NEIL YOUNG-A LETTER HOME AND STORYTONE.
NEIL YOUNG-A LETTER HOME AND STORYTONE.
Having left Buffalo Springfield in 1968, Neil Young decided now was the time to embark upon a solo career. So, Neil put together an all-star band to record his eponymous debut album.
It featured guitarist Ry Cooder, pianist Jack Nitzche and backing vocalist Merry Clayton. They recorded Neil Young between August and October 1969. Once Neil Young was recorded, it was released in November 1968. This was meant to be the album that launched Neil Young’s solo career. However, Neil Young was an inauspicious debut album.
When the original version of Neil Young was released, Neil wasn’t happy with the mix. There was a reason for this. Neil Young was the first album to use the Haeco-CSG encoding system. It was meant to make stereo records compatible with mono record players. Things however, didn’t go to plan. There was a side effect of the new system. The sound quality suffered.
In the case of Neil Young, his vocal was buried deep in the mix, giving the album a muddy sound. For Neil, this was not the way he envisaged his solo career beginning. Eventually, Neil bit the bullet, and decided the only solution was to remix the album.
After remixing Neil Young in the summer of ‘69, the album was rereleased later that year. Still Neil Young failed to chart. However, it was a hint of what was to come from one of music’s greatest singer-songwriters.
Since 1968s Neil Young, the Canadian maverick singer-songwriter has released another thirty-four studio albums. These albums show the many sides of Neil Young. This includes everything from blues rock, country, folk, folk rock, grunge, new wave, psychedelia, rock and rockabilly. Neil Young is the original musical chameleon. He’s never content to stand still. No. A musician who stands still, in Neil’s world, risks becoming irrelevant. That’s never going to happen. So he’s constantly changing direction and throwing musical curveballs. That’s been the case during 2014.
A Letter Home.
Neil Young has released two albums during 2014. His first album of 2014, was A Letter Home, which was released in April. It saw Neil cover twelve classic songs from Bert Jansch, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson. These cover versions were perfect for Neil. His lived-in vocal could bring new meaning to them. However, Neil Young decided to throw another curveball on A Letter Home.
The curveball was the way A Letter Home was recorded. Rather than use a traditional recording studio, Neil decided to record A Letter Home in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records recording studio in Nashville. Relying upon obsolete electro-mechanical technology was somewhat restrictive. Neil couldn’t bring onboard Crazy Horse. No. It was just Neil and his trusty acoustic guitar. When this slimmed down, lo-fi recording was released, opinion was divided.
This wasn’t the first time a Neil Young album polarised opinion. 1974s On The Beach Landing On Water, 1981s Re-actor, 1982s Trans and 1986s Landing On Water divided opinion. History repeated itself with A Letter Home.
There was no middle ground, critics either loved or loathed A Letter Home. It was either the act of a maverick genius, or a vanity project. Opinion was divided. So, record buyers had the casting vote.
When A Letter Home was released, it reached number thirteen in the US Billboard 200 and seventeen in Britain. Record sales were one thing though. What did people think of A Letter Home?
It was only after people had heard A Letter Home that they cast their vote. Record buyers, including even the most loyal Neil Young fans were similarly divided. Some were disappointed at what could’ve been a captivating project. Others felt the lo-fi sound suited the twelve songs, and they took on new meaning.
This was the case with Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death, Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind. They were tailor made for Neil’s voice. Later, Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again is given a lo-fi, old school, country makeover. A compelling take of Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown caught the attention of some record buyers. Others, myself included, felt A Letter Home was a self-indulgent, vanity project where record buyers had been short changed. Neil Young owed record buyers an album.
Less than seven months later, Neil Young returns with his thirty-fifth album Storytone, which was recently released on Reprise Records. Just like A Letter Home, and countless other albums, Neil Young wanted to try something new.
For Storytone, Neil penned ten new songs. When it came to recording of Storytone, this wasn’t going to be another lo-fi album. Far from it. Instead, Neil decided to record an album that was the polar opposite of A Letter Home.
