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Thursday, August 25, 2022

Comment of the Moment: Sound Mix of Albums "TOAST" & "Are You Passionate?" by Neil Young

"TOAST" & "Are You Passionate?" 


The Comment of the Moment is from Concert Film "Noise & Flowers" by Neil Young + Promise of the Real | Hearse Theater | NYA by  the "intrepid, inconsolable, & inflammable" Scotsman:

(Off topic – sorry.)

Do we know when Toast (the released version) was mixed?

Because if you listen to the Are You Passionate mix of Goin' Home, you can instantly hear why Crazy Horse (from the other side of the mixing control room) weren't totally impressed by these recording sessions back in 2001.

The mix is limp and grey and flat sounding (what I call the "wet cardboard" effect). The vocal is tentative — it struggles to find the melody, and is submerged by the guitars. The lead guitar hits a series of bum notes that kill the mood.

The bass has no real depth or presence. The overdubs might as well not be there. Poncho's masterful second-guitar performance is buried.

And in the end, Neil just aborts the performance.

The feeling is: "this isn't quite working". Which is frustrating. For the musicians and producer and the listener.

But the mix on Toast is the opposite of all that. And it's the *same* take — the same version! Neil and John Hanlon knew there was something special in this performance, and they went in and brought it to the surface.

This is an album where the production, the overdubs and the mixing all play a huge part in the success of the music.

That's not a criticism! The production is part of the art.

Similarly, many people wear makeup to accentuate their natural beauty. Nothing wrong with that, and it's the same principle.

In the music world, an audible sense of production only becomes a problem when a) it detracts from the music's natural beauty and b) when the production covers up a lack of substance.

(Much of Le Noise, in my opinion, is an example of the latter. The production is impressive, but the effect is a hollow one.)

On Toast, extensive work has gone into making Goin' Home sound as good as humanly possible. The bum notes have been chopped (as minimally as possible), the vocal has been heavily compressed to even it out and add some heft, there's a 3D sense of vocal echo, the abrupt ending is faded out...

It sounds magical. And, unlike the Are You Passionate attempt, it's been mixed with both gutsy horsepower and real colour. This is the spirit of David Briggs in the mixing room.

The Are You Passionate mix of Goin' Home is like a documentary. We might imagine it's Neil telling us "this is why I re-recorded this album".

Whereas the Toast mix is designed to take this rough diamond of a performance and present it to the world in the best light possible.

PS: the mixes of Goin' Home are different enough that some listeners have imagined them to be two different takes. Understandable!

But there are some extra overdubs on the Toast mix — so the two aren't musically identical.

E.g notice the twinkling piano (and what sounds like the church organ) rising out of the mix just before the final guitar solo — helping propel it into a higher gear.

I think these are inspired touches, instantly reminding of the overdubs we hear on Drive Back from Zuma. Another power-chord-based song that somehow feels entirely different to its 2001 cousin.


No worries on off topic.

Sometimes off topic leads back to focus on what truly matters. And never stop being your  "intrepid, inconsolable, & inflammable" self Mr. Scotsman.

Neil Young Unreleased 2001 Album w/ Crazy Horse 
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More on "Dream PlayList" of "TOAST" & "Are You Passionate?" by Neil Young.

Back to topic ... 

Neil Young + Promise of the Real's "Noise & Flowers" 
 image via Rusted Moon  

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At 8/25/2022 11:44:00 AM, Blogger zuma11 said...

There are times when the new echo/delay on the Goin' Home vocal sounds pretty long. I have wondered if they've actually mixed in a second previously unheard or low in the mix vocal track? I totally agree though - this new mix reinvigorates the song and makes it more in line with what I heard live in 2001.

