Neil Young with Crazy Horse--Psychedelic Pill (Reprise): Following a less than impressive journey through Americana (i.e., songs we had to sing in grade school), Neil Young with Crazy Horse (the packaging reads "with," not "and") return with the double disc Psychedelic Pill. While it may not be music for the ages, it's first-rate Neil Young that you'll want to crank up.
For the most part, the album encompasses extremely lengthy pieces (the opener, "Driftin' Back," clocks in at 27:30) that balance strong songwriting with the jam element in one loud and proud sweep. There's an underlying sadness in "Driftin' Back" and enough changes to sustain its length--the chords that accompany "blocking out my anger" are especially effective, and the mood lightens when Young feigns disgust: "Don't want my MP3."
Like many Neil Young sets, Psychedelic Pill includes a quiet moment of beauty ("For the Love of Man") an autobiographical slice of country rock ("Born In Ontario") and even personal nostalgia ("Twisted Road," which recalls the thrill of hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" for the first time; those who can't get into even the earliest records by Bob Dylan just don't get it). Yet the album is anything but cut and dried.
The utter triumph of "Walk Like a Giant," close to the end of the record, is more than sixteen minutes of brilliance, as Neil and band survey a ravaged land and that part of them that is now lost to a world that doesn't make sense anymore. Expressing emotion with power chords and goofy whistling, Neil's playing encompasses well-thought out guitar passages and pure noise, kind of like an amp dropping bombs--he sounds like he's playing octaves and punching someone's guts out at the same time.
Thankfully, there are two versions of the title track. The first take of "Psychedelic Pill" is overwhelmed by out-of-phase factors that quickly wear thin; for me, it's like an old cassette that's swishing around in your player and you realize that tape is ruined. A more straightforward version (or mix) concludes Psychedelic Pill, which comes as a small relief.
So how "psychedelic" is this album? Like Jimi Hendrix's best work, this is really too hard-hitting to be classified as psychedelia, yet so was the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," the greatest piece of the genre. In another phase of my life, I might have called this album indulgent. But when I'm going on long drives and playing these lengthy tracks, it's an uplifting combination. Psychedelic Pill won't make my single disc year-end compilation of favorites because its epic tracks would use up too much time and I'd have to exclude other artists. It feels good to say that the best performances here are the longest ones. Nothing wrong with that.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse--Americana (Reprise): Young hasn't paired up with Crazy Horse in over eight years, so their romp through mostly traditional American folk songs unleashes a combined raw energy that has been bottled up for too long. The opener, "Oh Susannah," works, but when you realize that the next track, "Clementine," is built on the same formula (noisy guitar, continual chanting), Americana gets old rather quickly.
Neil's version of the Silhouettes' "Get a Job" is funny enough--I guess he couldn't find a Stephen Foster piece about unemployment--and I like how "This Land Is Your Land" includes Woody Guthrie's fantastic couplet about the No Trespassing sign, "and on the other side, it didn't say nothing/that side was made for you and me." Young made sure that verse was in there... twice. As a whole, Americana is a bit of holding pattern: rowdy, somewhat repetitive.
Tweed Funk--Love Is (Tweed Tone): It's easy to tell that this is no big budget LP, but what's wrong with that? Love Is is full of passion and rocking funky grooves from the Milwaukee band. You've got tough and then smooth singing from Tweed Funk frontman Smokey, tight horn charts, a call to strut your stuff in "Dancemaker" and even a cover of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "A Real Mother for Ya" to make it all worthwhile.
Rachel Harrington--Makin' Our House a Honkytonk (Skinny Dennis Records): The followup to Harrington's wonderful Celilo Falls is problematic. Where the previous album was full of little victories in the face of tough times, Honkytonk features a few too many sunny, 1950s-style songs that pale next to the real thing. "Get You Some" (where the prominent character unlocks the front door and is ready to put on some records because her "cool rockin' daddy" is arriving) is, sonically speaking, a terrific and haunting track, but it's rather tepid underneath. Makin' Our House a Honkytonk is a Rachel Harrington record that is less arresting than her other albums.
Dan Bern with Common Rotation--Doubleheader (Dan Bern): I thought I'd lost all interest in Bern (saw him when he only had a couple of records out), but here is a collection of baseball songs with more pathos and melody than both Baseball Project albums (and I love the Baseball Project, the group led by Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey). Bern always threatens to get a little too clever, yet when he deftly balances the extremes of emotion (as when a dying Babe Ruth is visited by someone who is thankful for all the thrills Ruth brought to his life) with heartfelt singing and fine playing from Common Rotation, he is captivating--like seeing a doubleheader in Detroit in the 1960s when you know that part-timer Gates Brown will be in left field for game two.
Can--The Lost Tapes (Spoon/Mute Records): One of our KAOS programmers (Aaron Kruse) used to say that life is too short for prog rock, yet Can (who are mainly from Cologne, Germany) is one of the few bands to transcend the genre. If you're not one of their rabid fans, that may happen after you've heard 1971's Tago Mago, or the new three-disc The Lost Tapes, a superb collection of their studio work and live performances. Think of it as experimental music with a sense of drive and even swing, with strange and exotic tone poems and a hypnotic barrage of sound. Disc two includes some remarkable tracks, such as "Dead Pigeon Suite," several minutes of stately music played on what sounds like multiple recorders before it morphs into a James Brown-ish funk rhythm. Although they practically lived in their studio in the 1970s, Can played bold, inventive music onstage, as evidenced by "Spoon" and "Abra Cada Braxos," both lengthy, well-received pieces. Disc three is for those who love moody and atmospheric touches. This group knows no borders; indeed, Can transcends prog rock the way Hendrix transcended psychedelia and the way the Allman Brothers Band transcended the jam genre.
My favorite Bob Lefsetz Newsletter email of recent vintage was the one he titled "Broken Arrow," where Neil Young was honored by the MusiCares organization and his peers.
I'm still searching for videos of the songs in question to see if his critique is valid. Lefsetz says that too many of the performers depended upon the onstage teleprompter to get the lyrics right, and the Neil Young songs they did lost their edge because of that. And I believe him at this point--all you have to do is remember some of the fumbling around that hurt the Bruce Springsteen cover versions set from December's Kennedy Center Honors (which honored Springsteen, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks and Robert DeNiro).
Can't wait to catch the vid of Wilco doing "Mr. Soul," where the teleprompter wasn't even on and the band roared through an inspired take of Neil's Buffalo Springfield classic, according to Lefsetz. Indeed, it's baffling that so many of the musicians may not have learned the song they were scheduled to perform. Does that mean that they're in their own world just a bit too much? It's worth finding out.
I loved Nick Lowe's comments from a couple of years ago, where he said that even if he were a prolific songwriter (and by his own admission, he is not), he would still do a cover version or two on his albums. Lowe suggested that someone who only does their own music may be a little too wrapped up in themselves.
Whether you're paying tribute to Neil Young or Joe Schmoe, you ought to play their song from deep within.