In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Friday, 4 July 2008
Review 95) Neil Young "Weld" (1991)
On which Crazy Horse make both the listener and themselves incredibly deaf…
Track Listing: Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)/ Crime In The City/ Blowin’ In The Wind/ Welfare Mothers/ Love To Burn/ Cinnamon Girl/ Mansion On The Hill/ F*!~in’ Up// Cortez The Killer/ Powderfinger/ Love And Only Love/ Rockin’ In The Free World/ Like A Hurricane/ Farmer John/ Tonight’s The Night/ Roll Another Number (UK and US tracklisting)
ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES
For The Record:
Ones to watch out for:Hey Hey My My, Blowin’ In The Wind, Love To Burn, Cinnamon GirlF*!#in Up
Ones to skip: Disc 2 is much poorer than the first, with overlong versions of Cortez and Like A Hurricane the worst offenders.
The cover: A monochrome and coloured shot of the same picture (Crazy Horse on stage in full flight) for volumes one and two respectively. I could make some cheap remark about the first disk being somehow more ‘colourful’ than the second, but I won’t. Not yet, anyway.
Key lyrics: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” “You’ve got love to burn, you’ve got to let your guard down, you’d better take a chance on love” “Mindless drifter on the road, why do I carry such an easy load, its how you look not how you feel, you must have a heart of steel, why do I keep F*!~in Up?!?” “Dogs that lick, dogs that bite, hounds that howl through the night, broken leashes all over the floor, keys left hanging in a swinging door, why do I keep F*!#in’ Up?!?” “Long ago in the book of old, before the chapter where dreams unfold, a battle raged on the open page, love was the winner there, overcoming hate like a little girl who couldn’t wait, love and only love will endure” “I am just a dreamer – but you are just a dream, you could have been anyone to me”“Farmer John, I’m in love with your daughter, yeah the one with the champagne eyes….”
Original chart position: #20, released right in the middle of Neil’s strongest commercial patch in years.
Singles: None of these live versions were ever released as singles (mind you, none of these famous Neil Young songs were ever released as singles in the first place, something unheard of for any other big name artists doing a 2-disc live album!) Cinnamon Girl, Hey Hey My My , Like A Hurricane and Cortez The Killer have all penetrated the public psyche however and are very well known, appearing on several Neil Young compilations. Characteristically Neil’s only genuine hit single Heart of Gold is missing, as it was from all his official six live albums before finally appearing as the title track of a DVD concert in 2005.
Availability: Still on catalogue as a 2CD set, either separately or ‘welded’ together depending which version you’ve got.
This album came between: The rags and minor riches story Ragged Glory (1990), (more crunching guitar and passionate playing but only passable songs; highlight: the epic Love And Only Love) and the pretty darn good acoustic album Harvest Moon (1992, highlight the intimate You And Me, the ecological drama Natural Beauty and especially the dramatic powerhouse War Of Man). That one person could be responsible for writing two such different but brilliant albums back to back is incredible – but then again Neil had hurt his hearing so badly with the loud Weld tour that he had to do something quiet or risk going deaf (as did his audience!!)
Line-up: Neil Young with Ralph Molina, Frank Sampedro and Billy Talbot (Produced by Neil Young, Nick Briggs and Billly Talbot)
Putting The Album In Context:
HOT, fiery and scalding to the ears, with some 35 years’ worth of Neil’s career highlights (and the occasional lowlight) thrown into one big pot, Weld is as exciting, exhilarating and downright noisy as live albums come. Neil’s third live record (so far he’s done six!) with no less than half-a-dozen songs repeated from earlier live albums and absolutely no new original material – this album shouldn’t really work at all. Neil’s well known for writing as many un-issued songs as issued songs (and he’s made 40 solo albums to date, so you can imagine how many songs he has to choose from!) and at the time this record came out it must have seemed like a huge disappointment that the only new song we got was yet another cover of Dylan’s anthem Blowing In The Wind, a song so obligatory for ‘desperate-to-sound-trendy-and-deep’ singers of every generation I’m amazed the Spice Girls didn’t choose it for their reunion tour. But it’s the Horse’s passionate playing that makes Weld the great little double album it is, with every track polished up to sound like new and yet somehow rawer at the same time, delivered with so much anger and commitment that it sounds like you really are getting a glimpse of Neil’s soul in the process – and that’s just the ballads.
