Monday, July 6, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Mystacina miocenalis

A few weeks ago, researchers in New Zealand announced the discovery of a previously unknown fossil bat from the early Miocene. Mystacina miocenalis, as it has been named, is thought to have been roughly three times larger than average modern bats (flying foxes excepted of course).

Mystacina miocenalis is thought to be ancestral to two extant species which still inhabit New Zealand, Mystacina robusta and Mystacina tuberculata. Although other fossil bats from the Mystacinidae family have been found in New Zealand, they come from deposits which date to the Pleistocene epoch (2.8 million to 11 thousand years ago). With a date of 16 million years old Mystacina miocenalis shows that the Mystacinidae family is much older than previously believed.

In the PLoS article which describes this new fossil discovery, the researchers suggest that Mystacina miocenalis likely occupied a similar ecological niche as the two extant species.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Neil Young - Unplugged (1993)

Release date: June 15, 1993
Producer: David Briggs
Songs: The Old Laughing Lady, Mr. Soul, World on a String, Pocahontas, Stringman, Like Hurricane, The Needle and the Damage Done, Helpless, Harvest Moon, Transformer Man, Unknown Legend, Look Out for My Love, Long May You Run, From Hank to Hendrix
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, pump organ), Nils Lofgren (guitar, autoharp, accordion, vocals), Ben Keith (dobro), Spooner Oldham (piano, pump organ), Tim Drummond (bass), Oscar Butterworth (drums), with Astrid Young and Nicolette Larson (backing vocals), and Larry Cragg (broom on "Harvest Moon").

In the summer of 1993 Neil and was touring with the Harvest Moon band (which is essentially the Stray Gators with a different drummer; Kenny Butttery just doesn't road I guess). When asked to perform for MTV's Unplugged series it seemed like the time was right. Neil wasn't particularly in the mood for playing heavy, loud music as he had developed tinnitus on his last tour with Crazy Horse. So, Neil and the Harvest Moon band headed to New York and recorded an acoustic concert at a small intimate show. Neil was unhappy with the performances of his band members and decided to scrap the project. The band returned to the road. Eventually they found themselves in LA and Neil decided to give the Unplugged show another go. This time Neil also invited long-time and semi-infrequent collaborator Nils Lofgren to sit in with the band (by this time Nils already become a permanent member of Springsteen's E-street band). Although not every song was recorded in its first take, Neil was happy enough with the end project this time to allow it's airing on MTV and subsequent album release.

The concert starts with one of Neil's oldest solo songs, "The Old Laughing Lady", which originally appeared on Neil's debut LP. Compared to the original version which features electric piano, gospel back-up singers, and Jack Nitzche's orchestral arrangements, this comes off a slightly darker and lonelier song on Unplugged. Generally, that's how a lot of the songs sound on this record. "Mr. Soul" is no longer an upbeat sixties garage rock song, now it's a more of sombre blues number.

Not to say this album is all doom and gloom. There are some more upbeat songs here too, particularly  "Transformer Man". In this vocoder free version you actually get to hear the lyrics. It's quite a beautiful fun song once the 1980s synthesized production is stripped off. There are also a number of cuts from Harvest Moon, and with the exception of "The Needle and the Damage Done", almost nothing from the original Harvest. Neil even draws a song from the Crosby, Still, Nash & Young repertoire with "Helpless" which sounds great backed up by Nils' accordion playing.

Perhaps one of the best moments on this album is when Neil sits down at the piano to play "Stringman", a previously unreleased song known from the Chrome Dreams bootleg. This version isn't particularly different from the original, but Neil's aging voice helps to give it a more reflective tone. Another great moment comes towards the end of the album with "Long May You Run", which I feel is a superior version to the original from the Stills-Young band. Here's Nils telling the story of how this song almost didn't make the cut:

