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Thursday, January 12, 2017

REVIEW: Neil Young’s "Compelling" Peace Trail

Last year, we compiled a variety of reviews of Neil Young’s Peace Trail which ranged from worthy to unworthy -- maybe not so surprisingly.

We've shared our thoughts as well as those of our dear readers here over the past several weeks as well, for example here and here. Now that the album has been out for a little while, many folks are starting to wake up to its deceptive simple brilliance. Surprise.

Here's a very positive review from Belleville Intelligencer by David Reed:
Neil Young’s 37th studio album is a real gem. There is a lot of breathing room because most of the songs feature just acoustic guitar, bass and drums, with a few treats. It is refreshing to hear Young’s vocals above a relatively open sonic backdrop.

Young tapped legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, who has played with countless icons including Dylan, Clapton, Brian Wilson, the Travelling Wilburys, and solo albums by John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

Bassist Paul Bushnell has an impressive list of credits including recordings with Tim McGraw, Phil Collins, Ron Sexsmith, Michael Buble and Chris Isaak.

The spontaneity and loose chemistry among the trio is clear for all to hear. Keltner’s drumming is subtle, gently ragged and conversational, responding to the nuances of the songs rather than just playing beats. Bushnell’s bass lines are linear and meandering, yet still maintain a solid groove throughout.

By all reports, the album was completed in just four days and most tracks were either first or second takes. Young has a reputation for preferring first takes for their honesty and unpolished directness. For an album of protest songs, that is a good model.

My Pledge is mostly spoken, with Young contributing his own auto-tuned vocal harmony, but the effect is used as a sonic colour, not a corrective tool (thankfully). Young complains that he is “lost in this new generation, left me behind it seems.” He also laments the technology addiction and insincerity of tech zombies being “alone with their heads lookin’ at their hands, lost in the conversation stare. Walkin’ with their eyes lookin’ at the screen, talkin’ like they were really there.”

Can’t Stop Workin’ is autobiographical and lets the listener feel like Young is telling us about his creative process. Like many of his greatest songs, this track bounces gently between two chords. There is a beautifully jarring harmonica solo that sounds like Little Walter playing through Jimmy Page’s Marshall stack.

Indian Givers protests the Dakota Access Pipeline and supports the people of Standing Rock Indian Reservation with scathing lyrics that include lines such as “Now it’s been about 500 years / We keep taking what we gave away ...There’s a battle ragin’ on sacred land / Our brothers and sisters had to take a stand...Big Money goin’ backwards and rippin’ the soil, where graves are scattered...Behind Big Money justice always fails.”

Glass Accident attacks government accountability, but also hints at a broken marriage. Texas Rangers is a bit plodding. Terrorist Suicide Hang-Gliders is a curious commentary on fake news, with a hint of Woody Guthrie and more amped-up harmonica.

John Oaks is a track that sounds like a character description from Young’s Greendale record, but in this case there is commentary on police shootings behind the story.

Other highlights include the mid-tempo groove of Show Me, and the blistering lead guitar and catchy melody of the title track.

My New Robot closes the album and it is the most bizarre track on the record. It starts out sounding like a traditional folk song, but then there are sampled voices (reportedly Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s new Echo device) asking for PIN numbers, card swipes and other online purchase info. The vocoder sounds of the Trans era return with uncomfortable effect. It is an unsettling commentary on the consumerist nature of our society and the awkward affection some people have for computers. Then, the song ends abruptly as the computer voice says “powering off.” Without warning, the album is done.

Times are changing, and Neil Young continues to follow his own path and have his own opinions. Peace Trail is compelling for its directness, simplicity and thought-provoking songwriting. Young’s lead guitar playing is also truly epic. This album demands a few days on repeat.
As we posted in a comment recently on all of the perceptive thoughts:

"Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
album sales, lyric quality, cover art, aging, vocals
This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace *trail* a chance
All we are saying is give peace *trail* a chance
All we are saying is give peace *trail* a chance
All we are saying is give peace *trail* a chance"

More reviews of Neil Young’s Peace Trail album.

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At 1/12/2017 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Mick Funz said...

I admit I illegally downloaded PEACE TRAIL when it came out.
My girl & I have listened to it every day, every other day.
This is a very listenable record, & the lyrics are strong with a few goof moments.
Neil's voice, his sense of space, the playing of Keltner, especially, make for a very compelling little record
I'm going to tell Facebook about it.
Oh, I bought the CD two days ago & have listened three more times!

At 1/12/2017 12:30:00 PM, Blogger Arthur said...

"..The blistering lead guitar on the title track...."

In 1987 Warren Zevon put out a record called Sentimental Hygiene.

On this Neil plays another earlier blistering lead guitar on a title track
with Zevon's Sentimental Hygiene.

That album is backed by members of REM also.
First time I heard it on the radio, I knew it was Neil.
Most of us probably know about this record but I feel it
bears another listen. Just because it's Neil...and he's blistering!

At 1/12/2017 12:35:00 PM, Blogger kristof.thoelen said...

I like the album too. I don't get the bad reviews in the Belgian papers. Did they really listen?

At 1/12/2017 05:35:00 PM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

Thanks Arthur! I hadn't heard that but I haven't heard too much Warren Zevon outside of the strung out on heroin song that I really like.

