Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Neil Young - American Stars & Bars

Neil Young
American Stars & Bars

Released 1977 on Reprise
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 06/07/2003ce

If you are a Neil Young afficianado, you are probably aware that several of Neil's albums have never been available on CD before. What is really incredible is that the "missing six" are (for the most part*) nowhere near his "worst" or even "worst sellers"; they range from merely good (the countryish dawn-of-Reagan showdown "Hawks & Doves" from 1980) to interesting oddities ("Re-Ac-Tor", atomic pre-"Trans" Crazy Horse from 1981) to absolutely fantastic (this album here and "On The Beach" from 1974 which Mr. Cope hath reviewed already.)

Well dig! These four LP's** will finally be appearing as "remastered reissue" CD's in AUGUST 2003 C.E.!! YEAHHH!!

The material on "Stars" was recorded at various sessions between 1974 and 1977 and displays a broad mixture of styles and textures, starting with folk-country numbers like the enigmatic "Star of Bethlehem" and self-explanatory "The Old Country Waltz". The harder stuff is represented by Crazy Horse-styled crunchers like "Saddle Up The Palomino", "Bite The Bullet" and the weedvertisement "Homegrown." The flop-single from the album is "Hey Babe" which is a bona-fied classic of the "California 70's rock" style, with Linda Ronstadt & Nicolette Larson helping out on backing vocals (why it failed to hit the Top 10 is a mystery to me, it's right up there with his "Heart Of Gold" and sure beats anything the Eagles or America ever did.)

But the heart of the album is the two long tracks which comprise most of side 2: first the acoustic guitar trance "Will To Love," the basic tracks of which were recorded by Neil alone in a log cabin with a wood stove crackling in the background, giving it a tremendous sense of atmosphere. He then added ghostly la-la-la overdubs that blow in and out of the mix like eddies of snow drifting in the wind on a cold Canadian night. A hypnotic reverie with a Salmon-swiming-upstream lyrical metaphor, the track is unforgettable after the first listening.

This is followed by "Like A Hurricane", one of Neil's most famous tunes and certainly the inspiration for the brilliant from-under-the-barroom-floor, up-to-the-stars-in-the-sky cover photo (which was designed by actor Dean Stockwell!) Musically it features a dead-simple yet utterly majestic chord progression (Amin-G-Fmaj7-Emin7 and repeat) rendered dreamy and blurry by seemingly endless (in a good way) guitar solos and a scary organ squall that is all compressed treble sheen (courtesy of a gizmo called the Univox Stringman.) This disquieting "out-there" cosmic psyche-rock is the perfect bed for another rumination comparing the forces of nature (a hurricane) with the forces of the human heart. Neil sounds drunk, stoned and lost in space as he plaintively sings to his lost lady of the stars (and bars): "once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar . . . dancing on the light from star to star . . . " You should know the rest, it's goddamn poetry!!

From the seedy to the celestial, it's all in there.

* "Journey Through The Past" from 1972 is a movie soundtrack comprised of "fake-live" Buffalo Springfield, jams on songs from "Harvest", classical choral pieces, a Beach Boys instrumental, and other worthless stuff. Probably Neil's least necessary album.

** But why the hell is "Time Fades Away" (1973) still not out on CD?!? It's a great live album of all new-at-the-time songs including classics like the title track, "Don't Be Denied" and "The Bridge."

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