Wednesday, February 23, 2011

20 neglected Neil Young gems

The songs in this list may fit any or all of the following criteria to attain their 'neglected gem' status; they aren't in the public consciousness but should be, they have never been anthologised by Neil, they are rarely if ever played live by Neil, they aren't mentioned enough by critics and are stuck unfairly in the shadow of a better known or more widely loved song (or songs) on the albums they hail from. So, roughly chronologically, here goes...


1. 'Flying On The Ground Is Wrong' Buffalo Springfield ('Buffalo Springfield') 1967

Neil admitted in a late 60's interview that he pinched the melodic ideas from Roy Orbison's 'Blue Bayou', and after giving them a few idiosyncratic twists of his own, came up with this gem. It's an opaque and cryptic examination of a troubled relationship, but lines like 'I wish I could have met you, in a place where we both belong' and 'if I'm bright enough to see, you're just too dark to care' still get to the heart without any trouble at all. A sweet bridge rises 'sometimes I feel, like I'm just a helpless child, sometimes I feel, like a king, but baby, since I have changed, I can't take nothing home'. I'm not sure exactly what's changed and what he can't take home, but anyone who loves this song could pin their own specifics in that spot. Neil certainly knows how to build a vessel for them. Richie Furay sings this officially released version, but Neil recorded a solo vocal/ guitar demo which appears on the Buffalo Springfield box set and has performed it live on occasion over the years.

2. 'Here We Are In The Years'
('Neil Young') 1968

A perceptive lament mourning the death of innocence and small town charms, and rueing the steamroller effect of rampant capitalism and crass commercialism. After a gentle, disarming piano led intro, the arrangement swells and Neil opines that 'people planning trips to stars, allow another boulevard, to claim, a quiet country lane'. A charming horn interlude is followed by a dead stop, then a drummed heartbeat, then his quiet reflection; 'so the subtle face, is the loser, this time, here we are in the years, where the showman shifts the gears, lives become careers...'. We may not see the slow rot set in and are just too often distracted with trifles and ambitions to notice the small, unique things disappearing. When we look back for them, it may be too late. 'Let us out of here' indeed. The fade out, with deep piano chords reverbing into oblivion, is the perfect final touch in a production that tugs, prickles and shimmers in all the right places. 'I've Been Waiting For You' is another one to (re)visit on 'Neil Young'. Bowie recognised it greatness with a cover 6 or 7 years back and Neil has been playing it again on tour this year.

3. 'Round & Round'
('Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere') 1969

A wall of chiming acoustics herald the arrival of one of Neil's most sublime songs. The steel string picking is audiophile delight and Robin Lane's harmony vocal, whether floating above Neil's, or worldlessly vocalising behind him, is perfection. When they both move beyond words in the outro, moaning and cooing sweetly together, it is just superb. 'Running Dry' is another fascinating and at times chilling song which usually gets passed over for the 'big three' from the album (Cowgirl, Cinnamon Girl & Down By The River)

4. 'Country Girl'
CSN&Y ('De Javu') 1970

This is one of Neil's towering achievements. It was the song that really clinched it for me with Neil. I was ready to 'go steady' with him, so to speak. 'Philadelphia' piqued my interest in a big way, but this one put it beyond doubt. That film sent me scurrying to my parents LP's because I knew they had a shabby old copy of CSN&Y's 'De Javu'. The rustic faux-colonial cover art had always put me off listening to it prior to that, it positively screamed 'hokey folk'. I was thrilled to discover how wrong I was. 'Helpless' has always been the more famous, 'conventionally pretty' sister, as it were, but this lugubrious lass is the one I'm after. I reckon this 'Country Girl' is much sexier.

'Country Girl' is a great argument for Neil's greatness on every level of his craft. The vocal is rich and full of nuance, building from tender fragility in the early verses, to pained ecstasy in the apocalyptic climax, where he wails 'country girl, I think you're pretty, got to make you understand, had no lovers in the city, let me be your country man!'. It is one of his most passionate and accomplished vocal performances. With glass knife CSN backing, it is four-part harmony vocal heaven. The lyrics are among his most curiously enigmatic and gorgeously evocative, 'winding paths through tables and glass, first fall was new', just the first of many examples. The song structure is one of his most complex and masterfully dramatic. The arrangement, from foreboding timpani and vibes intro to wailing harmonica and organ drenched fadeout, is within spitting distance of genius. From the line 'if I could stand to see her crying' onwards, I get chill after sweet chill. With this ambitious and near symphonic epic, Neil sets himself in the rarified company of Orbison, Wilson & Spector. Comparable with Springsteen's 'Meeting Across The River' in the sense that they are styles they both handle brilliantly, but sadly, have rarely repeated.

