NEIL YOUNG Unplugged (Reprise)

At last the dreadful MTV finds a worthy subject for its "Unplugged" series, and for once it's somebody to whom the concept of playing sans electricity isn't completely alien. "Unplugged" features over an hour's worth of live, acoustic Neil Young, but maybe he takes the easy way out by tackling songs that weren't exactly crackling with current in their original versions. "The Needle And The Damage Done", for example, was originally recorded live and acoustic on "Harvest", so what does it gain here? 52 seconds and not a lot else, in my opinion. Similarly, why include three songs from last year's average (title track excepted) "Harvest Moon" album?

Carping over, there are still enough delights here to get excited about. "Stringman", for example, a gorgeous song that was unfamiliar to me, "Like A Hurricane" done with pump organs, of all things, and "Helpless", which, here, as always, speaks for itself.

The sparse but effective backing band includes notables such as Nils Lofgren, Nicolette Larson, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham and Tim Drummond, all familiar from earlier Neil Young albums, and the production is certainly good enough (shame about the compressed-to-death pressing though). I'm not disappointed by this album, but somehow it lacks compared to "Weld", or even the much earlier and (slightly) more conceptually similar "Time Fades Away". Perhaps it's the sight of an MTV logo on an album by the man who wrote "This Note's For You". Now, how about an album with Booker T and the M.G.'s backing the great man up?

NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

Rejoice! He was just kidding us, he wasn't really from the farm!! After a duff career move that impelled him to write songs about his recently departed dog, the loner has returned to what he does best: fronting a bar band and writing songs about how bad modern life is and how we can get through the worst of it. (You mean you'd really rather listen to "Unplugged" than "Weld"?)

From the first note "Sleeps With Angels" is classic Young: "My Heart" is all jangle piano and confused feelings ("My love, I will give it to you it's true/Although I'm not sure what love can do"); "Prime Of Life" is a two-way conversation with his original fans and friends, just to check they're present and correct, then come two apologies for absence, with the self-explanatory "Driveby" and the title track, an elegy to Kurt and Courtney, as is, reputedly, the epic "Change Your Mind", which takes up the whole of the second side, littered with some of Neil's best scorched-earth guitar soloing since "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere". Side three contains the restless drugs reportage "Blue Eden", and the restless, disquieting "Safeway Cart", where religious iconography meets the shopping mall. "Train Of Love" is a gentle paen to marriage which oddly rips its tune from "Western Hero" earlier on the album and half its lyrics from the decidely more squalid "Blue Eden" without sounding like it was stitched together. "Trans Am" is his panoramic state-of-the-nation address, in which a group of settlers are murdered four lines in and a business conference at a hotel gets hit by an earthquake in the third verse. You pays your money, you makes your own conclusions. The single "Piece of Crap" follows (the cause of the collectable cover sticker - sadly absent on my copy - "Includes Piece of Crap"), probably the album's weakest track: a straightforward garage rocker with Crazy Horse hollering in the background in the worst "Welfare Mothers" tradition. Finally we're all back round the piano again for the closing "A Dream That Can Last", a happy ending marred only by the realisation that Neil is dreaming about the afterlife.

Crazy Horse play superbly throughout, of course, although the air is of controlled restraint than all out overdriven one-louder rock 'n' roll - closer to "Zuma" or "Freedom" than "Ragged Glory" or "Weld". The net result is that, a quarter of a century after his debut album, Neil Young is still getting better, improving both as a songwriter and musician. Where he goes next is, of course, anybody's guess, but as long as he keeps away from the hay I suspect that it'll be even better still.

