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Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté – In the Heart of the Moon – Classic Music Review

I’ve mentioned previously that Sunday mornings are my precious alone time when I reflect and rejuvenate to give me the strength I need to face the grunge of the workweek. The soundtrack for my Sunday morning ritual is designed to be soothing, consisting largely of classical guitar pieces by Segovia, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, and Celtic harp performed by a variety of artists but heavy on works composed by Turlough O’Carolan. When I lived in the States, the crossword in the New York Times Sunday Magazine was part of that ritual; when I moved to France, I switched to mots croisés and mots fléchés. The problem I faced with French crosswords is that I am relatively uneducated (and uninterested) in French history, making them more of a chore than a challenge. The solution to wasting Sunday mornings with Talleyrand, Léon Blum and obscure figures from the Second Republic was to reassign mots croisés to air travel and use that quiet time for French newspapers and the sounds of plucked, struck and strummed strings.

A couple of years ago, I integrated In the Heart of the Moon into the rotation, with wondrous results. About thirty seconds into the first song I lose all interest in the latest strikes, parliamentary debates or whatever else the French are bitching about, toss the paper on the floor, close my eyes and immerse myself in the magical music. In the Heart of the Moon is simply one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.

Many Westerners know the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré from his marvelous blues-roots albums and the collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu. Toumani Diabaté is somewhat less familiar, but is recognized as one of the greatest living players of the kora, an instrument that defies many Western paradigms related to string instruments.

The Kora

I am fascinated by the ingenuity human beings have applied to the creation of musical instruments, but if you’re not, feel free to skip this section to get to the review.

From a distance, the kora resembles a sitar, but the kora’s twenty-one strings (usually nylon) are divided into two opposing sets (eleven on the left side and ten on the right) that gradually rise above the neck the further down they go, like delicate twin cable suspension bridges. The distance between string and neck is significant enough to make it impractical to change notes by pressing the strings onto the neck as you do with a guitar, and like the violin family, the neck is fretless. The notes, percussive sounds and chords result from the player using the thumb and index finger on both hands while the other three fingers on each hand rest on supporting posts. The kora does have tuning pegs, an innovation of the early 60’s that caused a great deal of controversy in the kora-playing universe. Even with the tuning pegs, the nature of the instrument is such that the player is restricted to four scales that come close to syncing with our major and minor scales as well as the Lydian scale that often pops up in modern jazz. That’s assuming you can tune the instrument—word has it that the tuning of a kora is as close to the Sisyphus myth as a musician can get, and many a wannabe kora player has responded to the effort by just saying, “Fuck it.” The base of the kora consists of a large calabash sliced in half and wrapped in cow skin, through which those resting posts travel to provide stable footing. There is a soundhole, but unlike a guitar, the soundhole is located on the side instead of the front. The sound is somewhere between a lute and a harp, but brighter. Modern kora players have access to electric versions of the instrument, which allows for the possibility of pedals and other gizmos to further shape the sound.

I don’t know why anyone would do that, because the kora is perfectly beautiful in its natural state. As I researched the kora for this piece, I watched videos of Diabaté a hundred times and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he created such wonderful sounds. This is because playing the kora is a three-dimensional experience, and the standard front-and-center camera angle prevented me from seeing what his fingers were doing behind the scenes. Fortunately, I found an unusually engaging scholarly article on the kora authored by one William Ridenour who helped shed some light on kora technique:

There are two main ways to play pieces on the kora, and these are described as kumbengo and birimitingo. Kumbengo is best described as a basic pattern or an accompaniment pattern. Kumbengo is the foundation of a piece, and one cycle of kumbengo is repeated over and over, usually with variation. Sometimes a kumbengo is developed from the vocal melody of the piece (Knight).

“Accompaniment-type playing involves an ensemble relationship between the fingers or hands of one or more musicians in which African aesthetics of polyrhythm find full expression” (Charry 167). Kumbengo patterns are often disrupted by another way of playing, involving fast descending melodic flourishes which are often highly ornamented. This type of playing is called birimitingo, a word possibly of onomatopoeic origins. When pieces are performed, the player alternates between the two styles at his or her will, depending on the demands of the particular situation.

Occasionally the kumbengo is punctuated by a knock on the hand support by the right index finger in a technique called bulukondingo podi. Another type of knock, konkong (Charry calls it “konkondiro”), is more common; it is a timekeeping pattern tapped on the round side of the kora by an apprentice or a male singer (Knight).

