Neil Young is probably second only to David Bowie in his chameleon-like ability to adopt a new persona for whatever project he might be indulging himself at the moment. Over the past decade or so, Neil’s focus seems to have settled on doing what he does best: playing emotionally charged blues-based electric folk-rock. Even so, Neil still manages to find a fresh approach even when the ground being covered seems somewhat familiar. Neil’s latest offering, ‘Greendale’, scheduled for release on 27th January, is no exception. The sound is most certainly classic Neil Young, but the angle, this time, is that the music is presented as a novel.
One might be inclined to call ‘Greendale’ a concept album, but in reality, the term “musical novel” is so much more appropriate. Neil’s past explorations such as ‘Trans’ and ‘Everybody’s Rockin’’ are concept albums in the truest sense, with the concepts being electronic music and rockabilly, respectively. Neil has explored other concepts as well, but ‘Greendale’ does not rely upon the usual musical departure as the concept. Rather, the concept of ‘Greendale’ is to tell a story, and Neil certainly ranks right up there with some of the best storytellers in all of rock history.
With that said, I will not delve into the specifics of the ‘Greendale’ storyline. My aim here is to explore the music and technical production of the DVD-Audio edition of this novel. I have been provided with an advance copy of the ‘Greendale’ DVD-A where the visual interface and bonus materials have not been finalized, and therefore will not comment on these elements. I will say that each song serves as a chapter in the ‘Greendale’ novel. Every one of the ten chapters stands strongly on their own, as discrete elements of an overall picture. Indeed, each “chapter” might be thought of as a fully developed novella, fleshing out characters and scenery of the story.
Besides the story, the thing that ties this album together is the stripped down production. The effect is very much that of a garage band. The album essentially consists of a trio, with Neil Young on guitar, harmonica and lead vocals, Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums. The majority of the album appears to have been recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs and embellishments. Despite the stripped down production, the recording quality is exceptional, offering an interesting contrast between garage rock sensibilities and remarkable fidelity.
The idea that each song on ‘Greendale’ stands on its own is punctuated by the fact that the surround mix of the DVD-Audio disc often changes dramatically from one song to the next. Indeed, it is best to examine this musical novel on a song-by-song basis:
‘Falling From Above’ – The beginning track is quite strong and immediately re-familiarizes us with Neil’s signature electric guitar sound. The surround mix presents a very intimate feel, and combined with the spectacular 96kHz 24-bit high-resolution digital recording (both dedicated stereo and multi-channel tracks), offers exquisite acoustical insight into the performance space. If the aim of “hi-fi” is to recreate the musical event, then the surround mix of ‘Falling From Above’ accomplishes this task in spades.
The imaging of the four stereo pairs works together in perfectly balanced unison to recreate a stark yet perceptively realistic environment. Of special mention is the spectacular vocal imaging, anchored fully front-and-center stage. At first I thought that they had done a remarkable job with the center channel, until I realized there isn’t a center channel! In fact, the entire recording lacks a center channel and is, in essence, a quadraphonic recording reinforced with the LFE (subwoofer) channel. Sadly, the wonderful vocal imaging of ‘Falling From Above’ does not grace the remainder of ‘Greendale’. This is not to say that the vocal presentation is not acceptable throughout the rest of the album, just that it does not again reach the peak of technical excellence offered in this first track.
The only hint that ‘Falling From Above’ is not 100% live in the studio is the presence of backing vocals provided by Neil along with his lead vocal. The backing vocal track is centered in the acoustical space with a slight rear-emphasis. This is the only element that betrays the “event”, but it is tastefully done and serves the song well. The effect of Neil backing himself on vocals in such a manner is quite satisfying.
‘Double E’ – The second track serves up a tasty helping of straight-forward blues, which early-on develops a nice, laid-back groove. The vocal imaging falters a bit compared to the first cut yet remains strong. The song develops slowly and offers a nice, fat guitar sound. The surround mix is more front-centric than the first cut with a more ambient feel. The guitar breaks are simple yet effective. Nothing fancy here, just a great blues song with a satisfying, natural-sounding surround mix.
‘Devil’s Sidewalk’ – The blues groove continues with this track while the tempo picks up a bit. The sparse yet natural and realistic ambient surround approach continues as well. Female backing vocals come in with a rear-emphasis. The song lacks the infectious groove of ‘Double E’ but does manage to find a way out of its rut towards the end of the cut. Unfortunately, just as the song begins to take hold, it ends. I really would have liked to see this one progress into an extended jam.
