Wednesday, February 29, 2012
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - ZUMA, AMERICAN STARS 'N BARS (vinyl)
These two albums are quite unfairly overlooked and under-appreciated in the Young canon, despite each containing a recognized classic, and both holding several high quality tunes that never fail to impress. But it's the albums that precede (On The Beach, Tonight's The Night) and follow (Comes A Time, Rust Never Sleeps) that get the kudos. I think it's just a matter of Young having so many discs in this mid-to-late 70's period that these get the shaft. Also, they are both more of a stylistic grab-bag of Young's moods (country, Crazy Horse rock, mystical imagery) than a single theme, so they aren't as easily absorbed.
It's nice to be able to buy them the old-fashioned way again, reissued on glorious vinyl. However, these aren't the deluxe 180-gram pressings so cherished by today's vinyl hounds. These German-manufactured and imported copies are lighter weight, but still solid; they aren't flimsy, almost transparent quality waxings that you used to get back when the big labels were selling multi-millions of Saturday Night Fever and the like. No, these stand up to the ear and quality test. No doubt Neil will reissue them in 180-gram versions when he gets around to his Archive Vol. 2 duties someday, but that could be a very, very long wait.
Zuma is the earlier album, from 1975, and the first with the reformed and rejuvenated Crazy Horse, Frank Sampedro now in for the late Danny Whitten. And what an auspicious debut for the combo; Young whipped up a crunchy guitar feast, led by the now-beloved Cortez The Killer. There are several elemental rockers, all of which still resonate; Drive Back, Stupid Girl, Don't Cry No Tears, Danger Bird. There's also a tantalizing look at what might have been. In '74, Young had been lured back into the clutches of CSNY, for a money-grabbing tour of baseball stadiums and gigantic outdoor venues in North America and England, one of the great extravaganzas of rock excess. There was supposed to be a reunion album too, and Young was offering up songs (Long May You Run) and leading some recording, but he got fed up with the silliness. One of those tracks is here, Through My Sails, and it's a gem. If the others had simply let him lead, it would have been a centerpiece in a great album. Zuma remains understated, but delivers lots when you put it on, especially after some years away.
American Stars 'n Bars has a more complex history, with the tracks coming from four different seasons, stretching from 1974 to 1977, when it came out. It features distinctly different styles and bands, plus Neil solo. The oldest track, 1974's Star Of Bethlehem, features Emmy Lou Harris on harmonies, and is an acoustic folk number, and was perhaps not dark enough to join the lineup for On The Beach. It comes from a batch of tunes that Young held in reserve for a few years, originally planned for an album to be called Homegrown, including Rust's Pocohantas and Decade's Love Is A Rose. By 1975, Crazy Horse was back in play, and the Zuma sessions yielded some extras, which were hardly B-list material. One was Homegrown, here turned into a sloppy proto-grunge. The other was a masterpiece, Like A Hurricane. It says a lot about this era that Young could afford to keep it off Zuma.
1976 was a bit of a wilderness year for Young, with the unsatisfactory Stills-Young Band album, and the subsequent tour that Young quit halfway through. One track made it to this album, and it's one of the strangest songs in his canon, and that is saying a lot. Will To Love is from the point of view of a salmon (?!?), swimming upstream, and somehow he turns it into a romantic metaphor. It's a solo thing, doctored with oddness, and isn't for everyone.
The rest of the album, the five tracks that made up side one, sees Young in country mode. Now, that's pretty familiar to us now, but really it's his first true foray into the scratchy fiddle music he's turned to at various times now. Here Crazy Horse is joined by mainstay Ben Keith on pedal steel, Nicolette Larson and Linda Ronstadt on prominent backing vocals, and the unknown then, unknown now Carole Mayedo on the fiddle. As is typical with his country work, Young goes for the simplest lyrics and cliches, although for my money these ones beat a lot of his later work, like many of the numbers on Old Ways. The Old Country Waltz is nicely composed, and Hey Babe is catchy but for some reason bombed as a single. The clincher is Bite The Bullet, where the Horse are finally let loose to play loud and nasty, and the women wail behind. If only all his country efforts were like this side.
Zuma's the better of the two, but both need to be in your Neil Young collection if you're more than just a Harvest/Harvest Moon fan. And yes, I think vinyl is the way to go.