Techniques and Roles of the Playing Fingers

Generally, the left thumb plays strings 1-8 on the left side, and the left index finger plays strings 6-11. On the right side, the thumb plays strings 1-5, and the right index finger plays strings 2-10. There is quite a bit of crossover between thumbs and fingers on the same side, especially with the technique of birimitingo. In addition, there are two predominant ways to pluck a string: open and muted. To create a kumbengo, the thumbs play a bass line, while the fingers play a treble melody; the instrument is intrinsically polyphonic. The pitches ascend in 3rds on both sides of the bridge, facilitating the playing of two- to four-note chords, rapid scalar passages (fingers or thumbs in alternation) and octave doubling (Knight and Charry 158).

Translation: If you want to become a great kora player, prepare to devote your entire life to practice. As it turns out, that’s pretty much how kora players have been developed for centuries due to the caste systems common in many locales on the African continent (the Mandé caste, in this instance). According to Wikipedia, Diabaté comes from a long line of “70 generations of musicians preceding him in a patrilineal line.” Even if you only credit a generation with thirty years of existence, that translates into 2100 years of male-only kora playing. The generational sexism was broken recently by one of his cousins, Sona Jobarteh, whose album Fasiya integrated the kora with pop sensibilities.

The Review

The twelve songs on In the Heart of the Moon are marked by incredibly simple chord patterns consisting of one, two or three common chords. Over half the songs are in the key of F major, a key frequently used in kora music; only one song is in a minor key, D minor, which happens to be the complement to F major. Touré generally provides the baseline accompaniment through a simple, repetitive arpeggio, graciously giving his younger friend plenty of room to maneuver (though he does insert some sweet licks from time to time). The variety in the music comes largely from the kora, especially during those birimitingo passages where the flurry of notes sound like the aural equivalent of shooting stars on a clear summer night.

The songs and playing styles come from a period in Malian musical history called Jamana Kura, or “New Age/Era.” Jamana Kura emerged in Mali’s pre-independence period, a style marked by “a lighter more popular feel than the old Mandé griot classics” (according to the liner notes). To my ears, the song structures are reminiscent of the folk music of Britain and France, simple but highly melodic compositions that support folk dance. Jamana Kura also introduced a new, highly-rhythmic finger-picking guitar style that arose from a merger of other stylistic traditions; Touré takes this a step further with his grounding in the blues, further intensifying the rhythmic patterns. The result is true world music, a style simpatico with Western and African sensibilities.

Translation: you won’t hear anything on In the Heart of the Moon that feels too “foreign” to you.

The album was recorded in a hotel conference room in Bamako without rehearsals in three days, and given the fact that these two giants of African music had only played together briefly prior to what Touré called “A very important meeting in the realm at the heart of the moon,” it’s only natural that the festivities begin with a warm-up song in the key of F major, “Debe.” The song’s origins are ancient, dating back to the 17th Century, and the music is almost childlike in its simplicity and ability to delight the listener. Touré begins the piece with a nimble run echoing the melodic structure before dropping into a simple arpeggio that forms the dominant theme. You hear Diabaté enter about twenty seconds into the song, and soon he teases us with a short sample of birimitingo that makes you tingle with delight.

Don’t worry, folks, the kid is just warming up.

About halfway through the song, Diabaté gives us a longer sample of the birimitingo technique, and what I find simply amazing is how tightly he controls the length of each note to ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of the next one—hundreds of notes, each clean, clear and absolutely beautiful. You hear Touré say something to Diabaté after this stunning rush, and though I’m not sure which of the seven Malian languages Touré had mastered is in play here, the liner notes tell us “Ali praised Toumani as the rightful heir to the Mandé tradition.” The genuine respect and affection shared by these two brilliant musicians is on full display in the live version of “Debe,” where you can also see the kora in action:

“Kala” opens up with another Touré blitz that sounds very reminiscent to the intro to “Debe” until he forces the rhythm into a detour and winds up playing a rather jaunty, joyful pattern based on an F-C major chord structure. Diabaté’s approach is more varied here, introducing bright, complementary chording in addition to the bursts of birimitingo. Towards the end of the song, Diabaté repeats a chord that is slightly out of scale but marvelously harmonic, adding a slight bit of tension to the mix. This is another song guaranteed to bring a smile to your face—a playful, hummable, childlike delight.