NEIL YOUNG Mirror Ball (Reprise)

It could’ve been so good: the man who invented grunge over a quarter of a century ago in cahoots with probably the only other exponents of the genre left who really matter. "Mirror Ball " positively reeks good vibes: recorded in only four days with Pearl Jam, and substantially without Eddie Vedder’s foghorn vocal abilities, it’s even released as a vinyl-junkie friendly double album, despite only teetering past the fifty minute mark. Sadly though, it never really makes ice cream: it’s so consciously anti-produced, with mistakes deliberately left in, it just sounds sloppy - compare it with "Tonight’s The Night", for example, where the roughness merely adds to the sense of catastrophic impending breakdown. And the substantial body of the songs on display here merely reflect the "one-take" feeling, being too one-paced and stodgy. But in the middle of this broth are a few moments of true Neil genius, of course: opener "Song X" is a stirring electric sea shanty and paean to an unspecified future oblivion ("Hey ho, here we go/We’re on the road to never"). "I’m The Ocean" is an undoubted future classic, up there with the likes of "Cortez The Killer" and "Cinnamon Girl", it bowls along like, well, a hurricane actually. "People my age/They don’t do the things I do", he yells at one point, and he’s absolutely right. There’s a few brief Tom Waits-y harmonium interludes as well, which help leaven the mood of heavy blundering that tramples over the rest of the album, full of hamfisted Fillmore reminiscences and Marlboro men. In sum "Mirror Ball" is a interesting failure for the most part: it makes even albums like "Ragged Glory" and "Weld" look like the last word in subtlety. It’d probably be better to wait for the rumoured album of last month’s Dublin concert (with Pearl Jam), to see what these songs sound like in their proper setting.

NEIL YOUNG WITH CRAZY HORSE Broken Arrow (Reprise)

Speaking of lowered expectations...to deal with this tedious artefact as quickly as possible, "Mirror Ball" wasn’t exceptional, but at least it had Pearl Jam and three or four half-decent songs on it. Herein Crazy Horse plod rather than gallop, and the eponymous weapon would be better employed putting Young’s guitar out of its "why stop when we’re only four years into this solo?"-minded misery. The vinyl version has an extra track, and that’s possibly the best argument for buying the CD instead that I’ve ever heard.

NEIL YOUNG CRAZY HORSE Year Of The Horse (Reprise)

I don’t know which is the greater mystery: why Neil Young keeps releasing albums or why I keep buying them. This latest in an increasingly long line of shabby artefacts purports to be the soundtrack to a forthcoming concert film directed by Jim Jarmusch, and apparently offers the lucky listener live renditions of infrequently visited regions of the once-great man’s back catalogue. Hmmm.

Since were all Mensans here lets try a little puzzle. In 1979 Neil followed up his career-resurgence classic "Rust Never Sleeps" with the scorching double live album and film "Live Rust". In 1991 Neil followed up his career-resurgence classic "Ragged Glory" with the scorching double live album and film "Weld". In 1997 Neil follows up his astonishingly tedious and inspiration-free career-low-point "Broken Arrow" with the double live album and film "Year Of The Horse". Care to take a pot shot at what it sounds like?

Grim. At first it looks like "Year Of The Horse" is stocked up with exciting new material, before you rummage through "The Great Rock Discography" to discover that contained herein are two tracks from the not-universally-acclaimed "Life" album and a criminal four from the aforementioned "Broken Arrow" album. Then there’s an inappropriately electrified take of "Pocahontas", a version of "Barstool Blues" that continues long, long after all semblance of lyrical and musical interest have left the building and a decidedly crippled-sounding "Dangerbird", whose main point of grim fascination is the way the riff dismally fails to haul itself out of a primeval swamp of half-hearted feedback. Oh, and there’s "Mr Soul", of course, now making its seventh appearance on a Neil Young or Buffalo Springfield album. Cheers.

Where did it all go wrong? Six years ago, three years ago even, Neil Young and Crazy Horse were fashioning music that stood comparison with the best of what’s been one of the most important, diverse and frequently infuriating careers of the last three decades. Now all we get are sorry pantomimes such as this, performed by a group of men who have fairly convincingly lost the plot. One critic has observed that the last (Chinese) Year of the Horse was in 1975, and the recorded evidence suggests that this one is more than ready to be put out of its misery.

NEIL YOUNG Road Rock (Reprise)

Following the release of Young's finest studio album in ages, the autumnal, reflective country rock outing "Silver & Gold", the prospect of a new live outing from the great, if wayward, man was worth salivating over. Consider that his previous career-besting live albums "Live Rust" and "Weld" both followed on the crest of a comeback of sorts and "Road Rock" looks even more tempting. Then there's the tracklisting: eighteen minutes of "Cowgirl In The Sand"? Yes please! An eleven minute "Words"? I'll have some of that! And "Walk On", from "On The Beach", an album believed by the faithful to be long-buried by its creator in view of its continuing absence on CD.