With the amount of proudly polished CSN/Y albums on this list it will probably come as a surprise to Neil Young scribes that I can even begin to contemplate putting a Crazy Horse album on this list, especially as Weld is probably the most out-of-tune album even this fiery foursome put together, with even more bum notes and feedback-scaling crescendos than normal. Yet Crazy Horse are the perfect backing band for Neil’s rawer side, here more than ever and the material chosen here is perfectly suited to Neil’s rawer side. Second guitarist Frank Sampedro is now fully implemented into the line-up after being the ‘new boy’ for a full 16 years, while the rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina give Neil the space for his typically grand gestures, sounding like they are prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth at times. Odd, perhaps, given the friction surrounding the group at the time (Crazy Horse must have split more times than even CSNY – what is it with Neil’s bands and longevity?!?) – even Neil balked at releasing intended tour documentary Muddy Track for being ‘too real’, with the Horse all taking turns at attacking each other into hand-held cameras. Yet judging simply by this, the ‘soundtrack’ album to that unfinished documentary if you like, you have to say that this is the best Crazy Horse sounded since their first album together. Yes the choice of material could have been better or at least more interesting to the collector, but on the plus side the live Weld versions of most of this material knocks spots off the sometimes detached studio originals and Neil has never sounded so involved with his songs before or since, with every track seemingly a life-or-death struggle.
Its that very passion that drives this album and its no coincidence that Weld came out at one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history (yep, OK, so technically Neil’s Canadian – and yet can you name any other artist on this list more influenced by American politics? No, CSN don’t count, that’s cheating!) Neil’s said many times that the Weld tour was inspired by CNN news footage of the Gulf War, which the band used to watch before going out on stage every night (a lot of ’real’ sound effects were taped for use in the show too) and Crazy Horse felt they wanted to do a ‘serious’ show rather than just provide ‘entertainment’ for people. Don’t forget, the Gulf War was the first real American ‘intervention’ in foreign affairs since Korea in the 70s and although we know now how the war turns out (a lot of uncomfortable squirming silence, followed – as most people will tell you – by 9/11 and the Iraq War as almost a direct consequence) this was big news in the day, splitting the West up more or less down the middle about whether the US should have got involved or not in the same way that Iraq and Afghanistan does now. No wonder Neil and his bunch of motley outlaws sound decidedly edgy here – thanks to the overwhelming near-continuous TV coverage on 24-hour news channels this was the first ‘war’ that citizens at home could ‘join in’ withtoo and in many ways it’s the first real ‘artists’ war, the one that gave writers like Neil enough ‘ammunition’ to speak his mind out of real knowledge of what was going on whilst knowing that his audience had probably seen some of the same footage he had done.
Yet unlike Neil’s rushed and surprisingly woeful-sounding 9/11 protest album Living With War, this album is less about the background and politics of the battle raging on the other side of the world and more about mood and feeling, with dark clouds hovering over even the happiest of tracks. As a result, this could be about any war or indeed any troubled period in history – unlike Living With War you don’t have to have lived through the Gulf escapade to emotionally connect with this album; for all of Young’s spot-on Bush bashing, that 2005 album is going to sound as dead as a dodo in five years’ time when most people will only think of George W as a nightmare to scare their kids with. For those who doubt Weld’s universality, witness the album’s one true mention of the war: that previously mentioned version of Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, the most seemingly definite anti-war and perhaps most contemporary sounding track on the album which actually dates back to…the 1960s. Yet the war is unarguably present throughout this record: its there in the barrage of sound effects at the end of that Dylan cover, it’s there in the scary coda to Welfare Mothers which turns a jokey song about sex-starved 40-somethings into a plea for food from a government more concerned with war than looking after their people, plus the war virtually inhibits the powerful versions of Crime In The City and F!”#in Up here where its touch and go if Neil can make it to the end without breaking down in agony first. All that’s missing from this album in terms of emotional honesty and darkness is the live version of Dangerbird from 1999’s Year Of The Horse and you’d have Neil’s most heartbreaking live work all on one record.
