Sunday, March 29, 2015

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Release date:
July 2, 1979
Producers: Neil Young, David Briggs, Tim Mulligan
Track listing: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), Thrasher, Ride My Llama, Pocahontas, Sail Away, Powderfinger, Welfare Mothers, Sedan Delivery, Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
Musicians: Neil Young (guitar, harmonica, organ, vocals), Poncho Sampedro (guitars, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) with Nicolette Larson (vocals), Karl Himmel (drums), and Joe Osborn (bass) on "Sail Away".

This album is about the Jeff Blackburn and the Ducks. This album is about Neil making a movie with Devo.  This album is about Neil reacting to punk rock. This album is about life, death, the past and the future. It's a solo acoustic album that slowly morphs into one of Crazy Horse's loudest, dirtiest, most distorted albums. This is a live album which was later overdubbed in the studio (and unlike the heavily modified "live" albums of KISS, Neil opted to remove crowd noise instead of add it).

The story begins in the spring of 1977 when Neil Young joined a Santa Cruz based bar band called the Ducks. The band consisted of Jeff Blackburn (vocals, guitar), Bob Mosley (bass), and Johnny Craviotto (drums). They played some old rock and roll songs by artists like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, some early Neil Young material (including a version of Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul" which Neil has said was better than the original), and songs from the repertoires of Jeff Blackburn (The Jeff Blackburn band) and Bob Mosley (Moby Grape). Over the summer of 1977 they played a series of $3 bar shows at various small clubs around Santa Cruz. This was because Neil had a contract which stated that he would only tour with Crazy Horse. The Ducks never played outside of Santa Cruz and by the end of the 1977 the Ducks disbanded and Neil went to on the Comes A Time album. It was during this time that Neil and Jeff Blackburn wrote the start of what would later become "Hey, Hey, My, My" [Here's a Ducks Bootleg if you're interested].

At the beginning of 1978, Reprise Records wanted Neil to tour Comes A Time, but just like after Harvest, he had already grown tired of the over produced Nashville sound. Instead, Neil hit the road with Crazy Horse playing a lot of new, previously unreleased material (kinda like Times Fades Away minus the Stray Gators). Neil had begun to notice that many of his friends, contemporaries, and the whole the hippy baby boomer culture in general, was morphing into bland easy listening AM radio schmaltz (too bad he didn't notice this when he made the horrific Stills-Young Band). Meanwhile rock and roll was once again renewing itself in the younger generation: the punks. This time around the sound was heavy, louder, and sloppier than ever before.

Finally, it was also around this time that Neil befriended Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and began working a film which would evolve into the rock and roll comedy The Human Highway (1982). It was Mark that came up with the title of the album, Rust Never Sleeps, a slogan he borrowed from the Rust-Oleum paint company. The title is said to describe Neil's fear of irrelevancy and his rock and roll rebirth incorporating new sounds, new ideas, and theatrical elements (note: Neil also made a film version of this album which is also called Rust Never Sleeps, but features alternate versions of the songs from this album and the following Live Rust album).

Okay... that's the background context of this album. Oh wait, I should mention two songs, "Pocahontas" and "Sail Away" weren't recorded live. Pocahontas was recorded years earlier in 1975 and "Sail Away" was a Comes A Time outtake and features Karl Himmel (drums), Joe Osborn (bass) and Nicolette Larsen (backing vocals) instead of Crazy Horse.

The reason I really went into an extensive background this time is because I really think it's an interesting story that youhear being played throughout the album. It begins with a concept Neil originally used on Tonight's the Night album, beginning and ending the album with alternate acoustic and electric versions of the same song. This time that song is "My, My, Hey, Hey". Seriously, I could write a separate blog article about this song which would end up being twice as song as the introduction I just spewed out. But, I'll save you that for now. The important thing to note is that the "Out of the Blue" version shows us where Neil came from: the Toronto coffee house folkie scene. The "Into the Black" version shows us where Neil is going: somewhere loud, messy, and explosive.

Side A, the acoustic side, presents some Neil's best acoustic material in my point of view. I love the stripped down sound and the lack of backing band. Take "Thrasher"; Dylanesque rambling lyrics played with the simple three chord structure that unifies country western music and punk rock. "Thrasher" shows us that at the roots, all forms of American music share a primitive feeling which is simply indescribable and undecipherable. Maybe "Ride My Llama" and "Sail Away" aren't going to make my list of favorite Neil songs, but still prefer them compared to the type of acoustic songs featured on Comes A Time.

