In the early years of British punk, the Desperate Bicycles released a hurriedly recorded single whose chorus succinctly epitomised the spirit of DIY spontaneity: It was easy / It was cheap / Go and do it…
This approach, embraced by many artists in the ensuing years, has produced some recordings of great power and longevity, but also some embarrassingly well-meaning, but ultimately disastrous, efforts too.
Neil Young is living the DIY ethos and churning out albums at a ridiculous rate of knots these days. Quality seems to have been most often sacrificed for quantity though, and the last few years have been reminiscent of his Geffen years when he released a string of albums deliberately intending to piss off his record company, of course, the difference now being that his recent output does not have any such acceptable motive behind them to give their overwhelming ordinariness any understandable context.
Retailers still charge full quid for these below par releases, even though they have obviously been produced for a pittance; Young obviously recorded quickly, had the packaging dashed off messily with no thought to design (beyond his messy handwriting being the signature feature), and constructed a lyric insert made up of typed lyric segments cut and pasted onto a poster sized sheet that is large, awkwardly folded and unmanageable, and is riddled with typographical errors. First impression is that this package is shoddy and to be honest, in its disregard for accuracy and detail, more than a little insulting to his fans.
The songs here are simplistic musically, heavily reliant on old ideas (some songs start with echoes of tunes from Harvest or Tonight’s the Night) and lyrically unpolished.
There will be people who will be happy with this approach – claiming it to be stylistically and aesthetically consistent with his recent output – but such arguments are defensive, apologist claptrap that simply ignore the fact that whilst Young has been championing sound quality improvements throughout the industry to ensure what the consumer gets is closest to what the artist records, and bemoaning the fact we are forced to pay for inferior digital sound, he, in the name of ‘authenticity’, has taken to delivering up sloppy first takes of half-formed ideas album after album.
He has the audacity to sing on the album’s title cut, Peace Trail: If I believe in someone / I have to believe in myself / I have to take good care / When somethin’ new is growin…
Well how can we accept that as truth, when the evidence convincingly proves otherwise?
Young has every right to follow his own path, he has a total body of work which has earned him respect and admiration, but surely that doesn’t mean he should ignore quality control so dismissively in the latter stages of his career?
Peace Trail has a monotonous repetitive quality about it, with only the robotic vocoder voice on the last track, My New Robot, intruding into the lazy acoustic meandering through this set of clichéd observations of the world in which we live. Heartfelt, no doubt, but clichéd nevertheless.
Most puzzling is the affirmation that he knows he is driving us crazy with his lack of care, and blames his fans for his indifference – how else should you interpret these lines, in Show Me, which have Young singing: Well I hear you out there when you / Say what you have to say / I now how you feel cause that’s / What makes me this way…?
Loyalty is hard won. Long-term Neil Young fans, like myself, will keep on buying each release hoping for some shard of his former genius to shine and satiate our need, but come on Neil – no more dross like A Letter Home or Peace Trail, no lazy rehashes of old live shows. Climb out of your lazyboy, and get back to work!
Talking of lazyboys, The Rolling Stones, creatively, certainly meet that description. They have hardly written and recorded any new songs at all since 2005.
Their latest effort, Blue & Lonesome is billed as their first studio album of new material since A Bigger Bang. ‘New’ is a bit of a stretch – every song here is ancient, and the effect that comes across is akin to listening in to a casual jam session where a bunch of old mates are running through a batch of blues tunes without any real passion.
Nothing wrong with a bunch of old blokes lost in an hour of nostalgia, I suppose, but this release doesn’t really warrant the almost universal praise that is being heaped upon it.
Sure, the Stones do sound at their best when they are rough and raw – that was the sound that made them superstars in the first place – and there is nothing here that suffers from the claustrophobic glossy sheen of the band’s eighties and nineties output.
Critics have gone overboard on the superlatives though, stating this to be the most vital sounding music they have heard from the Stones in decades. In one respect, that is not wrong – what else can it be compared to? They have only released one studio album since 1997! But there is something that just doesn’t feel right when hedonistic, wealthy septuagenarians are singing the blues – it’s hard to believe it is anything more than playfulness. And laziness.
Ronnie Wood is quoted in the CD booklet as saying, ‘We didn’t work out the parts prior to recording. We just seemed to pull it off.’ And Mick states, ‘The interesting thing about a record that is made really quickly [is] it reflects a moment in time – a time and a place.’ Time and place? Old friends hanging out and indulging themselves in the studio. All power to them – but let’s not fool ourselves: the playing is not driven by any real conviction, it is driven by rote learning.
What they have given us here is the aural equivalent of a pre-teen wearing a designer Ramones t-shirt, or a Wall Street banker wearing a Che Guevara badge on his suit lapel just because his investment in the Stones’ record label just paid a dividend based on sales of their Havana Moon DVD release.
Having raised my concerns about what drove the band to release this record, the music, taken out of this context, does reflect a connoisseur’s choice of blues tunes.
They obviously have a soft spot for Little Walter – four of his tunes are included here – as well as for tunes originally released by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush. More obscure tunes by bluesmen such as Eddie Taylor and Lightnin’ Slim also get a run, and all of it is solid stuff. There’s not a lot else that can be said. It is blues background music, with occasional momentary flashes of that signature guitar sound that let you know who’s playing.
As a reminder of the Stones’ roots, the album succeeds to a degree, but ultimately Blue & Lonesome is steeped in the sound of complacency delivered by a band frolicking in their tongue shaped pools treading water…before they dry off and retire back to their lazyboys with a cognac or three.