Neil Young - American Stars 'N Bars (1977)

Picture

Stars 'N Bars kind of snuck up on me. Maybe it's the album art that I found so very NOT-Neil, but I always thought this was one of his mid-eighties albums. You know, the ones he made just to mess with his record company. Not the case at all. 

Turns out Stars 'N Bars actually has some really really solid songs. Apparently it was recorded in four different session spanning a few years. Some with Linda Ronstadt, some with Nicolette Larson, but Crazy Horse all the way through. It's criticized as being "all over the place," and often called "unessential."

I couldn't disagree more. There's a lot of value to be had on this record. Obviously the cornerstone is Like a Hurricane, a fan-favorite which Neil still plays at concerts (hoping to hear it Monday at the Barclay's Center.) And yes, that song is amazing.

But don't disregard the rest of this album. 

Besides Hurricane and the plaintive, seven-minute long Will to Love, the rest of these songs are short - most less than four minutes. And a short song in the world of Neil Young is often a great thing.
I find listening to this album all the way through really enjoyable. "The Old Country Waltz" is a great lead-off track, with sweet backing vocals from Larson and Ronstadt, not to mention a pretty rad fiddle part.

From there, it's a nice mix. The thumping "Saddle Up the Palomino," the light, rolling "Hey Babe," and then what might be my favorite track, "Star of Bethlehem." It's actually really nice to hear these songs demonstrate a range of styles while still within the familiar sonic world of Neil. It's like looking at a family of siblings where every kid looks different, but they all share at least one feature with another. 

So smush your face down on your desk a la Neil on the album cover and enjoy "American Stars 'N Bars." That's what I'll be doing this afternoon.

[ mp3 ] Neil Young - The Old Country Waltz

[ mp3 ] Neil Young - Star of Bethlehem

- N.W.
Picture
4 / 5 Dads

Picture
4.5 / 5 Sons

 
Picture
If you, like me, were a member of Team Coco, then you were there when Neil Young serenaded young Conan with a stirring rendition of "Long May You Run" as a part of Conan's final Tonight Show. (I would love to link to a video, but NBC has taken down all videos relating to Conan. They will reap what they sow.) My dad and I are two of the worlds biggest Neil Young fans, and when we each saw that performance, even though we were separated by two state lines and 202 miles, we both thought, "I wonder who Neil Young originally wrote that song for?" and "Is the original release on dad's shelf?"

And of course Dad had the record, although it was pretty dust-free; almost untouched. I was very excited to see it, since I had never even heard of the Stills-Young band, instantly removing me from the echelon of 'world's biggest Neil Young fan,' and placing me among 'Neil Young Enthusiasts.'

Well, as my dad explained to me, the song Long May You Run actually debuted as the lead-off track to the only album from the short lived Stills-Young Band, an ephemeral union of Stephen Stills and Neil Young pragmatically thrown together in response to the success of Wind on the Water, an album by former CSN&Y'ers David Crosby and Graham Nash. While the album did make some dough (it went gold), Long May You Run is kind of uneven. Mainly because the two split it right down the middle - it's a Young song, then a Stills song, then another Young song...ad infinitum. And those Stills songs can get pretty mind-numbing. Check out track two:

[ mp3 ]: Stephen Stills - Make Love to You

Um, gross. I'll stick with Barry White if I'm looking for that kind of music, especially these days.

Neil's songs are not great, barring the title track. But songs like Midnight On the Bay still have some charm, while the Stills tunes kind of ruin the album. It's like filling a cup with half Pepsi and half Diet Pepsi; it will taste kind of weird, and you're going to get diabetes and have all the calcium sucked from your bones. (I think that's what PepsiMax is trying to accomplish anyway.)

[ mp3 ]: Neil Young - Long May You Run
[ mp3 ]: Neil Young - Midnight On the Bay

Long May You Run is a classic, undeniably bright eyed yet nostalgic, the perfect send-off to any old friend.  Midnight On the Bay is uncharacteristically funky for Neil, dare I say it's his version of Rupert Holmes' Escape (The Pina Colada Song.) Fun.

Oh yeah - so who did Neil write the song Long May You Run for? Was Conan's plight similar to an old friend, lover, or historical character? Turns out, it was written as an ode to his 1948 Buick Roadmaster, which, as I'm sure you know, is a hearse.

