Thursday, July 16, 2009

Under the Covers: Neil Young Edition

First, a little housekeeping, in the form of an apology for a lack of posts on here of late. The combination of Glastonbury and related hangovers, followed by a bout of overnight shifts, knocked me back a bit. The bad news - I now have some time off to make up for it. Expect a rash in the next few days.

Right. Welcome to the first edition of Under the Covers, which will become an (ir)regular feature on Ragged Glories going forth. It does what it says on the tin, which is to say it deals exclusively in cover versions. And what better way to start than with five of the best Neil Young covers.

Johnny Cash - Heart of Gold (Unearthed II: Trouble In Mind, 2003)

Take one old master, emptying the tank on his final set of recordings, and give him a Neil Young song to cover. This can only work out well.

Heart of Gold was one of two Neil songs Johnny Cash tackled during the American Recordings, but both it and Pocahontas were added to the pile of cast-offs before finally appearing on the posthumous Unearthed. Thank goodness they did.

Pocahontas is the better song, one of Neil's best, but this is the better cover. While Pocahontas suffers from a little over-elaboration, distracting from the raw beauty of its battle-weary lyrics (which should have been perfect for Cash's fading voice), Heart of Gold is given a fresh lease of life by a man coming to the end of his life. When Neil first summed up his search for a Heart of Gold with the line "...and I'm getting old", there was irony - he was 25 years of age. When Cash sings it here, it is with the rueful smile of a man who has conducted a life-long search.

Emmylou Harris - Wrecking Ball (Wrecking Ball, 1995)

If you're going to cover a Neil song, and need someone to do backing vocals, who do you get? Neil. Only if you can, of course, but Emmylou Harris can.

There's absolutely nothing not to like about this. Whisper it, because I can hardly bring myself to write it about Neil, but it's better than the original (it's okay, it's not like he wasn't there and involved, right?). Emmylou's take is more tender and touching than the original, and these are lyrics that seem like they were written for a female voice. Emmylou subtly adds "I'll" to the chorus lyric "Wear something pretty and white", which is no longer a request but part of the offer.

This served as the title track of Emmylou's 1995 album, which ushered in something of a revival for her, followed as it was by the likes of Red Dirt Girl and Stumble Into Grace. Working with Daniel Lanois, best known as U2's producer, she used an updated electric sound, far more atmospheric, which only served to enhance the greatest voice in country music.

Scott Miller & The Commonwealth - Hawks and Doves (Reconstruction, 2007)

The original sounds like it was recorded in a bar, presumably quite considerably after closing time, so what better way to cover it than live, in a bar, with closing time fast approaching.

A gloriously ragged slow stumper back in its original form, Hawks and Doves epitomised Young's surprising and controversial rightward political tilt at the start of the 80s.

Miller first covered it for his 2006 album, Citation, but I've gone with the more raucous live version from 2007's Reconstruction. Cleaned up and speeded up, Miller turns this into an anthem, and one I used to love belting out at the top of my lungs flying down the freeway - "I'm proud to be living in the USA" is a great lyric to sing when you've just moved to the country, as I had when this came out.

Given how misplaced most of the analysis of the original proved, we won't even consider the politics of covering this at the time Miller did, but just appreciate a good ol' sing-along.

The Pixies - Winterlong (Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young, 1989)

This was one of the true highlights of the 1989 collection, Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, this song is something of a lost classic - at least as lost as anything that figures on the essential Neil compilation Decade can be. Never appearing on an album proper, it almost seemed to be forgotten in the great mass of Neil's works.

The Pixies rescued it from obscurity and made it their own - which maybe wasn't too hard given how the flowing melody of the vocals over a driving rhythm echoed their own sound.

Buddy Miles - Down By The River (Them Changes, 1970)

If you were drawing up a list of songs that no one should bother trying to cover, there's a strong case for putting Down By The River somewhere near the top. Let's be honest, Neil nailed it. The original version is among the greatest nine minutes and 27 seconds in musical history.

But Buddy Miles clearly was not put off. Bringing his soulful sounds to the party, Miles polishes the raw edges of Neil's classic, changing the mood to something more sinister. Gone is the emotion that charged the original, almost as though Miles doesn't care what he's done.

No, this isn't as good as the original, but it's a more than worthy effort.

PS - The picture credit for this post goes to my good friend Jack Doyle - this was our view of the great man at Glastonbury. Fantastic.

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