Monday, October 12, 2015

Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II

Release date: October 23, 2007
Producers: Neil Young and Niko Bolas
Track listing: Beautiful Bluebird, Boxcar, Ordinary People, Shining Light, The Believer, Spirit Road, Dirty Old Man, Ever After, No Hidden Path, The Way
Musicians: Primary Players: Neil Young (vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica, grand piano, pump organ, vibes, percussion), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar, lap slide guitar, dobro, electric guitar, organ, vocals), Rick Rosas (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals). Background singers: Nancy Hall, Annie Stocking, Peggi Young, Larry Cragg, Choristers: Rebecca Shaw, Vera Kahn, Moraima Avalos, William Cabiniss, Che Elliot, Rosa Loveszy, Christina Lu, Jamal Marcelin, Lluvia Perez, Owen Smith, Julie Urena, Emily Viola, Reginald Wilson, Catherine McGough, Helen Parzick. And "Ordinary People" features The Blue Notes: Neil (vocals, guitar), Poncho Sampedro (guitar), Rick Rosas (bass), Chad Chromwell (drums), Ben Keith (alto saxophone), Steve Lawrence (tenor saxophone, keyboards), Larry Cragg (baritone saxophone), Claude Cailliet (trombone), John Fumo (trumpet), Tom Bray (trumpet)

This week's album, Chrome Dreams II, is a supposed sequel to an unreleased Neil Young album from the mid 1970s. Given that this album is recorded roughly thirty years later with a different band, different producer, and uses no material from the first record, I fail to understand the connection. Still, it's a pretty decent album. Unlike the more thematic albums which seem to have so far dominated Neil's 21st century releases (Living With War, Greendale, Silver & Gold), Chrome Dreams II is more eclectic, something along the lines of Freedom. Neil and his fellow musicians bounce from rock and roll to country to pop music and even journey through the past to bring back the Bluenotes and their amazing horn section.

The musicians featured on this album consist of an all-star cast of Neil Young alumni. Neil, who is never one to collect rust, decided to shake things up. Instead of using one of his standard bands, or group of session musicians, he seemingly picked a different player from each of his best known projects. On bass is Rick Rosas (Volume Dealers), on drums is Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse), and they're joined by Ben Keith (Stray Gators) on lap steel. This peculiar line-up helps to create a very sonically diverse record. These include quiet country numbers like "Beautiful Bluebird", a raging 14 minute rocker called "No Hidden Path" and an upbeat soul number I can easily picture Otis Redding singing called "The Believer".

Still, the best moment on this record is track three: "Ordinary People". This song was originally recorded by Neil and producer Niko Bolas with the Bluenotes in 1988 during the This Note's For You sessions. Although this is such an amazing song it's easy to see why it wasn't on the original record. It comes from a time when Neil was making less guitar dominated rock and roll songs and this song features at least three blazing distorted guitar solos. Also, it just doesn't sound like anything else on the Bluenotes record, which has a much more jazzy feel to it. Still, this song alone is worth the price of admission.

As we continue down the road exploring the career of Neil Young we're about to encounter a marked change. Many of the musicians like Rick Rosas and Ben Keith who played with Neil throughout his career have now died. These recordings, and a few more of the newer releases I'll be reviewing in the weeks to come, feature some of the last moments of these legendary players. On the track "Ever After" you can hear Ben Keith playing some of the most beautiful slide guitar this planet has ever heard. This is the guy who played with Patsy Cline, countless other country legends, and spent a lifetime by Neil's side. It's a bit sad to hear this and realize it won't ever been played like this again.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Sugar Mountain:

Live at Canterbury House 1968 (2008)

Miocene Mammal Monday: Microstonyx

Microstonyx was a suid (aka pig) that inhabited Western Europe and Asia during the late Miocene (10-6 million years ago). In appearance Microstonyx is thought to have resembled a modern day boar, both in shape and size. Perhaps this isn't so surprisingly as it is a member of the same subfamily (Suinae) as modern pigs.

