Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I love Neil Young.

A friend —who is not really of the classic rock mind, in even the most liberal sense— recently asked me what it is that draws me so much to Neil Young.

I admittedly had a bit of a tough time coming up with a solid and articulate reason why I like him so much. Sure, I do like him as a person and as a musician and I can tell you how much I appreciate him. But when trying to say why, I found myself stumbling over words and struggling to grasp at any solid description of what particularly it was that attracts me to his music.

After a bit of reflection the past few days, it finally hit me: the reason I can't articulate it very well is because it's a feeling. I'm sure somebody (who's much more knowledgeable about music theory) could pontificate and illustrate why I get the feeling from his music that I do because of the chords he plays and the progressions in which he arranges them in, but the bottom line here is: musically speaking, he is a master of 'less is more' philosophy.

I have a couple of guitar-playing friends that are not necessarily Neil fans, but through my efforts to turn them on to him, have remarked, "His playing is so simple, but so solid."

Those three or four simple chords he can bang out with seeming non-effort are arranged so perfectly to tug at your emotions. It's as if he's doing it that way on purpose to make anyone with a heart and two cents' worth of soul not really have a choice of whether or not to like it. You just hear it and it moves you. End of story.

Take "Long May You Run" for example. It's supposedly about a car. But listen to the words, that odd chord change in the bridge. Even the hardest nut to crack would have trouble not falling introspective after hearing the tune.

His performance of the tune on Conan O'Brien earlier this year illustrates this so well.

The song is thirty years old and he's probably played it so many times, he's sick of it. But he just puts it out there in his red and white Hawaiian shirt like it didn't matter if he sang it on the show or not. And the comment for Conan at the end is another reason why he's so great.

"Thank you for everything you've done for new music," he says to Conan.

Instead of dwelling on the fact that he's just presented what may very well be the single most heart-tugging, soul-warming and ultimately definitive version of the tune, he extends his gratitude to the court jester.

His influence is undeniable and equally incalculable. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other musician who has been equally as influential to so many different sub-styles simultaneously. I don't know of anyone else that could be seen as a progenitor of the Appleseed Cast and Wilco. And yet, there he is. Strumming away. Warm, fuzzy, distorted tones over a loping Ralph Molina backbeat or with his giant acoustic guitar. He's there and he probably did it —in some sort of way— before your favorite band.

That one sentiment of thanks to Conan says much more about Neil's personality in one sentence than probably even he realized. His unabashedly personal music throughout his career and his willingness to challenge his audience have never been a secret. He saw his best friends become junkies and ultimately victims of hard drugs, experimented to the point of implosion himself, divorced, saw his own son born with serious handicaps and ultimately exorcised his personal demons — all through his music. The most wonderful thing about his music, tunefullness or no (thankfully, he just so happens to write catchy ones), is that, through all of the unpredictable phases and seemingly toss-off in-jokes being passed off as records, the audience knew the artist. Like his latest record or not, you felt like you could still be cordial and have a beer with him after the show.

And that is essentially what connects us to him. His songs are his life. And, just a little bit of ours, too. As die-hard Neil Young fans, we've all heard "Heart of Gold" and it has resonated so much that it moves us to tears at some point in our lives. The words are poignant, but just general enough, to really hit a nerve with anybody who's ever been at a point in their lives where current things are unsure, but the goal is cemented. And plus, the pedal steel totally rules.

But this brings us to a conclusion of sorts. Neil was never anything but himself to his audience. He made the mistake all along of presenting himself, unadulterated at all times. Ultimately, wearing the dorky leather fringe jacket, playing staccato one-note guitar solos, constantly singing off key on live recordings (and some studio ones, too), idiosyncratically releasing seeming crap while simultaneously holding back rumored masterpieces, giving his audience exactly what they wanted exactly when they didn't want it and finally his ability to challenge his audience and congruently not take himself seriously at all is what made him the living legend he is today.

Long live that skinny Canadian playing his classic Gretsch White Falcon.

He is one of my Jesusses.

(did I just make up a very blasphemous word?)

Thanks to Dave, for inspiring these thoughts. I understand this is a very general sentiment put across here, but I hope it's a bit more of an appropriate answer.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

In a bit of a bad way tonight.

But I just want to say: I haven't been away. I am still right here, where I always was. So one day, if you're bored, by all means call. Because you can do, but only if you want to.

Other musings:

Off to bed!


