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ny-monsantocoverNeil Young + Promise Of The Real – The Monsanto Years

Ever since 2012’s superb reunion with Crazy Horse on Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young has run-off a steady, but increasingly spotty string of albums: including last fall’s symphonic experiment Storytone and the even weirder, low-fi covers album A Letter Home (recorded entirely in Jack White’s phono-booth).

On his latest, The Monsanto Years, Neil Young is joined by Promise Of The Real, a band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah for some good old fashioned, rabble-rousing rock and roll protest music.

The problem when Neil Young makes records like this isn’t so much with the political sentiments he posits in the lyrics – most of which, I share – but rather, with how he delivers the message. On The Monsanto Years, Young literally bludgeons the listener over the head as he rages against the machine, hammering his point home with numerous, repetitious references to such evil agents of the corporate empire as Safeway, Walmart, Starbucks and of course, Monsanto.

nymonsanto What makes the greatest rock and roll protest songs – Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” or even Young’s own “Ohio” for example – the timeless classics they have become, has always been the masterful way they emphasize a certain subtlety over bluster. Songs like “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” and the title track here on the other hand, tend to trivialize and even dilute the message with an irritating tone that comes off every bit as preachy as anything Dylan recorded during his “Born Again” years.

The good news here though, is that The Monsanto Years rocks far more often than not, and as a backing band, Promise Of The Real bring that same ferocious intensity out of Neil and Old Black as all of his best bands have historically done from Crazy Horse to Pearl Jam. Lukas Nelson’s cleaner guitar sound in particular proves an effective foil to Young’s comparatively more cacophonous shredding. The guitar exchanges between them on songs like “Big Box” occasionally recall the legendary shoot-outs between Young and Stephen Stills.

Not surprisingly though, the two best songs here, the twangy rocker “If I Don’t Know” and the lovely, pastoral “Wolf Moon” are also the ones where he resists name-checking all the corporate bad guys.

Grade: B-

*Excerpted from an article first published at Blogcritics.

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NeilStorytoneLeave it to Neil Young to throw us yet another curve ball this late in his career. By now, most Neil Young fans have long since become accustomed to those occasionally odd artistic whims Young has been known to chase from time to time, in his ever-stubborn pursuit of the muse.

But even judged against such legendarily off-kilter recordings as Trans and This Note’s For You, Neil Young’s new album Storytone comes across as one of the stranger, more unexpected bumps along that twisted road. Much like those infamous genre experiments, the problem here isn’t so much with the songs, but rather with the arrangements – at least on the symphonic versions which take up one of the two discs here.

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Although it has the most memorable musical hook of these ten new songs, the environmental call-to-arms “Who’s Gonna’ Stand Up” is weighted down by an overuse of syrupy sounding strings that overwhelm what is otherwise one of Neil’s catchiest chorus lines this side of “Rockin’ In The Free World.”

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Despite some heavy-handed – and occasionally clunky – lyrical wordplay (“End fracking now, save the water, and build a life for our sons and daughters”), the stripped down version which appears on the solo disc works far better.

But the blistering, curiously unreleased Crazy Horse take that tore down the house nightly in Europe earlier this year, is far superior to either.

The bluesier outings “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Say Hello To Chicago” – besides feeling oddly out of place on this album – likewise fall somewhat flat, and here again, it’s largely due to the arrangements.

In the case of the latter, the best point of reference would be the sort of horn driven, big band bluster you’d expect to find in a dance routine from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical.

“I Want To Drive My Car” works slightly better, with a feel that recalls the Blue Notes. But the most curious thing about these two songs – other than the fact that they stand out like a sore thumb on this album – is the use of Waddy Wachtel on lead guitar. Wachtel is of course a fine guitarist in his own right, but a little shredding from Neil could’ve taken these songs to another level.

What saves Storytone however, are the two songs which close the record.

“When I Watch You Sleeping” is one of those beautiful, pastoral sounding love songs that Neil Young seems to literally pull out of thin air every now and then. It is also one of the few places on the symphonic side of this album, where the string arrangement simply augments the song with touches of color, rather than threatens to swallow it outright. “All Those Dreams” likewise lays off the classical gas, closing the album with a song reminiscent of the warmest sounding jewels found on Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind.