The discovery of Microstonyx in Northern China (Liu et al., 2004) lead paleontologists to conclude there was a more open biogeographic connection between the areas of Western Europe and North China than previously believed. This stands in contrast to the South China and the Indian subcontinent, which were seemingly more isolated during the late Miocene.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)

Release date: March 31, 2007
Producers: David Briggs, Neil Young
Track listing: On the Way Home, Tell Me Why, Old Man, Journey Through the Past, Helpless, Love in Mind, A Man Needs a Man/Heart of Gold suite, Cowgirl in the Sand, Don't Let It Bring You Down, There's a World, Bad Fog of Loneliness, The Needle and the Damage Done, Ohio, See the Sky About to Rain, Down by the River, Dance Dance Dance, I Am a Child
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, piano)

In early 1971 Neil Young was a reasonably successful musician, best known for his work with Buffalo Springfield as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. He had achieved some recognition with his first three records (Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and After the Goldrush), but he was not exactly a household name quite yet. And although some of music was being played on the radio, popular music magazines like Rolling Stone were highly critical of his music calling it "half-baked" and "irritating".

On the night of January 19, 1971 Neil Young took to the stage at Massey Hall in Toronto with only a piano and an acoustic guitar to backup his fragile voice. This album captures Neil at a very unique time in his career. It's one of the last moments he would have played to a mid-sized audience without it having to be some sort of secret affair. Neil hadn't driven into the ditch yet either, he was still getting his car onto the highway.

The crowd seems quiet, but focused, and ready to cheer at the hint of anything they recognized. Although he did play a few of better known songs like "Helpless", "Ohio", "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Down by the River", the bulk of the material which makes up this performance would have been completely unknown to the audience that night. Even songs that are now classics from After the Goldrush like "Tell Me Why" were still only a few months old and not known anyone who hadn't yet had a chance to pick up his newest record.

Five of the songs he played that night would later be released on Harvest, his most commercially successful album of all time. Another was "Dance Dance Dance" a song he wrote for Crazy Horse's debut album (on which he did not appear).  He also played a bunch of songs that wouldn't be released in any capacity for years to come. Most noticeably is the song "Bad Fog of Loneliness", which he wrote for Johnny Cash. Live at Massey Hall 1971 is that song's first official release.

I think one of the most interesting moments on this album is how Neil plays a more sombre version "Heart of Gold" on piano... and it serves as a bridge for the "A Man Needs a Maid" (which also has very noticeably different lyrics). When Neil plays these songs, as well as "Journey Through the Past", we see that he's still in the middle of songwriting process and these songs weren't yet fully formed.

When this album was finally released from the vaults in 2007 it went to #1 in Canada and was one of his best selling records internationally in years. It's a great album, and a must have for any would be Neil Young fanatic. Still, there's something strange about this album. It's the fact that the 1971 audience doesn't really know what they were getting at the time combined with the fact that those who bought this album in 2007 likely purchased it for nostalgic reasons. Sometimes Neil has a way of bending time completely out of shape.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Chrome Dreams II

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Live at the Fillmore East (2006)

Release date: November 14, 2006
Producer: Paul Rothchild
Track listing: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Winterlong, Down by the River, Wonderin', Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown, Cowgirl in the Sand
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Danny Whitten (guitar, vocals), Jack Nitzsche (electric piano), Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums, backing vocals)

Recorded in 1970 during the Everybody Knows This is Nowhere tour, Live the the Fillmore East marks the first installment in the Neil Young Archive Series. After reviewing 38 nearly consecutive years of Neil's career it's a bit a strange to suddenly embark on a journey through the past. Strange, but highly enjoyable.

This album is simply amazing and features Crazy Horse when they were still a young, non-road worn band. As I've stated in previous reviews, I feel as though Crazy Horse became a very different, albeit incredible, band with the release of Zuma in 1975. This version of Crazy Horse features both Danny Whitten on guitar and Jack Nitzsche on piano. Unlike Poncho, who typically backs up Neil with his rhythm playing, Danny takes the lead from time to time, most noticeably on "Down by the River". It gives the band a different dynamic which I sometimes miss, despite all of the awesome records they've made with Poncho. Danny even takes over lead vocals on "Let's Go Downtown", a song which originally appeared on Crazy Horse's 1971 self-tiled debut Neil-free album, and then later on Neil's tribute to Danny, Tonight's the Night.