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tracey Thorn — Love and its Opposite

When Tracey Thorn released Out of the Woods in 2007, it was a bit of a shock because Everything But the Girl had been dormant for over half a decade and the last solo album that she released was twenty five years prior. Considering the wealth of music released between her first and second solo albums, it would be unfair to compare 1982's sparse and quietly revelatory A Distant Shore with what was basically a stopgap Everything But the Girl album. With still no action from Everything But the Girl in the new millennium, it was another shock that a third Tracey Thorn solo album was announced.

And it's even more of a shock when Love and its Opposite starts out with two songs that could only be described as melancholy ballads arranged in a classic vocal pop style. As surprising as they are, 'Oh, the Divorces' and 'Long White Dress' can't be accused of setting up a false expectation for the rest of the album. In stark contrast to Out of the Woods, which was heavy on the synths and sequencers, Love and its Opposite is a much more organic affair that, in a nearly unbelievably awesome move, prominently features Tracey's sparse, layered guitar playing and a live string section on a majority of the album.

And, much like A Distant Shore, it's a short album: ten songs, thirty five minutes. The topics covered are a lot like Tracey's subjects throughout her career: the desperate search for love in a world that she's become very cynical about. The running theme here, if there is one, is that of mid-life change. Specifically, the dissolution of a long time relationship. I have no idea what's going on with her and Ben, but it's hard to think there's not trouble in paradise when she's writing songs like 'Singles Bar.' Or perhaps their recent marriage after decades of being together has forced her to self-evaluate and explore alternate possibilities.

Whatever the case, there is a bit of feeling to the album of personal revelation. The stark, dissonantly gorgeous 'Kentish Town' is a sort of mini-autobiography that finds Tracey reminiscing "I stood where you stood" as if the 'you' she speaks of is long gone — emotionally, that is. Along with the near cinematic scope of the tune, it also —perhaps purposely— bares a striking resemblance to A Distant Shore. Elsewhere, on the equally as sparse 'Come On Home To Me,' we find Tracey declaring that "love can die and never know what it might have been." So, there's not a whole lot here to cheer about, but the tunes are so well done and the album covers so much musical ground in under fourty minutes that it will demand repeat listens for full reward. From traditional pop sounding ballads ('Oh, the Divorces!' and 'Long White Dress') to jumpy little pop ditties ('Hormones' and 'Why Does the Wind?') to slow, sparse, deep album cuts ('Kentish Town,' 'You Are A Lover' and 'Late in the Afternoon'), it's kind of astonishing how well this album explores as much as it does and the short amount of time is does so in doubles its ability to impress. And, not to mention, her voice sounds as good as ever. I guess the subject matter would draw me in regardless, but that fact that the voice conveying all of it is still amazingly captivating is what seals the deal.

There is one track here that is a bittersweet ode to lifting one's spirit in times of emotional hardship and it's easily the album's highlight. Indeed, the effects-heavy arpeggio and lush block piano chords of 'Swimming' is a slice of absolutely uplifting mini-epic brilliance. It has the boombast of the best power ballads, but the presentation is modest enough for the tune's refrain lyric of "Right now we're just keeping afloat, but soon we will be swimming" to sound like an amazingly effective and genuine statement. Coming last in the album's running order, it plays like a redemptive and ultimately triumphant turn for an album whose intentions and mood were previously undefined. With 'Swimming' it becomes clear that, whatever lessons Tracey Thorn has learned —autobiographic or not— she refuses to let the negativity consume her.

Truly, I didn't even know what to think of this album when it first came out. It took me this long to even start to grasp what the tunes were trying to accomplish (also why this review took dang near three months for me write). Where in the past, her records have been great pop music that incorporated the technologies of their day, the subject has been lost because of the timeliness of the sounds, Love and its Opposite is the first record she's made in a long time —maybe even since A Distant Shore— that could be called timeless. Its mature, realistic tone only enhances its genuine quality. If Everything but the Girl is no longer active, I'm glad that the possibility of more albums from Tracey Thorn are not out of the question.

Truly mature and redemptive music.


Crowded House — Intriguer

Before I get fully into the latest Crowded House album Intriguer, I’d like to go back to their previous album Time On Earth and its significance. Although the band had reunited for the sporadic one off performance since their 1994 disbanding, Time On Earth yielded a proper new album of brand new material and dang near a world tour. Of the band’s first four proper albums in their initial run, one could split them down the middle in terms of what mood they evoked: Beatles style resonating pop for the new wave era (the self-titled debut and Woodface) and then a brand of lush introspective pop that bordered on an almost dark melancholy, all the while remembering a hook’s importance (Temple of Low Men and arguably the band’s unheralded masterpiece Together Alone).

