Monday, May 18, 2015

Neil Young - Landing On Water (1986)

Released: July 28, 1986
Producers: Danny Kortchmar, Neil Young
Track listing: Weight of the World, Violent Side, Hippie Dream, Bad News Beat, Touch the Nights, People on the Street, Hard Luck Stories, I Got a Problem, Pressure, Drifter
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, lead guitar, harmonica, synthesizer), Danny Kortchmar (synthesizer, guitar), Steve Jordan (drums, synthesizer) and the San Francisco Boys Chorus provide vocals on "Violent Side" and "Touch the Night".

To some people Danny Kortchmar is a well respected song-writer and producer.  To me he is the man behind the worst Neil Young record of all time.  I really tried to give Landing on Water another chance, but it just plain stinks. Awful production. Awful synth. No bass (except horrible synth bass). Shitty overblown drums that way too loud in the mix. This album is a demonstration of everything that was wrong with studio production in the middle of the 1980s.

Kortchmar is not the sole culprit behind this album, after all Neil is the man who decided this album should be released (the same man who decided not to release Chrome Dreams or Homegrown). At frst I thought Neil likely released this garbage record to solely to fufill the demands of his Geffen Records contract. Then I noticed he released four singles with videos from this album. That tells me he stood behind of it and was at least partly proud of it. He was wrong to ever think that. This album is garbage from beginning to end.

The digital, tinny, production, however, is only one problem. The second problem is that all the songs are pretty awful. There aren't any gems hidden this wall of 80s synth, just steaming turds. Okay, well, there might be one mild exception. That is "Violent Side". Mind you, the production is still horrific and annoying, but I think there is a good song hidden in hear somewhere. Part of it is the Vocal Choir backing Neil up, it's kinda hard to sound bad being back up by a vocal choir. There is also another moment in this song in which we actually Neil yell angrily at the top of his lungs. It's uncharacteristic of his typical vocal style and it sounds really great. I wonder if Neil sounds so angry because he was in the middle of making such a bad album.

Landing on Water isn't innovative or experimental like Trans. It's predictable and synthetically bland. For some reasonthis album sold better than Trans, Everybody's Rockin', and Old Ways. I guess it just goes to show how the masses often have horrible taste that is tainted by the age they live in. Sometimes we need a little hindsight to see the real horrors.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Life

Monday, May 11, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Palaeomeryx

Palaeomeryx was artiodactyl that lived in Europe and Asia during the middle and late Miocene epochs (roughly 17 - 7.25 million years ago). Having a fossil distribution which spreads from Lisboa, Portugal to Lufeng, China, Palaeomeryx was easily one of the most ubiquitous ruminants of the Eurasian Miocene. It belongs to a larger family of ruminants know as Paleomerycidae, which are thought to be ancestral to modern deer and musk deer. The strange giraffe-like antlers of many Paleomerycids, like those of Palaeomeryx tricornis (above), initially lead paleontologists to believe these mammals were a type of giraffid.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Neil Young - Old Ways (1985)

Release date: August 12, 1985
Producers: Neil Young, David Briggs, Ben Keith, and Elliot Mazer
Track Listing: The Wayward Wind, Get Back to the Country, Are There Any More Real Cowboys?, Once an Angel, Misfits, California Sunset, Old Ways, My Boy, Bound for Glory, Where is the Highway Tonight
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, banjo-guitar, harmonica), Waylon Jennings (vocals, guitar), Willie Nelson (vocals, guitar), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), Ben Keith (pedal steel, dobro), Tim Drummond (bass), Karl Himmel (drums), Joe Allen (bass), Ralph Mooney (pedal steel guitar), Hargus "Pig" Robbins (piano), Gordon Terry (fiddle), Joe Osborn (bass), Anthony Crawford (mandolin, vocals), Terry McMillan (harmonica, jew's harp), Bela Fleck (banjo), Bobby Thompson (banjo), David Kirby (guitar), Grant Boatwright (guitar), Jonny Christopher (guitar), Ray Edenton (guitar), Gove Scrivenor (autoharp), Farrel Morris (percussion), Marty Stuart (mandolin), Carl Gorodetzky (violin), Spooner Oldham (piano), with backing vocals by Larry Byrom, Rick Palombi, Doana Crooper, Denise Draper, Gail Davies, Betsy Hammer, Pam Rose, Janis Oliver-Gill, Mary Ann Kennedy, Kristine Oliver-Arnold, Leona Williams, and strings by George Binkley, John Borg, Roy Christensen, Virginia Christensen, Charles Everett, Larry Harvin, Mark Hembree, Lee Larrison, Betty McDonald, Dennis Molchan, Pamela Sixfin, Mark Tanner, David Vanderkooi, Gary Vanosdale, Carol Walker, Stephanie Woolf

During the summer of 1984 Neil hit the road with a new band called the International Harvesters (Live on Austin City Limits). They played songs from Harvest, Comes A Time, and the unreleased Old Ways album. Originally, Old Ways was recorded in 1983, but David Geffen had stopped it from being released as he wanted to Neil record a rock and roll record instead. The result of this request Everybody's Rockin' launched a lawsuit which kept Geffen Records and Neil's lawyers in court for most of 1984. Eventually, they reached a settlement which stated that Neil had to finish his Geffen Records contract (which included three more albums), and that David Geffen would be prohibited from creatively interfering or rejecting the finished project. In the spring of 1985 Neil decided to restart the Old Ways album from scratch. This has resulted in this album often being referred to as Old Ways II. The original Old Ways is said to have contained more songs, some of which were subsequently released on Geffen era compilation, Lucky Thirteen, whereas other songs only reemerged recently as part of the Neil Young Archives project.