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There is some discomfort in getting to these two gems though, and if you read between the lines, perhaps a bit too much information regarding the present status of Neil Young’s love life. If I were Pegi Young, I certainly wouldn’t want to be reminded of “the glimmer of everything I once saw in you” that Neil is apparently viewing from his rear view mirror these days, and as a fan I probably didn’t need to know that his current squeeze is nicknamed “Tumbleweed.”

But Neil continues to do as Neil does, and God bless him for it. We don’t always have to like it, but more often than not, we seem to eventually come around. For the record, solo Storytone tops symphonic Storytone by a hair.

But the latter does have its moments.

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When Crosby Stills Nash & Young reunited in 1974 for the stadium juggernaut that would come to be historically known as the “Doom Tour,” it was definitely a huge deal.

But several reports from the road at the time were an equally mixed bag. After a very promising start in Seattle – described by most who were there (including this 18 year old at- the-time observer), as an epic four-hour blowout – many later accounts from the tour focused as much on the clashing egos and all-around backstage excess, as they did on the music itself.

By the time of the final shows, much of this had spilled over to the performances themselves.

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Besides those four famously harmonizing voices starting to show certain signs of road-wear, the tension between them – by this time, Neil Young was traveling separately from the others – began to manifest itself onstage as well. Some shows, despite production values (particularly in sound and lighting) which were state-of-the-art at the time, were also reportedly just plain sloppy.

Which coming 40 years after the fact, makes CSNY 1974 a particularly remarkable achievement.

Like the “Doom Tour’ itself, a lot of what you get on this 3-CD boxed set (which also includes a bonus DVD featuring eight of the performances) is hit-and-miss to be sure. The harmonies are not always as perfectly in synch as you’d like, and occasionally the music meanders a bit too (“Wooden Ships”).

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But for the most part, this boxed set manages to bottle the magic, both of the time and of CSNY themselves, pretty well. The audio quality, overseen by Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, is mostly immaculate, particularly considering both the vintage of these recordings, and the size of the venues they were sourced from.

The oft-reported onstage bickering from the tour, is replaced here with a sense of warm – albeit possibly manufactured – camaraderie between the four men. While there may be a legitimate suspicion of some revisionist history in the editing room going on here (they did have 40 years to work on this, after all), there is also no question that for purposes serving this project, it works, and in that sense, that it’s also appropriate.

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The really good news here though, is that some of these performances are also positively stunning. With each of these four individuals bringing fresh, new solo material to the table, CSNY had a wealth of great new material to choose from for their 1974 reunion tour. The Neil Young songs represented here sound particularly good, including rarities like “Pushed It Over The End” and “Love Art Blues.”

But on the title track of his then current solo album On The Beach, Neil turns in the single greatest performance of the entire boxed set. He really leans into the vocal here, bringing a rare intensity and stretching his range far beyond what you hear on the studio version. He even improvs a few new lines, such as “that may mean nothing to you, but I was alone at the microphone.” There is also a fiery, if regrettably brief, exchange of guitar fireworks between Young and Stephen Stills near the end.

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If there is any legitimate complaint to be made here, it’s that you don’t hear more of that on CSNY 1974.

In addition to “On The Beach,” you do get a few more tastes of those storied guitar shoot-outs on Young’s “Revolution Blues” and “Ohio”; Stills’ “Black Queen”; and Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair.” Curiously, although you can find several lengthy jams from CSNY’s 1974 tour simply by searching them out on YouTube, you’ll find nothing here that matches the epic versions of “Carry On” and “Southern Man” heard on CSNY’s first official live album, 1970’s 4-Way Street.

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As a pristine sounding, if likely somewhat sanitized document of the historic “Doom Tour” though, CSNY 1974 works much better than it has any right to. It also makes you wonder what might have been, if they’d put the egos and the substances aside, and made that third studio album back then.

Sadly, we’ll never know.

*Article first published at Blogcritics Magazine.

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letterhome_frontA few weeks ago, Neil Young borrowed a page from the Beyonce playbook, and surprised fans by releasing his new album with little fanfare.

