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CD Review: Neil Young - Fork In The Road
“She looks so beautiful with her top down / Let’s hop inside and take a ride to town.”
“The awesome power of electricity / Stored for you in a giant battery!”
“Her engines running and her fuel is clean / She only uses it cause she’s a machine.”
“Got a pot belly, it’s not too big/ Gets in my way, when I’m driving my rig.”
OK, so, Fork In The Road, Neil Young’s latest album, may not be his finest moment of impressionistic poetry. But it is nothing if not sincere.
Clearly the green car is a cause near and dear to Young’s heart: way back in 2003 he was running his entire tour fleet on bio-diesel, filling up his tank via the used oil vats at fried chicken stands along the way. Now, he’s converted a 1959 Lincoln Continental into the electric hybrid “LincVolt” and set up a blog site to track the car’s activities. While an engine powered solely on granola farts remains elusive, you have it to hand to him for walking it like he talks it - as he points out on the album’s third song, “Just singing a song won’t change the world.”
But stated preference for planetary welfare aside, how are the tunes? Young and his current band - drummer Chad Cromwell, bassist Rick Rosas and steel guitarist Ben Keith - road-tested most of these songs during their tour of the States in fall 2008, so bootleg collectors have already received a low-fi preview (although two of the strongest songs played during that trek, which appear to have been titled “Sea Change” and “Get Around”, are strangely absent here despite the brief 38-minute running time. Seek ‘em out online.) For the official release, Neil is solidly in garage-boogie mode, handing the reins to his inner Jimmy Reed with minimal, repetitive grooves and lyrics that don’t seem to have been fussed over for more than a few seconds.
While none of the individual songs can top the best ones from even his recent catalog, there are more than a few thrilling moments - the feedback scrum that lifts "Cough Up The Bucks" off the ground, the lovely chord progression that anchors "Off The Road" - and the whole package has a funky immediacy, similar to his 2006 Bush-protest collection Living With War, that compensates for the sometimes tossed-off, clunky Green Power lyrics and skeletal song construction. If you dug his 1988 work with the Blue Notes, there’ll be something here for you to dig your teeth into.
Perhaps the album’s finest moment comes toward the end, as Young puts down the Les Paul for "Light A Candle" and gives us a gorgeous acoustic/ steel guitar duet with Keith, whose haunting slide work has lost none of its foggy majesty since his appearance on 1972’s Harvest. This tender moment is followed by the album’s title track, one of the most monolithic, stream-of-consciousness, flat-out stoopid Young tracks since the nine-minute/ two lines of lyrics “T-Bone”, and the most obvious fun Neil’s had during a session in decades. This one sounds like he started the tape rolling with no lyrics at all, thinking up characters and spitting out their stories over a relentless, brainless riff as they occurred to him. “Got my flat screen/ Got it repo’d now/ They picked it up/ Left a hole in the wall/ Last Saturday/ Missed the Raiders game” goes one line. Another seems like a setup for his harshest critics: “I’m a big rock star/ My sales have tanked/ But I still got you/ Thanks/ Download this/ Sounds like shit.” It’s a bonafide hoot, and the kind of thing you’d never in a million years hear from Crosby, Stills and/or Nash. Pick it up, along with a sack of organic pork rinds, at a truck stop near you.
Neil Young’s Fork In The Road will be released by Reprise Records on April 7.
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