Side B, the loud side. Holy shit. That's really all I have to say about this side. "Powderfinger" is unquestionably one of the best songs ever written by a living organism in the 13.8 billion year history of the planet Earth. If you disagree, you are wrong and confused. It's quite simple really. Just listen to this song and try not to explode. It's impossible, unless you are heartless robot. Similarly, "Welfare Mothers" and "Sedan Delivery" are unstoppable forces of nature. Crazy Horse is really at a great moment here. They took the foundational groundwork of Zuma and used it to build a a monument on par with either the Egyptian and Aztec pyramids in it's importance in the cultural evolution of the human species.

In case you still don't understand: I like this album a lot. Listen to it often, listen to it loud, and tremble in the wake of its greatness.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Live Rust (1979)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Aceratherium porpani

Everyone on the planet can agree that the most characteristic feature of a rhinoceros is the huge horn in the front of its face. Today there are five extant rhino species and all of them have huge horns. Horns and rhinos, however, weren't always synonymous. Throughout the Miocene there were plenty of species of hornless rhinos that lived across North America, Eurasia, and Africa. A few years ago paleontologists working in Thailand even found a hornless rhino all the way down there (Deng et al., 2013). It was given the name Aceratherium porpani in honor of the individual who donated the specimens to science, Porpan Vachajitpan.

Reconstruction of the Late Miocene habitat of Aceratherium porpani (Chen Yu)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Neil Young - Comes a Time (1978)

Release date: October 2, 1978
Producers: Neil Young, David Briggs, Ben Keith, Tim Mulligan
Track listing: Goin' Back, Comes a Time, Look Out for My Love, Lotta Love, Peace of Mind, Human Highway, Already One, Field of Opportunity, Motorcycle Mama, Four Strong Winds
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Ben Keith (steel guitar), Nicolette Larson (background vocals), Karl Himmel (drums), Tim Drummond (bass), Spooner Oldham (piano), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), Joe Osborn (bass), J.J. Cale (guitar), Larrie London (drums), Farrel Morris (percussion), Rita Fey (autoharp), with acoustic guitars by Grant Boatwright, John Christoper, Jerry Shook, Vic Jordon, Steve Gibson, Dale Sellers, Ray Edenton, and strings by  Shelley Kurland, Stephanie Wolf, Marvin Chantry, Roy Christensen, Gary Vanosdale, Carl Goroditzby, George Binkley, Steve Smith, Larry Havin, Larry Lasson, Carol Walker, Rebecca Lynch, Virginia Christensen, Maryanna Harvin, George Kosmola, Martha McCrory, Chuck Cochran, and Crazy Horse: Poncho Sampedro (guitar), Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums).

The story behind this album is rather simple. Neil showed up to Reprise records with a bunch of songs that he had recorded with an acoustic guitar. The record label said they liked the songs, but wanted him to go rerecord them with some professional studio musicians like he did with Harvest. Somewhat uncharacteristically Neil agreed and headed down to Nashville. There he gathered up many of the musicians that appeared on Harvest as well as some other well known studio musicians like J.J. Cale, Larrie Londin, and Joe Osborn (Wrecking Crew) to name a few more well-known examples. Then he added a full string section. The result: Comes a Time was a commercial success, Neil and Reprise records made some money and everyone was happy.

Comes a Time isn't a bad album, but it's not great album either. Neil famously wrote that he headed for the ditch after Harvest, and Comes a Time finds him steering his car back to the middle of road. And although comparisons to Harvest abound whenever and wherever this album is discussed, I feel as there actually a greater similarity to Neil's 1968 self-titled debut Neil Young.

Whereas Harvest allowed you to hear individual instruments, Comes a Time and Neil Young, are more layered albums. It's hard to count how many instruments are actually on a song. Similarly, the strings are woven into the songs much like they were under the guidance of Jack Nitzche on Neil Young. This, of course, stands into contrast to the manner in which a string orchestra was used for stand alone pieces on Harvest (i.e. "A Man Needs a Maid"). Even on the two songs which feature Crazy Horse ("Lotta Love" and "Look Out for My Love") Poncho, Billy, and Ralph manage to make themselves sound like studio musicians. Neil, does, however sneak in some cool subtle noise guitar into "Look Out For My Love" and that's probably one the better songs on this album.

The real low moments on this album aren't particularly bad moments. They're just kind of dull moments. Like the song "Already One" is a relatively sweet song about Neil's son, but it drags on too long and I lose interest. Then there's a song like "Motorcyle Mama" which is just hacky dated 1970s studio blues. It's too bad this is the song Nicolette Larson gets to sing lead vocals on because she's much better than the song allows her to be in this situation. And then the album ends on what I think is the first real cover we've seen appear on a Neil Young record. That song is Ian and Sylvia Tyson's "Four Strong Winds". Not a bad cover, but one time I was at a record store and I found a record by a Fredericton, New Brunswick based barber shop quartet from the 1960's called The Henchmen. They did a much better version of "Four Strong Winds".

