Sunday, November 22, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Americana (2012)

Release date: June 5, 2012
Producers: Neil Young, John Hanlon, Mark Humphreys
Track listing: Oh Susanna, Clementine, Tom Dula, Gallows Pole, Get a Job, Travel On, High Flyin' Bird, Jesus' Chariot (She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain), This Land Is Your Land, Wayfarin' Stranger, God Save the Queen
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Poncho Sampedro (guitar, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals) with Dan Greco (cymbals, tambourine), Pegi Young and Stephen Stills (vocals on "This Land is Your Land")

This week's album punctuates the end of a nine year leave of absence between Neil Young and Crazy Horse (their last collaboration being the recording of the Greendale soundtrack and subsequent tour). American features a collection of traditional songs, arranged by Neil and smashed into shape by Poncho, Billy, and Ralph. The objective of this record is best described best by Neil himself,
"Every one of these songs [on Americana] has verses that have been ignored. And those are the key verses, those are the things that make these songs live. They’re a little heavy for kindergarteners to be singing. The originals are much darker, there’s more protest in them — the other verses in "This Land Is Your Land" are very timely, or in "Clementine," the verses are so dark. Almost every one has to do with people getting killed, with life-or-death struggles. You don’t hear much about that; they’ve been made into something much more light. So I moved them away from that gentler interpretation. With new melodies and arrangements, we could use the folk process to invoke the original meanings for this generation.
It's an interesting idea and makes for an interesting listen. The album begins with a few seconds Neil and Ralph warming up (or at least playing different songs, completely out of time with each other). Very quickly, with the aid of Billy's bass and Poncho's rhythm guitar, the band comes together and start playing a uniquely reworked version of "Oh Susanna" that has a somewhat oddly reminiscent of an old Santana song. It's as if Crazy Horse just picked up their instruments for the first time after nine years and hit record. It's a bit sloppy, maybe even a bit rusty, but it's definitely Crazy Horse, even if they are covering a traditional folk song.

Personally, I find the songs "Clementine" and "Get a Job" stand out as my favorites. The former is arranged in such manner it doesn't really resemble the song as I know it, whereas the latter sounds like Crazy Horse is trying as hard as they can to be a Silhouettes cover band. The version of "This Land is Your Land" features additional vocals by Pegi Young and Stephen Stills. If it's been nine years since Neil and Crazy Horse got together, I'm not even sure of the last time Stills appeared on a Neil Young record (maybe the 1990s?).

Like I said above, it's an interesting idea. The problem is, however, after a nine year break I think I've come to expect a little more from Crazy Horse. They were sorely missed and this album doesn't really deliver the goods in the way I want it too. Although it's been nine years since they made Greendale, that was a soundtrack project for a film, it wasn't a Crazy Horse record in a traditional sense. And sure, there were a few great live albums in the meantime. but the last real studio effort from Crazy Horse was 1996's Broken Arrow.

I'm putting my hope into next week. I've never heard Psychedelic Pill and I'm hoping it's the Crazy Horse album I wanted Americana to be.

Next Week: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Neil Young - A Treasure (2011)

Release date: June 14, 2011
Producers: Neil Young & Ben Keith
Track Listing: Amber Jean, Are You Ready For the Country?, It Might Have Been, Bound for Glory, Let Your Fingers Do the Walking, Flying on the Ground is Wrong, Motor City, Soul of a Woman, Get Back to the Country, Southern Pacific, Nothing is Perfect, Grey Riders
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar, lap slide guitar, stringman, vocals), Spooner Oldham (piano), Tim Drummond (bass), Karl T. Himmel (drums), Anthony Crawford (guitar, banjo, vocals), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), with Joe Allen (bass), Hargus "Pig" Robbins (piano), Matraca Berg (backup vocals), and Tracy Nelson (backup vocals)

This week we step back in time again with another selection from the Performance Archive Series. The year was 1983 and Neil had just released Trans, a weird electronic album filled with vocoders, synthesizers, and undecipherable lyrics. Trans was a commercial failure and record company owner David Geffen,was not happy. He had signed Neil to his newly founded Geffen Records with the hope that he would produce more arena-esque rock and roll albums. Neil, however, had different plans.

With the help of old friends Ben Keith, Karl T. Himmel, and Tim Drummond, Neil began working on an old fashioned country and western record. The project would become the first (and still unreleased) version of Old Ways. Wanting a traditional sound, Neil recruited some well known and widely respected Nashville session musicians to join his session band. These included the legendary cajun fiddler, Rufus Thibodeaux, banjo player Anthony Crawford, and Hargus "Pig" Robbins and Spooner Oldham on piano.