So does the reality of "Road Rock" reward the anticipation? Only partially, I'd say. Although it's still on a different planet to his last live double, the appallingly lax "Year Of The Horse", it's far from being "Weld" or "Live Rust" all over again. Yes, the songs are among the best he's ever written, and the band is peppered with seasoned veterans such as Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Jim Keltner, but "Road Rock" never catches fire. The scorched-earth soloing of "Weld" is replaced by the sound of a man playing electric guitar in mittens. The music here is stodgy and lumpen: when he's soaring Neil Young can modulate a song to an accuracy of microns and hold the listener hovering with a single feedback drone. Here songs don't build, erupt and subside, they just are, for ages at a time. And as for the version of "All Along The Watchtower" on which Chrissie Hynde guests, er, why, and why? Questions that could be asked of the whole venture, really. Wonderful songs, haphazardly played and not fantastically recorded, "Road Rock" (the first of many, it appears) doesn't present a brilliant case for itself.

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE Greendale (Reprise)

Neil Young's 27th album, by my calculation, is his first to be granted something so portentous as a concept: over three decades into his solo career, he's finally created a work that aspires to rank alongside "Tommy", "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" or "The Wall". Ostensibly a story of one family's journey into misadventure, "Greendale" encompasses such weighty topics as murder, drug-running, ageing, media saturation, tarnished hippie idealism, corruption and ecology. The author's own booklet notes, which appear to have been transcribed from his between-song patter during a live performance, are more likely to frustrate than delight any listener attempting to mine any further layers of meaning out of the medium than are offered by the unprinted lyrics. It could be dismissed as a work of monumental folly - as it has been by disgruntled reviewers attending Young's British acoustic shows earlier this year, when he played the then-unreleased album in its yawning (pushing 80 minutes) entiret - and it just might be another worthy entrant into the canon of records that tell us about what happens to rock 'n' roll as it grows old(er) (see also Bob Dylan's "Love And Theft", Leonard Cohen's "Ten New Songs" and Johnny Cash's "American" series). But, even after many plays, I'm still not sure which side of the divide I'm on.

To its credit, on "Greendale" two-thirds of Crazy Horse kick up a sludgy, agricultural sound that fits these sketchy, rudimentary melodies like a glove: a step back from the feedback-splattered squall of their "Weld" prime, admittedly, and not quite as sinuous as "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere", but no "Broken Arrow" neither. There's some clever interplay between author and character in opener "Falling From Above", and some of the songs - "Bandit", namedropping Dylan, possibly in response to Mr Zimmerman saluting Neil during his own ramblin' epic "Highlands", and the traditional closing ecowarrior anthem "Be The Rain" (see also "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" and "Natural Beauty"), itself a hosed down version of the raging "I'm The Ocean" - are almost strong enough to stand up outside the album's cushioning concept. And "Greendale" is certainly a less gruelling listening experience overall than Young's last long player, the tepid "Are You Passionate?", perhaps because his tendency to spend ten minutes on a song where five would have been more than sufficient has some kind of narrative necessity behind it here.

On the other hand, though, "Greendale" is fatally hobbled by the story, which dictates the lyrics, onto which the tunes have been grafted. Melodic invention is at a minimum here, and there are lines here that will make even the most open-minded listener wince. "I've got a new song to sing/It's longer than all the others combined/And it doesn't mean a thing", threatens one character during the interminable "Grandpa's Interview" (and what an excellent band name that's going to make for a bunch of cool kinds some day), whilst elsewhere in the same song Young rhymes 'barrels' with 'Carol'. Ouch.

So, I really don't know what to make of "Greendale". I can't imagine ever wanting to listen to it for pleasure ever again, but recognise that it's another brave, bold move from an artist who has never knowingly shied away from confounding his audience.