Adding to the mystery, the album was initially sold exclusively through Jack White’s Third Man Records website, and made available only in vinyl format.

A more traditional CD release, along with what is best described as a questionable deluxe boxed set, will be out in record stores later this month.

This being Neil Young of course, the unorthodox distribution and out-of-nowhere arrival of A Letter Home only begins to scratch the surface of the quirky oddness associated with this interesting, but equally strange and perplexing new record.

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For starters, the album consists entirely of non-original songs first recorded by other artists, making this Neil Young’s second album of covers in just under two years, following 2012’s Americana (with Crazy Horse). It was also recorded in an old-fashioned record booth – specifically, the Voice-O-Graph located at Jack White’s Third Man Records.

neilboothFor the uninitiated, this is quite literally, a telephone booth where you can also record yourself.

Think of something like an audio counterpart to those old-fashioned novelty photo booths you see at rural county fairs, roadside attractions and the occasional Walmart. As a recording space, it’s just about big enough to fit Neil Young and his acoustic guitar.

This album does also include some piano though. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how they pulled that one off.

Because of its decidedly low-tech quality (a sharp contrast to the PONO recording technology that he is coincidentally also currently promoting), at first blush, A Letter Home comes across as either the most organic sounding recording Neil Young has made in ages, or simply the latest in a long line of ill-advised genre experiments. On a few initial listens at least, you have to ask the question:

Is this Neil Young’s Nebraska or his most ridiculous blunder since the Shocking Pinks?

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. When the album works – as it surprisingly often does – the pops and cracks heard throughout, on songs like Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” lend themselves to a weird, yet warm sort of ambiance. What comes most immediately to mind are the ancient blues and folk recordings one normally would expect to find on those original Folkways recordings stored somewhere deep within the Smithsonian.

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Neil also does a nice job of lovingly recapturing the harmonizing magic of the Everly Brothers here on “I Wonder If I Care As Much.” The love letters from Neil to his Mom are also the sort of nice sentimental Hallmark touch, that comes just in time for Mothers Day.

But nowhere does this approach work better, than on the late Bert Jansch’s “Needle Of Death.” More than anything else on this album, Neil Young kills it here, with a version that comes across as both reverent and revealing. Neil Young’s admiration for Jansch has long been a matter of public record – he has been often quoted in interviews saying that this song was the inspiration for his own “Ambulance Blues.”

Hearing Neil Young cover this song in the most stripped-to-the-bone version imaginable, that connection becomes unmistakable.

Unfortunately, and despite what appear to be good intentions on Neil Young’s part, much of the rest of A Letter Home falls disappointingly short of the mark.

His attempt at Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” sounds every bit as forced and contrived as anything from the infamously bad faux-rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin’.

And just how Neil Young managed to stuff the clunky barroom sounding piano heard on Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” into Jack White’s Voice-O-Graph phono-booth remains a mystery for the ages, perhaps best left to late night cable TV.

On a side note, Neil Young and Jack White are both scheduled as guests this Monday night on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. One can only hope for a duet with Neil Young, and well, you know “Neil Young.”

*Article first published at Blogcritics Magazine.

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Music Review: Neil Young – ‘Live At The Cellar Door’

Ever since Neil Young’s now ongoing Archives Performance Series finally made its debut a few years back, the results have yielded a steady and mostly satisfying trickle of rare and vintage concert recordings – the exact stuff that hardcore fans had, up until now, long salivated for.

neilcellardoorThat string continues with Live At The Cellar Door.

This is a collection which condenses the best of a six-night, 1970 solo acoustic stand at the tiny Washington D.C. club (200 seat capacity), just before Neil Young broke through to full-on superstardom as a solo artist with the classic After The Gold Rush album.

What makes this release unique, is that it captures Neil Young in a raw, intimate setting at a pivotal point in his career.

At the time these concerts took place, Neil Young was far from the instantly recognizable name he is now. Rather, he was most often referred to as the “Y” in Crosby Stills Nash & Young – the American supergroup, who had actually quietly broken up not long before these shows took place.

