Sunday, October 10, 2010

Kat's Korner: Neil Young's Le Noise

Kat: Back when the singer-songwriter craze had peaked, though no one had yet noticed, I let a guy we'll call Billy move in with me. He didn't have a job, though he always managed to be baked whenever I got home. As a lover, I'd rank him so-so. So if you're wondering what his hold on me was, the answer was his guitars.

He was just really learning electric -- convinced that an era had passed (he was right) -- but, on a good night when I was home, he'd grab one of them, we'd have the a.c. down low and he'd tune up while I lit a candler or two. Then he'd proceed to play, to make some amazing music for an hour or two or more. It was a joy to hear, it was magical.

As I remember the chronology, we broke up and a half-year later he gave up music and made carpentry his life and pretty much spent all his waking hours in Laurel Canyon. He lives on the East Coast now and tidbits drift across the country to me from time to time. But my big question is: Does he ever grab the guitar and play the night away the way he used to?


Le Noise, the new album from Neil Young, reminds me of that time and of Billy. The eight track collection has a thematic consistency to it and sounds as if it's Neil at his most personal, saying what he wants to say, playing what he wants to play and not really sure if you're listening or not. If you are listening, it's hard not to be spellbound.

"Hitchhiker" traces Neil's struggles with stardom and other drugs -- and does so in a confessional manner that will strike many as the most revealing song. And while it's a great song, it's hardly the most confessional, especially when contrasted with his naked and open vocals on the various questions he asks himself in "Rumblin'."

In May 2006, Neil released a masterpiece, one that tied for number one with two other albums (Ben Harper's Both Sides of the Gun and Michael Franti & Spearhead's Yell Fire!) on my own year's best. In the time since, he's released two other albums and I'd hear C.I. playing them on the road and enjoy them but didn't feel they matched 2006's Living With War.

That's not an insult. Few albums will ever match that high-water mark. That's what a career's about, peaks and valleys. Explorations. Two Fridays ago, we were in Boston and C.I. is telling Mike's dad that he has to, has to, listen to this one album. (Mike's dad, Trina's husband. To get all my links in.) And from the first strums of the electric guitar, I'm hooked. Eighteen seconds in, when the vocal comes on, I know it's Neil. By the middle of track three, I'm pretty sure this is a masterpiece. About the time track seven, "Peaceful Valley Boulevard," winds down, I know it is.

Ancient rivers soon began to boil
Folks rushed in like water to California
At first they came for gold and then for oil
Fortunes were made and lost in lifetimes
Mother Earth took poisons in her soil
An electro-cruiser coasted towards the exit and turned on Peaceful Valley Boulevard
"People Make the Difference" read a billboard above a long line of idling cars.

That's one of the acoustic numbers on the album and one of the many which argues Neil Young's only real songwriting peer is Joni Mitchell. I'd argue Le Noise tops Harvest and stands tied with On the Beach in the Neil Young canon.

"When the music played, I watched you dance, it was a sign of love," Neil sings on track two. The album's the sound of love and those who embrace music should be floating on the clouds with the first listen. Thanks to Neil for sharing something so private and personal and for having it in him to begin with.