He even plays with a vocoder again, bringing up memories of Trans, to surprisingly good effect.

It is clear that Neil is no longer interested in spending a lot of time crafting songs. The tune “Texas Rangers,” for instance, sounds like the first take that it probably was, with the band still trying to figure out what is going on. You can see Bushnell and Keltner asking Neil “OK, so are we ready to try and record a few practice takes now?” With Neil replying “what do you mean? That was the master take. It’s going on the record. Let’s move on.” Much of the record sounds like that. One reviewer commented that the song is so rough that it even makes a seasoned session drummer like Jim Keltner sound confused and lost. “Texas Rangers,” by the way, is probably in the top 10 worst songs Neil has ever recorded. Another reviewer generously compared it to jazz. In the sense that he was probably making it all up on the spot, perhaps.

But fortunately, there are some keepers here too. The title track is great, and one of the only songs that sounds fleshed out and actually thought about for more than 10 minutes. It has a wonderful mix of Neil’s acoustic strumming punctuated by stabs of his signature electric guitar. The aforementioned “Show Me” has an infectious groove that sticks with you. My favorite tune here is “My Pledge,” a weird almost talking blues that is made otherworldly with Neil doubling his vocals with a purposely slightly out of sync vocoder line that has a ghostly beauty to it.

Earth: *** out of *****
Peace Trail: *** out of *****

Friday, December 9, 2016

Two RIP's

I've got two wonderful innovators to add to the GNABB cemetery.

RIP John Glenn, 1921-2016

I know it’s a cliché, but do they make men like this anymore? I mean seriously. John Glenn was such of a different era, a different America. An America that was full of hope, that looked to the future, that was rising so fast that it broke the bonds of gravity and the earth. True, America wasn’t so rosy for many people during the Cold War era. Segregation still existed. I’m not downplaying that at all. But John Glenn and his fellow astronauts represented the best of what we were then. Duty, brains, work ethic, dreamer but with the technical know-how to actually reach those impossible dreams as the rest of the world watched slack-jawed. (I know the Soviets kept up and actually led for a little while, but that didn't last).

There was something extra special about the Mercury astronauts to me. Even more than the Apollo missions, as great as they were, these seven astronauts (and Glenn was the last of them, so they are all a memory now) were true pioneers. Talk about calm under pressure, John Glenn was the most celebrated of them all. It takes a special kind of man to sit on top of a missile that has a decent chance of blowing up at ignition. The re-entry drama and Glenn’s cool response during his history making first American to orbit the earth mission is the stuff of legend. He showed that no matter how technically advanced we think we are, sometimes it still takes the human instincts and decision-making of a pilot to get the ship down.

I know a big part of my romanticizing the Mercury program comes from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff. Glenn was played pitch perfectly by the great Ed Harris. Maybe I need to pop that in tonight, and bask in a bygone age when the sky wasn’t the limit. John Glenn and the other six Mercury astronauts showed us that we could dare to go beyond the sky. Our moon landing, our eventual trip to Mars, even our eventual eventual colonizing and moving off the earth once we have destroyed it beyond repair…the foundation of all of that was John Glenn…and Alan Sheppard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Shirra, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter.

So not only RIP John Glenn. I can now say RIP The Mercury Seven. And thank you all for showing us what we can be and accomplish.


RIP Greg Lake, 1947-2016

Man, 2016 has been a deadly year for music. As well-known and respected as Greg Lake was, I always felt that he could have done more. He sang and played bass on the groundbreaking King Crimson debut In the Court of the Crimson King (and sang on the follow-up), but then left the band to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer. As a massive Crimson fan, I have always felt that was a lost opportunity. It would have been fantastic to get two or three more records with Lake and Robert Fripp working together under the Crimson banner before moving on.

I could never get into ELP very much. I do love me some prog rock, but ELP has aged terribly. My favorite ELP tunes are the more down to earth folky Greg Lake numbers like “Lucky Man” and “Still You Turn Me On.”

Regardless of his career choices, the man was hugely talented. Great and expressive singer, virtuoso on the electric bass, and a good guitarist too. RIP Greg Lake.