Many of the songs included on this recording come from Young’s at-the-time still unreleased third solo album – the aforementioned After The Gold Rush – including a particularly haunting version of the title track, which sounds positively gorgeous here.

However, for those who have been playing catchup with this series, there is more than a little repetition in the track lists that bookend Cellar Door, with the previously released Archives acoustic sets from 1968 (Canterbury House) and 1971 (Massey Hall).

Each of these offer something special, and provide good reason for any self-respecting Neil Young completist to want all three. With Canterbury House, it’s the stripped-down versions of early Young classics “Broken Arrow” and “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” On Massey Hall, it’s the once-played “A Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold” suite.

On Live At The Cellar Door, Neil’s first ever solo acoustic performance of “Cinnamon Girl” at the piano (which he acknowledges at the end), and the equally rare “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong,” certainly qualify as must-own moments for those fans who already have it all, yet somehow missed this. On the latter, Young’s comments about the Steinway piano he plays as an admitted amateur at the time – he seems particularly struck by the sound made when he strokes the raw wires – are both amusing and endearing.

Ironically, with Live At The Cellar Door, you could make a pretty good case for these three acoustic performances completing yet another trilogy of recordings, coming from an artist who is already quite well known for recording some of his most importantly recognized albums in a series of threes.

But beyond that – and particularly for more casual fans who may happen across this release while shopping for that picky Rustie on their Christmas list – there is considerable overlap in the track list here and the other solo acoustic concerts, already available from this series.

Each of these represent unique stages in Neil Young’s career. The reluctant performer heard on the 1968 Canterbury House recording was reportedly so nervous he nearly didn’t go on; the more confident one heard on 1971’s Massey Hall was about to release the biggest record of his artistic life, and so on.

Live At The Cellar Door is an equally pivotal chapter in that story, capturing Neil Young at a unique crossroads between these two extremes – an artist right on the verge of making the jump from small halls like the Cellar Door to the big arenas.

Still, and for all of its historical significance, there is just no getting around the fact that Live At The Cellar Door comes off sounding somewhat redundant, in light of the previously released acoustic concerts from this series. You can’t fault what’s actually here, other than for the simple reason that we’ve already heard most of it.

Hopefully, this completes Neil Young’s latest trilogy, so we can get on to all the rest of those legendary performances we’ve been hearing about for years, like Crazy Horse at the Catalyst; The Trans Tour; those pre-Freedom shows with The Restless, and…

Well, you get it.

Happy Holidays everyone, and until next year, keep on rockin’ in the free world.

This article was first published at Blogcritics Magazine.

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It’s been awhile since our six-month old tome Neil Young FAQ has gotten any love from the press — music-oriented or otherwise.

So, we were absolutely delighted to see a very nice review from critic Brian Robbins this week over at Jambands.com.

In our own humble estimation, Robbins nailed exactly what we were going for with Neil Young FAQ, particularly when he wrote the following:

What is most noteworthy about Neil Young FAQ isn’t the sheer volume of information contained in its pages, however – it’s the book’s readability. Treat it as you’d like: a pick-it-up-and-set-it-down bathroom book; a go-to reference as the subjects arise; or, as a cover-to-cover read. Boyd has accomplished quite a task in doling out a blend of well-researched information and personal observations in a manner that allows the reader to go as deep as they choose to and still be rewarded.

Robbins clearly gets it.

Neil Young FAQ is intended as a one-stop resource for both the diehard Rusties, as well as the few Neil novices still left out there. It’s a reference guide for those in need of a quick fact-check on any phase of Neil Young’s long, legendary career. It is also the sort of easy-read that sits easily atop the personal porcelain library, ready to be opened up at any chapter for a quick and entertaining, but also informative look.

Not exactly Neil Young for Dummies, but still a fun fact guide.

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But we also have to confess that we liked this excerpt best of all:

Neil Young FAQ didn’t land with the hoopla of Waging Heavy Peace this year, but it is absolutely required reading on the subject of ol’ Neil for everyone from the casual fan to the fanatic.

Thanks again to Brian Robbins and Jambands.com for the nice words. To read the entire review, point your browsers here.