NEIL YOUNG On The Beach (Sea Of Tunes)

Originally released in 1974 but abandoned by public, record company and arguably even the artist himself soon after, in parallel with the album's belated release on CD arrives this vinyl edition from the mysterious Sea Of Tunes franchise. The organisation doesn’t even get a namecheck on the cover, which is presented exactly as was the original American issue. Maybe the Reprise labels are a little too dayglo, and the sonics and sleeve photographs both slightly fuzzier than might be expected of an original copy of the album, but whoever Sea Of Tunes may be they deserve credit for bringing the world (or at least Diverse) "On The Beach" on the black stuff, exactly like the Warner brothers can't be bothered to sell you.

The few minutes of this long-suppressed album that have been let out on probation under the guise of the "Decade" compilation might slightly colour your expectations of the complete set. "Walk On" is a jauntier version of the "Tonight's The Night" album's dance with death, all honey-tinted nostalgia and shrugging anti-celebrity, whilst the banjo-pickin' foot-tappin' "For The Turnstiles" could soundtrack a pleasant evening on the devil's back porch. The first slice of fresh kill, "See The Sky About To Rain", doesn't exactly tighten the rack, being a typical broken Young ballad in the "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" or "Out On The Weekend" vein, covered by The Byrds during their ill-starred 1973 reunion. "Some are bound for happiness/Some are bound for glory", sobs Neil in voice that suggests he considers himself to be a member of neither of the above groups.

The skies darken during "Revolution Blues", an encryption of the Manson murders that marks the point at which "On The Beach" begins to fray - drug paranoia, distasteful politics and plentiful ammunition collide with a classic edgy Crazy Horse strut: "I see bloody fountains/And ten million dune buggies coming down the mountain/I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them more than lepers/And I'll kill them in their cars". Somebody, it seems, is unwell. Proceedings simultaneously calm down and become steamier with the lascivious "Vampire Blues", which might just be an exceptionally refreshed and relaxed White Stripes.

So that's side one dealt with, and it's difficult to see quite how "On The Beach" gained its fearsome reputation: sure, it contains at least one of the more harrowing moments in the history of popular music, but as part of Young's fabled, if unofficial, doom trilogy (the other chapters being the live "Time Fades Away" and the close-to-death "Tonight's The Night"), one of the most bare-nerved sequences of recordings ever put together by an artist, this just sounds like exactly what you paid the entrance fee to hear, doesn't it?

With its long, dragged-out almost-melody and desultory, distracted conga line the title track is the negative image of Gene Clark's contemporaneous "No Other". Singing the lines "The world is turning/Hope it don't turn away", and not for the last time, Young sounds like a man fumbling and failing to deal with a monster of his own creation, his pathological response to the fame bestowed upon him by his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash and his earlier solo career. He famously said of "Heart Of Gold", "This song put me in the middle of the road: travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch", something the buried chromed tailfin on the front cover seems to attest to. "Motion Pictures" is 'just' a poisoned kiss-off to former lover Carrie Snodgrass: remarkable in other company, perhaps, but here Neil has bigger fish to fry, which he does on the remarkable nine minute closer "Ambulance Blues". Beginning as bleary, confessional nostalgia, it winds up as something far more inscrutable - as the author sings, or perhaps taunts, "It's hard to say the meaning of this song" - it comes crashing back to earth with the final verse - "I never knew a man could say so many lies/He had a different story for every set of eyes" - which ties in rather neatly with the discarded newspaper headline on the front cover, "Sen. Buckley calls for Nixon to resign". Sounding wracked and desolate, Young sings like the last man on earth ("The subways are empty/And so are the cafes") and yet, as much as it reminds me of anything, "Ambulance Blues" is redolent of Van Morrison's more ambitious epic pieces such as "Saint Dominic's Preview".

A legend three decades in the making, "On The Beach" is an astonishing album, emotionally honest to the point of being the musical equivalent of a raw, festering sore. Any record collection that already contains "Tonight's The Night" - or indeed any album drawn from the usual suspects out on the farthest reaches of psychic exploration: "Berlin", "Pink Moon", "Third/Sister Lovers", "Closer", "In Utero", "The Holy Bible" and so on - can only benefit from having "On The Beach" close by.

NEIL YOUNG Live At Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)

The second volume in Neil Young’s ongoing Archives Performance Series (albeit confusingly listed as Disc 03 on the cover), “Live At Massey Hall 1971” more than compensates for any lingering disappointment over the apparently truncated nature of the series’ previous issue, “Live At The Fillmore East”.

