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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Le Noise,” Neil Young

19th December

 

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No matter how many “Best Albums of 2010″ lists you read on the web this month, somehow you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re reading the same one over and over again. There’s a pretty good reason for that: You are, and it’s sad. Most lists read like they were composed by a cadre of 20-something Vampire Weekend roadies who crowded the local wheat grass bar and nursed their flax and spirulina smoothies as they chattered in passing about music. In most cases the albums they discuss reflect only a narrow sliver of the year’s creative bounty. And almost invariably, they acknowledge only bands that are at least as young if not younger than they are, bands they overheard fellow pseudo hipsters praising over Venti Spelnda-sweetened extra dry skim-milk Americanos, or bands whose music sounds like somebody just blasted three pterodactyls out of the sky all at once with a thousand-pound nail gun.

That’s one of many reasons why Neil Young’s Le Noise is both right for the cultural moment in which it was released and why, pitted against so many of the year’s lesser but lauded records, it smacks of a creative desperation that in eight brief tracks obliterates the pervading cynicism and emotional catatonia of the “indie only” crowd that has ignored it. These songs were all recorded in one or two takes so as not to dilute the immediacy of the creative impulse from which they emerged, and that Young has managed at age 65 and after countless records to do something he has never done before–a solo electric album–is a testament to the restlessness of his muse and to his enduring standing as one of rock ‘n roll’s genuine mavericks.

Young has been crucified for that very “restlessness” over the past decade, as uneven and therefore characteristically fascinating releases like Are You Passionate, Greendale or Fork in the Road earned a reception which, like Le Noise, exposes even his most longstanding fans as crybabies who hold him personally responsible for the fact that it’s not 1972 anymore.  Even the most casual glance at customer reviews of Le Noise on Amazon.com reveals a host of whiners crying that it doesn’t sound enough like something they heard when they were 12 and their mothers still sported beehive hairdos.  It’s not enough like On the Beach, or it doesn’t sound like Harvest, or it isn’t the same as Rust Never Sleeps. They don’t hear a “Pocahontas” or a “Cortez the Killer.” Many of these complaints begin with “I’m the biggest Neil Young fan in the world, but . . .”

And that’s just it: How on earth any self-proclaimed “fan” of Neil Young cannot exalt in the rich and anthemic riffs that open “Sign of Love” or “Angry World” on this album is utterly mystifying (to say nothing of the fact that the two acoustic offerings on this record, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” are among the most stirring acoustic songs the man has done since the days of “Pardon My Heart” or “Look out for My Love“). If anything, these “fans” are the sort who mistake art for an anodyne, who think music should always palliate and never challenge, who bristle at authenticity because it doesn’t croon the lullaby that plays in the background of their nostalgic fantasies of long-gone days.

Dylan put together a documentary called Don’t Look Back in 1965 as he fumed across the world on a tour that saw fans shout “Judas!” because he wouldn’t play the monkey to their organ grinder, pounding them with “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” when they paid to hear him sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” all night long. Le Noise is the latest evidence that Neil Young took the man’s advice. Fans endowed with the courage to look forward with him will hear in Le Noise the work of a creative spirit as much at war with itself today as it was when he was just the kid who played guitar for Buffalo Springfield.

Daniel Lanois’s presence on the project could have been an unadulterated disaster because Neil Young’ s music is a dish best served raw, and Lanois’s brand of voodoo atmospherics is anything but undercooked. But it turns out that it was Lanois’s idea to amp up the acoustic album Neil intended to record and turn it into a solo electric set instead. There are times when Lanois just can’t help himself, as he drags out the opening stunner “Walk With Me” with what seems like an eternity of aimless reverb and distortion that serves no purpose other than to lengthen an album that otherwise might have lasted no longer than a drink of water. But elsewhere he is pleased to step back from the songs and let the rage of “Old Black” have the floor.

The first six tracks here–from the primal, Rust-era grunge of “Walk With Me” and “Angry World” to the lonely reverbarations of Neil’s acoustic guitar on the desolate “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”–blaze with a creative fury that is at once disquieting and restorative. “Hitchhiker” and “Rumblin'” add nothing to what is achieved in the songs that precede them but it is at least nice to finally hear an official version of “Hitchhiker,” even if it falls well short of the majesty of the live acoustic version fans have come to know and love.

