Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CD Review: Neil Young & The International Harvesters

Neil Young & The International Harvesters – A Treasure
Reprise Records / Neil Young Archive Series #9
Recorded in concert 1984/1985 – Released 2011
Review written by Tom Wilmeth
July 13, 2011

This one is a bit difficult to assess because it is hard to separate the music from the events surrounding Neil Young’s career in the mid-1980s. I mean, how many artists get sued by their own record company for not sounding enough like themselves? Few, but this what Geffen Records did to Neil after he submitted a string of albums which were not in line with label expectations.

Evidence for the prosecution include Trans from 1982, an odd experiment in vocoders and electronics. This was followed in 1983 by Everbody’s Rockin’, credited to The Shocking Pinks, on which Neil offers a brief Rockabilly rave-up. These uncharacteristic styles incensed his new label because the records sold so poorly. Young apparently tried to appease Geffen in 1985 with his appropriately titled Old Ways album, but then immediately toured with a band he christened The International Harvesters.

Neil took this country group seriously, hiring crack players and appearing on Nashville Now with Ralph Emory, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of his rock star guest. In fact, the first track on this live compilation CD comes from the Nashville Now cable show. Maybe Emory would not have been as surprised if he had been aware of Neil’s brilliant and respectful interpretation of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” a full 15 years earlier. Still, if Ralph Emory was a dumbstruck observer, many of Young’s actual followers had gotten off the fan boat years before. Neil followed the huge success of Harvest in 1972 with a tour of largely unrecognizable selections and dense electric sound, as documented on the live Time Fades Away LP. Neil’s new fans also faded away when his subsequent studio albums bore little resemblance to Harvest.

So, battles with Geffen Records and the artist’s indifference to frustrated fans aside –
How is the music on A Treasure? It’s good, and this is a most welcome release. It could be called a historical document, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior set. The band is tight and Young is keeping the songs concise and clear – no 16-minute guitar workouts here. Also, nearly half of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. And of the rest, only the true Neil devotee attending these concerts would have recognized many of the tunes.

Young released his car-themed Fork in the Road CD in 2009, but it is clear that his mind has wrestled with the subject of efficient automobiles since at least the early 1980s. On “Motor City,” first heard on Re-ac-tor (1981), Neil is angry over North America’s automotive situation. Interestingly, the take included here comes from a 1984 Los Angeles show. I will leave it to the Neil obsessives to research whether the song was in his set-list throughout this tour or whether it was included on this night as a specific shot at the Los Angeles car culture.

One of the highlights of the CD is “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” first recorded in 1966 when Neil was a member of the Buffalo Springfield. This is a fine arrangement of a number that shows the high quality of Young’s songwriting abilities at the beginning of his career.

On the other end of the time spectrum are the five songs which are new to Young’s canon:
If “Motor City” laments America’s relationship with cars, “Southern Pacific” is a love song to the railroads. “Amber Jean” is a more traditional love song, including references to the moon and to the girl’s pretty eyes. “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking” is a humorous western lament about a woman who formerly “gave good phone” to the singer. But no more.

The new “Nothing is Perfect” might first appear to be a criticism of “God’s perfect plan,” but is clearly a song of gratitude. Neil here sings of comparisons, urging the listener to “look in the shadow.” By viewing the dark side one will see that “we got so much to be happy about,” including “plenty of food on the table” and “lots of love in the house.” This unexpected song of appreciation perhaps speaks to the contented nature of the singer. He has an “honest, strong, and soft woman” who “helps me be a good man.” Yet in the midst of this description of bliss comes one verse about soldiers burying their dead and then “shooting blind,” and another verse about airport hostages and an abused workforce. A very odd lyrical juxtaposition, this, but Neil makes his point: Doesn’t an awareness of the bad make the good seem all the better?

“Are You Ready for the Country?” and “Get Back to the Country” are used as concert bookends of sorts. But without the brand of International Harvesters on the label, I doubt that all of these songs would be termed Country Music. Notwithstanding the oft-heard fiddle and steel guitar, some of these tracks would easily fit into live shows from Young’s other eras. This is never more true than on the final new offering, “Grey Riders,” which closes the album and whose thick electric guitars would be at home on last year’s fine Le Noise release. Interestingly enough, it is this song -- uncharacteristic of the set -- that has been released to radio as the CD’s first single.

I’m glad to have these beautifully recorded concert tapes released. Unknown material and surprising trunk songs placed within a well paced live overview. In its own way, this CD is “a treasure,” as it documents an unexpected and short-lived era of Neil Young’s performance history in a most engaging manner. So when do we get similar live document for the Shocking Pinks?

#30# 937 words

Tom Wilmeth
Grafton, Wisconsin
Former Home of the Paramount Records blues label
(262) 243-4218

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