Friday, July 30, 2010

CD Odyssey Disc 160: Neil Young

Our last review was Bob Dylan. Surely the only artist in the Odyssey likely to break out into spontaneous harmonica playing.

Well actually, there is Canada's Bob Dylan to be accounted for in that equation. And on that note,

Disc 160 is...Prairie Wind

Artist: Neil Young

Year of Release: 2005

What’s Up With The Cover?: A sheet blows in a prairie wind. The cover is strongly reminiscent of Young's youth, and the album will follow suit.

How I Came To Know It: I don't remember. I do know I bought this when it came out, but I can't recall the details. I like Neil Young, so I might've just bought it. Or maybe I saw the music special where he basically plays the whole album called, "Heart of Gold" and hearing the songs, knew I had to have it. That sounds familiar, but memory can play tricks on a person.

How It Stacks Up: We have twelve Neil Young albums, of which "Prairie Wind" is the most recent. I'd put this one about in the middle, 5th or 6th.

Rating: I was going to give this record 3 stars but as I sit here and listen to it while I write this review, I have to admit it is a 4.

I started this odyssey planning to be a hardass marker, but the more music I listen to, the softer I get it seems. Another great effect of music.

It is fitting to follow up the great Bob Dylan with the great Neil Young, who also has been making music since long before I was born.

Not so, "Prairie Wind" which is the most recent Neil Young in my collection. It is an album of quiet introspection and reverie, as Neil goes back to his prairie roots, and draws on his early childhood experiences.

The result is a mix of gentle remembrance of good times, with a hint of regret of a world that is lost and can never be fully regained. Young had recently overcome a serious illness in 2005, and this record shows that the experience has caused him to take stock of his career as a whole.

Musically, it is the updated sound of his early folk recordings, particularly his first four solo albums, rather than his later rock sound, like "Freedom" or "Sleeps With Angels" (the latter reviewed way back at Disc 20). And as I noted in the teaser paragraph - yes, there is harmonica.

I used to enjoy putting this album on for people when it came out and then telling me it had just come out 'this year'. It was so timeless (and talent-laden) they'd always do a double take.

There are a lot of great tracks on this record, but the one that always stands out for me is "This Old Guitar", a five star song that I know I have inflicted on many a visitor to chez Wenham who stayed late enough to enter "The Country Zone".

It is a song about Neil's old guitar - and I believe I read somewhere it is a guitar so old it was owned by previous musicians dating back into the fifties before Neil got a hold of it. Neil sings it in a quiet voice, almost a lullaby, accompanied by the incomparable Emmylou Harris on background vocals. Here's my favourite part:

"This old guitar has caught some breaks
But it never searched for gold
It can't be blamed for my mistakes
It only does what it's told.

"It's been a messenger in times of trouble
In times of hope and fear
When I get drunk and seein' double
It jumps behind the wheel and steers.

"This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's mine to play for a while
This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's only mine for a while."

I find myself dwelling on the quiet acceptance of mortality inherent in these lyrics. It is a song from someone at peace with their life, and it even has a gentle humility as Neil shares the glory of his amazing body of work with his instrument. I also love the idea that after you play guitar for so long, you can still play well drunk (Neil gives the guitar credit, of course).

One day the instrument will pass along to someone else when Neil is gone, and you can't help but think as you listen to Emmylou slowly fade out repeating that last stanza, that the guitar will have been infused with a part of all it has played.

My only beef with this album has nothing to do with the album, but rather the video I mentioned earlier, "Heart of Gold". Emmylou is in it, along with a couple of other background singers and they are all crowded old-style around a microphone at the back of the stage.

I swear the other background singers (both young women in their twenties or thirties)are crowding Emmylou off the mike! I found it really distracting, and I couldn't believe Emmylou let it go on. I guess at this point in her career, she doesn't have anything to prove to these mike-hogs.

At this stage, Neil doesn't have to prove anything to anyone either, but with this album he does it anyway.

Best tracks: The Painter, No Wonder, Prairie Wind, This Old Guitar, He Was The King

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