Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forever Young # 13: "Music to my Ears"

Song:  Love and War
Album:  Le Noise
Released:  September, 2010

 If you grew up in the 70s or 80s, it was highly likely that you knew someone who put a premium on their stereo system (it’s hard to believe this is an antiquated concept, but that’s a discussion for another time).  Several friends come to mind, and the most manic of them all was a roommate I had during my senior year in college.  His entire stereo system was top of the line, but it was his sound system that he prided himself in the most.  Yes, Gaff was a woofer/speaker/amplifier freak alright, and those close to him, including Bouv and I, benefited from this:  When the weekend commenced, it was his room we would convene in and where we would then proceed to drown ourselves in the majestic musical sounds that surrounded us.

 Gaff’s stereo system was very expensive and though I have always appreciated quality sound, I felt at the time that he was deep into the realm of diminishing returns:  My stereo system was 1/10th the price and I was quite satisfied.  The truth, however, is more along the lines that my hearing was not as finely tuned as his.  That’s not to say I did not pick up on great musical moments he himself would miss on occasion.  It’s just that when he heard music on a high-end system, it was received in a clearer, crisper and more acute way than anything I could decipher. 

 You could say my old roommate had Neil Young’s ears, though I was not aware of this at the time.  It took another decade or so - when the cd was overpowering analog records – for the connection to be made.  Young was a solitary holdout against the computerization of music.  The reason, which he espouses to this day, is his belief that analog is a strict interpretation of the original, pure sound while compact discs produce compromising digital output.  Young continued to put an emphasis on good ol’ fashioned vinyl well into the 90s, long after other musicians had caved to the inevitable.  As a matter of fact, he still emphasizes this point.

 Thinking back now, I recall being impressed, inspired and surprised with Neil Young’s stance.  He was making a statement yet again; holding fast to a belief system that has consistently risked his roller-coaster ties to mainstream success.  This was a qualitative statement.  Young was standing by something he saw as being a better way of doing things regardless of the trend. It was not the first time he would do this, and it would not be the last time.  There are many examples throughout his career.  In 1997 he boycotted Buffalo Springfield’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not because of tension with his former bandmates, but because of the commercialization of the event (MTV airing tape-delayed highlights rather than leaving in all the warts that he found to be far more human).  Prior, Young had pined for a reunion more than anyone else in the band, so this took some will power.   His stances supporting the family farm (vs agribusiness conglomerates), tribal rights (vs big oil tar sands in Alberta), green cars (vs the fossil fuel status quo), and peace (in hawkish times) have all gone against the grain as well. 

 Equally impressive are Young’s musical stances, exemplified in his early 70s and early 80s albums.  The 70s albums were abrasive responses to the soft rock sound he already had proven to be so good at.  More importantly they were soulful and in turn have only grown in stature through the years.  His early 80s albums will likely never be known as his high points, but they were at least partially a response to an overly demanding record contract (Geffen Records).   These 80s albums proved that Young was willing to wait it out through experimentation rather than trying to please anyone or anything other than his own inner voice, much of it may have been disparagingly intentional; an artistic statement reflecting the times he was living (in a similar vein to the way Bob Dylan has sung live over the past 20 years).

 I’ve learned from all this.  In many ways Neil Young is a reaffirmation of my upbringing; that whole “beat your own drum” mentality my Dad has always held true to.  The key to sticking to these drums is to know quality when you see it, and then to not cave to the forces that can easily pull you away for the sake of short-term gain.  It’s a character thing.  We all have a sense for it.  Not many of us stick to it.

 In 2010, Neil Young was refocused on quality sound.  He matched up with Daniel Lanois - one of the few record producers with a gift of refined hearing that can match Young – to compile the excellent album ‘Le Noise’ (Lanois is from Hull, Quebec, hence the classic title twist).  Daniel Lanois is best known for producing several great U2 albums, but for my money, his best work was with Bob Dylan on the 1989 ‘Oh Mercy’.  This album has such a unique, atmospheric sound (Dylan tells the story of how the album came together in great detail in his biography ‘Chronicles I’). 

 Young was looking for something similar. He found it. ‘Le Noise’ is a great album.  Most of the music is solo electric guitar and heavy feedback (courtesy of Lanois and fellow producer Mark Howard), conjuring images of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock or Neil Young’s own Natural Anthem (Mother Earth) off ‘Ragged Glory’.  Much of what is impressive about this album is the accompanying black and white video footage, each and every song filmed live and raw, with a camera bouncing between Young’s face (singing) and his plucking fingers.  The entire album was produced in a handful of ambient rooms in Lanois’ Silver Lake California home (near L.A.); each room seemingly chosen to reflect the mood of each song.  It all works. I particularly like some of the footage from outside, below the din; noise and light cascading into the darkness.  There’s an air of unrestrained potency about it all.

 The best song on ‘Le Noise’ is Love and War ( ), one of only 2 acoustic cuts on the album.  I listened to this song over and over again this week and never got tired of it.  The music is surreal, and I would love one day to hear it on a quality Gaff-approved sound system.  Despite the intensity of the lyrics, I’ll leave discussion of my thoughts on the meaning to Love and War (and all ‘Le Noise’ songs for that matter) alone for the time being (it’s very likely I will revisit this album through the somber Hitchhiker at a later date).

 I would be remiss to be talking about quality sound all this time without mentioning Neil Young’s new PONO product ( ).  It’s digital, but innovatively analog-like. Young is at it again.  Another great musician once penned “There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath, rippling by”.  Neil Young may be the one who keeps that door open for future generations, despite the current ambivalence to his qualitative quest.

-          Pete

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