At 1/12/2017 06:20:00 PM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Good to see the great Warren Zevon mentioned here - he fell out with REM but he fell out with many people. Crystal Zeveon's book 'Ill Sleep When I'm Dead' is interesting slant on the man. In my view his songwriting never dipped and he never really sold any records apart from 'Werewolves'.

At 1/12/2017 10:55:00 PM, Blogger onthebeach said...

I just got the album this past Saturday...I've been waiting for the vinyl but my local record store told me it was on backorder...I couldn't wait anymore so i got the cd. I'm kinda glad I got the cd now as I've been able to drive around with the album this past week and really soak it in...I think it's quietly one of his best since 2000 for sure. It's got little bits and pieces of Neil's past work sprinkled throughout it with fresh new twists applied to the similarities. The overall feel is morose to me (this is were I agree with past reviews shouting out On the Beach and Sleeps With Angels...I thought I'd do a track-by-track review.

Peace Trail: I love the pump organ and Keltner's drums and the bass...The guitar reminds me of the Dead Man guitar work...Plus I like how the melody is in the similar style of Ramada Inn which is a great thing because imo, that song is a late career masterpiece from PP.

Can't Stop Workin': Guitar reminds me of the verses on Down By the River...Neil's vocals sound great and the distorted harmonica just cuts through...

Indian Givers: I've dug this since it was released on the internet back in September...Jim Keltner's drums really shine on this track as they just keep consistently rolling on.

Show Me: Standout track for me...Bushnell is great on this track. This wouldn't be out of place on Sleeps With Angels or On the Beach...I love the quiet guitar work on the verses and the main riff is killer.

Texas Rangers: To me this is the weakest track on the album (although at times its a guilty pleasure)...Its a little messy but interesting. Sometimes a line will be too long for the melody which makes me think of similar parts LWW, CD II, and FITR.

Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders: This song makes me think of the quieter parts of Chrome Dreams II (Ever After, etc)...I like when the beat drops out in the song...the harmonica playing fits the subject well, makes me think of hang gliders screeching down.

John Oaks: I agree with everyone else as this would fit on Greendale (sorta takes me back to Bandit)...I love the sparse instrumentation on this album.

My Pledge: Best use of Auto tune I believe I have heard...this one makes me think of Greendale as well...this one also shouts out to the recent Earth lp with the use of auto tune as backing vocals.

Glass Accident: I really like this one too...The melody reminds me of Beautiful Bluebird from CD II...great harmonica playing.

My New Robot: A shoutout to Trans with the return of the Vocoder...I dig this one too as I like how crazy its all getting before it shuts down.

At 1/13/2017 06:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Worth remembering that in the last year or so, we've also been given two other generous, hugely rewarding Neil Young albums (Bluenote Cafe and Earth). Both of these records have a whole world of sound for you to lose yourself in.

So if you haven't listened to them for a while, today might be a good day.


At 1/13/2017 07:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The key to really enjoying Earth: fully embrace the overdubs, rather than wishing they weren't there. Almost every postive review (other than mine) was along the lines of: "it's a good live album, but it would be better without the overdubs". That's missing the point. Earth is not trying to be a "live album" in the traditional sense, and it's actually all the better because of it. There's so much going on, so many signature details, so much fun, that I really don't know where to begin. Just go and listen to it.

It also helps to listen to it on a good sound system. Earth has been mastered very quietly and subtly by modern standards, a lot of dynamic range (like a film soundtrack), and will therefore sound better through a decent pair of headphones (I can recommend the Sennheiser HD600s with a reasonably powerful amp) than it will through your tinny car speakers.

Bluenote Cafe is the opposite of this; mastered to be loud and lively and fun, it sounds good on just about anything, at any volume. Although it needs a sound system with decent bass extension to be fully appreciated. The Bluenotes were essentially bass-driven, and clearly you are not going to hear the bass on your laptop speakers or treble-heavy ear-buds.


At 1/13/2017 09:35:00 PM, Blogger Arthur said...

Hey, Doc!

Have ya heard this one?

Turn it up! It's cold outside!

At 1/13/2017 10:07:00 PM, Blogger new design said...

A return to form. It has an identity. Primitive, slightly under-baked, unapologetic, cranky, imperfect, real. His first album in a while with an identifiable feel. And I love the way the harp emerges to shit over the top of things.

At 1/14/2017 01:23:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Given Peace Trail lots of chances....nope it's still dreadful - for me it sounds like Hawks & Doves - I need staying power for this and it's run out !

At 1/14/2017 04:27:00 AM, Blogger new design said...

@Andy Walters
You don't like Hawks & Doves and you're on a Neil Young fan blog? Why waste your time? Is it just for the titillation, the troll effect? Ok, it's not an out and out classic but in my mind a very solid effort.

At 1/14/2017 06:58:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

@ RB ? I'm no troll a Neil Young fan since 1970 - I meant it sounds half thought out like H & Ds - what is troll effect? Titillation ??? crumbs what's going on to cause these comments. I'm just being honest it does nothing for me.

At 1/14/2017 03:51:00 PM, Blogger new design said...

Fair comment Andy. I like H & D. Like a lot of his better albums/songs it has an underdone feel initially. ATGR, OTB, TFA and Eldorado are similar in that regard. A live feel. But you're right, it's silly to get too serious about these things.

At 1/15/2017 03:03:00 AM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

Thanks again Arthur I had not heard that either.


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