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It took us awhile, but we finally finished reading Neil Young’s epic autobiographical book Waging Heavy Peace. And, as you might expect, we have a few thoughts about it. We now know that Neil Young’s favorite new band is the Pistol Annies for one thing.

But the two main things that struck us most about the book, were Neil Young’s easy, matter-of-fact writing style and just how surprisingly forthright he is with regard to his own self-assessment — both as an artist and as a human being.

Neil Young seems to have become much more aware of his own mortality in recent years, perhaps owing to his recent brush with fate after a brain aneurism a few years back, or maybe because of his own genetic predisposition to health issues ranging from polio and epilepsy, to Alzheimers (which killed his father).

In any event, much of what Neil writes about in Waging Heavy Peace seems to be part of a recent, but nonetheless ongoing effort to get his house in order.

It is a work that is, by his own admission, very much still in progress. He expresses grief over losses (Danny Whitten, Ben Keith, Larry “L.A.” Johnson); as well as some regret over how he has handled relationships — from family and friends, to those he has worked with over the years — often while pursuing his own self-interested obsession with “chasing the muse.”

When judged by rock star standards, Neil Young has historically been very private, and particularly protective when it comes to his personal life. Yet, in Waging Heavy Peace, Neil talks more openly about these things than he ever has before. Which makes this book even more fascinating, especially for the diehard fan. The fact that he does so in such a no-holds-barred, warts-and-all manner often makes for a reading experience that is more like a peek into Neil Young’s personal diary.

Written in the same non-chronological, random style that one might find more suited to such a personal journal, Waging Heavy Peace jumps around from topic to topic quite a bit. With each new chapter, Neil just talks about whatever is on his mind at the time.

Reading this book almost feels like you are sitting down, across a table from Young himself, and having a relaxed and casual, but very personal conversation with a longtime friend. Much of the credit for that has to go to Neil Young’s very breezy, but engaging writing style. For a first timer, Neil Young really does nail it. His journalist father would be very proud.

A few other things that really stick out in our minds after reading Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace:

1.) Neil Young really is an “idea guy”

…And when he is particularly passionate about one of these “ideas,” he sees it through with the same stubborn determination that has also marked his pursuit of “the muse” artistically.

In the same way that Neil has often forged and followed certain musical paths regardless of their seeming lack of “commercial appeal,” he has refused to allow any perceived financial road blocks to get in the way of his various “side interests” — from Lionel Trains and the Linc-Volt, to his most recent obsession, the Pono.

Many artists — particularly those of Neil Young’s generation — have been quite loud in voicing their disdain about today’s digital music delivery systems, and how it has affected everything from sound quality to the future viability of the album format itself.

Neil Young makes it clear in Waging Heavy Peace that he isn’t happy about the crappy sound of MP3s either.

But rather than simply pining away for the “good old days,” he wisely recognizes that where you can’t necessarily beat the advances of technology, you can join it in the hopes of making things better. To that end, Neil has put both his energy and his money behind the Pono, a device which he boldly claims restores the same sound of an original performance that is mostly lost on current digital formats and devices.

2.) Do we detect a “trilogy” theme here?

This gets back to our original point about how it seems that Neil Young, perhaps recognizing that the clock is ticking, seems to be making peace with himself these days. With both this book, as well as the recent Neil Young Journeys film with Jonathan Demme and the Psychedelic Pill album and tour with Crazy Horse, there seems to be a common thread of both coming to terms with and embracing his past.

In that sense, they really do seem to form three pieces of yet another Neil Young trilogy.

Perhaps the most obvious connection can be found in the lines of Psychedelic Pill’s longest song (and the longest of Neil Young’s career), the epic 27 minute opus “Driftin’ Back”:

“Dream about the ways things are now, write about them in my book, worry that you can’t hear me now, or feel the time I took.”

But you also get the sense of Neil Young’s rearview mirror self-appraisal in Demme’s Journeys documentary, a film that spends as much time revisiting Neil Young’s childhood past in Canada, as it does with the Massey Hall concert footage from the Twisted Road/Le Noise solo tour.

The three projects, though wildly different in terms of style, really do seem to have a common, shared connection.

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