5. 'L.A.'
('Time Fades Away') 1973

Some days this is my favourite Neil Young song. The gleeful fatalism is so black and bleak, yet utterly involving. The piano and steel dance beautifully around the fractured melody with the rhythm section striking a fantastic fuzzy lumber. 'When the mountains erupt and the valley is sucked into cracks in the earth, will it finally be heard by you, L.A.', wails a hoarse, frazzled Neil. Then he taunts 'city in the smog, city in the smog!! don't you wish that you could be here too?'. Actually, if it sounds as good as this there, I do! It's L.A. as festering wound and Neil is picking at the scab. A stunning live performance of a then new song from a live album of all new songs that remains, unforgivably, never released on CD.

6. 'Alburquerque'
('Tonight's The Night') 1973 - rel. 1975

This knocks me flat. It is one of the most desolate and deeply melancholy songs I've ever heard. The steel just rips at my heart. Of course I love it like an only child though. 'I've been starving, to be alone'. Jesus. The rain-trickle piano run leading into the chorus is the very definition of tasteful. Who knew the word 'Alburquerque' could sound so pretty and tragic. Neil rescued it from Bugs Bunny and slow death by comedy. THIS is American Country. Take note fools.

7. 'New Mama'
('Tonight's The Night') 1973

Whereas every other song on the album is suitably ramshackle and teeters tantalisingly on the verge of falling apart, this is the peaceful eye of the storm. Everything comes into clear focus. A hushed acoustic tune with tightly pitched and achingly fragile harmonies. The sun comes out for these few minutes, but even here it is brief and broken. Neil's song of bliss at the birth of his child is amazing because he makes happiness seem so hopelessly melancholy, the drops into minor don't help either! 'New Mama's got a sun in her eyes, no clouds are in my changing skies, each morning when I wake up to rise, I'm living in a dreamland'. Strum. Bam! The ground drops away. There is always 'the other' lurking nearby and he always acknowledges it; 'changing times, ancient reasons that turn to lies, throw them all away', he warns. Great, brave and honest songwriting. The accapella close is a thing of delicate wonder. The following track on the album 'Lookout Joe', a street-urchin ramble with a demented gospel bridge, also deserves your love and attention.

8. 'Revolution Blues'
('On The Beach') 1974

I love every facet of this. The cutting bile in the vocal...Neil's stellar and spooky guitar work. The other stars of the piece are the phenomenal Levon Helm and Rick Danko from 'The Band'. Crazy Horse could never have played this. It makes me wish Neil had worked with this rhythm section more. Shit, I nearly forgot Mr Crosby. Handy rhythm guitar work from him. What a line up! The skittish, nervy arrangement and cavernous sound are thrilling. I've seen barely twenty-somethings dance to this morbid 'sociopath funk' in a club. Clever clever DJ! I nearly knocked over a trail of fellow clubbers as I reported with haste to the dance-floor in salute. My favourite Neil Young song (most days anyway). Forget about the Charles Manson allusions. This song deserves so much more than to just be 'the song about...'.

9. 'Pardon My Heart'
('Zuma') 1975

The prettiest melody on 'Zuma' sumptuously wrapped in hushed backing vocals and a perfect acoustic guitar and minimal piano arrangement. 'You brought it all on, oh but it feels so wrong, you brought it all, no no no don't believe this song'. Gorgeously opaque and intriguing. The tickling piano and echoing, fuzzed out electric guitar solo are sublime. If you're not moved by this you must be stone dead.

10. 'Will To Love'
('American Stars 'n' Bars') 1977

This one divides fans in a similar way to 'Trans', loved by a passionate and discerning few and derided by many. What's not to like? Overlong? Nup, I'd say meditative. Over-extended metaphor? Yeah maybe, but who cares? he's written some daft lyrics in other well loved songs. Just listen to the hypnotic, watery dance of the acoustic and the vibes, the crackle of the open fire nearby, Neil's subdued moans and woozy 'la la la la's'. It's not for every occasion, but when it's time, it's time!

11. 'Lotta Love'
('Comes A Time') 1978

Nicolette Larson's sunny disco pop version was the hit, but this is the definitive article. Crazy Horse is in the mellowest form of its long life as Neil reels off pretty chords and shards of broken sunlight with off-handed ease. The bastard. 'So if you are out there waiting, I hope you show up soon, 'cause my head needs relating, not solitude'. The stops and starts squeeze the heart and the whole thing is one big sigh. Just lovely. While were at it, stop by 'Peace Of Mind' and 'Already One' next.

12. 'Sample & Hold'
('Trans') 1982

Buried under synth stabs and strangled by a heavy vocoder, you'd never know this contains one of Neil's most breathtaking melodies, specifically the 'we'll send it out right away, satisfaction guaranteed, please specify, the colour of skin and eye, we know you'll be happy' section. That is unless you actually bothered to listen to 'Trans' more than once and didn't frisbee it off a cliff or snap it in half. Neil knows it's a great melody because he tried to do it for 'Unplugged', but ultimately abandoned the idea. I'd be fascinated to hear how it sounded and why it didn't quite work. Anyway, I digress. Neil's tale of mail-order livin' lovin' robot maids is concurrently hilarious and poignant. 'Computer Age' & 'Like An Inca' are also neglected gems from this widely misunderstood album.

