First off, I’d like to apologize for not keeping up on the blog much over the past few months. I’m hoping to get back on track over the next few weeks. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been preparing for my new blog series, “Year of the Neil: The Story of Neil Young.” For those that have followed BDWPS for the past year, you are probably familiar with the podcast I tried out last year about David Bowie’s life. Over the course of the year, the podcast would receive over 10,000 downloads, which is a pretty big deal considering I do it for free and did very little promoting of it. I suppose Bowie’s death drew people to it organically, but I’m also proud that many of those random visitors listened to all nine episodes.
Despite the amount of work I put into that series, I felt compelled to continue the “Year Of” project by continuing with a new artist in 2017. The first name to come to mind was Neil Young, one of my all-time favorite artists. After researching on his life, I knew I had to tell his wild story. Below you will find the first episode. You can also listen and subscribe to the series on iTunes and Stitcher (search: Year of the Neil). I hope you enjoy the first episode that takes a look at Neil’s upbringing.
Lost amidst all the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch fanfare, an icon was silently murdered last Tuesday. After 12 years of providing music fans with handheld listening enjoyment, Apple’s portable mp3 playing flagship, the iPod Classic, was discontinued. You can search the Apple website all you want, but any sign of the legendary device have been erased from existence.
What started as simply a stroll down 70s lane turns into an obsessive look at the year 1970 and the albums that defined it. You’ll hear classics from artists like Black Sabbath, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Rodriguez, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and of course, another classic from Bob Dylan. Check it out here or subscribe to it on iTunes by searching “BDWPS.”
As with all movements, the lo-fi trend has tapered off over the past couple years. In its wake, many of the artists who found their niche within the genre have had to step outside the tape hiss and attempt to tread water on the strength of their songwriting. The entire ethos of the lo-fi movement was the idea that great songs will always be great, regardless of the production (this is the gospel of Robert Pollard). As the dust has settled, some have found success moving away from the 4-track recorder (Ty Segall, Wavves, Times New Viking) while others have been exposed (Male Bonding, Matt and Kim, Psychedelic Horseshit).
After the release of Wood’s 2011 album “Sun and Shade,” I felt that they belonged in the latter category. Without the amateurish production, the band seemed lost. Many of the songs come off as lazy, while others meander aimlessly from one guitar solo to another with several songs stretching past the seven-minute mark. The band’s knack for melodies seemed all but gone and the charm of the past erased.
Despite what NBC’s Olympic coverage would like you to believe, some of the most amazing feats performed during the 30th Olympiad have been in the Skeet Shooting competitions. Vincent Hancock’s super human performance, hitting 148 out of 150, was only challenged by Kim Rhodes eliminating 99 of her 100 clay pigeons on the female side. Both were record-setting and unprecedented, yet I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be so close to perfection, with only one or two mis-steps in the way. You can’t blame them – as humans we are far from infallible. Even the greatest of athletes can have a moment of weakness (take the once indomitable Michael Phelps for example).
The same can be said for great musicians. Even the best artists have had their failed albums – Neil Young had “Everybody’s Rockin,” The Ramones had “Halfway to Sanity,” and Bob Dylan had “Down in the Groove.” So when I first listened to The Walkmen’s latest “Heaven,” I decided it must be the band’s first mediocre album. After an extraordinary series of five excellent albums (some may argue against “A Hundred Miles Off,” but they’ve probably never listened to it), I was okay with “Heaven” not continuing in the long line of instant classics.
I’m beginning to think Thee Oh See’s John Dwyer must be some sort of mentor for his younger fellow San Francisco friend Ty Segall. Many of the choices Segall has made, both carreer-wise and aesthetically, have followed in Thee Oh Sees path. One obvious lesson learned from Dwyer is hard work. Thee Oh Sees have released five albums in the past three years. Segall has followed suit, releasing four albums in the past two years, with reports that another album may make its way to shelves still this year. As a result of this constant flow of new material, I’ve felt that some of these albums have been hit-and-miss affairs. “Goodbye Bread,” although fun at times, came off as a bit silly, a little sleepy, and slightly sloppy. This year’s collaboration with White Fence took on the same carefree approach, and although I enjoy its psychedelic folk experimentation, a few tracks seemed like left-overs dressed up as the main course.