Now, having laid out my reasons for including this album on the list, it has to be said it’s not all good and unusually for Neil, some of the better regarded and respected tracks seem to be here just to sell the CD rather than because they emotionally ‘fit’ the concept. The observant fans among you may have noticed that all the tracks singled out for praise so far are from the first disc of this record and it has to be said that everything that’s so good at the beginning of this set tends to mess up the senses after sitting through two hours of this stuff. But then Neil Young wouldn’t be Neil Young without a few dodgy moments thrown in and at least this way you get all of the album’s best material on volume one. As a closing point, this is one of those albums that’s so loud that even played quietly its still almost guaranteed to get you an ASBO – no wonder Neil was diagnosed with hyperacoustis after mixing this album (a painful variation on tinnitus caused by wear and tear on the ears that makes even quiet noises sound loud and excessive noises sound positively deadly) and had to record the fragile acoustic Harvest Moon album in response! If you play this album at the volume it was intended to be heard too many times in a row, you’re liable to go the same way yourself. If you like your rock music raw and powerful, though, you need look no further than this little gem and your ears will thank you, even as they’re bleeding.
Rust Never Sleeps favourite Hey Hey My My (Into The Black) starts the album off as it means to go on –half provocatively taunting, half sympathetically understanding and all of it unbelievably loud. One of Neil’s first songs about his now 30-year-quest to fight against the effects of aging and letting mid-life slow us down from what we were doing in the first place, its best known nowadays for being quoted by Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain in his suicide note just three years after this album came out (specifically the line ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’). Most people assume Neil was talking about suicide in this song (Cobain for one), but knowing Neil’s mischievous sense of humour in giving fans the unexpected in his career, its surely more about trying new ideas rather than recycling old faded songs. If so, then the fact that Neil is still singing this song 12 years on from its first performance seems somehow wrong – and yet, the anger and energy levels are so much higher on this performance than before that it really does sound new and fresh after all. The song is also fitting to open the album because in many ways it’s a history of rock and roll – from its triumphant but pained shout of ‘rock and roll will never die’, this is more than any other track Neil’s manifesto about how quickly music and fashions change and why he does what he does the way he does it. This version sets the perfect tone for the album, returning us to the first of many Neil Young comebacks in the late 70s when Neil was poised for success again, just as he was in 1991, and here thankfully he allows the band let rip on an extended solo and coda that sounds both menacing and proud.
Crime In The City keeps the momentum going, turning quickly from the universal to the personal. Sadly there are no extra verses attached to this live version – unlike the song’s early appearances when it went on for at least 12 verses in all – and indeed this version even skips a verse as included on the Freedom original (1989, see review no 92 – it’s the verse about a music producer and artist that’s gone AWOL, leaving more space for the verses most ‘personal’ to Neil). Even truncated, this is still a powerful and decidedly epic song however and this new Crazy Horse arrangement is far more powerful than the calm and detached studio version on Freedom, with Neil almost spitting out the words. Lyrically, this is a harrowing glimpse into Neil’s psyche as he reached his mid 40s, especially on the last verse, but whereas on the original Neil sounds almost deliberately middle-aged, here Crazy Horse take the song at such a ridiculously fast pace that they could easily pass for brash youngsters a third of their age. However good the original, you have to say City’s harsh riff sounds far more at home on thrashing electric guitar than it ever did on cocktail lounge saxophone – all in all, this is a good start to the album.