Old ways starts with a big full sound; strings and  harmonica blend together with a full band on a cover of Gogi Grant's 1956 song "The Wayward Wind". Right out of the gates Neil is making it clear this isn't a folkie record or a country-rock record, this is a pure country & western record. Supported by an all-star cast of country musicians which includes Marty Stuart (who at that time was best known as a member of Johnny Cash's band), the world's most technically proficient banjo player, Bela Fleck, autoharpist Gove Scrivenor, and honky-tonk pianist Pig Robbins (Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, David Allan Coe, George Jones). We also see a return of some of Neil's long standing collaborators like Spooner Oldham, Rufus Thibodeaux, as well as Ben Keith and the rest of the Shocking Pinks. If that wasn't enough Waylon Jenning plays guitar and sings back-up on six songs and Willie Nelson lends his vocals to the Willesque "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?"

The second song, "Get Back to Country" is typically auto-biographical and seemingly picks up where Neil left off with "Goin' to the Country" (from Harvest). It's probably the most upbeat song on the record and although it is partly about playing rock and roll, it stays firmly rooted in country music thanks to Ben Keith's slide guitar and Terry McMillian's jew's harp.

Neil puts the string section to great use of this record, something which I think he had struggled with in the past while working with Jack Nitzsche. The song "Misfits" is a great example of his use of orchestration. It starts with a stand-up bass and some simple percussion and then seamlessly and subtly blends the string section to create a truly bizarre and super catching song about Astronauts, Muhammad Ali, and John F. Kennedy.

"Once and Angel", "California Sunset", and "Old Ways" are great straight up country songs, but I think Neil really blows it out of the water with "Bound for Glory". Upon first listen it reminded me of a Waylon Jenning's song, partly because of  the melody and partly because of the rhythm. It really didn't come as surprise when Waylon took over the lead vocals midway through this song. It doesn't get more country than that. Truly, a great batch of songs. Even a song like "My Boy", which might be a sappy little tearjerker and some might even call it "ham-fisted" (okay no-one says that, but it's an expression I'm trying to start), is still catchy as hell. I caught myself humming it a few times while working in the field this past week. I make no apologies.

An album packed with superstars and legendary session players runs the risk of feeling crowded or over produced. Old Ways doesn't feel that way at. In fact I'd say this is probably Neil's best record during the Geffen years, and also probably his best country record to date. I'd even put it ahead of Harvest as it doesn't contain a single bad song (like Harvest's "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World"). This album is often underrated and almost always overlooked, and that's a shame because as far as I'm concerned it's one of the best of his entire career.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Landing on Water (1986)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Simocyon

Illustration by Mauricio Anton

Simocyon was medium sized mammal that lived primarily in Europe and Asia during the Late Miocene and Early Pliocene. Simocyon is a member of the Ailuridae family which today is represented by a single species, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens). Unlike its modern herbivorous relative, Simocyon was a carnivore and had large molars which it used to crush bone.

Giant Panda (left), Simocyon (right)
Illustration by Mauricio Anton
Simocyon was also considerably larger than a red panda, with a estimated length of 70 cm and a weight of 60 kg. Still, it is thought that Simocyon was an agile climber. Interestingly, the morphology of Simocyon paw is reminiscent to the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) as they both have an oversized radial sesamoid bone which serves as a false thumb. The main difference is that in giant pandas this thumb is used to strip bamboo and Simocyon more likely used this thumb for better gripping during climbing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks - Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

Release date: August 1, 1983
Producers: Neil Young and Elliot Mazer
Track listing: Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes, Rainin' in My Hear, Payola Blues, Wonderin', Kinda Fonda Wonda, Jellyroll Man, Bright Lights Big City, Cry Cry Cry, Mystery Train, Everybody's Rockin;
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, piano, guitar, harmonica), Tim Drummond (upright bass), Karl Himmel (snare drum), Ben Keith (alto saxaphone, lead guitar), Anthony Crawford and Rick Palombi (backing vocals), Larry Byrom (piano, backing vocals)

After finishing up Trans Neil began to work on a country record called Old Ways. The record was intended not to be a return to the country-folk sounds of Harvest or Comes a Time, instead Neil was planning to make a real traditional country & western record. David Geffen, owner and founder of Neil's new record label, was not impressed. First, Trans had been a complete commercial failure. Secondly, traditional country & western records weren't exactly lighting up the pop charts. The whole thing didn't sound very profitable to Geffen. He had signed Neil just after the Rust Never Sleeps period when Neil was doing large stadium shows with elaborate stage shows. That's the Neil Young Geffen wanted, so he told Neil that he wouldn't release Old Ways and that he had better start working on a rock & roll record.

