Tag Archives: Harvest

Homegrown – Neil Young

For some reason, I missed Homegrown when it was released in the summer. I think I felt like I’d had enough new music by singer-songwriter icons for a while after Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways came out, and figured I’d get back to it sooner or later. It took six months, but I finally sat down with it for the first time on Friday.

My reaction is, I have to admit, one of mild disappointment. It’s not fair to the music to judge it against the myth that has become attached to it, but Homegrown has built up a legend as a great lost masterpiece, something too emotionally powerful to have been released while its author was still in the thick of the events it describes. Even Young himself has talked it up as “the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon“.

Leaving aside the fact that Old Ways doesn’t really belong in that list (I think it’s trying to do a different thing, something more country qua country, rather than country rock), I find it hard to hear Homegrown as fitting in that lineage. It seems truer to place it as a part of the run of smashed, bummer albums that included Time Fades Away (recorded on tour Feb-Apr ’73), Tonight’s the Night (recorded Aug-Sep ’73) and On the Beach (recorded Feb-Apr ’74). It’s more acoustic than On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, less defiant and more tenderly wounded, but it doesn’t have the smoothness implied by Young’s sales pitch for the record.

What I will say for Homegrown is that it starts and ends well. Separate Ways, the opening track, is a little sketchy (Levon Helm sounds like he’s hearing the song for the first time; Tim Drummond’s timing is off for a substantial chunk of the song), but it’s a really fine piece of writing, with a couple of killer changes.

The four-song run that finished the album, meanwhile, is killer. White Line has something of the devastating simplicity of Neil masterpieces like Heart of Gold and Don’t Let it Bring You Down, and for me is only a narrow notch below both of those. Vacancy spits fire like an outtake from Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, although Karl Himmel’s drum fills are several orders of complexity above anything Ralph Molina ever attempted. The delicate, childlike Little Wing is another heart-sore ballad, in this case one that surfaced in 1980 on Hawks and Doves. Young’s chunky acoustic rhythm guitar is one of my favourite sounds in recorded music, so this one is made for me, as is Star of Bethlehem, which adds Drummond and Himmel, as well a guesting Emmylou Harris on harmonies and Ben Keith on Dobro.

It’s not all at that level, sadly. We can discount Florida, a shaggy-dog spoken word interlude in which Young talks about rescuing a baby after its parents are killed in a freak hang-gliding accident, but the first side of the record just doesn’t grab me other than Separate Ways and Kansas. I’ve never really felt that warmly towards Love is a Rose, which first appeared on Decade and was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt, while Homegrown is a lightweight goof that doesn’t have the desperation that underpins, say, Roll Another Number for the Road from Tonight’s the Night. Mexico is a sketch, albeit a pretty one. Try is just meh.

As I say, no record could live up to the expectations that big Neil Young fans had for Homegrown. Off the back of reading Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, I expected it to be epochal. Instead it feels to me like a 7/10 record with a couple of songs that would get full marks or something close.

Worth hearing for Separate Ways, Vacancy, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem, but don’t expect it to be at the level of On the Beach quality wise, or stylistically of a piece with Harvest or Comes a Time.

Neil Young, some time in 1974

Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.