If you’re only familiar with live, acoustic Neil from the syrupy, overproduced, MTV-sponsored “Unplugged”, this album should function as a welcome corrective. It’s far more akin to the rarely-screened 1971 set he performed for the BBC and the tantalising slivers that cropped up on “Harvest” and “Time Fades Away”. Armed with a setlist of uniformly terrific songs – many of which would’ve been unfamiliar to the audience, including half of “Harvest” a year ahead of its eventual release – Young flits between guitar, piano and the occasional sardonic aside, for example “I’ve written so many new ones that I can’t think of anything else to o with them other than sing them”. The set-up is eerily reminiscent of the Ryan Adams gig I attended last year – predominately new songs played on acoustic guitar and piano – the chief difference being that while Neil’s dealing in genius, Ryan mistakenly believed his whining, petulant behaviour to be an example of same.

Highlights? Well, I’ve long been a fan of the underheard “Journey Through The Past” and “Love In Mind”, both presented here in renditions that do them justice. The showtune-styled medley of “A Man Needs A Maid” and “Heart Of Gold” is interesting, as are versions of the proto-grunge jams “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Down By The River” shorn of their lumbering Crazy Horse instrumental codas. Despite drawing from his Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crazy Horse and solo material, the spare arrangements level them all, allowing them to be remade anew.

These 36-year-old tapes are replayed with astonishing clarity, from the rich, buzzing overtones of Neil’s guitar to the coughs and shuffles of audience members. It’s a shame, however, that analogue enthusiast Neil hasn’t pressed (pun unintended) for a vinyl release of this wonderful album; covering the label side of the CD with a photograph of some vinyl grooves isn’t much of a substitute.

NEIL YOUNG Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise) 

As the flyer reproduced in the gatefold puts it, “See Neil Young guitarist – singer of the Buffalo Springfield alive and in person at Canterbury House”. “Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968” is seamlessly compiled from two shows Young performed at the titular Ann Arbor, Michigan venue the weekend before the release of his eponymous debut album.  His morose songs are counterbalanced by unusually outgoing banter between songs that borders on compulsive nervous chatter. Topics touched upon include how he wrote “Mr. Soul” in five minutes and didn’t need to change a word (“If you can think of any words that I should change after I’ve finished be sure to let me know”), the vintage Bentley he bought with his first royalties (“It’s in the shop right now”) and his former life as a pill-powered bookstore employee who got fired for “irregularity”.

 Musically, “Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968” is surely about as skeletal as a Neil Young performance could possibly be. Unlike the excellent “Live At Massey Hall 1971” he doesn’t even have a piano to hide behind, remaining on acoustic guitar throughout. The necessarily skeletal arrangements can’t shake the contemplative magic from the twisty turny likes of “Expecting To Fly”, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” or “Broken Arrow”. Material from “Neil Young”, on the other hand, sometimes seems needlessly embellished, for example the heavy blues digressions on “The Old Laughing Lady” or the instrumental padding on “The Last Trip To Tulsa”, hardly one of his more concise compositions to begin with.

I’ve heard this album described as an audiophile bootleg, and, oxymoronic as it might seem, that seems pretty accurate. This guerrilla recording - taped at the less-than-studio-standard speed of 7 inches per second, if the sleeve is to be believed - sounds mighty fine, but is accompanied by a constant blanket of tape hiss. Nevertheless, the presence of the latter is cause for some celebration, at least signalling that no attempt has been made to remove it, squashing the sound quality in the process. The vinyl version is, according to the somewhat hyperbolic cover sticker, a “200 gram vinyl first edition pressed in Japan at Toyokasei for the best sounding vinyl in the world because sound matters”. That’s all well and good, of course, and this is indeed a fine-sounding record, but it does kinda imply that any vinyl not pressed at Toyokasei is immediately, inherently inferior, something of an own goal given that, to my knowledge, this is the only Neil Young album to have received such lavish treatment. The packaging is almost fetishistically lovely, a sensual symphony in thick cardboard and heavy vinyl, as might be hoped given that it costs seven times price of the CD.

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