[Cover Me]: Neil Young Special

Neil-Young_“Step aside, open wide / It’s the loner”

Well, this post was originally intended to just be a short piece on Neil Young’s announcement that his audiophile digital download service, Pono, will be launched next year. However, in writing it has grown into more of an investigative analysis than a news flash, so in order to give it its due I will work on it over the weekend and post it early next week. While writing the article I dug into some of Young’s back catalogue and it reminded me that one of my first posts was on a Neil Young cover. With that in mind, I thought a Cover Me special of Neil Young covers would help you all kill the time between now and Monday. Enjoy.

Charles Bradley – ‘Heart of Gold’
Probably the most well-known of Neil Young’s songs and his most covered. It is unfortunate then that the covers are often completely uninspiring, as is the case with a lot of acoustic songs which are covered ad infinitum. Not so on this superb version taken from Charles Bradley’s first LP, No Time For Dreaming. Shaken up with a soulful twist and delivered in Bradley’s barking vocals, ‘Heart of Gold’ is given a much needed injection of urgency. The blasts of brass and guitar stabs give the song a slightly menacing sound, while the backing vocals, which have echoes of The Miracles’s ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, smooth things out. Ultimately though, it is the poignancy with which Bradley delivers the line “And I’m gettin’ old” which really clinches it together. As a man who has struggled through life and who recorded this song and his first album in his sixties, Bradley knows exactly what the twenty-six year old Young was talking about.

Pixies – ‘Winterlong’
As an alternative pop band, Pixies must have learned a few lessons from Young on writing enduring songs and melodies while carving your own path. Maybe that is what inspired them to tackle this song for The Bridge, a benefit album for The Bridge School. ‘Winterlong’ itself is one of my favourite Neil Young songs and this version is largely faithful to the original, but slightly more up tempo and frayed around the edges. Black Francis and Kim Deal lovingly recreate the harmonies of the original as they swap vocals, while Joey Santiago’s nasally guitar on the track is a dead ringer for Young’s own guitar work.

Chromatics – ‘Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)’
The opening number from one of my favourite albums of last year. I like covers where the artist departs from the original in some way and make it their own, and Chromatics certainly fit the bill here. On this version of Young’s raw anthem of rock and roll fatality, Chromatics refine the song’s ragged impurities and transform it into a slow-burning and silken epic. From the recognisable opening riff delivered amongst lethargic strumming and syrupy synths you can tell that this is Neil Young, but not as you know it.

Pearl Jam – ‘Fuckin’ Up’
Released in 1990 as the Seattle music scene was just about to break into the mainstream, ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and the album Ragged Glory must have seemed appropriate and clearly drew genealogical lines between Neil Young and this new generation. While Young is popularly accredited as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’, Pearl Jam definitely owe more to ‘Uncle Neil’ than most. Not only figuring as a dominant inspiration and antecedent for their music and career path, Young also invited Pearl Jam to be his backing band for a tour and ended up recording the riffy Mirrorball album with them. Taken from a 2006 gig at the Gorge Ampitheatre, George, WA, (the last in a series of shows at the venue captured on Live at the Gorge 05/06), this performance of ‘Fuckin’ Up’ not only exemplifies the spirit of the original, but also kicks several shades of daylight out of it. I don’t think I really need to say much more, the busted tambourine around Eddie Vedder’s neck at the four minute mark says it all.

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