The argument has been made elsewhere that Neil inspired the very idea of MTV's Unplugged. The albums Tonight's the NightRust Never Sleeps, and Freedom all begin and end with acoustic and electric versions of the same song. So, although I do enjoy this album I have some  mixed feelings about it. I think the best songs are typically those which have been acoustically re-invented (i.e. "Transformer Man", "Like A Hurricane"). It would have been great to see Neil take more songs from the Crazy Horse repertoire and strip away the distortion instead of playing songs which were already acoustic songs in the first place. But you know what, if you listen to bootlegs and live tracks posted to youtube you can find these songs (like this acoustic rendition of "Cortez the Killer" from 2003). That's kinda the problem with MTV Unplugged and Neil. His song catalogue is simply too large to be reduced to one acoustic showcase show.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Sleeps With Angels

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Neil Young - Harvest Moon (1992)

Release date: October 27, 1992
Producers: Neil Young, Ben Keith
Songs: Unknown Legend, From Hank to Hendrix, You and Me, Harvest Moon, War of Man, One of These Days, Such a Woman, Old King, Dreamin' Man, Natural Beaury
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, banjo-guitar, piano, pump organ, vibes), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar, dobro, bass marimba, vocals), Tim Drummond (bass, marimba, broom), Spooner Oldham (piano, pump organ, keyboards), Kenny Buttery (drums), with James Taylor, Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, Astrid and Peggi Young (vocals).

I was twelve years old I bought Harvest Moon, it was the first Neil Young album I ever purchased. It was December 1992, or so I think. You can never really be to sure with twenty three year old memories. I was in Saint John with my family, probably Christmas shopping. We stayed overnight at my uncle's apartment, which means I didn't get to listen to the album until the next day when we got back to Saint George. I remember intensely reading the lyrics over and over again, prior to ever hearing the music.

Needless to say I'm a but nostalgic about this album, which is suiting as it's a rather nostalgic album. All of the songs are love songs and they basically fall into one of three categories: love songs about Neil's wife (now ex-wife) Peggi, love songs about nature. and love songs about nostalgia.

Harvest Moon also marks the return of the original Stray Gators lineup, last seen on 972's Harvest. Long time pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith is there along with bassist Tim Drummond and pianist Spooner Oldham. We even see the return of drummer Kenny Buttery who quit the Stray Gators on the Harvest tour (and was replaced by Johnny Barbara mid-tour to record Time Fades Away). James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt return to do backup vocals. Even Jack Nitzsche shows up to arrange the string section on "Such a Woman" (not a personal favorite, but a definite improvement from "A Man Needs A Maid").

The only person not returning is producer Elliot Mazer. Not sure why he didn't get invited back. After all Neil and Mazer worked together on the two previous albums which were also touted as being sequel's to Harvest (those being Comes A Time and Old Ways).  Instead the Neil produced the album with Ben Keith. Overall the album has a rather slick, glossy sound, but I doesn't sound over-produced. The production seems to capture all of the acoustic instruments very cleanly. Each instrument sounds distinct, but part of a larger rolling ensemble. That sounds kinda simple, because it is, and it works.

It's hard to pick any song in particular as being special, remarkable, or a personal favourite. This is one of those albums that sounds best when listened to a cohesive unit. Sure, there are some songs that stronger than others, but I think the nostalgia works best as a package rather than atomized units.

NEXT WEEK - Neil Young - Unplugged (1993)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Weld (1991) & Arc (1991)

Release date: October 22, 1991
Producer: David Briggs, Neil Young, and Billy Talbot
Track listing: Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black), Crime in the City, Blowin' in the Wind, Welfare Mothers, Love to Burn, Cinnamon Girl, Mansion on the Hill, Fuckin' Up, Cortez the Killer, Powderfinger, Love and Only Love, Rockin' in the Free World, Like a Hurricane, Farmer John, Tonight's the Night, Roll Another Number
Musicians: Neil Young (guitar, vocals), Poncho Sampedro (guitar, univox stringman synthesizer, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals).

From the beginning warning signal of "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)" Neil and Crazy Horse quickly demonstrate that on this live album they won't be playing any acoustic songs. This is Crazy Horse at their loudest and tightest. Built from a North American tour between the months of February and March, 1991, Weld was released in the fall of 1991, barely a year after their previous album, Ragged Glory. Originally, this was also released as a VHS cassette, but it went out of print and was never reissued to DVD (here's YouTube link).