A burst of machine gun fire and grenades then ushers in a funeral-paced version of Blowing In The Wind. Neil sings this track accompanied by just his guitar (albeit one accompanied by so much feedback it sounds like he’s requisitioned a small army of guitar players), while the rest of Crazy Horse turn in some of their best under-rated harmony work (compare this to the ragged CSNY harmonies on their live set 4 Way Street and the Horse don’t come out that badly at all). Like many a Dylan song, the original is so vague it could either be working on lots of different levels or none at all, but the song’s messages about lost opportunities and proving yourself several times over come across loud and clear here. There must have been hundreds of cover versions of this song by now (the Hollies did it twice!), but most of these re-recordings make the mistake of taking Dylan’s sparse original and making it epic – arguably Wind has a much bigger impact when made sparse, bleak and decidedly monochrome, which is exactly what Neil does here. Emotional without going OTT, the slow marching tempo makes you concentrate on the words that simply fly past you on Dylan’s original and - rather than being the tired obvious cover you expect it to be - Blowing In the Wind gets a new lease of life here, standing out as one of the album’s small triumphs, even if it just a tad too slow for repeated listening.
Welfare Mothers - an eccentric singalong paean to single mothers living on welfare benefits on its first appearance on Rust Never Sleeps - is similarly transformed into a snarling, vicious beast here, descending into chaos when its heavy-handed riff suddenly spirals out of control. This song has always been strangely popular in Crazy Horse circles, even though it’s about the most throwaway song they ever did together (barring large chunks of Re*Ac*Tor anyway), without much to say once you’ve got the ‘joke’ about needy single women on low incomes being much more likely to say ‘yes’ to a night of romance. But on Weld this song is transformed, being dark dark dark and – without changing the lyrics one iota – suddenly nasty in its mockingness and much more about the serious question of government officials blatantly ignoring the poverty under their noses poverty. Instead of ending when the lyric fizzles out, here Welfare Mothers keeps on coming with a fade featuring an improvised rant between Neil and bassist Billy Talbot as the mother and child respectively of a starving family neglected now their country is headed off to war, pleading for a Government cheque that never seems to arrive (presumably because all the money has been spent on the Gulf War). Harrowing and unexpected, raucous and tuneless, this three-minute coda is one of the highlights of the album because it takes you so by surprise (just compare this version of the same song to the off-hand one on Live Rust,1980, is this really the same band?)
Things quieten down ever so slightly for the first of several then-new Ragged Glory songs. Love To Burn, like its close brothers and sisters on this album, sounds much more moving and elegiac than it ever did originally on its parent LP. Neil’s narrator’s terror, about being afraid to make to make the first move in a new relationship after bad experiences in the past, sounds positively spine-tingling here and his vocal on this live version is one of his career-best. Indeed, this live version sounds much closer in spirit to the original Crazy Horse vibe than anything on that supposedly ‘back to basics’ album, returning to lyrical themes of doubt and turbulent emotion that Neil has only rarely used since his first two solo records Neil Young and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Neil’s guitar playing is at its best since those days too, come to that; listen out for his reflective guitar soloing after he finally makes the decision to take a ‘chance on love’ after every chorus, before the song suddenly builds into a sudden crescendo of doubt which simply makes the song fold back in on itself for each verse, as if denying the advice that’s just been taken. This song has remarkably few lyrics considering its 9-minute playing time – most of it being taken up with instrumental passages – but the song that’s wrapped around these moments is actually a pretty good one. The song ought to be positive – the verses and choruses sound like a lecturing elder brother giving us every possible reason to jump into a new romance – but Neil still isn’t very sure, judging by his melancholy vocal and the minor chords that make up most of the song’s structure. One of Neil’s better ‘modern’ songs (well, its 18 years old now, but you know what I mean), this live version finds the Horse on a good night all round.