When the recording of Storytone began in April 2014, Neil and co-producer Niko Bolas, a.k.a. The Volume Dealers, had hired what seemed like a cast of thousands. There was a big band and a ninety-two piece orchestra. That’s not all. On some tracks, a choir was drafted in to record one of Neil Young’s most lavish albums. It was recorded at Capitol Studios, Sony Scoring Stage and East West Studios in Hollywood. Once Storytone was recorded, it was scheduled for release early in November 2014. Could Storytone unite critics and music lovers?
On its release, Storytone continued to divide critics. Some were won over by what was perceived as a combination of Harvest and This Notes For You, another Volume Dealers production. Other critics felt Storytone was a somewhat chaotic and messy album. Yet again, music lovers had the casting vote.
November 4th 2014, was D-Day. That’s when Storytone was released. It reached number thirty-three in the US Billboard and number twenty in Britain. On the face of it, record buyers had been won over by the maverick Mr. Young’s latest offering, Storytone. However, is that the case?
Plastic Flowers opens Storytone. It’s the first of the tracks where Neil is accompanied by an orchestra. Swathes of the lushest strings, muted horns and flourishes of harp give way to a piano, and Neil’s fragile vocal. Hurt and sadness fills his voice as memories come flooding back. Meanwhile, swells of strings sweep, adding an element of drama. Later, the strings replace Neil’s vocal, adding to the drama, emotion and beauty of this opus.
Dramatic sweeping strings and woodwind set the scene for Neil on Who’s Gonna Stand Up? It’s a stirring track filled with social comment. Neil Young becomes evangelic about the environment, turning his guns on fracking and fossil fuel. This is admirable and well meaning. Sadly, the lyrics are far from vintage Neil Young. Proof of this is “end fossil fuel, draw the line, before we build another pipeline.” Later, he sings “damn the dams, save the rivers, starve the takers and feed the givers.” These lyrics disappoint. However, not the arrangement. It makes up for Neil lyrical failings. Dramatic flourishes strings, woodwind and a choir accompany Neil’s deliberate, earnest and evangelical vocal, before reaching a dramatic, thoughtful crescendo.
I Want To Drive My Car sees the big band make their debut. Neil’s band play their way into the track. They’re loose and gradually, find their feet. Blistering guitar licks accompany Neil’s thoughtful vocal. Then, all of sudden, the big band kick loose. Braying, blazing horns kick loose. They’re joined by a Hammond organ and later, a bluesy harmonica. All the time, the bass marches the arrangement along. Meanwhile scorching guitars accompany Neil’s grizzly, lived-in vocal, on what’s the highlight of Storytone so far.
Glimmer has a wistful, dreamy arrangement. That’s down to the strings and woodwind. They play slowly, leaving space within the arrangement. Strings float above the arrangement. Before long, you forget this is a Neil Young album. That’s until his tender, melancholy vocal enters. Again, memories come flooding back. He thinks of better days, when he first met the woman he loved. Back then, their love was young. Now things are changing. “New love, brings back everything to you, all the feelings in your heart are reawakened.” As Neil delivers these lyrics, it’s as if they resonate and ring true. Especially when accompanied by a swathes of lush strings. All this makes Glimmer a truly beautiful ballad, which features a wistful heartfelt vocal from Neil Young.
Say Hello To Chicago bursts into life. With the return of the big band, it’s like a return to another musical era. Bursts of grizzled horns, rolls of drums and washes of Hammond organ join a piano and upright bass in creating a swinging arrangement. They set the scene for Neil’s vocal. As if inspired, he delivers a vocal that swings. It sits atop this glorious jazzy backdrop, that brings back memories of another musical era.
Tumbleweed has an understated, wistful sound. Just the subtlest strings and woodwind join with a flourishes of harpsichord in creating a meandering, spacious backdrop. They’re joined by a pensive, reflective Neil Young. Tenderly, he delivers his vocal. Shimmering strings or woodwind respond to his call. All the time, flourishes of harpsichord add to the ethereal beauty of a song where Neil Young’s at his tenderest and most thoughtful.