Ry Cooder joins the party on “Mamadou Boutiquier,” an ode to Mandé traders who helped spread the Mandé language and Islamic traditions across West Africa. Toure’s introduction here is somewhat clipped, leading to a more integrated duet. Cooder is listed as playing “Kawai piano,” but the sounds you hear are distant hints of breathy organ, indicating the presence of an electronic keyboard. Once again, the song is built around an F-C major combination with a bit more flair in the rhythm due to the 6/8 time signature. The waltz-like beat adds a certain formality to the music, reminding you more of Vienna than Timbuktu.

Next up is “Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké,” a song celebrating Ali Farka Touré’s ascension to Mayor of the town of Niafunké, a small village on the Niger where he lived during his infancy. Unlike a certain U. S. President who shall remain nameless, Touré did not use his brief time in power to enrich himself but to improve the roads, build a sewer system and install an electric generator—all on his own dime. Imagine that! Diabaté opens this song with a light, nimble arpeggio to set a celebratory mood; Touré steps in to fill the humble supporting role and free Diabaté to do his thing. This is Diabaté’s most diverse performance on the record, combining varied phrasing on the rhythmic pattern with joyful injections of melodic birimitingo and the occasional chord. The fade to the song can only be described as sweet, a gradual diminuendo that communicates tender respect before Diabaté graciously hands off the lead role to Touré for the short closing pattern.

We finally see a key change (to D-A major) with “Kaira” (peace), a song popularized in the 40’s and 50’s by Diabaté’s father (also a kora player, as dictated by tradition). Touré handles the rhythm, adding a syncopated kick to liven things up a bit, and although percussion was present on the two previous tracks, the shaker is much more noticeable here, giving the piece a touch of samba. The jaw-dropping moment comes at the halfway point when Diabaté goes on an extended birimitingo at breakneck speed, then returns a few seconds later as if nothing particularly remarkable had happened. One feature of In the Heart of the Moon I hope people appreciate is the utter humility of the musicians—this isn’t the “ego-based music” George Harrison identified as the major irritant in modern music (a view to which I fully subscribe), but two men putting their egos aside in the service of creation.

“Simbo” returns to the F-C pattern, enhanced with breaks where two and three-note chords are played in a varied, syncopated pattern. Another strong duet with amazing kora-guitar harmonies, Diabaté varies his solos with unexpected pauses, sequential triplets and even long periods of silence to allow Touré to reaffirm the beat. The note patterns have a slightly Mexican feel to my ears, but I’d have to compare scores to understand why—and kora music is notoriously difficult to score. For the most part, I’m quite content to let music theory go to hell for a while and just let this exquisite music course through my soul.

The greatest departure from the baseline comes with “Ai Ga Bani,’ (I Love You), the only vocal piece on the album. Here we shift to a three chord pattern in D minor that marks a surprising but welcome shift in the mood from inspirational to erotic. Touré opens with high-note runs similar to the first two songs on the album, then descends at the point where the minor key is established. He punctuates that change with a strong WHACK on the strings, communicating sexual tension near the boiling point. I’ll state the obvious and tell you this is by far the sexiest piece on the album, with the erotic feel intensified by the passionate sincerity Touré brings to his vocal. Ry Cooder again adds the breathy sounds while Diabaté and Touré provide contrasting fills—Diabaté’s full of mystery, Touré’s loaded with blues-inspired earthiness.

You may have figured out that the Jamana Kura had little to do with colonial resistance or the politics of the independence movement. Many of the songs from the period were devoted to expressions of love, and though the performances here are wordless, you can feel the tenderness and joy in the music. “Soumbo Ya Ya” is one such song, featuring a melodic line that rises and falls with the peaks and valleys of human emotion. Touré provides the dominant line while Diabaté dazzles us with intensely beautiful flurries that sound positively magical. It’s followed by the more reflective but sweetly passionate arrangement of “Naweye Toro,” a song that differentiates itself from the others with the brief appearance of a C7 chord in the middle of the F-C major pattern to add a spot of tension before arriving at the affirming resolution. I love Touré’s guitar on this piece—calming and earthy, reminiscent of gentle bluegrass music.