At 8/25/2022 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

I agree with everything said concerning ‘Going Home’. The Toast version is definitely more alive and urgent than the Are You Passionate version. I still feel it should have been longer though, but then that would have defeated the “leave em’ wanting more” philosophy. But I don’t think Le Noise was the best example of a “lack of substance”. For me personally, Le Noise contains a ton of substance, and I feel that the production techniques elevated the songwriting. Just my opinion of course, no offense intended.

Peace 🙏

At 8/25/2022 11:52:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Agree with Dan on Le Noise. Several strong songs, though interestingly, some of the best (for me) are not the most heavily produced. Loved that album at the time and, actually, have been thinking recently about wanting to watch the atmospheric video that accompanied it. Love and War, on its own, is one of Neil’s most striking and important songs of the last 20 years.

At 8/26/2022 01:10:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

It’s Amazing to me that the 2 versions are from the same take. I thought I heard more urgency in the AYP? Version, but I love every song on Toast. I also love AYP?

I also LOVE Le Noise. I thought it added to his Art. He is a one man band wielding a mutant instrument. I find the results spectacular and impressive. The live performances were also great!

Nice to read your posts, Dan & All.

At 8/26/2022 01:12:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

In general I prefer all versions from Toast over AYP?. But AYP also is a great album, IMHO.

Your Brother Alan in Seattle

At 8/26/2022 03:58:00 AM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

(The following is opinion, clearly stated as such.)

Le Noise is mostly a (great-sounding?) Daniel Lanois record where Neil Young has contributed some half-baked sketches — the foundation for Lanois to build upon.

Because behind the smoke and mirrors (Lanois's contribution) are some of the most blandly-"flavoured" lyrics Neil has ever written.

David Briggs told us Neil is the "worst finisher in rock 'n' roll", and I think Le Noise album is the proof of that.

Why? Because Neil edits TOO LATE. At Lanois's urging, he changes direction TOO LATE.

(Nothing wrong with editing or changing direction — but both work best when they come early, before persistence mutates into second guessing).

The extended Le Noise documentary screened on NYA demonstrates that Neil had lots of fascinating stuff EARLY in the process... but much gets displaced in favour of Angry World, Sign of Love etc — songs that any writer on this planet could have knocked out on an off-day.

Of course, half-finished sketches are themselves interesting. And the whole innovative experiment of solo-electric was interesting, too. *So* interesting it deserved some more fleshed-out songs.

So I *partially* agree with many of you — there are some good songs... particularly the early ones. And lots of fascinating sounds.

But it's the first record where Neil turns in minimal-viable songs and lets a mega-bucks celebrity producer elevate them.

Style over substance? I think the substance was there, ready to be fleshed out — but it mostly got dropped in favour of something new and shiny. A partial parallel to Toast, then!

The new and shiny thing would have itself been powerful — if the songs had spent a few minutes longer in the metaphorical oven.

(Is it possible to overcook songs, too? Of course it is. That's the challenge for a songwriter and musical innovator like Neil.)


At 8/26/2022 01:11:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Scotman's comments here are brilliant. The writing articulates the ideas so well that a whole vista is opened, as demonstrated by all the other good comments-

I did not ever think very highly of Le Noise and was amazed when Angry World won an award? (A song as singular, dark, threatening, and frightening as "I'm the Ocean" is just forgotten?) In my opinion, just an opinion, "Americana" is the best album of this Neil era as it strips down and annihilates the thoroughly misunderstood songs. In Neil's hands, "Clementine" becomes truly human, full of deep secrets (that we all have), and harrowing. The video made my hair stand on end. I guess the production sucks, but the dirty, grimy, guitar tells the story of love, death, and denial.