‘Leave The Driving’ – This song marks a radical departure in the surround-sound presentation that is at once intriguing and disconcerting. Neil’s harmonica is mixed in with a rear-emphasis that manages to break the satisfying sense of realistic acoustical space that had been maintained until this point. The juxtaposition of acoustical elements seems out-of-whack. The stripped-down production offers little to “fill the holes” and you’re left with the sense that you’re listening to two recordings with their own space. The two merge in the center of the soundstage leaving you with the feeling that you’re in the middle of sonic “8”.
The song itself continues in the blues tradition but is somewhat monotonous and is never fully realized. At the guitar breaks, it seems as if things might finally gel but they never really do. The song hints at possibilities left unexplored, and the discordant guitar solo at the end manages to derail any hint at salvation there might have been. Perhaps this approach serves the story here. I cannot say at this point, but the end result leaves you wanting for closure that is never offered.
‘Carmichael’ – ‘Carmichael’ is a beautiful alternative-flavored subdued rock number that offers a melancholic feel that is at once peaceful and introspective. Neil plays his guitar as if it were singing, supported by a rhythmic bass line and gentle, yet driving, drums. The surround mix is quite natural and blends perfectly with the music to create an experience where outside influences fade, leaving you awash in sonic bliss.
Suddenly, almost intrusively, the real vocals break in, leaving you wishing it were solely an instrumental number. Luckily, the vocal elements are short and intersperse a largely instrumental piece that is fully realized and maintains itself quite nicely throughout its ten-minute length. By the time the song is over, you’re left wondering where the time went.
‘Bandit’ – This is an acoustical guitar number played by Neil in a loose, flabby style offering plenty of string slapping and scraping. The resolution of the recording captures all this technique in exceptional detail.
Once again the surround mix shifts gears by pushing the still-ambient mix to the rear. The vocal focus at front strengthens and the overall mix offers very full surround-sound despite its naked nature.
Neil adopts a whispered vocal approach and emits emotion and conviction in his delivery. This beautiful ballad manages to retain a raw energy with a contrast between jagged acoustical guitar style and soft vocal delivery. The guitar seems to add an element of sarcasm to the line “some day you’ll find everything you are looking for”, until the vocal comes out of its whisper and the guitar loses its jagged edge, seeming to offer sincere hope in place of the pessimism apparent just moments before.
‘Grandpa’s Interview’ – Here we return to the melancholic, alternative-style guitar codified by ‘Carmichael’. The beautiful, lilting, emotionally-driven guitar is supported by a throbbing bass line that propels the song forward. The beauty of the song betrays the bitterness of the lyric.
The surround mix returns to the more familiar, ambient nature that typifies the sound of ‘Greendale’.
‘Bringin’ Down Dinner’ – This track takes the album down another avenue by offering what seems a slow dirge. The acoustical space is somewhat unnatural with a too-heavy rear ambient focus. The effect is one that sounds simultaneously spacious and confined, offering perhaps the worst of both worlds.
‘Sun Green’ – The aggravation of ‘Bringin’ Down Dinner’ gives way to the familiar and natural acoustical space of ‘Greendale’, that is until some muffled vocal effects make their presence known in the rear channels. The effect is once again that of two acoustical spaces fighting for your attention. The effect is somewhat disconcerting and punctuates this disjointed, mid-tempo rocker.
The song wanders around a bit but does manage to come together on occasion. The song is peppered with acoustical effects (cat meow, door slam, etc.) that do manage to mix well with the primary acoustical space. Vocal imaging is somewhat indistinct and the extended song never really manages to go anywhere.
‘Be the Rain’ – The final cut finds ‘Greendale’ returning to alternative-style rock, offering a nice, balanced surround mix. The female vocals in the rear fit well within the acoustical space and offer a welcome change to the production. The lead vocal meanders about but does manage to come into focus now-and-again, almost as if Neil were wandering around whilst singing, occasionally finding himself in front of the microphone. He alternates his vocal delivery between “normal” and “muffled”, with an unfortunate emphasis on the muffled, which tends to distract from the number. The contrast between the annoying muffled vocals and the beautiful backing vocals is quite striking. The song steadily builds steam, leading to some very solid (if not truly inspired) guitar breaks.
The lyrical story of ‘Greendale’ aside, I found the music and surround mix of this album to be a study in contrasts. It is often brilliant and often unfocused, cohesive and disjointed, beautiful and grating, mesmerizing and unnerving, immersive and exclusionary. I have to wonder how much of this was purposeful, especially considering the differing approaches to the surround mix. Knowing Neil, I have to think that this was all by design. After all, what is a chameleon if not a master of contrasts?