When the album was finished country music radio stations refused to play it. Geffen Records refused to release it. Unable to make records he wanted to make, Neil fired his management company and began booking gigs at county fairs and other smaller venues.  He gathered together the musicians of Old Ways together and dubbed them the The International Harvesters. They hit the road playing songs from the unreleased Old Ways as well as material that spanned his entire career, although reworked to sound more like a Nashville country band.

A Treasure was released nearly thirty years after this all happened, and in a way it's the first official documentation that the International Harvesters ever existed. Sure, the Old Ways album was later rerecorded and released, but by that point Neil and the band had changed and, thus, the album itself had changed (Neil actually refers to this version as Old Ways II). A Treasure captures Neil and the International Harvesters at the height of their journey. Without question A Treasure has cemented itself among the top five Neil Young records of all time, at least according to one self-professed fanatic.

Right out of the gates this album delivers the goods. Beginning with the previously unreleased, "Amber Jean", Neil and the Harvesters clearly demonstrate that they are an undeniable force. It's crazy to think Neil has songs like this just hidden away, waiting for their time to be released. Fiddles blazing, piano thumping, pedal sliding, the Harvesters continue their charge with a rendition of "Are You Ready For the Country?" that is faster and more upbeat that than the version found on Harvest. Rufus Thibodeaux's fiddle really brings it to life.

The next three songs, "It Might Have Been", "Bound for Glory", and "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking" take the tempo down a notch, but deliver with an unapologetic country and western sound. Although "Bound for Glory" did make it to Old Ways II, the version here is a little more raw and shakier (which I like). This probably because I'm used to hearing Waylon Jennings on backup vocals. Still, whether or not Waylon is present, this song still sounds like a Waylon song, and that could never been an insult.

Neil and the International Harvesters take on with the Buffalo Springfield song "Flying on the Ground is Wrong", making it sound more country than it ever had before. Originally, this song was dressed it up in 1960s psychedelic sounds, and then in the early 1970s, stripped down to just Neil and his piano. Here, the Harvesters retain an element of that psychedelic sound, but the addition of the slide guitar reveals the truth; this has always been a country song.

When I listened to Reactor back in April, the song "Southern Pacific" stood out as a great song on what I thought was an otherwise mediocre record. The version found on A Treasure is about three minutes longer and a ten thousand times better. It's the fiddle, the piano, the slide guitar, and the strong backing vocals that make it. Crazy Horse are a great band, but these are all things they are missing and the very things this song needs. Perhaps the greatest song ever written about forced retirement.

A Treasure ends with another unreleased song, "Grey Riders". Neil's vocals sound as tough and as gravelly as they've ever sounded on this song. The rhythm section sounds like a chugging freight train, the slide guitar accents every bend of the road perfectly, and the piano and fiddle take turns filling in all the empty spots with such ease you almost forget these are the kind of riffs you can only play if you dedicate your life to country and western music. Then, suddenly, the loudest, most distorted electric guitar comes out of nowhere and takes over the song. Aside from the slightest smattering of drums in the background the guitar becomes the only instrument you can hear: screeching, squealing, being strangled until every last drop of noise comes dripping out... then all of a sudden, as if nothing had happened, it's back to being a good old country song again. The perfect blend of those elements of Neil I love the most.

This album was the last project Ben Keith was involved in before his death in July 2010. It's a fitting tribute to one of Neil's life long musical companions. Before meeting up with Neil during the recording of Harvest, Keith began his career as Nashville session musician for legends like Patsy Cline during the 1950s and 1960s. Keith just seems like he's at home on this record.

Next Week: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Americana

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Neil Young - Le Noise (2010)

Release date: September 28, 2010
Producer: Daniel Lanois
Track listing: Walk With Me, Sign of Love, Someone's Gonna Rescue You, Love and War, Angry World, Hitchiker, Peaceful Valley Boulevard, Rumblin'
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, electric and acoustic guitars)

In early 2010 Neil got together with producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and so on) to make a record at Lanois' Los Angeles mansion. Lanois was given sole producer credit, a rare move as Neil typically retains a co-producer credit on most of his records. The resulting album, Le Noise, features eight tracks of Neil rocking out with his electric guitar in a sonic noise space created by Lanois (although I should mention there are two acoustic tracks). I remember when this album came out, it received so much critical praise I just assumed it stunk. Lanois is a fine producer, but I've never counted him among my favorites. After listening to this record this week I'm starting to understand why he is so highly regarded.  For the first time in years I feel as though Neil sounds refreshed, alive, and raw.

