| NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE:
Neil Young fans have been anticipating the release of Greendale for several months now. Audience tapes of Young's spring European tour began to surface almost as soon as the shows were performed, and quickly circulated among collectors. Neil treated the crowds to a complete performance of his then-unreleased album, complete with narration, explaining the story as he went along--with a dozen or so additional songs tacked on at the end.
When the US tour started, Young was joined onstage by his longtime stalwarts, Crazy Horse. Expectations among fans were high, but most were wondering how these ten acoustic songs would translate to an electric setting. As it turned out, the results were better than anyone (aside from Young himself) could have imagined, and the songs--especially "Sun Green" and "Be the Rain"--became powerful musical statements.
The US shows included actors on the stage, including a dozen 'locals' in each city. Props were fashioned out of plywood, almost resembling something you'd see at a high school play. While the overall look was rather low-tech, the addition of a 'diamond vision' screen as an ever-changing backdrop, a secondary stage behind drummer Ralph Molina that would rise up and down, and the actors who would lip-synch to Young's lyrics, gave the shows the feel and look of a major production.
Having said all that about the tours, what about the CD? Greendale is best described as 'a musical novel' about the Green family, set in a fictional California town. Young recorded the songs as they were written, waiting a few days between tracks as the story developed. My biggest complaint with the disc is that Young didn't take the time to 'polish' any of the songs. Mistakes and bad notes are left intact, as Young wanted to capture the 'real' sound. Aside from that, this is the best thing Neil's done in years.
The story begins with "Falling From Above," where Young introduces the main characters of the story: Grandpa (the cantankerous family patriarch, who yearns for simpler times), Grandma (whose love and affection towards her family echoes Grandpa's values), their son, Earl (a Vietnam vet and struggling artist), his wife, Edith, their 18-year-old daughter, Sun (a dancer who is inspired to use the media to draw attention to the importance of saving the environment), and Cousin Jed.
When I first heard the acoustic version of "Falling," it reminded me of some of Young's other material ("Unknown Legend" and "From Hank to Hendrix" come to mind--the chord progressions in places are identical). But after hearing the electric version, it stands quite well on its own. Unfortunately, Young's vocal on the track is weak and doesn't do it justice. The same goes for "Double E" (one of the few songs on the album short enough to receive any airplay--due in part to the length of most of the songs and the sorry state of radio here in the U.S.).
"Devil's Sidewalk" (which was actually the first tune written) and "Leave the Driving" are the first of several songs on Greendale that finds Young in blues mode, similar to something you'd hear on an old John Lee Hooker record. Neil's vocals get stronger from this point on, as if he is gaining more confidence as the story progresses. "Leave the Driving" tells the story of a drug bust gone wrong as Jed panics and kills Officer Carmichael, shocking the townspeople.
"Carmichael" is a pained tribute to the slain policeman, and one of the more laid back tunes on the CD. It also gives Young the chance to serve up some tasty guitar work. "Bandit" features the group in the studio, rather than a solo performance, as it's done in concert. The studio rendition is noticeably faster than what you'll be used to if you've had the pleasure of seeing or hearing the live shows.
Conflict returns to Greendale with "Grandpa's Interview." The Green's house is surrounded by members of the media and after an argument with reporters "fighting for freedom of silence," Grandpa collapses and dies on the porch. This is also one of the songs on the album where Young takes a shot at himself in the lyrics: "That guy just keeps singin' Can't somebody shut him up? I don't know for the life of me where he comes up with this stuff!" Conflict aside, this is one of the most beautiful songs on the CD. Nice melody, and outstanding guitar work from Neil.
In "Sun Green," Young speaks out against "anything unjust or packed with lies." The media, the government, and big corporations are all targets, with Young (as Sun) repeating "Hey Mr. Clean, you're dirty now too" through a megaphone between the verses. She ends up going to a bar to check out The Imitators (is that a great name for a bar band or what?) and meets an environmentalist named Earth Brown, who wants to save the Alaskan wilderness.
The story comes to a close with "Be the Rain," which is basically a dream sequence. Grandpa is alive again; Jed's talking to Officer Carmichael. All is well once again. Almost. In the electric shows, this is the big finale. The entire cast is on the stage, the actors are pumping their fists in the air, it's a real spectacle. On the CD, it's a major disappointment. Young's vocals on the main lyrics ("Save the planet for another day," etc.) are missing completely--leaving only the backing vocals in their place. Talk about anti-climactic. Even the megaphone vocals are boring.
On to the packaging Rather than including the lyrics, Young decided to include the narration (word for word) from the Stockholm show, so that the listener can get a better understanding of the story as it's being told. Lyrics are available for download at neilyoung.com. James Mazzeo's detailed illustrations (who also did the artwork for Young's Zuma album) are featured throughout.
As a bonus, you also get a live DVD containing a solo acoustic performance of the entire album, recorded in Dublin earlier this year. The 5.1 sound on the DVD is excellent and truly gives the listener the sense of being there.
All told, Greendale is the best thing Young has produced since 1989's Freedom, and possibly the most ambitious work of his career. As an album, the songs work together beautifully. It stands up to repeated listens, and actually gets better the more you hear it. Will it get played on the radio? Probably not, but that's radio's loss. Great album, Neil
|© 2003 Steve Marshall|
|Research, additional material and photos © 2003 Lauren Marshall|
|Purchase this CD from Amazon.com|