Neil and David Briggs produced this album along with Billy Talbot. At first I wasn't sure why Billy was credited as a producer (as he isn't credited as a producer on any of the previous Crazy Horse albums). After listening Weld all week it's become quite obvious. Billy turned up the bass. It's nice to hear and it makes Billy and Ralph sound even tighter together. The steady pounding backbeat provides a perfect floor for the grinding explosive guitars of Neil and Poncho.

After the warning signal Crazy Horse breaks into a sludgy, yet faster, version of "Crime in the City". Unlike the original (Freedom) this version doesn't feature any keyboards or a horn section. They are replaced with more blazing leads and Poncho playing a chugging rhythm guitar. Pretty deadly sound and definitely way heavier.

This album features six songs from Ragged Glory, five older songs which also appear on Live Rust, three other songs, and one cover song. At first I thought I might grow tired of the five songs from Ragged Glory (as I spent the previous week listening to that album), but I didn't. Each and everyone of these songs has a unique, original take on this album. The guitar leads in "Love to Burn" and "Mansion on the Hill" are testament to this.  The same goes for the five songs from Live Rust. Even though they might be old songs they all sound fresh. Sometimes Neil never really finishes writing a song. He builds them and tears them down and rebuilds them again. Sometimes this produces a fourteen minute version of "Like A Hurricane" and I'm quite okay with that.

My only real complaint with this album, is the cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind". But only the intro. I don't know why Neil decided to play the opening lead over a bunch of war sound effects (sirens, exploding bombs, machine guns). It kind of takes away from an otherwise great re-imagining of this song, particularly the solid backing vocals of Crazy Horse.

Weld has a stunningly beautiful version of "Cortez the Killer". Such soft, yet strongly felt guitar playing. It's not just always about playing hard and fast. Sometimes the hold of chord or a singular note is all that's needed. When I listen to this song I never want it to end. Crazy Horse becomes such a quiet, solid, almost jazz-like band during this rendition. Which is weird because despite all that softness, this song is quite possibly the heaviest song on the album.

I'm also beginning to think that "Powderfinger"might just be the best song Neil has ever written.

When this album was originally released it came with a third CD, called Arc. Arc is a thirty-five minute compilation of distortion, feedback, and other noises mashed into a single track. I listened to it once, so you don't have to. You're not missing anything. I think it's only use is a backing track for the consumption of psychedelic drugs. It was Thurston Moore's idea to release it, so blame Sonic Youth for Arc. Weld, however, needs no excuses. It captures one of the most vital periods in the history of Crazy Horse and the planet Earth is lucky to have it.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Harvest Moon

Monday, June 15, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Myanmarcolobus yawensis

From "First discovery of colobine fossils from the Late Miocene/Early Pliocene in central Myanmar" (Takai et al., 2015).
Last week a new paper in The Journal of Human Evolution announced the discovery of a previously unknown fossil primate from Myamar, Myamarcolobus yawensis. M. yawensis is known from a partial left mandible seen in the above photograph (a1, a2, a3). Alongside this mandible two additional teeth were discovered (b, c1, c2), but because of the differences in lower second molar morphology, these other additional teeth have been assigned the taxonomic title: Colobinae gen. et sp. indet. (that means nobody's really quite sure what they are yet).

Compared to both fossil and living colobines, M. yawensis appears to most closely resemble Dolichopithecus balcanicus, a colobine monkey which lived in Southeastern Europe (the Balkans) during the early Pliocene.  As the authors point out in their paper, the fossil record shows that colobines initially evolved in Africa during the Middle Miocene and subsequently dispersed into Europe and Asia. Although all the European forms have since gone extinct, colobines are still a diverse group of primates both in Africa and Asia, represented by 10 different genera and 59 unique species. M. yawensis dates to Late Miocene making it the oldest known fossil cercopithecoid ever discovered in Southeast Asia.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Ragged Glory (1990)

Release date: September 10, 1990
Producers: Neil Young and David Briggs
Track listing: County Home, White Line, Fuckin' Up, Over and Over, Love to Burn, Farmer John, Mansion on the Hill, Days That Used to Be, Love and Only Love, Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar), Poncho Sampedro (guitar, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums)

It's hard to figure out what to say about this record. It's what a four man garage band sounds like when you've been playing together for twenty years. That's if you're one of the best garage bands of all time and the songs are written by one of the most important song writers of the twentieth century (and he's writing some of his best material in years).

