Monday, July 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1158: Neil Young

Hello, gentle readers! My apologies for my extended absence – I have been out of town on a mini-holiday. I took a road trip and caught up with old friends, visited with family and even found time (via two ferry rides) to read and listen to music. Along the way I found the time to appreciate this next album as well.

Disc 1158 is… Hitchhiker
Artist: Neil Young

Year of Release: 2017 but with music originally recorded in 1976

What’s up with the Cover? Sunset and evening star and one clear call for Neil – keep sharing his talent with the world.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Neil Young for years and while I don’t buy everything he does I always keep an ear to the ground for new releases. This one garnered a lot of favourable reviews and so I checked it out on Youtube and liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  This is one of 19 Neil Young albums I own (I have parted company with two others as well). It creates a quandary. On the one hand, most of these songs appear on other albums, so it has a “Greatest Hits” feel to it. On the other hand, it was supposed to be released in 1976 in this format, so it is kind of a true record on its own merits as well. It was the Soulless Record Execs that decided it shouldn’t be released in 1976 so let’s retroactively side with Neil and rank it as if they had. I rank it …eighth.

Ratings: 4 stars

Neil Young has been through many phases in his long career. He’s been in a folk band, a solo folk artist, a rocker, a rockabilly, and done more than a little experimentation in soundscapes and feedback. “Hitchhiker” shows that if you strip it all down to just Neil on a single acoustic guitar you might hear something a little quieter, but it will be no less compelling. If anything, it adds intimacy to some of his finest work.

When “Hitchhiker” was rejected in 1976, it didn’t stop Young. Instead from 1977-1980 he released seven of the ten songs on this collection on other records, albeit with a bit more production. Most of those records are some of Neil Young’s best, and the tracks seeded on them from his 1976 rejection are often core to their success.

Hearing them stripped down to just Neil warbling away into a single microphone and strumming his old guitar feels like a backstage pass to the mid-seventies. Neil’s playing is as great as ever. He has a natural feel for when to gently brush a chord and when to hit it hard. The effect creates a lot of layers out of a single instrument, and is raw without ever feeling sloppy.

Do these songs sound better in this ‘demo’ style? No, but they don’t sound worse either. The lack of any additional instruments and minimal production really lets you appreciate the bones of the songs. This is Neil Young at a late night fire pit – just him, his guitar and whatever collection of folks is lucky enough to still be up to hear him play.

The most striking difference is on the title track “Hitchiker.” That song was not released until 2010 on Young’s electric and reverb-heavy “Le Noise” (reviewed back at Disc 403). In both cases the song has a drugged-out quality as Neil explores his journey through both life and various drug interests. Context is everything, and the juxtaposition of the older man recollecting his wild youth with electric power and the intimate acoustic delivery of the young man still immersed in it is fun to wrap your head around.

The record has two previously unreleased tracks, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” and both hold up well. “Hawaii” has a dreamy drugged-out quality and “Give Me Strength” is a wistful tune about lost love. They are very different from each other but both fit well into Neil’s sound in the mid-seventies. Even better, they sound fresh and compelling even though they were first released 40 years after they were recorded.

 It would be a mistake to see the track list for “Hitchhiker” and think it is simply a rehash of a bunch of old songs. This is a cohesive album in its own right, and hearing these songs in their original stripped-down format only adds to your appreciation of them.

Best tracks: Pocahontas, Powderfinger, Hitchhiker, Human Highway

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