When I purchased this album I bought the Deluxe edition. It comes with a few videos, one of which is an interview with Lanois about the recording process. You're able to see that while Lanois is able to work with an artist to craft a unique sound, he doesn't interfere the actual song. All the additional background noise you hear on this album (and there's a lot) is made by Neil, but shaped by Lanois. Above all else, however, I think Lanois I think he made two rather simple, but important decisions when recording this record. First, he made Neil sing and play guitar at the same time,  to just stand instead of recording vocal and guitar tracks separately. Secondly, Lanois avoided the use of headphones as says they have a tendency to make people sing softer. Instead, Lanois hooked up a PA so Neil could hear himself sing, more akin to how he performs on stage.

Le Noise begins with a crunchy sorcher, "Walk With Me". It's catchy and gives you a idea of what you're going to be in for. You either like this song or don't. If you do like it, chances are you'll love the entire album. If you don't, I suggest hitting stop before you get to track two, "Sign of Love".

Aside from the great sound of this record there are some really great songs here. Both "Love and War" and "Angry World" are extremely catchy, I caught myself humming to myself all week. They also feature lyrics which are a bit more thoughtful and metaphorical than the often literal twenty-first century Neil. I particularly liked "Hitchhiker", a reflective song that takes the listener on another journey through the past, discussing the age old Neil autobiographical topics of the 1960s Toronto folk scene, moving to California, and, of course, doing drugs.

Together Neil and Lanois create something truly unique and new with Le Noise. On one hand, it's crazy to think Neil is still able to do this four decades into his solo recording career.  On the other hand, I'd expect nothing less.

Next Week: Neil Young & The International Harvesters
A Treasure (2011)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Neil Young - Dreamin' Man '92 (2009)

Release date: December 8, 2009
Producers: Neil Young and John Hanlon
Track listing: Dreamin' Man, Such a Woman, One of These Days, Harvest Moon, You And Me, From Hank to Hendrix, Unknown Legend, Old King, Natural Beauty, War of Man
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and banjo)

Another entry in the Neil Young Performance Archive series; Dreamin' Man Live '92 contains the same ten tracks as Harvest Moon played live and without a backing band. When I first saw this album on ym review horizon a few weeks ago I was less than excited. I love Harvest Moon, but I'm a bit tired of it and I was not looking forward to listening to it again. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by this album, and I learned a few things.

First off, track listing and song order is highly important when putting together a record. By putting the songs in a different order than Harvest Moon Neil creates an entirely different feeling on this record. If you remember Harvest Moon starts off with "Unknown Legend", "Hank to Hendrix", "You and Me", and "Harvest Moon" as the first four tracks. Basically, you get hit with three singles right out of the gate and after that the album settles into something a little more reflective. This time around, however, the album starts off reflective with "Dreamin' Man" and "Such a Woman" leading the charge. Both songs also sound better on this record, "Dreamin' Man" is allowed a little more temporal freedom and "Such a Woman" simply sounds cleaner without the orchestration. The actual singles from Harvest Moon, namely "Harvest Moon" and "Unknown Legend" actually kind of fade away into the background on this record. It's an interesting trick and one that I probably noticed a lot because I played the hell out of Harvest Moon for about a year straight when I was 13 years old.

The subject of song order actually kind of came up in my own life recently too. A few weeks ago I finished recording an album with my band FUCKHAWK. Both myself and our drummer, Lee Brody, had strong feelings about what order the songs should appear. He had constructed a tentative track listing, and I agreed with most of it, but felt a few songs should be rearranged. I took Lee's list and modified to meet my own vision of the song order. He agreed with some of my changes, but also felt compelled to change some of the original ordering based on my new ordering. It bounced around a bit until we finally settled on what we think this the best song order. We'll be releasing it online for free sometime soon, so maybe y'all can check it out and see what you think (Warning: although I am a Neil Young fanatic, FUCKHWARK sound almost nothing like anything Neil has ever done, although we do cover "Time Fades Away" sometimes).

Secondly, the version of "Old King" on this record showed me that Neil is a really great banjo player. I know he's played a bit of banjo on some of the albums I've reviewed here, but it's usually pushed down and away in the mix. Hearing him sing and play solely with a banjo really showed me that he's quite good at pickin' the old four string. I'm not sure why I found this so surprising, but I did.
This album has all the Dreamin' Man 92 showed me a couple things.