If you're a fan of the softer, well-produced side of Neil you'll likely be a bigger fan of this record than me. I tend to prefer Neil acoustic when he's all alone rather than when he's backed by a wall of acoustic guitars. I also have a strong preference for the distorted messy sounds of Crazy Horse as compared to when Neil forces them to sound like Fleetwood Mac. I much prefer what happens next...

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Neil Young - American Stars n' Bars (1977)

Release date: June 13, 1977

Neil Young, David Briggs, Tim Mulligan, Elliot Mazer

Track listing:
The Old Country Waltz, Saddle Up the Palomino, Hey Babe, Hold Back the Tears, Bite the Bullet, Star of Bethlehem, Will to Love, Like A Hurricane, Homegrown
Singles: Hey Babe, Like a Hurricane

Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, and organ, piano, vibes, and drums on "Will to Love"), Poncho Sampedro (guitars), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar), Carole Mayedo (violin), Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums), Tim Drummond and Karl T. Himmel (bass and drums on "Star of Bethlehem"), Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson, and Emmylou Harris (background vocals).

American Stars 'n Bars was built as a two sided record. The first side is made up of five songs recorded in April 1977. The second side contains four songs that were originally recorded for the unreleased projects Homegrown and Chrome Dreams (1974 -1976). Although such a scramble of recordings could make a disjointed album, American Stars n' Bars has a strangely cohesive quality.

The album begins with a rather traditional county sound. For the first four songs there's a heavy emphasis on the fiddle and pedal steel. The guitars are either acoustic or have very little distortion. It's unlike the slick Nashville sound of Harvest and more reminiscent of a Hank Williams record, particularly "The Old Country Waltz". The experienced session musicians are gone and this time underlying rhythm section is actually Crazy Horse (Billy, Ralph, and Poncho). Still, Crazy Horse aren't playing the role of rock band, not at first. Instead, they are dutifully playing as a simple traditional country rhythm section. This creates some of the albums best moments, particularly the song "Hey Babe", which stands out as one of the catchiest songs Neil has even written. Then, all of sudden the pedal steel and fiddle are set aside and Crazy Horse erupts back into a rock and roll band with "Bite the Bullet".  Just as quickly as it came on, it's done and side A is over.

When you flip the record over, the same pattern begins anew with "Star of Bethlehem". As the sole song on this album produced by Elliot Mazer it has the most Harvest-like feel to it, but it's the backing vocals Emmylou Harris that really make this song great. Her voice is subtle and quiet, yet it manages to adds a lot of depth to an otherwise relatively average song.

The acoustic sounds continue with "Will to Love", but this song drifts away from the country sound and back into the ditch. It's reminds me of something that could have been included on On the Beach or Tonight's the Night. Neil plays all the instruments on this song, guitar, vibes, bass, and drums (although the "drums"is little more than what sounds like someone tripping over a drum kit halfway through the song). It's a weird little song. It's probably too long. It seems like one of those songs that would normally annoy me, but it doesn't. I'm not sure why. I've had the xylophone part stuck in my head all morning, but I'm still not annoyed.

And then the album finishes with the loud, noisy, distorted Zumaesque sounds of "Like a Hurricane" and "Homegrown". After hearing so many different live versions of "Like a Hurricane" over the years, I forgot how different the original sounds. The opening guitar lead uses an effect that I've never heard Neil use during live performances. As such he seemingly plays the notes in a slightly different manner than he does in later performances. That's truly one of the great things about Neil and his never ending career; never ending alternate versions of songs that you love.

American Stars n' Bars functions as a peak  into the past, present, and future of Neil Young as he stood in 1977. The cool thing about is that Neil's able to do this by putting out a brand new album of previously unreleased songs, rather than a greatest hits package. Although, since we're on the topic...

Decade (1977)

The year of our lord, 1977, was also the Neil released his first greatest hits package. Although primarily made up of material from his solo career Decade also contains songs from Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, alternate versions of songs (like "Long May You Run" with the vocals of Crosby and Nash restored), B-sides, and also a few unreleased songs. I'm not going to include it in my #NYalbumreview marathon, as it is primarly previously released material and I'm more interested in how albums as whole projects  were made and the stories that lay behind them. Still, if you're a NY completest you'll have to check it out at some point.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Comes A Time

Monday, March 9, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Dendropithecus

Dendropithecus is a catarrhine primate from Kenya that lived during the early Miocene, approximately 20 million years ago. When the genus Dendropithecus was initially proposed by Andrews and Simons (1977), it was initially placed within the gibbon family (Hylobatidae). Both gibbons and Dendropithecus have long arms, small hands, and share some dental similarities not seen in other apes. Unlike modern modern gibbons, however, Dendropithecus clearly demonstrated sexual size dimorphism between males and females (extant hylobatids are notoriously impossible to sex solely using skeletal material).