At 8/26/2022 03:08:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

In composing this response, I’ve taken some breathing space, trying to be sure I’m not misreading or overreacting. I have also re-watched the Le Noise film, viewable on ny’s youtube channel, to determine if I’m accurately remembering the songs. For the most part, I am. Firstly, Abner, your take on Americana always interests me. I think you bring a lot of your own background to it, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Grammy for Angry World did strike me as odd, out of all the songs they could have chosen. However, music is a full-body experience. (This observation actually goes back to the origins of ancient drama and can still be felt in live performances today. It’s a little beyond the scope of this post, but there are reasons we say live music is better.) Abner’s comment on Clementine illustrates this point in a small way: when your hairs stand on end, this suggests an emotional, physiological response beyond an intellectual understanding of what you are hearing. Similarly, ancient Sanskrit chants are said to have spiritual power through the particular sounds being expressed, not must the meaning of the words on paper.

Without getting to woo-woo (which I know irritates some folks), the point is that music—and, more broadly, sound, including speech—resonates on levels other than purely intellectual or (for lyrics) literal. On that basis, Le Noise scores well with me. Down to my feet, I feel* the slam of the opening chord on ‘Walk with Me’, the tension and relief of the bridge with Neil’s slow descending vocal. The little “mantra” that opens and closes ‘Angry World’ (“we hate, we hate, we hate” interrupted by gentle raindrop-like intonations of “love-love-love”) is an aural universe in itself.

To truly appreciate an album like Le Noise, one cannot meaningfully separate the songs from the production. They are designed to work together. I would put Storytone (the fully produced orchestral version) in the same category. A symbiotic blend of song-craft and production creates rich, omni-dimensional musical landscapes, textures of sound. Know where else this principle comes into play? Most of the Horse’s best work.

As a thought experiment, what if we had the exact same set of songs from Le Noise, but rather than reverb and electronic adornments, the songs were layered with extended Crazy Horse jamming? My contention is that lots of folks would have been all over that. It’s not as if the Pill is consistently filled with Neil’s most intricate, sophisticated, poetic lyrics but many people, frankly, don’t care that much about words being simplistic, banal even, as long as they’re getting the sound they want.

On one level, the Pill deserves all the praise it gets. The quality of songwriting, however, is often no stronger or weaker than albums that get a lot less love. The Pill succeeds as an aural, musical experience. Perhaps the ultimate Crazy Horse experience. I would argue, however, that without the Horse, that set of songs would lose a lot. Similarly, Storytone leaps to life through the orchestra and Le Noise is about… well… the noise.

Scotsman, I know you get this stuff. I put the disagreement down to an honest difference in our subjective responses to the music. Peace!

At 8/26/2022 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Another great post- I think it is obvious that there is a good case to be made for Le Noise. The Pill, for me, all adds up to two songs: Walk Like a Giant and Ramada Inn. I would choose the latter as a great Neil song. I never listen to the rest of it. Ian, you are quite right, I bring a lot of my own background to Americana. It is not hard to grasp my biases- the harder the realism the better. I do not have the sensibilities that you have cultivated. I thoroughly respect and admire your points.

At 8/26/2022 05:51:00 PM, Blogger Flyingscotzman said...

Worth pointing out that I'm not unfairly comparing Le Noise to (e.g) a Leonard Cohen record that was crafted over a period of about 6 years!

(No offence to Leonard, a genius in his own right — but fair to say, Neil's music is a different sort of genius).

So what's an example of a powerful lyric? Will to Love? Yes... But also Homegrown, Farmer John, and Piece of Crap.

What do all these songs have? Attitude, colour, personality... The list goes on.

Does a great-sounding record have to have a sharp lyric? No.... But at the same time, it doesn't do any harm. And a *flat* lyric can kill the mood, for sure.

And one thing I *do* know is that there's no extra cost to using (picking? Choosing? Selecting? Grabbing? Reaching for?) colourful words, or evocative turns of phrase.

Example: "he came dancing across the water", in context, is clearly a MILLION TIMES more powerful a lyric than "he came sailing across the water".

The latter lyric might have scuppered Cortez The Killer before it even left the shore! Whereas the former *instantly* captivates the listener. That's one of Neil's skills.