Finally, I think I don't mind "Natural Beauty". I've gone through various phases: I've mildly liked this song, I've downright hated this song, I've grown tired of this song. I think I've finally settled in a place where I think this song is okay sometimes.

Still, I'm not sure this album would be that interesting unless you're some sort of Neil Young completist on a quest to listen to every officially released album he's ever made. You'll probably only really dig this album if you're already overly familiar with Harvest Moon. Or... maybe you'll hate because you're tired of Harvest Moon. Who knows...

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Le Noise (2010)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Vertebral Column of Nacholapithecus kerioi

Nacholapithecus kerioi was a medium sized ape that lived in Northern Kenya during the middle Miocene (approximately 15 million years ago). Although Nacholopithecus does bear some resemblance to the early Miocene ape species Proconsul (like having a narrow chest) certain characteristics of its skeletal morphology are markedly different in form and function. Perhaps most notably, Nacholapithecus had long forearms and pedal digits which are proportionally similar to the long forearms and toes seen in extant apes. These, among other skeletal features, have lead paleoanthropologists to suggest that Nacholapithecus had forelimb dominated style of arboreal locomotion, which again is more similar to living apes than the earlier Proconsul species.

The caudal thoraic vertebra KNM-BG 42810B (a-g) and the lumbar
vertebra KNM-BG 42763 (h-k) of Nacholapithecus (Kikuchi et al., 2015)
An upcoming article in Journal of Human Evolution that announces some newly discovered Nacholapithecus vertebrae fossil seems to back up these findings. The fossils, a caudal thoracic vertebra and a lumbar vertebra, were discovered in the Aka Aiteputh Formation in Nachola, Kenya. According to Kikuchi et al. (2015) the postzygapophyses of these vertebre, "do not project below the caudal border of the spinous processes, similar to those of extant great apes, and unlike small apes and monkeys, which have more caudally projecting postzygapophyses." This creates greater stability in the lumbar region which the authors conclude is indicative of antipronograde behaviour.

The term "antipronograde" was coined to describe the posture used by extant great apes when climbing in trees. Essentially, "antipronograde" means having the ability to grasp multiple supports with all four limbs in both horizontal and vertical positions. This is an important functional difference from earlier apes like Proconsul that maneuvered their way through trees quadrupedally, more akin to a modern monkey.

The phylogenetic position of Nacholapithecus remains somewhat unclear at the moment, but most paleoanthropologists seem to agree that the functional locomotor abilities of this ape likely evolved in parallel to the functional repertoire of extant apes. Evolution can be a bit repetitive sometimes.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Pliopithecus (and Édouard Lartet)

It's impossible to study archaeology without eventually stumbling across the work of Édouard Lartet. Lartet was a French researcher whose resume stretches across many time periods, subjects, and topics. In the mid-nineteenth century he was instrumental in demonstrating the antiquity of the human species by finding human skeletal remains alongside the remains of woolly mammoths in the same stratigraphic levels. To this day it's nearly impossible to read anything about the Upper Paleolithic of Western Europe without seeing at least one reference to his work.

Needless to say Lartet was widely known and respected as an archaeologist, he was also a prolific paleontologist. Alongside his colleague and benefactor, Henri Christie, Lartet discovered and named a number of Miocene mammals, perhaps most notably the late Miocene ape Dryopithecus. But he also discovered a lesser known Miocene primate which he named Pliopithecus.

Pliopithecus is not an ape, nor is it a old world monkey, a new world monkey, or a lemur or a tarsier. Pliopithecus is a Pliopithecoid. That might sound a bit circular, but I'll explain...

Apes and Old World monkeys, which are collectively known as catarrhines, share a common ancestor that lived sometime between 28 and 25 million years ago. Catarrhines share a common ancestor with New World monkeys (aka platyrrhines) that lived around 40 million years ago or so. Together these primate clades, Catarrhini and Platyrrhini, are known as the Anthropoid primates.

In the time period between 40 and 23 the anthropoid evolutionary tree did a lot of branching. Today, only three main branches remain (the aforementioned apes, Old World monkeys, and New World monkeys). There were, however, a few more highly important and significant branches, such as the Propliopithecoids, the Saadanioids, and the Dendropithecoids, all of which have since gone extinct. The Pliopithecoids were one such branch. As the diagram to the right shows, they represent a very primitive branch on this tree. They predate both Old World monkeys and apes, but coincided with both for a lengthy period of time (over 10 million years). This phylogenetic position also means Pliopithecoids were more closely related to catarrhines than they are to platyrrhines (in fact they are regarded as basal or stem catarrhine).