Today, most paleoanthropologists are less inclined to suggest that Dendropithecus was a direct ancestor of modern hylobatids. Many even doubt that Dendropithecus to be an ape, and instead suggest it is likely to be a stem catarrhine and ultimately, an evolutionary dead end. 

Any morphological similarities between Dendropithecus and modern gibbons are therefore typically regarded as homoplasy (aka convergent evolution). Kenya was a relatively flat, wooded area during the reign of Dendropithecus, and thus the environment likely played a role in crafting a primate that could move easily among the tress.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mary Anning: the mother of Paleontology

Mary Anning was one of the most important paleontologists of all time. She's rarely mentioned in scientific literature or other texts which have sought to tell the story of the birth and growth of paleontology in the nineteenth century. Today is international women's day. What better day to start giving Mary Anning the attention she deserves.

Mary began her career in the early nineteenth by collecting fossils with her father in the small town of Lyme Regis in West Dorset, England. These largely consisted of ammonite and belemnite fossils from the late Triassic and early Jurassic. From a very early age Mary exhibited a natural fossil finding ability. In fact she was so good that her father, a relatively poor cabinetmaker, decided to start a second business selling the fossils she discovered to tourists. Shortly after Mary turned her eleven her father died, leaving the family poor and destitute. Since Mary and her family were considered to be religious dissenters (as they were not Anglicans), they did not receive the any financial support from their local parish, a practice which was common at the time among families who lost had their patriarch. Instead, Mary's mother decided to keep the fossil business going. By her early twenties Mary had taken over control of the business and continued to grow it throughout her life.

At the age of twelve Mary discovered the fossilized remains of an ichthyosaur (a large aquatic reptile that superficially resembles a dolphin) which she sold for £23. This fossil was then sold from one fossil collector to another before it eventually ended up in the hands of the British Museum. She went on to discover more large and important fossils, many of which the world had never before seen. These included pterosaurs, chimeras, ammonites, cephalopods, and the first complete pleisosaur.

Although she had almost no formal education Mary devoured all the paleontological and geological literature she could get her hands upon. Paleontologists, researchers, and fossil collectors from around the world would travel to the town of Lyme Regis. They came not just to buy fossils from Mary Anning, but to also consult with her on topics of geology and vertebrate anatomy. One such person was Adam Sedgwick, a geology professor from the University of Cambridge, that would later count a young Charles Darwin among his students. She also regularly corresponded with Charles Lyell, the author of Principles of Geology, on the topic of coastal erosion.

Duria Antiquior - a painting by geologist Henry de le Beche which was based on fossils discovered by Mary Anning
Because Mary was a woman, a religious outsider, and came from a working class family she was excluded from ever joining a scientific or naturalist organization during her lifetime. Since her death she's been largely forgotten. Her fossils, however,  remain fundamental discoveries in the history of paleontology which have irreversibly expanded the realm of human knowledge.

Help Report the Sale of Endangered Animal Remains

The skull pictured above is currently being auctioned on eBay where it is identified as a crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis). If this was true this auction would be perfectly legal as crab-eating macaques are not an endangered species. However, this is not a macaque skull. This is an orangutan skull. Orangutans are an endanger species.

Via the BioAnthropology Facebook Group (Andrew Deane):
ANTHROPOLOGISTS! HELP! This Orangutan skull being sold on eBay is described by the seller (in Malaysia) as a 'non-endangered' Macaque. Obviously this is not the case. I have reported the sale to eBay as a violation of their policies on CITES listed endangered animals, however I am just one complaint in a sea of email communications with a monstrous website. In the past I have noticed items that I have reported were allowed to continue to the end of the auction (probably b/c there are not enough people working this division of eBay and stuff slips through the cracks). I have to think that if they begin to receive dozens and dozens of reports from multiple users that it might stand out and we can shut this down. It takes only a few minutes to click on 'report item' to send a notification to eBay. Please help if you can. This kind of thing happens far more often then you would think and the people doing it get away with it b/c no one monitors a lot of these auctions closely.
So do me a favor and take 2 minutes and report this item, okay? Don't have an eBay account? That should take an additional 2 minutes to setup. In total you can take less than 5 minutes out of your day today and help prevent the illegal sale of endangered animal remains.

UPDATE 1: The orangutan skull has been removed from eBay, but there's also this gibbon skull from the same seller still available. This can still be reported.

UPDATE 2: Both the orangutan and gibbon skull been removed and a new facebook group called "Anthropologists against the online sale of endangered primates" has started up as a grass roots movement to help curtail these kind of illegal sale.