It takes till track six to get some light relief but finally it arrives and never did light relief sound any better than on Cinnamon Girl. A joyous upbeat singalong about a passing stranger ‘spicing up’ the narrator’s life, it was the first song Crazy Horse ever recorded together back in late 1969 and is a masterclass lesson in compact songwriting. A tight three-minute riff-based song, with a bobbing bassline and tender harmonies, the song only breaks out of its nervously high-tension prison for an exquisite solo played by Neil virtually all on one note. (The original from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere really is all played on one note and its one of the best solos ever recorded - believe me, playing a solo on one note is more impressive achievement than playing some supposedly virtuoso solo using all the available notes in turn and may well be the best solo Neil has ever played!) A joyous compact paean to love that proves Neil can come up with the commercial goods when he chooses to, Cinnamon Girl is every bit as sweet as the title makes it sound. (As for being ‘compact’, I use the term loosely and in comparison to the rest of Weld where song endings seem to go on for hours – this 1991 version of Cinnamon Girl still has time for countless false endings, a quick musical reference to the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and a full two-minute burst of feedback to round things off!)
Mansion On The Hill is another Ragged Glory refugee which this time sounds a bit unfinished in this prestigious company, although its loose-limbed gambolling gait and its psychedelic flashback lyrics have moments of grandeur. Thematically, it’s a return to Roll Another Number from Tonight’s The Night (see also the last track of this review), exploring in a rather obscure way how Neil felt the need to part from his hippie colleagues somewhere around getting on the Woodstock bus. This time Neil’s a bit more sympathetic, however, and seems to regret that the ‘hippie dream’ fell apart, even if he knew it was always going to. This song is noticeably ‘wordy’ compared to it;’s close cousins, on both Weld and Ragged Glory, with less space for Crazy Horse to prance around than usual.
Disc one then ends with one of the most chilling moments in Neil’s back catalogue. F!#*in’ Up is yet another song from Ragged Glory and like Welfare Mothers sounded like another tongue-in-cheek throwaway when the world first heard it. This time, though, there’s no doubting the sheer raw power of the work, with Neil seemingly singing from the heart here, in comparison to his rather tongue-in-cheek hollering on the studio original. Crazy Horse back him nobly, crunching their way through a riff that seems always seem to slip away from them, yanking their heads down to start the song’s structure all over again. Never has such a simple riff sounded so complex, never has the playing of two guitarists, a bass and drums playing more or less the same thing sounded so huge. Lyrically, this is another Neil Young song out of step with the times. Most of his songs of the early-to-mid 1990s sound surprisingly self-assured, the sound of a contented happy family man pleased at the way things have turned out – which is great for fans who care about Neil but, just as with his CSN partners, its that lack of bite and angst that seemed to make his music of the period suffer so badly. Compared to its near-neighbours, F*!#in’ Up is a quite stunning piece of self-analysis, whether genuine or simply written by numbers doesn’t matter, with a quite terrifying closing solo, with sparks flying this way and that at such speed that you really can’t tell what notes have been played at all.
This song does ‘sound’ real though, especially here, where fragmented images of dogs let off broken leashes just when they seemed to be caged and keys swinging in doors that should never have been opened make it sound as if the dark side has finally broken through Neil’s songs once more (a theme last heard on 1969’s Down By The River which is, beneath the classic guitar riffing, a song about a cold-blooded murder). More imagery of howling lost dogs (the name of another Neil Young backing band interestingly; nice growl by the way, Billy Talbot) seem to back up the idea of the narrator reverting back to being an wild animal, underneath all of his social niceties and standing (Pete Townshend must have gone to the same analyst as his song I Am An Animal is spookily similar all round; see review no 77). This time the violence seems to be directed at the narrator himself, kicking himself for getting rid of the only person in his life who believed in him and now reduced to a living shell of his former self, ‘comatose but walking still’. Listen out too for the lyrical return ofa ‘hill’ for the second track in a row – after tearing down the ‘elevated’ position of the summer of love on Mansion, he seems to be knocking down the image of himself again, returning to earth with the biggest bump possible. Neil ends the song with a thrilling guitar solo that somehow manages to chart the most painful journey into feedback without ever losing sight of the tune, bringing to an end one of the most painful seven minutes it will ever be your privilege to hear.