The extended jams on "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" take the songs to fascinatingly different places compared to the versions that appeared on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. It gives me the feeling that these songs probably took a different form every night.

It's also interesting to note that Crazy Horse were playing both "Winterlong" and "Wonderin'' on this tour. "Winterlong" didn't see an official release until 1977 with Decade, and "Wonderin'" had to wait 13 years until it was finally released in a markedly different version on Neil's rockabilly opus Everybody's Rockin'. Although I really love the Shocking Pinks and think it's one of the best tracks from that album, this version is equally great. It's much looser, features some different guitar leads, and a few different lyrics.

Aside from all these things which make a Neil Young aficionado (which I think I can begin to call myself at this point) squeal like a pig in mud, the album just sounds great. Produced by Paul Rothchild, who's best known for his work with the Doors and Janis Joplin, Live at the Fillmore East is quite possibly one the best live albums Neil ever recorded. It's remarkably how fresh and crisp these tracks sound after sitting in Neil's vault for 36 years. It makes me excited to see what else we'll find as we begin this new chapter in Neil's catalogue.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Neil Young - Living With War (2006)

Release date: May 2, 2006 and November 7, 2006
Producers: Niko Bolas, L.A. Johnson, Neil Young
Track listing: After the Garden, Living With War, The Restless Consumer, Shock and Awe, Families, Flags of Freedom, Let's Impeach the President, Lookin' For A Leader, Roger and Out, America the Beautiful
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Rick Rosas (bass), Chad Chromwell (drums), Tom Bray (trumpet),

Okay, okay. I know, the review is a bit late this week. But hey, after doing these reviews for 9 months straight, one late review isn't that bad. Anyway, enough dilly dally, let's begin...

Living With War reunites Neil with the Volume Dealers (Rick Rosas and Chad Chromwell). This is essentially the same band Neil used on El Dorado and Freedom, minus the additional accompaniment of Poncho and Ben Keith. Tonely, it's a much less eclectic album compared to Freedom, but it's really Neil's first rock and roll album of the 21st century,

I didn't get a chance to hear this album when this album was first released, but I seem to remember people saying it wasn't that good. Part of the reason I started this year long quest of listening to every Neil album was to hear all the albums I missed. I have to say Living With War was a pleasant surprise. After a few weeks of mediocre albums, it's nice to hear Neil making a record with a little more enthusiasm.

Songs like "After the Garden" and "Living With War" get this album off to a rocking start, "The Restless Consumer" ramps things up. Plain and simple, the songs are just really well written, both musically and lyrically. I also really the vocal accompaniment on this album and it's cool to have Tom Bray back and blasting out catchy trumpet lines.

After releasing this album in May 2006, Neil decided to strip the album down and release a more primitive version titled Living With War... In the Beginning. It's interesting to listen to the two different versions, but I have to say I actually prefer the original release.

Look, you could say the album is a bit preachy, but hell, it's a protest album. If you bought this album and were surprised by the content you deserved to be, because you're probably kinda dumb. Neil can be accused of over simplifying the Iraq War as simply a "war for oil", but I think that's a larger problem of the nouveau reductionist left. Regardless of your opinion on the Iraq War I think all humans can agree that war is the worst thing humans do to each other. I don't mind hearing that, if I don't necessarily agree with the specific nuances of Neil's beliefs. More importantly, this album is just a good old fashioned rock and roll record. The world needs a lot more of those, and a lot less war.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Live at Fillmore East

Monday, September 14, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Mammalian Ghosts of New Zealand

When humans first migrated to New Zealand, approximately one thousand years ago, they brought rats and some other small mammals with them. Prior to their arrival New Zealand was completely devoid of mammals (with the notable exception of bats). It's a bit of a understatement to say that this mammalian diaspora had a profound effect upon the island ecosystem.