You won’t find Le Noise on the “Best of 2010″ list over at (enter favorite smarmy indie music blog here), but you will find it on the minds of music lovers a generation from now while so many fly-by-night bands currently enjoying a loving spotlight dwindle into the dusk of their momentary celebrity.The material on Le Noise boasts the strength, urgency and variety of Young’s finest records, and when the smoke of its mixed reception clears, it may well be ranked in that company.

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Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

22 Years Later: Why Neil Young’s “Landing on Water” Deserves a Second Listen

28th April

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Of all the 60s legends who took baffling artistic detours through the decade Kris Kristofferson described as “shipwrecked,” Neil Young’s was by far the most fascinating. And Lord knows there were some “detours.” By the time Landing On Water came out in ’86, Dylan continued to languish in the alcoholic aftermath of a schizophrenic religious identity that produced material both interesting and intolerable (mostly the latter—and if you doubt that for one second, give a listen to Slow Train Comin’s “When You Gonna Wake Up” and let me know how you feel in the morning. Typical side effects include severe nausea, blurred vision, and sudden death.) The Stones, for their part, long-before settled into a steady offering of McSingles on albums they recorded with gritted teeth from opposite ends of a studio, tolerating one another only out of greed to produce records like Dirty Work, an album full of furiously delivered songs whose titles reflect the animosities of the band—“Too Rude,” “Had it With You.” You get the picture.

After responding to the epic success of the Rust albums with characteristically unpredictable forays into inaccessible pseudo-punk (Reactor) and rickety folk meanderings (Hawks & Doves)–exchanging main stream acceptance for the worship of anonymous new wave dorks in the underground clubs of New York and L.A.–Neil Young journeyed to places few of his fans were willing to go: the electronica beats of Trans which, we later learned, featured electronically distorted vocals that emerged from attempts at communicating through a computer with his son Ben, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy (Neil’s charitable efforts to defeat the condition are legendary and ongoing.)

In retrospect, the 80s are as legendary a period in Neil Young’s career as his 70s heyday–not because the music was great, but precisely because it wasn’t, culminating in the now-infamous lawsuit David Geffen filed against Young for making music that didn’t sound Neil Young enough (Geffen won.) Many like to call Landing on Water Neil’s worst album, but that distinction–if we really must make it–belongs to the morbidly produced Everybody’s Rockin, the musical middle finger to Geffen Records Neil recorded a few years earlier. While Springsteen and Joel discovered new voices with 50s nostalgia pieces like “Pink Cadillac” and “Uptown Girl” around the same time, Neil’s flirtation with similar curiosities reflected, if anything, a voice that had become all but irretrievable.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: “Sleeps With Angels”

It is hardly a surprise, then, that Landing on Water further exemplifies the erratic artistic indulgences Young favored at the time, with its characteristically grungy licks and riffs laid over a jarring and misguided cacophony of synthesized drums and rhythms. It isn’t just that the album sounds dated in 2008; the production is so insular that it was destined to sound dated before the year of its release came to a close.

And yet, despite all this, Landing on Water contains three essential performances that open-minded fans will learn to appreciate. “Hippie Dream”–with its moving eulogy for the bygone days of flower power–is a biting indictment of an era he helped define. “Another flower child / goes to seed / in an ether-filled room / of meat hooks. / It’s so ugly, / so ugly,” Young sings of his cocaine-addled brother in arms, David Crosby, a disturbingly prophetic anticipation of the liver transplant Crosby would receive nine years later. Other tunes like “Drifter” and “Touch the Night” showcase a Neil Young who almost finds his groove amid the album’s synth-laden idiosyncrasies.

These songs are treasures of an artistic vision stretching to fathom the boundaries of its expression, and the ambition of the material it produced at that time is, to my ears, every bit as beautiful as Young’s best work. It may not always have sounded great—in fact, it usually strained just to sound listenable. But Neil’s refusal to look away from less familiar artistic terrain is exactly the kind of edginess his reputation is founded on, and it is the good fan who understands that glories like Sleeps With Angels, Freedom and Ragged Glory could not have been possible without the misadventures that preceded them.