Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neil Young: Storytone

Neil Young has had another busy year both as a performing artist and personally.  Earlier this year he released an album of covers he recorded in Jack White's special "phone booth" studio.  It was intended as an experiment for the fidelity of vinyl sound.  The recordings themselves were not that appealing to me and I will add this one to my Neil collection at a later date when I can get the CD cheaply. 

Then Neil left his wife, Pegi, apparently for Daryl Hannah. This motivated long-time band mate David Crosby to critique Neil's new relationship on Twitter.  Crosby has difficulty keeping his mouth shut at times and his comments pissed Neil off. Even Graham Nash, a lifetime collaborator with Crosby, called the comments "inappropriate."  But Neil went a bit too far, according to Nash, on his side of things and declared during a performance that CSNY would never play music again.  Nash thinks that it would be tragic for the musicians not to continue to collaborate just because of this little spat.  Neil was most revealing about all this, (although he remained skimpy on the specifics) in a recent interview with Howard Stern.  So, the jury is still out on what comes next, if anything, for CSNY.

Meanwhile, Neil toured this summer in Europe with Crazy Horse, trying to complete the 2013 tour that was cut short when Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Poncho Sampedro broke his hand.  Just before the 2014 re-tour started Crazy Horse bass player Billy Talbot suffered a light stroke.  Rick Rosas, who has played bass for Neil on many recent recordings and tours, filled in for Talbot.  Now, tragically with the quasi-Crazy Horse tour over, Rosas died suddenly at age 65.  So, that whole aspect of Neil's life is a bit of a downer.  A ride with the full-blown Crazy Horse might be over forever, just as, apparently, we might be at the end for CSNY.

Always a political activist, Neil was also involved in a concert to stop the Keystone pipeline project and involved with continuing concerns over a variety of political issues. This is in addition to his work on enhancing the quality of music through the near-future launch of his Pono sound system as well as his continuing efforts of focus attention on the possibilities of bio-diesel and electric powered cars such as his experimental LincVolt.  

Neil also published his second book.  This one is semi-autobiographical and is mostly about automobiles, his first and most lasting true love, and memories he has of his life surrounding automobiles.  As with the covers album, this is not a topic that especially interests me.  But I still want to read what Neil writes about so I will pick it up later off the discount shelf.

Last week, Neil released his 35th studio album (more than 50 albums overall), Storytone, a double CD set that features ten new original songs delivered two ways.  Disc One contains the 'solo' versions of the tunes with Neil on piano or guitar or ukulele.  Disc Two delivers the same songs in the same order but in an "orchestrated" format. The orchestration might be full symphony orchestra or a big band or a rock band configuration. Sometimes it is a mixture of the formats.  I found the album to be sort of middle-of-the-road for Neil, with a few really great tunes, a few mediocre ones and the rest just kind of OK.  It is not Neil's strongest recent work, certainly not as exciting as 2012's Psychedelic Pill, but it is an interesting addition to any serious Rustie's collection.  Neil is still pushing boundaries and trying to find new sonic experiences for himself and Storytone fits that ambition.

The ten tracks are featured in the same order so it makes for an interesting and entertaining comparison between the two musical ideas, one simple and minimalist, the other more refined and layered with various instruments and vocals. After several listenings, I came up with my own mix of the two discs, taking what I felt to be the best versions of each track and combining them into one nice mix.  I will review the material as I selected it for my mix.

As of this post you can listen to both discs in their entirety on youtube here.

"Plastic Flowers" is a beautiful piano ballad and a good way to kick off the mix with a slow, reflective piece filled with the quirky, ironic, and poetic lyrics that are such a mainstay of Neil's musical oeuvre. Neil's vocals are an acquired taste but overall he does a pretty good job with his harmonies throughout Storytone.  The full orchestral version of "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" comes next.  This is one of the highlights of the album.  Neil is featured with a large orchestra here, reminiscent of the some early works he did on his now-classic After the Gold Rush LP.  This is quite a contrast to the raucous rendition of the ecologically-minded song that he performed with Crazy Horse this past summer.  I really like the orchestration here (arranged by Chris Walden, not by Neil). Neil may have worked with orchestras in the past but he has not performed anything that sounds more like true classical music than this wonderful piece. 

"I Want to Drive My Car" follows.  I actually already posted on this blog about a year ago when Neil made a surprise appearance with his then-wife Pegi's band The Survivors. This orchestral version features electric guitar and harmonica backed by a large brass section for a wonderful big band sound. It is surprisingly rocking tune on an otherwise laid back album.  "Glimmer" is way over-composed for my tastes in the orchestral version so I prefer Neil on solo piano again on this one.  Another introspective piece, this time about cars and relationships, sort of like his recent book I suppose.

"Say Hello to Chicago" is a fun, bluesy number again with a lot of brass backing it up.  I really like the way this tune swings a little.  This sounds more like a Frank Sinatra song than anything else. "Tumbleweed" is not bad in its orchestral version but it is such a wonderfully simple and sweet song that I decided to go with the solo version for my mix.  Neil is strumming a ukulele on this one (throughout the solo disc Neil strums, he does not pick) which makes it a nice contrast sandwiched between the multi-layered tunes on my mix. 

"Like You Used to Do" might be my favorite song on Storytone.  It is a fun, swinging track featuring an excellent sonic blend of big band and blues.  By contrast, "I'm Glad I Found You" is one of the album's weakest moments, slightly more tolerable in its orchestral mode than solo. "When I Watch You Sleeping" is a relaxing tune with a nice country folk feel, adding yet another dimension of musical style to Storytone's exploratory range. Likewise, "All Those Dreams" hearkens back to Neil's great Harvest Moon album with a smooth string section supporting drums and bass and acoustic guitar.

Overall, the sonic variety on Storytone is really entertaining. With the exception of a couple of noteworthy tracks, there is nothing particularly outstanding on this album.  But it is accessible and makes for some easy listening.  My parents would probably like this music.  Much of it reminds me of something that Bobby Goldsboro or Jim Reeves might have done in the 60's.  The full orchestration on tracks like "Who's Going to Stand-Up?" is particularly worthy of attention. Neil does not reinvent himself with Storytone.  He merely accentuates some undercurrents of sound that have been there through past solo efforts and special explorations like his off-beat album This Note's for You and, more recently and successfully, Prairie Wind

It is interesting that Neil credits each of other the more than 100 musicians and vocalists that contributed to Storytone. But he does not credit himself on any song.  So, you do not know specifically what instrument, if any, he is playing on each track.  He did credit himself on the watercolors that he painted for the CD cover and inside.  On top of everything else in Neil's life, he has an exhibition of his paintings displayed this month in Los Angeles.

Storytone serves as the capstone on another complex, successful, and conflicted year for one of the great living songwriters and performers from the classic rock era. As of today it ranks #2 in amazon's "folk" music category, #5 in "classic rock", and #12 in "rock."

Late Note:  Neil's latest record debuted at #33 on the Billboard 200 chart.

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