CD Review: Neil Young And The International Harvesters - A Treasure (Reprise)

Neil Young-treasure-coversmaller.jpg In the middle of the 1980s, Neil Young was having what many people perceived to be a mid-life crisis. Instead of getting himself a red sports car and a mistress, he’d show up one day with a new band and a new persona - one day embracing edgy German electronica, the next turning into Carl Perkins with a slick fifties haircut, pink suit and and the whole bit. Finally, around the time he put a cowboy hat on and started jamming with Willie Nelson - “Willie Neil”, his associates called him - Geffen Records decided to stop financing what they saw as a self-destructive binge and sued him for not sounding enough like himself, right around the same time that Fantasy was suing John Fogerty for sounding too much like himself. The eighties were a big decade for midlife crises (and lawsuits) among sixties rockers, but Young took the desire to mutate with the times and head into unpredictable territory much further than any of his peers.

In response to the pressure, Young split town, fired his Hollywood booking agent, and headed to Nashville. There he found himself a hell of a support crew, built around pedal steel player Ben Keith and fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, and hooked up with Waylon Jennings’ agent, who put the band on the state fair circuit. By all accounts, the change of venue suited Young just fine. One of the tracks on A Treasure was recorded at Gilley’s Rodeo Arena in Pasadena, TX, a show at which Young was reported to have surveyed the rickety wooden stage, suspended ten feet in the air over a massive pile of horse shit, and marvelled, “Sure beats playin’ to a bunch of fuckin’ hippies at the Fillmore!” Young stuck with it and toured the group for a solid year, longer than any of his other genre diversions, though a followup to the 1984 album Old Ways never materialized.

At the center of this release are live versions of five previously unreleased songs that surfaced on his 1984 and 1985 tours. “Grey Riders” is the instant classic of the bunch, a frantic gallop with a killer guitar breakdown that would have fit perfectly on Time Fades Away. Placed at the end of the album, it’s shocking the first time you hear Young’s guitar explode and become the loudest thing in the room, obliterating his band, like he’s been holding that back for an hour and it’s time to let it out.

“Nothing Is Perfect” is a beautiful hymn to the American heartland, expressed in a deeply personal way. “The children all do what they’re able to do/ we got so much to be happy about.” No one who knows the story of Young bearing two sons with CP could miss the significance of that line. But as if unable to resist throwing a little vinegar onto the table, he continues, “We got women and men on the work force/ Doin’ forty hours plus overtime/ So the hostages held at the airport/ Can come home to something worthwhile.” Momentarily forgetting his hatred of advertising, he borrows the phrase “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” from the Yellow Pages for a rowdy Hank Williams-style lament about his lover’s failure to “give good phone.”

These fine “new” tracks are interspersed with countryfied versions of older Young songs, none of which can be counted among his greatest hits, and a cover of Joe London’s obscure fifties single "It Might Have Been". A lush, ethereal on take on “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” almost beats the Buffalo Springfield original, Keith and pianist Spooner Oldham creating a fog-drenched backdrop for Young’s flawless vocal. And it’s gratifying to hear this band give the much-maligned Re*ac*tor album some attention, with a barn-dance romp through “Motor City” and a haunting “Southern Pacific” in which Young gets some of the greatest session players in the world to make eerily authentic choo-choo sounds. While most of Young’s rock audience looked down on the album’s punkish primitivism, the C&W crowd has no problem with a good train song, nor the sentiment behind the line, “There’s already/ Too many Toyotas/ In this town.”

This is the second consecutive release in his Performance Series in which Young seems intent on giving the listener a different view into one specific point in his career, an alternative to the overproduction he tends to engage in around his Nashville buddies. (The last release in the series contained every song from 1992’s Harvest Moon rendered as a solo acoustic performance.) While Old Ways isn’t a bad album, it’s also not very lively sounding, not as much fun as it should be, especially once you’ve heard what a hoot this band was on stage. A Treasure places a much more fitting and complete snapshot of this group into the permanent record, one that captures them in their natural element.

Neil Young and The International Harvesters - A Treasure (Reprise)
Release Date: June 14, 2011