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Neil Young and Promise of the Real – Earth

July 3, 2016

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When I recently joined Tidal to get access to the new Radiohead, one of the bonuses was getting access to Neil Young’s catalog (Neil is one of those artists who has chosen to make his music hard to get).  Neil teased his new album Earth a few weeks prior to the release of Earth with a tasty half-hour single “Love And Only Love” as an exclusive on Tidal.  It sounded like vintage Neil and Crazy Horse, but it is Promise of the Real, Neil’s latest band he has been touring with for the last three years. The band features Lucas and Micah Nelson – Willie Nelson’s sons.  The band made its first recording statement with Young on The Monsanto Years (2015).

Neil has been releasing great live albums throughout his career – and the Crazy Horse variety is well represented in that catalog of live takes.  The gimmick here is that he is trying to reinvent the live album by adding backup vocals (not so unusual) and sound effects (now we are getting weird). These sound effects link the tracks so that it feels like a cohesive gapless 97 minute suite.  Earth includes songs spanning the length of his career.

I did not listen to The Monsanto Years when it came out.  I was not up for hearing a billionaire-rock-star-hippie’s diatribe against the modern miracle of today’s agriculture: safe, cheap, plentiful and quality food.  A system that has the capacity to feed the world – if it wasn’t for terrorism and third world corruption. Humans have been manipulating plants and animals since we crawled out of caves.  Granted I am biased because I make my living off agriculture. Neil was pissing on my parade.  So I gave The Monsanto Years a pass when it came out in 2015.

Hearing the The Monsanto Years cuts on Earth (four of the thirteen cuts are from The Monsanto Years) was pretty much what you would expect: predictably left-wing and anti so-called “big agriculture.”  But there is an upside to the rant – Neil is authentically pissed. A pissed Neil is an inspired Neil (e.g. Kent State 1970=CSNY’s “Ohio”). So do your best to stomach the politics and listen to some inspired music

The gimmick – augmenting a live recording – actually works. It has been a long-standing practice to clandestinely and subtlety sweeten a live recording. But Young has a bigger idea. He does not even try to disguise the manipulation – instead he is bold in his studio additions and makes something unique and artsy.

Promise of the Real is something special. They can rock it out like Crazy Horse and they can be as sweet as Nashville Cats. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Willie Nelson’s sons are amazing.  Between Neil’s political inspiration and this crack band, this is a special live album – on par with Live Rust. The fact that Young has been able to reinvent the old warhorse that is the live recording into something new and interesting is quite a feat. Young’s voice sounds great – he seems to show no deterioration in his pipes.

After releasing “Love And Only Love” as the lead single, Young did another cool thing – he streamed it a week early on Tidal, but as one 97 minute cut – so you would have to listen all the way through and not just skip to a favorite song.  The CD and current stream is now cut up into 13 tracks.

One of my favorite tracks from Earth is “Hippie Dream.” Promise of the Real reinvent Crazy Horse grunge to a more contemporary rock sound.  The make the grunge their own. After lots of Neil’s politics he advises “Take my advice / don’t listen to me.”  And in a nod to his old band, he reminds us: “The wooden ship was just a hippie dream.”  Surprisingly “Hippie Dream” is from 1986’s Landing on Water.  That is an album that I had dismissed as horrible – evidently there was some gold on that stinker.

I have been listening to a lot of classic 60s/70s artists lately – between new releases and live shows.  These guys in their mid-60s to mid-70s are amazing – they sound great and they still sound relevant.  Neil certainly falls into this category of exceptional artist.  Earth is a totally unique album and yet familiar.  You should listen to Earth on a good stereo. The sound effects sound cheesy via ear buds and your phone.  On a good stereo it sounds like art.  I had kind of gotten fatigued with Neil in the last few years – so it is a very impressive that he can still toss off a masterpiece.

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