Monday, August 9, 2010

Album Review: Neil Young – On the Beach

Amazingly this Neil Young album, originally released in 1974 was not released on CD until 2003! It’s a more sombre album than his other early 70s albums. As the natural follow-up to best-selling Harvest, it must have been confusing for fans weaned on those pretty country-style songs which made up the majority of that album, as this gloriously bleak album sees a man who is jaundiced, sick of the rock star culture of the 70s and the acclaim that goes with it. And yet, it’s not a bore to listen to as Neil Young made an album which has definitely stood the test of time.

For this album he assembled a motley crew of musicians, with the likes of David Crosby, Graham Nash (of CSN and sometimes Y fame), along with Ralph Molina (Crazy Horse), Rusty Kershaw, Ben Keith etc.

Walk On is a somewhat unremarkable opener, a standard issue Neil Young lope-along track, but second track See the Sky About to Rain is a wholly different kettle of fish. Notable for the heavy use of keyboards in it, it’s a slow-burner of a song, with Young singing “played a silver fiddle, played it loud and then the man broke it down the middle. See the sky about to rain.” It’s kind of foreboding, but nothing like us foreboding as Revolution Blues. This song reportedly freaked out Crosby, Stills and Nash, with its insistent guitar pattern and ‘call-to-arms’ style lyrics, lacerating the big stars of the period (“I see bloody fountains, And ten million dune buggies comin' down the mountains. Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars”).

After this, the rootsier For the Turnstiles comes across as a relief, though again it’s an uneasy listen, with Young’s high-pitched, almost cracking vocals over banjo and dobro.

We settle into the second half of the album with Vampire Blues, another ‘lop-along’ like Walk On, with a basic blues progression, and a sparse, one note guitar passage in the middle section. Young sings about how “good times are coming, but they sure are coming slow.” The title track follows which is a much bleaker piece, featuring slow hand drums from Ben Keith, and great hesitant guitar from Young himself. He sounds totally bereft on this track, singing “though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.” The playing on this track is wonderful, it’s perfectly paced with a wonderful sparse guitar solo in the middle.

Motion Pictures features Neil Young singing in a much lower register than usual, and it suits him quite well, over a simple descending guitar riff, accompanied by some nice harmonica. He carries this singing style through to the last track, the nearly 9 minute Ambulance Blues, which is a kind of low key epic, featuring a simple folky guitar part , joined by harmonica and Rusty Kershaw’s rusty fiddle (don’t know if it actually was, but I imagine it to be). There are some lovely touches here, like when the lyrics wonderfully reflect the music. He sings “burn-outs stub their toes on garbage pails” as he deliberately plays a deep note loudly on guitar that could be a bum note, except that it’s in tune.

It’s criminal that these songs are not better known, or indeed this album, as it’s one of Neil Young’s finest.