Neil Young International Harvesters – [Album]

Sunday, 19 June 2011

As a longtime Neil Young fan, I have always viewed his Eighties catalogue as "lost years.” Sure – there were some great moments ("T-Bone" on Re-ac-tor, "Sample and Hold" on Trans, "Wonderin" on Everybody's Rockin') but, even as a devout fan, I don't ever go to my record collection with the express intention of putting on some Eighties Neil Young. It just doesn't happen. I respect the historical significance of this period in that Young was defying Geffen Records by making uncommercial records after the label rejected some of his work, but this doesn't make the music any more enjoyable. That being said, the new addition in Young’s Archives Performance Series, A Treasure, might finally challenge my view of Young in the Reagan era.  

A Treasure is a live compilation drawn from Young's 1984-85 tours through America, where he toured with The International Harvesters – a backing band featuring the best country players he could gather to play country versions of old and new material. The best of the tracks ("Amber Jean,” "Grey Riders") are reminiscent of albums just on either side of the Eighties – Comes A Time (1979) and Ragged Glory (1990) – and what this reveals to me is that, while the Eighties may have been lost years for albums, Young's live performances were quite the opposite; Neil knew exactly what he was doing. On A Treasure, the musicianship is incredible, Young is razor sharp and some of the reworked versions are even better than the originals. A Treasure is a much more accessible album than the recently released Le Noise, but both casual and dedicated followers need to be prepared for a full dose of countrified Young; not just country-tinged, but full-on country. If that isn't a deterrent, then I think listeners will find that A Treasure is easily among the best of Young's Eighties catalogue.

A highlight of A Treasure is the musicianship of The International Harvesters. "It Might Have Been” has a slick Nashville sound and is dominated by impressive fiddle work from Rufus Thibodeaux as well as pedal steel from longtime Young collaborator Ben Keith. “Bound for Glory” again features standout performances from Keith and Thibodeaux, but also a very Willie Nelson-esque solo from Young. The banjo parts on “Get Back to the Country” give the number a rollicking bluegrass feel and are easily the best part of the track.

A second highlight is the reworked versions of old and new Young tracks. "Southern Pacific," which originally appeared on Re-ac-tor, shines here in the country format as does Harvest's "Are You Ready For The Country" and Buffalo Springfield's "Flying On the Ground Is Wrong," which all may actually be better than the originals.

Young's songwriting highlights include the previously unreleased "Amber Jean,” a lovely tribute to his newborn daughter which sounds like it would have been at home on Comes A Time, and "Grey Riders,” a lost epic that is just itching to be played with Crazy Horse.

As good as those songs are, there are a few clunkers on A Treasure that are largely the result of Young's frank discussion of the evil of imported cars (Motor City"), the beauty of simpler times ("Let Your Fingers Do The Walking"), God and family values (“Nothing Is Perfect”), all of which are as boring as his discussions of freedom and Mother Earth which dominate the latter part of his catalogue.

Looking back, it makes sense that these themes are prominent on this particular tour, as it was around 1980's Hawks and Doves that these themes started to appear in such a frank format. There is nothing wrong with any song's delivery here (The International Harvesters make them very listenable) but Young's preachy vibe makes them hard to stomach. While this may not be an issue for listeners who share Young's opinions, it will detract for those who don't. All said, A Treasure is another solid addition to Young’s Archives Performance Series, which is providing some much-needed balance to Young's "live" catalogue. I would argue that The International Harvesters deserve much of the credit for the album's success, as their performances and reworking of Young's country-tinged tracks are the best part of the record – but Young also shines, as he was no doubt the catalyst for this direction. I think at best, the album will  serve as proof that the Eighties were not "lost years" for the singer – at least during live performances. The revised versions of tracks like "Southern Pacific" definitely support this theory. At the end of the day, I'll just have to be pleased that I now have an album to listen to, should I get a craving for Eighties country Neil Young.



A Treasure
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

Comments are closed.