This Note’s for You 

Neil Young, beyond the fringe and back again

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
Photo by Mike Hashimoto

NEIL YOUNG Silver & Gold (Reprise)

The second I put this on, I feel like I’ve entered the Time Tunnel. I’ve got my fringe leather on, I’m driving to the park with my girlfriend in my 1969 Opel GT to meet some friends, smoke a doob, hang out and hit each other on the shoulders. Oh, and it’s 1973 and I’ve got the new Neil Young tape in and she likes it a lot — better than my Foghat or Mothers Fillmore East. Chicks really dig Neil.

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This was a common occurrence for many years, because Neil Young was always putting out “good” new albums, and several even great albums, like [insert favorite Neil Young record here]. And if you didn’t need a laser beam to hear it, this good new Neil Young CD could almost pass for one of those good old Neil Young records. It splits nicely into “Side One” and “Side Two,” is about 40 minutes long (20 minutes/side), it’s got his snaky, creaky printing on the cover, and it even sports the old classic Reprise orange steamship logo with the “:r” that was only used on the Neil, Captain, Duke, Frank and Jimi rekkids. “Side One” is exceptional. Five really great songs, including one, “Buffalo Springfield Again,” that tells a story, has a great hook, and gets you right in the heart, which makes it pretty much perfect — a Neil Young song in every way. “Side Two” has some sugary love stuff that gives me head cavities, but that’s the one your girlfriend will like best. (“Side One” can also be used as a soundtrack for hitting other guys in the shoulder.) A wonderfully warm recording, Silver & Gold is country-folk soaked in co-producer Ben Keith’s crying pedal steel, Neil’s harmonica, fiddles, acoustic guitars and even Emmylou and Linda for good measure on one cut. Everything just seems to fit so damn well. If it were in a 12-inch sleeve, it might squeeze right between After the Gold Rush and Harvest. Snugly, too.

But why now, here in 2000, is this particular Neil CD rocketing up the charts? Maybe because there’re entire armies of “alternative” young guys who grew up on Neil and created a, hell, an entire genre based on his music. Or maybe it’s just that the real deal sounds so sweet and refreshing, because it’s just that: real. Neil continues to make fresh, relevant and honest music, and Silver & Gold is a fine rock-folk-country-love-song album: a good Neil Young album. Extra points added for nostalgic value? Hell yeah!

BELLE and SEBASTIAN Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)

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To Britpop cultists, Belle and Sebastian are a dream: The band grabs the spotlight by avoiding it. (Features on the band usually focus on their reluctance to be featured.) Their records seem to come out in both a trickle and a stream. (Much was made of the unavailability of their coveted debut, originally issued in a pressing of 1,000, and three ’97 EPs initially released only as imports, yet they’ve put out nine records since ’96.) Their well-structured songs revel in Byronic notions and often involve concupiscent adolescents haunted by fatigue and ennui. (Do Belle and Sebastian romanticize early, tragic death? See “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career”; “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying.”) And finally, they’re from Glasgow, Scotland — allowing for a new spin on twee U.K. fetishism. Much is made of the fact that B&S shun media to focus on their music, yet it’s their music, not their lack of traditional pop-star access, that frustrates most.

Sticking with their strengths on their fourth long-player, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, B&S are a bit stuck. Leader Stuart Murdoch’s precious, high-pitched warble will still break a fragile heart, and the band’s arrangements are impressive, evoking Burt Bacharach and funky Stax sides more than the music of contemporary orch-pop pretenders, but the group’s lack of growth has begun to make their well-established talents wear thin. Despite the fact that Fold Your Hands is better produced — deeper, richer — than previous records, its songs are no better (probably worse) than those on the album that first gained them widespread notice, ’97’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. And like ’98’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, on which choirboy/janitor Murdoch began sharing songwriting duties, Fold Your Hands shows the limits of democracy: On this record, one-third of the songs are written and sung by supporting players like cellist Isobel Campbell, violinist Sarah Martin, guitarist Stevie Jackson and keyboard player Chris Geddes. This might furnish a small thrill to B&S fanatics, but it’s akin to the tingle provided Beatles fans when Ringo sang lead — a neat trick and a good way to introduce variety into the mix, but nothing to make one cheer the shifting spotlight.

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