When the news of founding member Paul Hester’s suicide hit the world in 2005, it seemed a sure sign that Crowded House would be done for good. But Neil Finn, perhaps feeling an allegiance to his departed friend, found a worthy replacement and decided to resurrect the band. In the shadow of Hester’s death, it seemed like an expectedly meditative album of heartfelt pop songs when it was released in 2007; a fitting sendoff for a friend whose exit was understandably difficult. It could have been seen as an album whose tone was pre-determined, and thus, could not really be considered a dependable indication of what the next Crowded House album would sound like when a forthcoming record was announced earlier this year.

Besides the fact that Time On Earth has aged fantastically over the last few years, Intriguer only proves that it was no fluke and that the melancholy-tinged introspective pop direction of Together Alone was the band’s true calling all along. The big difference with Intriguer is that the songs have a very content feeling to them. But Neil Finn still sounds relatively unsure of what his future holds. Where in the past this frightened him and perhaps caused him to put up a defensive wall, Intriguer finds him accepting mid-life gracefully and looking forward to what’s in store.

In some ways, Intriguer is the most rockin’ Crowded House album yet, but simultaneously, it could also be argued that it’s their prettiest. From the very first track, it becomes clear that this is without question the most straightforward, no nonsense presentation of any of their albums. ‘Saturday Sun’ presents a chunky, bass-driven backbone that one might easily mistake for an intro vamp to a song by a band with a much edgier reputation than Crowded House. The song, despite its raw and rockin’ foundation, morphs into something altogether bigger in scope. Through the initial verse, there’s a sense of calm restraint, but it all explodes into the chorus and despite the song’s minor tone, it’s a triumphant and rewarding release of energy.

Continuing the trend is the Fender Rhodes electric piano laden ‘Archer’s Arrows’ which also features quite possibly the group’s most anthemic chorus ever. Completing one of the most awesome one-two opening punches I can recall from recent times, ‘Archer’s Arrows’ is the kind of classic-sounding Crowded House composition filtered through a modest contemporary presentation that makes these newer Crowded House albums sound ultimately very timeless.

Although it’s not in the physical middle of the tracklist, the spiritual centerpiece and album highlight is the pulsing, nearly ethereal four to the floor stomp ‘Either Side of the World.’ Without that percussive stomp underneath it all, it would simply be a curiosity of effects pedals and pretty piano accents, but with that firm grounding, it turns the song inside out. What should be a meditative, soothing tone poem gets turned into a swelling, nearly dancefloor-friendly mini epic. The subject and mood of the song is something along the lines of ‘Private Universe, part two.’ And, as 'Private Universe' is probably my favorite song by the band because of its topic and mood, this is a sequel that does not better its predecessor, but takes a complete opposite (and rewarding) turn away from the original. This is the sort of song I listen to music for. Brilliant.

And, before we go any further, I know what you're thinking: "Four stars again? Does he dislike anything?" And let me answer that with the rest of the review...

Well, let's say that the second half of the album is good. But the three big highlights appear within the first four tracks of the album. After that, things settle down into the MOR mood that one may have expected all along from a later day Crowded House album. Things kick off strong enough with the Neil Young-ish 'Falling Dove,' which is awesome enough to blend from a hypnotic opening section into a much more rockin' middle section and then back again, building a tension for the rest of the tune leaving the listener wondering if the song will erupt again.

But after that, you have songs like 'Isolation,' 'Twice If You're Lucky' and 'Even If,' which are all pleasant enough on the ears and far from being bad songs, but they do seem a little safe in the shadow of the preceding highlights. Kind of telling about the strength of this album that a nice little rocker like 'Inside Out' could be considered second tier. Closing with 'Elephants' —one of Neil's best ballads in a long time— was a good move. It will remind longtime fans of the diversity of exquisite pop that made them love the band in the first place. And it's a just a good song.

Overall, Intriguer may just the most representative Crowded House album yet. It does have a bit of a mature, serious tone to it, but it's not out of self-obsession. It's a resonating piece of pure, honest and fun pop from a group whose reputation was built on the stuff. At this point, the Neil Finn that sang 'Don't Dream it's Over' is long gone, but a listen today reveals an even greater relevance than ever. Almost as if the guy channeled his future self and, now that enough time has passed, he can bang out one of those world-wise pieces of universal likability with surprisingly little effort, but simultaneously surprising quality.

As long as they keep making records this good, let the Crowded House reunion be permanent this time.