During the Early Cretaceous, New Zealand was still attached to Antarctica, both of which were part of the larger supercontinent known as Gondwana. By 82 million years ago, however, New Zealand separated. The remnants of this pre-Tertiary separation can still be seen when one looks at the endemic biota of the island: tutataras, onychophorans, and leiopelmatid frogs. These extant fauna represent deep evolutionary divergences between related species found elsewhere on nearby land masses.

When New Zealand was attached to Gondwana it was fairly close to the land mass which would later become Australia (and as I noted above, attached to Antarctica). The fossil record shows us that during this time both Antarctica and Australia had mammals. This raises two interesting questions: Did New Zealand ever have mammals? If so, where did they go?

Middle Miocene Mammals fossils from New Zealand
(Worthy et al., 2006)
Until fairly recently the fossil record of New Zealand has not been that helpful in answering these questions. With exception to some fragmentary dinosaur remains from the Late Cretaceous (75 million years ago),  New Zealand has one of the poorest pre-Quaternary fossil records in the world. Then, a few years ago, researchers working along Manuherikia River began to find fossils in sediment which was dated to the middle Middle Miocene (19–16 million years ago). Surprisingly, some of these fossils turned out to be mammals.

The fossils are a bit too fragmentary to place them into a genus, let alone a species. Still, they are clearly mammalian and somewhat rodent-like. As New Zealand broke apart from Gondwana prior to the evolutionary divergence of placental and marsupial mammals, these fossils actually represent something of an unknown lineage. The Middle Miocene was a period of intense global climate change, however, and it is thought that these changing environmental conditions are what may have lead to the extinction of the endemic New Zealand mammals.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Neil Young - Prairie Wind (2005)

Release date: September 27, 2005
Producers: Ben Keith, Neil Young
Track listing: The Painter, No Wonder, Falling Off the Face of the Earth, Far From Home, It's A Dream, Prairie Wind, Here For You, This Old Guitar, He Was the King, When God Made Me
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmonica, piano),  Ben Keith (Dobro, pedal steel, slide guitar), Spooner Oldham (piano, Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer electric piano), Rick Rosas (bass), Karl Himmel (drums, percussion), Chad Cromwell (drums, percussion), Grant Boatwright (acoustic guitar, backing vocals), Clinton Gregory (fiddle on "No Wonder"), Wayne Jackson (horns), Thomas McGinley (horns), with backup vocals by Emmylou Harris, Pegi Young, Diana Dewitt, Anthony Crawford, Gary Pigg, Curtis Wright. String arrangement by Chuck Cochran

On Prairie Wind Neil takes a regular cast of his country players: Ben, Spooner, Karl, Anthony, and combines them with the rhythm section from Freedom: Rick Rosas and Chad Chromwell. The resulting band is tight as hell. Definitely one of Neil's best collection of musicians. Ben's slide playing is outstanding, perhaps some of his best. Although this album is sometimes heralded as the third part of some sort of nebulous Harvest trilogy, I find the production, handled by Ben and Neil, gives it sound closer to Silver & Gold.

There are some catchy tunes here, particularly the ones that feature horns; "Prairie Wind" and "He was the King". There are some thoughtful, reflective lyrics that deal with the death of Neil's dad and the greater question of mortality. But... And there is a but... I remember liking this album a lot more when it was first released. This time around I found Prairie Wind to be a real middle of the road record. Not horrible, but not great either. As far as Neil's 21st century output (so far) I much prefer Silver & Gold.

And it's time to say it. The song "When God Made Me" is quite possibly one of the worst songs Neil has ever written. It's a really horrible way to end the album. Now, I know what you're thinking, "that evolutionary anthropologist turned Neil Young biographer jerk off Andrew Holmes doesn't like this song because he's a baby-eating atheist". Well, I won't deny my atheism (or occasional baby eating), but that's not the reason I think this song stinks. I love a lot of religious music. Jeesh, I even cover an overtly religious Hank song on my own solo country album. I dislike this song because it's self-indulgent schmaltz. I just expect more from Neil.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Living With War (2006)