A bluesy harmonica opens Like You Used To Do, which again, is reminiscent of This Notes For You. As the bass, drums and piano create the backdrop for Neil’s weary vocal, horns bray and blaze. Then when his vocal drops out, he unleashes a bluesy harmonica. It’s the perfect replacement for Neil’s vocal, on this bluesy, jazz-tinged track.
I’m Glad I Found You is another of the tracks where a full orchestra accompanies Neil. Strings sweep, as if determined to tug at your heartstrings. In the midst of the mix, horns bray and a piano plays. When the arrangement becomes understated, this is the signal for Neil’s needy, hopeful vocal to enter. He throws himself into the song, bringing out the lyric’s beauty. Neil breathes meaning and sincerity into his lyrics. They’re some of the finest on Storytone, and far removed from the disappointing Who’s Gonna Stand Up?
Straight away, When I Watch You Sleeping has a country tinged sound. Just a lone harmonica plays. It’s soon joined by a picked guitar and weeping pedal steel. They join Neil’s vocal. He can’t believe he’s found love and happiness. Tenderly, he gives thanks. Meanwhile, swathes of strings sweep above. This orchestral backdrop and the country-tinged sound may be opposites, but opposites attract. Not just that, but the compliment each other perfectly on another beautiful ballad.
All Those Dreams closes Storytone. Keyboards, guitar and the rhythm section join a tambourine in providing the backdrop for Neil’s vocal. So does the orchestra. Strings are to the fore. They’re occasionally jaunty, dancing above the rest arrangement, which is reminiscent of Harvest or Harvest Moon. Just like these two albums, the lyrics to All Those Dreams ooze quality. They’re vintage Neil Young. They’ve a poetic and cinematic quality. So much so, that when you close your eyes, Neil’s lyrics paint pictures that unfold before your eyes. That however, isn’t the end of Storytone.
Not if you’ve bought the Deluxe Version of Storytone. Neil Young includes another version of Storytone. This time, it’s an acoustic version. It’s very different from the original version. There’s neither an orchestra, nor a big band. Instead, it’s a much more stripped down sound. Sometimes, it’s just Neil and either his piano or guitar. This works, apart from Who’s Gonna Stand Up?, which becomes dirge like. That wasn’t Neil’s finest hour. Mostly, though the songs on Storytone work well with this stripped down approach. You tend to focus more on the lyrics, rather than the lavish arrangements. Having said that, the original version of Storytone is a joy to behold.
The songs on Storytone come alive with these lavish arrangements. Lush strings, woodwind and horns add to the emotion and potency of the songs. They take on new meaning. Much of that, is down to the strings. They’re perfect for adding emotion and drama to a song. On Storytone, Neil’s decision to work with the orchestra and big band was a masterstroke.
In the case of the tracks with the big band, this is reminiscent of This Notes For You. It was produced by The Volume Dealers, and is one of the most underrated albums in the Neil Young discography. For anyone who enjoys the tracks with the big band, then This Notes For You is well worth investigating. It shows yet another side to Neil Young, the original musical chameleon.
Over the past forty-six years, Neil Young has released thirty-five studio albums. He’s always determined to reinvent himself musically. He’s released albums of Americana, blues rock, country, folk, folk rock, grunge, new wave, psychedelia, rock and rockabilly. There’s n0 finding a winning formula, and then sticking with it. That’s not Neil’s style. The closest he came was during his dalliance with grunge. However, after that, Neil spread his wings and headed in a different direction. That’s what Neil has continued to do, and did in 2014.
During 2014, Neil Young released two albums. A Letter Home was one of the most disappointing Neil Young albums of recent years. It comes across as a self-indulgent. vanity project, from a musician who should’ve known better. That’s why A Letter Home is definitely not the starting place for a newcomer to Neil Young. Storytone is completely different.
Storytone marks a return to form from Neil Young. The original musical chameleon draws inspiration from previous albums like Harvest, Harvest Moon and This Notes For You. This is quite an eclectic source of inspiration. So it’s no surprise that Neil veers between melancholy and wistful, to soul-baring and soul-searching, right through to flat out hard rocking. It’s a glorious combination. Ballads and rockers rub shoulders on Storytone, where not for the first time, Neil Young becomes the comeback King.