The Music (Continued):
After the above eight songs, CD two just can’t compete either emotionally or musically (what can?), but it does at least contain more of Neil’s old showstoppers and fewer selections from his later albums. Cortez The Killer comes first and even though back when this album came out the Killer was approaching 20 years old, such is Neil’s attention to detail he makes the fall of the Aztecs here sound contemporary. This version is much slower and much more thoughtful than the original on 1975’sZuma, never mind the several hundred other live versions around and a welcome change in tempo (if not volume!) at this point on the album. Neil seems to lose the tune somewhere along Cortez’s long unwinding opening, but never loses touch with the song’s sentiments – this performance makes it clear that Neil sees the conquest of the great Montezuma’s (I’ve heard the second half of that name before somewhere Neil…) Aztecs as more or less the same story as the Gulf war. Fall from grace is a key Neil Young theme throughout his career and never more so than on his half-a-dozen or so ‘Aztec songs’, ones where the Spanish invasion of a generally civilised society (barring the odd human sacrifice or two) is a useful metaphor for the present day, potentially wrecked by outside forces welcomed by its people as if they are Gods because they seem at first to be the ’saviours’ the down-trodden have been crying out for (its hard not to see Neil’s Aztec songs as some kind of cold war allegory, with one side welcoming its invaders and pillagers with open arms; don’t forget, the teeny tiny Spanish army only defeated the huge Aztec one because the people there thought Cortez was their god returning to them as prophesised in their myths—this is exactly what was going on every time a world super-power came in to ‘rescue’ a smaller country from some evil dictator—and then fulfilled that job themselves). Yet on this song, Neil’s original Aztec re-telling although there were many more to come in his catalogue, the feeling is that the Aztecs were doomed from the beginning, with fear and anger lurking in the air long before the Spanish arrive. Many non-Young fans wonder why on Earth Neil returns to this theme so often, but the Aztec era – with its mix of barbarism and civilisation – is a ripe one for re-telling (** see note). However, if you want to hear this song properly you’ll need to dig out the original – the Weld version is just too slow and unwieldy to give the song its proper due (the only bit to improve on the original is Neil’s pained vocal on the line ‘how I lost my way’, the key line of the whole track; perhaps this whole album actually now I come to think about it).
Powderfinger joins in then, giving side two a one-two war-story punch. A tale of courage and coming of age for a teenager who died in vain in a war he didn’t even know was being fought, Weld is yet another home for this tale of adventure from Rust Never Sleeps which like Cortez had been heard on live albums before, even back in the early 90s. People usually lump this song in with Neil’s other Aztec songs but its not actually specific about the dating here – in fact, this song sounds more like the cowboys and Indians tales of early American pioneers. Whatever the date, this is a key Neil Young theme – the ‘primitive’ fighters actually show more civility than the supposedly superior invaders, even though their resistance against guns and rifles with bows and arrows is ultimately hopeless and the narrator another of Neil’s many doomed heroes. Again, this sounds like another cold war or gulf war metaphor – with Russia and America putting pressure on smaller, less defended countries to side with one or the other, bullying countries smaller than themselves in return for ‘protection’ (even though between them they caused the ‘dangers’ in the first place). The Weld version again takes things a bit slower than the original, but the new tentative stumbling nature of this version suits the song’s troubled spirit rather well, even if Neil is in noticeably rawer voice here than he usually is (all that screaming in the first half must have wrecked his vocal chords by the time of this second disc).
