Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill. Neil Young, like democracy, can be messy—and that's the best news of all, because when Young roams free is very often when he finds treasure. Crazy Horse—Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Poncho Sampedro—is the man's go-to rock band, and for over 40 years have been turning up the ampage and making their way to the glory land like the musical pioneers they are. There are no boundaries for where the quartet can go, and their fearless leader is the first to turn up, tune in and drop far out. On Psychedelic Pill, the rewards are excitement and sometimes even ecstasy. The boys hit the zone from note one.
One of the true joys of modern rock and roll is how Neil Young and Crazy Horse maintain their groove. It is essentially a spontaneous bunch, a band that doesn't really worry where they've been or where they're going. They live to play in the moment, letting the music they're creating together take them wherever it wants to go. It's like they've created a living beast which can turn savage or stay sweet depending on the song, and are there to serve the musical master that shows up. Starting with "Driftin' Back," Young and the Horse are in for a wild ride over the course of the two discs' eight songs. When the dawn breaks and Young's guitar takes off for the stratosphere, there really is no one else like them.
When fans sign up for the Neil Young parade, it's in for a penny/in for a pound. There is absolutely no telling what the next release may sound like, or how far out Young and his musical compadres are willing to go. Some may say it can be a hit-or-miss affair, but in reality what's delivered is more like a life lesson to live in the moment and be ready for anything. To that end, the new song "Ramada Inn" is an ultimust Young original, and an instant baby boomer classic about life in the empty nest. The heart aches to hear a couple live those moments when the spark is dimming, and not really be able to do anything about it but wonder what went wrong. But as always, Young's trusty Gibson Les Paul guitar comes to the rescue and the colors he paints the sky with it are as wondrous as anything he's ever recorded. Long may he reign.
Paul Kelly, Spring and Fall. Song cycle albums can be tricky business, causing some to run for the hills and others to dive right in. Australian Paul Kelly, easily one of the great singer-songwriters of the past 30 years, takes on the rise and fall of an intense love affair that is so up close and personal it's like we're living it ourselves. Considering it's been five years since Kelly's last studio album, this is an audacious return that hopefully will be heard in the adventurous spirit it was made.
Recorded in an isolated country hall in Victoria, Australia under some fairly demanding weather conditions, Paul Kelly looked despair in the eye and found a way to live and learn from it. It's never easy when love crumbles, but these songs somehow make sense of the passion and pain and let the good and the bad stand on their own. By the end, on "None of Your Business Now" and "Little Aches and Pains," the absence of love turns into its own reason to continue trying to find a way through. The bonus track "Where Are You Roaming" captures perfectly how nostalgia for what used to be can get so close to fatal.
As the world turns and albums become archaic, one like "Spring and Fall" can give big hope to the continued reach of those who still believe in their strength. There is something a dozen songs can do that scattered singles simply cannot. Paul Kelly has always reached for the stars in expressing himself, sometimes connecting and other times not. The way he has found such an intense way to tell a total story today should be heard. There is something in the way the man from Down Under carries himself that says he'll make sure it is. There are no doubt scars to show for living through these songs, and by the wonder of music we can hear just how deep they go. Bless him.
Bettye LaVette, A Woman Like Me (book) and Thankful N' Thoughtful (album). Boy, is this simultaneous release of a book and album a two-mints-in-one moment or what? Bettye LaVette is a rhythm and blues survivor of the highest order, someone whose run of "buzzard luck" as she calls it would have stomped down almost anyone else alive. To read her unrelenting story with every single nitty gritty detail included is to understand what long odds the music business has always been, and also see the high and low points in high-def detail like very few biographies have captured. LaVette is long past shame over some of her escapades, and lucky for us she and co-writer David Ritz capture the arduous journey dead-on, never pulling out the make-up and lip gloss to try and sugarcoat the truth.
When the young teenager started singing it really did appear the sky was the limit. Based in Detroit just as Motown Records started, it looked like Bettye LaVette couldn't miss in being discovered. And discovered. And discovered. Because every single time the brass ring was hanging on her front door it turned to aluminum just when she grabbed it. After making a series of albums that never even came out, including one for Atlantic Records that seemed like a sure thing, times grew dangerous as the singer headed for the dark end of the street. Needless to say, there's film-at-11 galore throughout these pages.
The very good news is how Anti- Records finally came to the rescue and helped LaVette bring her deep and unrelenting soul to the world. A series of new recordings have shown her committed following just how devastating a singer the woman still is, and that includes the new album Thankful N' Thoughtful. Choosing a range of songs from artists like Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Gnarls Barkley, Patty Griffin, the Black Keys, Tom Waits and others is a long line of recent genius musical moves, and lets Bettye LaVette work the waterfront every which way but loose. Read the book first, and then bask in the bright light the woman's voice shines over everything she touches. Reality never sounded so real.