Neil did just that. Well, kinda. Instead of getting Crazy Horse back together he assembled a rockabilly band called the Shocking Pinks. With exception of the three vocal harmonists, Anthony Crawford, Rick Palombi, and Larry Byrom, the band was made up a musicians who had played with Neil on previous records. Most interestingly long time pedal steel player Ben Keith took on the role of saxophonist. The Shocking Pinks headed into the studio and quickly banged out ten songs. Once Geffen caught wind of what Neil was up to, he cancelled the studio sessions. The result became one of Neil's shortest records, clocking in at under 24 minutes.

I remember discovering this tape in a Dartmouth record store while on tour with my old band the Atomic Machetes back in the summer of 2004. This tape quickly became a frequently played van tape (as best I can remember). Over the years I've talked to a lot of people about this record and I've heard a lot of mixed opinions. It seems people either love or hate it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love it. It sounds like a Jerry Lee Lewis record if Jerry Lee decided to sing in a flat falsetto. Being a huge Jerry Lee fan, I mean that as a compliment.

Sure the songs aren't very deep, there's no crazy Neil Young guitar leads (in fact Neil put a lot more emphasis on his piano playing on this record), and producer Elliot Mazer added too much reverb to both the vocals and the instruments, but's it's just a fun pop record made at a time period of digital studio excess.

I think the two singles, "Wonderin'" and "Cry, Cry, Cry" are probably the two best songs on the record. Aside from that I really like "Rain' in My Heart", it's one of those songs that gets stuck in your head for years (I've been singing it to myself almost non-stop since 2004). Another interesting thing about this record is that half of the songs are covers. Prior to Everybody's Rockin' Neil had only recorded one cover song, that being Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" on Comes A Time. The Geffen-era compilation album Lucky Thirteen also gives us some insight of what might have happened if David Geffen didn't cancel the recording midway through the project. Here's what the Shocking Pinks sounded like playing some live blues:

The critics hated Everybody's Rockin' and two months after its release David Geffen sued Neil Young for $3.3 million on the basis that Trans and Everybody's Rockin' were uncommercial and "musically uncharacteristic". In return Neil countersued for $21 million saying that his contract had been breached as he had been promised that Geffen Records would not interfere with his creative process. Ultimately Geffen would later drop his suit and apologize to Neil. It's hard to say if this apology was real or largely due to the fact that the lawsuit caused a new upcoming band called R.E.M. to reject a record contract with Geffen Records and sign with Warner Brothers instead.

Ultimately, I think this record stands the test of time. By no means is the place one should start when it comes to listening to the Neil Young repertoire, as it actually is somewhat uncharacteristic of Neil. Then again being uncharacteristic might just be one of Neil's best qualities.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Old Ways (1985)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Saadanius: stem catarrhine and all round nice guy

Saddanius hijazensis (Zalmout et al., 2010
Saadanius hijazensis is a fossil primate known from a single specimen that was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2009. The specimen is approximately 28.5 million years old and consists partial skull. Saadanius has been suggested to be closely related to the common ancestor of Old World monkeys (cercopithecoidea) and apes (hominoidea), which are collectively known as catarrhines.

Looking at the profile above it's easy to see that Saadanius had a fairly long face, more akin to New World monkey (platyrrhini) rather than a cercopithecoid or hominoid. Saadanius was, however, somewhat larger than your average platyrrhine. The teeth were more characteristic of modern platyrrhines in having an elongated deeply rooted canine, a large distema between the upper canine and the lower incisors. Perhaps most importantly Saadanius had bony ear tube (ectotympanic), this is a feature not found in platyrrhines or other early catarrhines like the Propliopithecoids. This is what suggests it is likely to be closely related to the stem ancestor of modern catarrhines.

It's really impossible to say how closely related this particular species would be to the common ancestor of Old World monkeys and apes. It's even possible that it could be the actual common ancestor. Who knows, this particular fossil could actually be your ancestor.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Merycochoerus

Merycocherus proprius
Robert Bruce Horsfall
Merycocherus was artiodactyl that lived in North America during the Late Oligocene and the Early Miocene (28-16 MA). Although they might superficially resemble tapirs or suids, they are actually more closely related to camels. Merycocherus was an oreodont, a now extinct family of artiodactlys that had long fang-like canines and characteristically "mountainous" molars which it used to chew dense fibrous plant material (oreo is latin for mountain).

Merycocherus had four-toed hooves, short legs and feet, and a large heavy body (estimated average 980 lbs). Some researchers have suggest that these mammals may have been amphibious as there thick barrel shaped bodies
are seemingly characteristic of other  aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals.
Merycocherus as seen in Rudolph F. Zallinger's mural "The Age of Mammals"