Love And Only Love is the last sprawling guitar epic from Ragged Glory included on Weld, but unlike the songs on disc one this epic centres around the words rather than the tune. In fact it sounds more like a Paul Simon song than a Neil Young song, with its wordy musings about how true love survives whereas all other half-hearted relationships are guaranteed to fade, but compared to its siblings this song lacks the strong hook to back up its ideas. The opening idea of love dating back throughout mankind’s past and being much older than evil is nice but also confusing – Neil cites the evidence in a ‘book from long ago’ but if he means the bible (the only book so readily identifiable to all of Neil’s audience not to be named that’s lasted that long and then in drastically different forms) then he’s wrong: even discounting the mixed messages of the God in Genesis, who ‘loves’ his creations but not unconditionally, the first presence of mankind, Adam and Eve, goes wrong practically from the same minute it starts going right and most people using biblical metaphors kind of naturally assume that this means good and evil, paradise and hell, will always be intertwined and are both a natural part of human nature. The idea of ever-lasting love, which chances are is even more of a myth, is still a strong enough concept to move Neil to another one of this musical’s highlights, however, with his long guitar solo in the middle showing just why Neil’s work is so admired by other players, even though what he plays is actually very simple—no other guitarist has ever sounded quite like Neil. That solo aside, this Weld version of Love And Only Love sounds strangely polished – nothing against Crazy Horse, who can sound very focussed and together on the rare occasions they want to be, but this live recording sounds deeply out of place here, the note-perfect harmonies especially, barring the tuneless hollering from Neil at the end (was the rest of this track re-recorded later in the studio? Or am I just being unfair about how together this wayward band could be sometimes?)
Rockin’ In The Free World absolutely bursts out of the speakers on Freedom (see review no 92), but here it sounds a bit limp and tired, as if Neil thinks there will never be a ‘free world’ while the gulf war rages on. The song still features some strangely precise and other-worldly harmonies from Crazy Horse (who said they were a loose and ragged band? They sound more like CSNY here!) but markedly less instrumental weight than before. The real star here is, unusually, Billy Talbot, for once mixed loud and proud rather than buried below the guitars, with his churning bass playing spot on the money in a way that Rick Rosas’ work on the original couldn’t quite achieve. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions, though, is that Rockin’ sounds less ironic here, more of an empty desperate plea that the singer knows will never be answered than a tired and cynical one and taken at a fractionally slower lick the whole thing sounds as if its about to keel over at any time in comparison to the proudly defiant original. This song is less about ‘freedom’ in this context; its more about being trapped in a prison.
Like A Hurricane is one of Neil’s best loved songs and the band at least try to do it justice here, but for once the bum notes and ragged pitches of this performance aren’t in Crazy Horse’s favour. The whole point of the original version of this song was that it sounded deceptively easy-going and muted, gradually turning the emotional screws higher and higher until it finally burst at the seams (prime Crazy Horse, in other words). The live version here tries to ‘blow us away’ a bit too quickly and this 13 minute version is at least five too long and without the peaks and troughs of the original this is heavy going all round. At least, it is until the end when the song suddenly fades back in again, with Neil suddenly sounding an older, wiser, hard-bittern romantic, although even then the Horse decide to plug back into the song at full throttle again for a further five minutes instead of letting the hurricane slowly blow itself out. Going back to the song rather than the recording, perhaps the cleverest part of the whole track and the line that makes it stand out is the revelation in the last verse that the high drama isn’t inspired purely by the girl the narrator spots but by the passions his own head is busy creating. This is a love song dedicated to the idea of love rather than any specific person (as the narrator tells us, ‘you could have been anyone to me’), but the idea of being in love is suddenly so important to the narrator that arguably it closes his ears to anything else, hence the hazy swirly hypnotic effect of this song. What sounded like the perfect pocket symphony on American Stars ‘n’ Bars sounds like a bit of a mess here, but even the poorest version of this song must surely be recommended, containing so many things that are characteristically thought to be ‘Neil Young’-like that you can’t actually hear in too many songs apart from this one.
