Neil Young

Reprise, 2014

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Neil Young's second album of potential Pearl Jam cover songs the year continues the iconoclast's tradition of being unpredictable. This time, it's a double-disc set: one disc of solo Neil backed only by guitar, piano or mandolin, and a second disc of the same songs backed with an orchestra or big band.

Longtime Neil fans will think of Harvest, the landmark 1972 album where an orchestra appeared on a handful of the tracks, but that felt grafted on and not terribly necessary. Forty-two years on, the big band still isn’t necessary, but this time it’s organically mixed with the music, lending a lush backdrop to this sweet, short collection of 10 tracks. Perhaps intentionally, the songs are fairly simple, which is perhaps why Young felt the need to tack on an orchestra just because, well, why not?

The songs are not terribly memorable; the shift is in the lyrics, which revolve around simple themes like lost love, environmental concerns, driving just to do it, discovering new music, newfound love and looking back fondly at the past. Given that his nearly four decade long marriage ended before this was recorded, one would hope the weight of that momentous event would seep into the lyrics, but no such luck; a piece like “Glimmer” sounds like it was written by a starry-eyed hippie for his lover. And “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” has the potential to be a classic Young protest song but instead veers into typical Democrat-inspired talking points ("Stand up to oil / Protect the plants and renew the oil...End fracking now") that don’t incite anything but a shrug.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Other than "Like You Used To Do" and "When I Watch You Sleeping," the songs don't really benefit from the addition of the orchestra. "Who's Gonna Stand Up" is better without it, as are the honest, heartfelt feelings of "All Those Dreams" and "Tumbleweed," songs that don’t need an orchestra to convey the message. A project like this could easily venture into overkill, but it's a svelte 41 minutes, and it refuses to succumb to schmaltz because Young's keening, innocent voice is pushed forward into the mix, sounding completely believable on something like "I'm Glad I Found You."

"When I Watch You Sleeping" mixes harmonica, voice, a folky shamble and unobtrusive strings into an appealing whole, a photo negative of Dylan at his most sincere. A co-worker of mine who loves all things Dylan wandered in while I was listening to this album, heard about a minute of this song and said it was fantastic. So there's that. "Say Hello To Chicago" and "Like You Used To Do" feature an ersatz nightclub sound, the former negating its spirit with the goofy sound, the latter a successful blend of big band, Neil's harmonica and a great bluesy shuffle. It's the best song here.

Storytone is not an album that needs to be visited all that often, but its simple pleasantries show Young's capable, relatable spirit and willingness to be himself while still stretching artistically. But the simplified lyrics and songwriting and the unnecessary (albeit entertaining) big band/orchestra additions keep this from being more than average.

Rating: C+

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