And that's the sort of CHARACTER and VIVID IMAGERY that I think is missing from many of the electric tracks on Le Noise. The songs aren't quite cooked... And the album relies on Lanois's production seasoning to add some flavour.

Some good tracks? Oh yes, and certainly some powerful sounds. But much of it is Neil Young on autopilot, and Daniel Lanois saves the day.

Now, I think it's true that Psychedelic Pill also has bouts of blandness. But more of it is written in vivid colour, not grey and beige.


Ian: it's good to read your fiercely intelligent comments. Never any offence intended to you (or anybody) when my view clashes with your own.

Ab: thank you, and I like Americana a lot, as well! I think the music videos are Neil's most successful, artistically speaking.

(Commercially, probably not: in the same way that Angry World gets a shiny award but I'm The Ocean doesn't.

Meanwhile, the organic vegan cafe is open for business, but people swarm to KFC instead. Such is life!)

At 8/26/2022 06:28:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

You are all excellent observers and I genuinely appreciate and admire all of you. To have the back and forth of differing perspectives and opinions is truly gratifying. Now if we could just get the rest of the world to do the same.

Peace 🙏

P. S. I love Americana, Psychedelic Pill, Storytone, and Le Noise all for different reasons. The breadth and scope of these four records are evidence of a true musical genius at work. There just aren’t that many artists out there willing to be that brave.

At 8/26/2022 06:59:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Thanks, Abner--appreciate your kind words. Interesting, I wouldn't have pegged Neil's style as particularly realist. The recent thread on dreams speaks to this. Even in his "gritty" mode, Neil sometimes evades straightforward narrative in favor of distorted visions and plenty of yearning for the intangible. "Dream, comfort, memory to spare."

And Scotsman, of course, no offense taken or intended. More of a momentary reminder of how different our responses to the same music can be. My point, I suppose, is that what makes a good or effective lyric depends, in part, on everything going on around the lyric, the musical space the words are being situated within. There's no "one size fits all" solution for the artist, hence Driftin' Back is suitable for The Pill where Razor Love (to take a random example) works for Silver & Gold.

Different projects, different sensibilities, so different kinds of lyrics fit. I'm interested in looking at the whole, how lyrics work (or don't) as part of a specific piece of music within the context of whatever "sound feeling" an album seems to be trying to create.

At 8/26/2022 07:14:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

I have read certain lyrics long before I heard the song, and by themselves didn’t move me much. But when heard within the context of the music, they speak in a completely different way. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had that experience.

Peace 🙏

At 8/26/2022 09:55:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Realism is consistent with dream sequences. I think the point is to directly address human reality.

At 8/28/2022 05:55:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Honestly, I have tried in very different venues, to define "realism" (in fiction) and failed. There might be necessary conditions, but it is difficult to round out necessary and sufficient. This might mean, no definition is really available. And what do I even mean by "directly address human reality"? A stupid comment. The local newspaper, however awful, "directly addresses human reality" in various ways.

I just read a good piece on Harvest at 50. The critic mentions its emotional heft, although I don't think it weights in as heavily as several others...

At 8/28/2022 08:14:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

Abner, It may not be particularly useful (in this context) to grapple with a precise definition of realism. It's possible I was thinking in more literary, "refined" terms than you had in mind. Social realism (e.g.) may be defined as much by form as by thematic content.

Maybe the most useful part of this exercise is the chance to reexamine one's prejudices. My interest in form occasionally distracts from more concrete, urgent problems.

At 8/29/2022 02:48:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

That was my point, not useful in this context.

I am skeptical about any formal definition that includes necessary and sufficient conditions.

An intensional definition is clearly required, extensional is here mostly worthless.

At 8/31/2022 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Mister Henry said...

Hold me closer
I think I need a friend
Well my longest night of lonesome
Is coming to an end

Hold me closer
As we walk into the wind
Lay your love upon my heart
And we'll pray that it will mend
--Luke Bell


Your work is to discover your work and then
with all your heart to give yourself to it.


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