Well, not all of the songs on this album are new. The first two tracks were actually written during the Chrome Dreams period and were performed live around that time too. Perhaps that's why they sound so awesome. They were aged like a fine wine and only became ready to drink when the time was right. Neil and boys start the album with the seven minute song! "Country Home" quickly establishes that this album is about electric guitar, distorted leads, and the sharpest guitar tone in the history of rock and roll. I don't just get this song stuck in my head, I get the guitar solos stuck in my head. All week long I found myself humming guitar parts while I was screening for artifacts at work (sidenote: in case you're new, I'm an archaeologist and that kinda used to be the main focus of this blog before I started the Neil Young project).

Again, the guitars of "White Line" are nothing short of amazing, but I really like the lyrics of this song too. Sure, the title might be a bit obviously about cocaine, but it's not a pro-cocaine song or an anti-cocaine song. It's just a song about the effects and feelings of a man using cocaine (most likely while on tour) as far as I can figure. I like that. Not every song about drugs has to be a party or a warning. Sometimes they can just be simple stories that describe a time and place. In that way this song isn't really about drugs. It's about a feeling and a situation.

"Fuckin' Up" is a great song and it's definitely part of the reason that people started calling Neil "the godfather of grunge" sometime after this album. I know die-hard Neil fans tend to hate that title, but I think it's silly to deny his influence on bands like Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. All of those bands admired Neil (and some of them toured and made albums with him). But I'm not inclined to think this album "started grunge" or anything as foolish like that. I think Neil's influence upon the aforementioned bands can really be traced back to Zuma. Speaking of which, I think Ragged Glory is the most solid Crazy Horse since Zuma.

There are no bad songs. There really aren't. Songs like "Over and Over", "Love to Burn", "Love and Only Love" are amazing, masterful, pieces of distorted guitar art. I don't know what more to say about them. Just listen to them. Listen to them loud. Listen to them repeatedly. Every time you will hear something new and it will blow your mind, just like the first time you heard it... but better. Then listen to the album come to a beautiful close with "Mother Earth" a brilliant mix of the loud distorted guitar that carried the album and some powerful vocal melodies by Neil and the rest of Crazy Horse.

Ralph, Billy, and Poncho are playing perfect rhythm. Such a finely oiled machine. It's nice to hear, particularly after their last effort, Life, sounded so tired and dead. David Briggs is back in the producer seat. He's been with Neil since the beginning, through thick and thin, both good and bad albums. Although I loved the Niko Bolas production of This Note's For You and Freedom, David Briggs really knows how to capture Crazy Horse best. He just let's play and records it.

Ragged Glory shows us that Crazy Horse isn't finished. In fact, I think this album marks a sort of rebirth for Ralph, Billy, Poncho, and Neil. For me, the 1990s were the best period in the history of Crazy Horse. This is the album that gets that period started.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Weld (1991)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Plioviverrops

Plioviverrops faventinus
In the late Miocene of Southern Europe a genus of hyena known as Plioviverrops roamed the landscape for over 6 million years (roughly between 11-5 million years ago). Although hyenas fossils have been found in Africa that date to the early Miocene (18 million years ago), Plioviverrops is oldest known European hyena.

Unlike modern hyeanas, Plioviverrops didn't have huge bone crushing jaws, nor was it a scavenging carnivore. Instead, Plioviverrops had teeth that were specialized insectivore teeth. Most paleontologists believed it likely occupied a similar ecological niche to today's dwarf mongoose. That is, living on the ground (not climbing trees like modern hyenas) and eating insects.