Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Neil Young 33: Are You Passionate?

Neil kept something of a high profile in the post-9/11 environment, with his unique live performance of “Imagine” for a televised benefit and the advance release of “Let’s Roll”. Based on the story of the flight that crash-landed in Pennsylvania, the song rumbles in with an unsettling cell phone ring, then rides a “Fame”-like riff underneath the pointed lyrics. Reviewers inevitably compared it to “Ohio”; naturally, it was the one track on Are You Passionate? that would get any attention.
The album itself is the illegitimate child of This Note’s For You—albeit with none of the legendary leftovers from that project—and his 1993 tours with Booker T, whose MGs back him up on some Stax-flavored tunes, with wife Pegi and sister Astrid chirping along and Poncho Sampedro somehow sitting in for Steve Cropper. In hindsight, it’s a genre exercise that might have made sense after that Booker T tour, but here seems out of place. (And for good reason—the songs were originally recorded with Crazy Horse, until Neil decided to start from scratch on all the recordings save one.)
“You’re My Girl” opens with a variation on “Time Is Tight”, and appears to be about his grown daughter. It’s also the most off-pitch he’s been since “Mellow My Mind”. “Mr. Disappointment” features a different, raspier vocal, almost like a character of sorts, which makes it intriguing. But from there the rest of the songs are mostly long, pretty similar and fairly ordinary, and seem to exist solely give Neil a smooth groove over which he can solo here and there. “Differently” percolates with Duck Dunn’s bass, but the man-done-wrong pose isn’t any more effective on “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me)”. After “Let’s Roll”, the title track mixes things up a bit, with a more comfortable melody and lyrics rather than leaning on a groove.
“Goin’ Home”, the sole survivor from that aborted Crazy Horse session, is easily the highlight of the album. While an eight-minute-long Horse track may seem like a calculated move, here it’s refreshing. It even ends abruptly, just like it should, then it’s back to the soul. “When I Hold You In My Arms” begins like a love song, then laments changing times and whoever’s on his lawn. “Be With You” kinda works, being a cousin of “Sunny Inside”, but “Two Old Friends” is a strange little parable, a rare spiritual plea that references The Band’s Rock Of Ages, of all things. “She’s A Healer” runs nine minutes over an relentless groove that only lets up occasionally, with Bluenote Tom Bray adding some trumpet.
Overall the lyrics make a good read, but Are You Passionate? simply doesn’t lend itself to back-to-back listenings. To make matters worse, Neil’s vocals, which are admittedly an acquired taste, sound very off-pitch and out of place amidst such a tight outfit. Maybe he shouldn’t have the backing of a “good” band? It was moot anyway; by the time it came out, he’d been on another CSNY tour, and only played a few shows to promote the album. And then he had something else on his mind.

Neil Young Are You Passionate? (2002)—2

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