13. 'Get Back To The Country'
('Old Ways') 1985

A call to barns instead of a call to arms. A shit hot country stomper with one of Neil's terrific scalded cat vocals. 'When I was a younger man, got lucky with a rock 'n' roll band, struck gold in Holly-wood, all the time I knew I would..'. Cornball and hokey yes, but passionate and strangely vital too. I'd head down the barn for a hoe-down with him any night of the week.

14. 'Around The World'
('Life') 1987

One of Neil's most effective songs from his wobbliest decade. The production is ridiculously overblown and ham-fisted, but it works fine that way. I love the complete genre change from bludgeoning rock to glittery synth pop on the 'fashion change, style change' line. Very clever. Crazy Horse find a classic groove and beat you over the head with it just as you want them to. Neil's spoken 'chat up' section is hilarious; 'hey, you're out of sight, so skin tight, you're looking good tonight, hey', as a synth riff noodles behind him. From the same album, 'Mideast Vacation' is another neglected gem. Neil's trusty Les Paul 'Old Black' wrestles with crashing, squalling synths and the lyrics are most intriguing; 'I was Rambo in the disco, shooting to the beat' and even better 'when they burned me in effigy, my vacation was complete'. A real grower this one, give it a few tries.

15. 'One Of These Days'
('Harvest Moon') 1992

Thankfully Neil has remedied this songs relative obscurity by playing it on the 'Prairie Wind/ Heart Of Gold' show. One of his greatest sets of reflective, melancholy lyrics is set to a sweet, yearning melody and couched in a beautifully understated arrangement. The refrain 'One of these days, I'm gonna sit down and write a long letter, to all the good friends I've known' gets more insistent and heartbreaking as the song progresses. This one hits hard. One for the ages from a wise old owl.

16. 'Big Green Country'
('Mirrorball') 1995

The album was not liked by most critics when it was released, but by my reckoning there are at least 3 hands down classics on 'Mirrorball', and this is one of them. A pile-driving groove from Neil and Pearl Jam underpins one of his most stunning vocals. His voice gliding above the sinewy rhythm track with trademark sour lemon bite; 'Over the fields in the big green country, that's the place where the cancer cowboy rides, pure as the driven snow before it got him..'. Cinematic imagery. A slap in the face intro. Searing and cutting guitar work. Fantastic!

17. 'Out Of Control'
CSN&Y ('Looking Forward') 1999

A gem of a piano ballad with a classic Neil Young self-absorbed, self-mythologising lyric ('tear myself down, build myself up, tear myself down again'). The moment where he breaks back into the chorus after the CSN crooned 'sky is fire, hell is blue' bridge, with 'that's why I'm..', and the chords turn themselves inside out, I get goose bumps every time. Melancholy mastery.

18. 'Horseshoe Man'
('Silver & Gold') 2000

I like this for similar reasons to 'Out Of Control', I just love Neil sighing and pining at a piano. Another gorgeous and deceptively simple melody with more aching and insightful lyrics; 'He takes the pieces in his hand, shakes them up like he doesn't care, he says that there will always be heartbreak, because love is everywhere'. Beautifully arranged and tastefully played. Ditto my final comment from 17.

19. 'Carmichael'
('Greendale') 2003

I love the leisurely 2 minute 45 intro with casual riffing & thick chords on 'Old Black'. Carmichael the cop is a sympathetic protagonist, and the line about no one parking in his car park for a year after he died is inspired and painfully bittersweet. I don't much like the album as a whole, but this one has some real pathos and enough melody to stand on its own, unlike most of the other dull three chord exposition plods. 'Bandit', with it's 'so loose it buzzes' low E-string, is also a shining light in a drab bunch.

20. 'Here For You'
('Prairie Wind') 2004

'No Wonder' was rightly judged to be the flawed (almost) masterpiece on 'Prairie Wind', and the title track and 'It's A Dream' (which were pleasant enough but overlong and repetitive) received much of the analysis. This track though is the emotional crux of the album for me, his open letter to his daughter Amber telling her he'll 'be there'. It escapes mushy sentiment with a sparse, warm production and plain, heartfelt language. The only time sugary strings swoop in is during the gorgeous bridge that features some of his finest lyrics of the decade; 'In the spring, protective arms surrounding you, in the fall we let you go your way, happiness I know will always find you, and when it does, I hope that it will stay'. The word 'stay' positively luxuriating and sunning itself over the kind of sublime chord change that I hadn't heard Neil nail in at least 5 years. I punched the air and whooped when I first heard that change. He'd made my heart fall from a sigh once again, only to catch it with an optimistic harmonica solo and a new verse.

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