During SXSW this past spring, my friend Sewer asked me if I like Tom Petty. This question caught me off guard for two reasons:
1. Sewer was my punk rock compass growing up, and the idea of him liking Tom Petty seemed alien to me.
2. I’d never considered Tom Petty as a legitimately respected artist.
I mulled the question over: Do I like Tom Petty? I don’t dislike him and his merry band of Heartbreakers (side note: worst back-up band name ever). My mom played albums like “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open” in the car when I was a kid, and I never protested. Now that I think about it, Petty’s “Refugee” was my favorite song on Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Chipmunk Punk” album (an album completely devoid of anything that resembled punk – Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, and Queen?!).
Sewer’s question got me thinking. Petty is obviously a talented songwriter with hits like “Running Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin” under his belt, but does he belong in the same pantheon as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan? At the time of my conversation with Sewer, I didn’t think so, but recent albums have me questioning my petty treatment of Petty.
It all started with Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo.” My obsession with this album has been well documented here at BDWPS. I’d heard Petty comparisons with Kurt Vile, yet I didn’t put much merit to them beyond the jangly guitars and vocal stylings. Petty’s lyrics have never delved into the morose terrain that is the region Vile traverses for over 45 minutes on “Halo.” Maybe that’s all Petty’s music is missing? Sure he can write catchy melodies like Neil Young and tell entertaining tales like Springsteen, but none of it means anything if it doesn’t have the same soul and honesty behind it. Am I going to far to lump Petty in with the rest of the music making machine?
Last week my indifference to Petty was challenged again upon first listen to The War On Drugs “Slave Ambient.” Not coincidentally, The War On Drugs happen to be Kurt Vile’s former band. Without Vile, the Philadelphia outfit doesn’t sound like it misses their frontman much (more than I can imagine The Heartbreakers could say for themselves). The absence of Vile is difficult to discern thanks to Adam Granduciel’s ability to pick up the reigns. Both these 2011 albums feature that distinct Petty sound, which ironically, I never found to be distinct before now. Yet there it is, the steadfast drum beats, the anthemic rock guitars, and of course, the crooning style that Tom Petty stole from Bob Dylan years ago. And maybe therein lies the true influence; legend has it that Vile and Graduciel met at a party a decade ago and hit it off due to their shared love of, not Petty, but Dylan. The entire driving force behind The War On Drugs was to create a modern interpretation of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Acolytes of Dylan still keeping his influence alive on “Blackwater” (no relation to the Doobie Brothers):
If taking Dylan’s harmonica, narrative lyrics, and nasal vocals then adding a wall of reverb and krautrock synths results in something that sounds like Tom Petty, than I suppose the comparisons are merited. On the surface every song on “Slave Ambient” has that oh so familiar rock n’ roll pop song demeanor, but the lyrics and the wall of synthesizer drone constantly takes each song into a cozy, lush direction that is somehow, always unexpected. It sneaks up on you; enveloping you in a mist of disorienting proggy atmosphere. It sounds like such a simple pairing, yet I can’t think of another artist who has so masterfully taken these two unique colors and mixed them so subtly.
Krautrock, meet Dylan. Dylan, meet Krautrock- “Your Love Is Calling My Name”:
In the end, I suppose critics are either giving Petty too much credit by calling him an influence on these guys, or maybe they haven’t given Petty enough credit over the years due simply to his ability to make one hit song after another. Whatever the case, I have to admit that I’m in love with “Slave Ambient,” an album that sounds eerily like something Tom Petty would have done 3o years ago if he had the creative fortitude to venture into darker territories, and of course, if he had just a smidgen of soul.