As for Farmer John , well, the less said about this the better – a one-riff chugging version of a classic garage band song which makes the pretty farmer’s daughter sound about as light on her feet as an elephant. This basic gritty classic has been covered more times than perhaps any other song on this archive list (except Blowin’ In The Wind, strangely, another song from this album!) but I’ve yet to hear a recording of it that truly mines this song’s potential (the Searchers are the only other ‘archive’ group to cover it though – their 1963 version is ridiculously fast and the complete polar opposite of the painfully slow chugging blues we have here). Slowing the tempo down was obviously done to make this song sound creepy and rather sinister, with the narrator more of a middle-aged stalker than a love-struck teen. But this good idea on paper really doesn’t come across well on this album, sounding boring and pointless rather than edgy, with the ‘oh-ohs’ dragged out to go on for hours – amazingly this Weld version is even worse than the recording on Ragged Glory.
Two Tonight’s The Night songs show a bit of an improvement late on in this set, with the title track recreating some of the voodoo chill of the original and Roll Another Number sounding just as abrasive and nasty as it ever did. The studio version of both of these tracks have been dealt with already (see review no 66) and for once these live renditions are subtly different from the originals, rather than ear-bogglingly so. Following on from the last song, Tonight’s is the epitome of creepy – we never learn what tonight is the night for exactly, but by the sound of Neil’s spooky vocal and Crazy Horse’s eerie harmonies, it sounds like the night for turning into a werewolf. The slow gradually-building opening is probably the best part of this version, replacing the tinkling seducing piano riff that opened the original recording, with Neil’s scratchy guitar making him sound more like Stephen Stills than his usual fluid-with-feedback self. Another song about lost opportunities, for once it wasn’t Neil who threw his potential away but Crazy Horse, who sacrificed their ‘glory years’ when guitarist Danny Whitten overdosed (you can read more about that heartbreaking story on the Tonight’s The Night review). Roll Another Number is just as good but curiously unsatisfying as an end to the set. Most singers give their fans something popular or something heart-warming to leave their shows on and hopefully put them in a good mood about the show as a whole, even if it was awful – here Neil gives his fans probably his most sarcastic and deliberately un-likeable song of his career. Yet this version of the song is still a good one, proving that Neil can out-menace just about anyone when he wants to, and is at least in keeping with Weld’s vague theme of pride before a fall and not taking yourself too seriously. Like much of Neil’s material, this song is all about second-guessing the audience and not delivering what they expect – which, I believe, is the point where this review first came in.
Neither of these last two songs are exactly easy listening, then, but then that’s not the point of this album – a rocking assault on your senses, designed to make you think as well as dent your ear drums, Weld is a unique album that’s as close to the edge as music ever got in the 1990s. One last note: the original set came with a ‘bonus’ CD called Arc – 30 minutes of off key improvisations and more howling feedback, its probably a release too far for all but the biggest Crazy Horse fanatic, although it is interesting to hear once and at least proves to fans of review no 54 that Yoko Ono wasn’t mad (much), just 20 years ahead of her time. Like Weld proper, its as raw and powerful as music gets – but in Weld’s case you at least get some superb songwriting to go with it! Career highlights – especially live ones recorded at the height of an artist’s fame– tend to be cash-ins to make the most of a revival in fortune, nothing more. But Neil’s career has been one long audience-baiting bet-you-can’t-guess-what-I’m-about-to-do-next parlour game and by releasing one of his best and most provocative albums at just the point when we were expecting Neil-by-numbers, this is one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole of Neil’s back catalogue.
**See note: Indeed, one of my primary school teachers managed to find a whole musical’s worth of material from this segment of history, another album archive-related project surely due for a revival even if all its old stars are in their 20s now (I still have my copy of the sheet music somewhere if anyone fancies a revival?)