Since the days of Lartet sixteen different species of Pliopithecoid have been found across Eurasia, from France and Spain all the way to China and Thailand. These are typically group into three families or sub-families: Dionysopithecinae, Pliopithecinae, and Crouzeliidae.

At the end of the Miocene epoch tropical forests were replaced with deciduous forests as dramatic shifts in climate swept across Europe and Asia. Apes disappeared and dispersed south, surviving only in Africa and Southern Asia. The less populous Old World Monkeys also went extinct in Europe, but like apes managed to survive in Africa and Southern Asia. Pliopithecoids, however, vanished completely.

At the time of his discovery Lartet had no way of knowing he had just discovered an entirely unknown clade of primates. Even the paleontologists which immediately followed him didn't necessarily understand the importance of Pliopithecus. In fact, Pliopithecus was for a time, widely thought to be ancestral to the gibbons (also an important phylogenetic position, just not a correct one). Today we know a little bitmore about this distinct and mysterious primate clade, but there remains a lot more to be discovered.

In terms of research Pliopithecoids are still largely neglected. Perhaps this is because of most Miocene paleoanthropologists are preoccupied with our more immediate ape ancestors. And rightly so, after all the main subject of anthropology is humankind and our close relatives. Personally, however, I'm more fascinated about this weird little group, the ones that didn't make it. That's why I'm making them the primarily focus of my PhD research.

A few years ago I had the fortune to do archaeology in the same region of southern France where Lartet lived and worked. It was amazing to be surrounded by the artifacts, fossils, and landscape that would have once surrounded Lartet in his quest to shed light on to the origins of humankind. Although the Miocene forests and animals have since disappeared, this was also the same landscape (albeit highly modified by millions of years of geological processes) that both Lartet and I would have shared with the first known Pliopithecoid, Pliopithecus antiquus.

So, the three of us have that in common.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Neil Young - Fork in the Road (2009)

Release date: April 7, 2009
Producers: Neil Young and Niko Bolas
Track listing: When Worlds Collide, Fuel Line, Just Singing a Song, Johnny Magic, Cough Up the Bucks, Get Behind the Wheel, Off the Road, Hit the Road, Light a Candle, Fork in the Road
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar), Ben Keith (lap steel guitar, electric guitar, Hammond B-3 organ, vocals), Anthony Crawford (electric and acoustic guitar, piano, Hammond B-3 organ, vocals), Rick Rosas (bass), Chad Chromwell (drums), Pegi Young (vocals, acoustic guitar, vibes)

Fork In the Road is a concept album about turning a 1959 Lincoln Continental into a electric-biofuel hybrid. This was a project Neil began with car mechanic Jonathan Goodwin during the early 00s. The goal was to demonstrate that if an old gas-guzzling beast like a Lincoln Continental can become environmentally friendly, the same can be done to just about any car being driven on the road today. Ultimately Neil and Goodwin achieved this goal in 2009, creating a car they called LincVolt, which is powered by electricity and ethanol, and emits nearly zero emissions. This album documents that journey and explores the political implications such a green revolution might have upon the auto and oil industries.

Although the idea between this album is fascinating, Fork In the Road isn't by any means a fascinating album. Quite simply, it's generic and bland. Stylistically, this album offers nothing Neil Young fans haven't heard before. It's mediocracy at it's tamest, which is really too bad because it marks the last album Neil recorded with either Rick Rosas or Ben Keith before their deaths.

There are a few good songs, like "Fuel Line" and the title track, "Fork In the Road", but even still, they aren't really that exciting. If these songs were found on a Neil Young album of higher quality they'd be easily forgotten about. Other songs, like "Cough Up the Bucks" and "When Worlds Collide" actually transcend boring and become annoying after repeated listening.

When I saw there was a song called "Light a Candle" my brain momentarily faltered and thought it was going to be a cover (Creedence Clearwater Revival's "As song as I can see the Light"). It wasn't what I expected, but it did turn out to be a pretty decent song with some great Ben Keith slide guitar. Although I regard this album as something of a dud, it's nice that the final Ben Keith moment is worth listening to.

Bizarrely, this album went to number 1 in Norway. Knowing that there are some great bands from Norway (see Gluecifer and Turbonegro), I'm lead to believe that although Norwegians may create and enjoy some good music, their radio stations probably stink.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Dreamin' Man Live '92