-N.W.

PS - lala has mis-credited this record as a Neil Young solo joint. They are mistaken.
 
Picture
I know I just skipped eleven years by jumping all the way to Neil's 1978 classic Comes a Time. And those were some pretty great years - Harvest, Tonight's the Night, On the Beach, Zuma - those are some of Neil's strongest records. Harvest was a cultural touchstone, while Zuma contains one of my favorite tracks of all time, Cortez the Killer.

But if Neil could ever be accused of having an underrated album, I think this would be it.

Comes a Time was precursed (and pre-cursed) by American Stars 'N Bars, a bizzare record in which Neil's attitude is best illustrated by his pose on the album cover - I rest my case. Needless to say, it was not well received. So when Comes a Time was released in '78, everyone was thrilled that Neil had returned to the tone he nailed with Harvest. Countrified rock with senitmental lyrics, a worldliness with a sense of weariness, vintage Neil Young.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AND GET SOME TRACKS....

 
Picture
Christmas with my family has many traditions; going to church Christmas Eve, hanging our stockings, opening gifts, and eating tons of cinnamon rolls.  Our dad still reads 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to us every year, as we gather around a fire with several dachshunds on our laps.

And the past few years, I've noticed that every Christmas, Neil Young is there. Last year I got my dad tickets to go see Neil in New York City, when he played at the United Palace. The year before I got my dad the Jonathan Demme documentary Heart of Gold.  Even when there isn't a gift that was specifically created by Neil Young, my dad and I spend at least one afternoon listening to his music.

So forgive me for doing two posts in a row about Neil Young, but for me, Christmas time means home, and home is me, my dad, and a Neil Young album. (and the aforementioned dachshunds)

Neil Young's self-titled debut in 1969 was good, but his second solo record and his first with long-time backing group Crazy Horse was where he really defined himself as a rock'n'roll force. The songs on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere are more loose, raw, and powerful; for many, this really is the first Neil Young record.

The album starts with Cinnamon Girl, a heavy rocker that for my money may be the best lead-off track on any album ever.

[ mp3 ]: Neil Young - Cinnamon Girl

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AND GET MORE TRACKS...

 
Picture
When I was growing up, the only thing that saved all my friends from becoming hip-hop aficionados (not that tragic) was Nirvana, and what saved me from being a Nirvana aficionado (more tragic) was this album. Now, Neil Young is my dad's favorite artist. Hands down, no contest. He is my favorite now, too. But for a while, growing up, I thought his voice was too 'weird.' How could a professional musician have a voice that was so uncool? Silly, stupid, young Nelson.

Like any good teenager, I LOVED the Seattle grunge scene. I wore flannel, played my music loud, I even bought Stone Temple Pilots records, not realizing back then that they were really faking it. When Pearl Jam made Mirrorball with Neil Young, calling him the godfather of grunge, worlds collided. Suddenly, my dad's love for Neil was more than just a quirky obsession - it was Eddie Vedder-approved!

So I went back into the Neil catalog, and of course, one of my first stops was Southern Man, the song that got Lynyrd Skynyrd's panties in a twist (...i hope Neil Young will remember...southern man don't need him 'round, anyhow...) Southern Man is actually an indictment of racism in the south; so, way to read the subtext, Skynyrd.

[ mp3 ]: Neil Young - Southern Man

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE AND LISTEN TO THE FULL ALBUM...


 
Picture
There are two things my Dad made sure I was a fan of growing up. The first was the Philadelphia Phillies. The second was Neil Young. Last year, my Dad and I saw Neil in concert for the first time together, and the Phillies won the World Series. When I was twenty-eight...it was a very good year....

Anyway, this Neil Young album is kind of like the mid-nineties Phillies teams. It's not that great. But that doesn't mean there aren't great things about it. Sure, there are some really weird tunes, like "Transformer Man." But this album closes really strong, a la Heathcliff Slocumb. "Sample and Hold," "Mr. Soul," and "Like an Inca," are all solid tunes. The album's worth getting for the electronic version of "Mr. Soul" alone.

Check it out. Put on a Devo hat. Do the robot.

Try it HERE.
Buy it HERE.