The last three songs are all traditional songs arranged by Touré, beginning with the sprightly “Kadi Kadi,” a cascade of intense, active runs that fill the soundscape like exploding blossoms. Diabaté is on fire here, responding to the quick tempo with confidence and remarkable dexterity. You definitely hear the country blues influence in Toure’s picking on “Gomni,” a song that feels more Texas than Mali. Touré’s playing is fluid, insistent and powerfully rhythmic, an open invitation to musicians and listeners to let the world go to hell and just fall in love with the music (the brief applause at the end of the song is pleasingly affirming). In the Heart of the Moon ends with “Hawa Dolo,” a meditation using an F-Bb-C pattern that employs the kind of slow arpeggios you hear on pop songs of the early 60’s like “Angel Baby” and “The End of the World.” Ry Cooder makes an appearance with a Ripley stereo guitar, producing sounds that form a deep background, making the acoustic guitar and kora sound even brighter. The feel of the song is rather sad, but tenderly so, expressing the ever-present regret of “all good things must end.”

The music on In the Heart of the Moon is intensely captivating, an alluring invitation to the listener to explore and learn more about Malian music and culture. Bamako is definitely on my list of future vacation itineraries, but right now the country is going through yet another period of instability and it simply isn’t safe for a white French woman to visit. Despite the capability of music to transcend cultural differences and build bridges between people, political considerations always seem to get in the way.

Damn.

My urge to visit Mali coincides with a parallel wish—the wish that I had been there when they made In the Heart of the Moon. I’ll let producer Nick Gold explain why (from the liner notes):

. . . at two o’clock the next day Ali and Toumani were sitting opposite each other, close together, instruments were tuned, microphones were placed, sound levels were set and off they went.

Each of them would suggest or remind the other of a song by playing the first few notes of the melody and that was basically it. Beyond the basic song structures, it was completely improvised. If one of them wanted to take a solo, he’d nod to the other. At times it seemed like they were just sitting on a groove (albeit a wonderful groove). Then one of them would start damping a string, the other would follow suit, and you had this very detailed interaction that I didn’t fully appreciate until we got to the mixing stage. Every single note that both of them played was absolutely meant. For three days every afternoon they played for an hour or two. This sessions were very relaxed, but the concentration between the two of them was intense . . . There were no second takes. Nothing was edited . . . They hardly spoke during the sessions. They didn’t need to. Sometimes I had the thrilling experience of eavesdropping on a moment of very special and intimate communication. Listening to this record, you’d think they’d played together all their lives, yet they’d played for a total three hours before this—spread over fifteen years.

I’d be so completely absorbed by the music. We needed absolute quiet in the room while they were recording since the kora is such a very quiet instrument. A song would end and you’d realize you’d been holding your breath, hypnotized. It was terrible when those sessions ended. I wish I could have afternoons like that every day of my life, with the most sublime music just going on—forever. 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Classic Music Review

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of ecstasy that arises whenever the blonde part of my brain manages to work its way through the cotton candy and realizes what was already obvious in the first place.

Since I began my American boycott, I’ve been editing my lengthy Excel workbook of review possibilities, cutting the yanks from the active roster and pasting them in a separate spreadsheet labeled “DISABLED LIST.” I will admit that cutting and pasting Elmore James, Fugazi, The Replacements, Lou Reed, John Coltrane and (sniff) Thelonious Monk into oblivion was heart-wrenching but absolutely necessary for my mental and emotional health.

I can’t begin to describe the feeling of ecstasy that arises when I get through a whole day without encountering a single media reference to Donald Trump, Evangelical Christians and The Republican Party.

The sense of loss has been more than mitigated by the doors opened through the act of excluding artists from The Evil Empire. The possibilities are endless! I’ve felt like a pervert in a leather shop–wait—I am a pervert who hangs out in leather shops—fuck it, I’ll just use the cliché—a kid in a candy store, bouncing around between British blues, Malian kora music, French alternative, Brazilian jazz, calypso-influenced soul and several other styles and sub-genres.

I finally forced myself to stop pussying around and commit to a schedule, and chose Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns to kick things off. I always start a review by researching the era and re-familiarizing myself with the artist’s history, and during my labors I happened upon a piece covering Joni’s early career. I was struck by one passage where the author described how Joni used to share songs with another budding songwriter by the name of Neil Young.

The blonde part of the brain felt a twinge. Neil Young. Something about Neil Young. What was it?

I thought about his work with Buffalo Springfield. I always liked his songs the best. No, that wasn’t it. Then he did the thing with Crazy Horse, then there was After The Gold Rush . . . the “ditch” albums. I liked the edginess of those records. Too bad I had to put old Neil and all those albums I intended to review on the disabled list but OH MY FUCKING GOD YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT! NEIL YOUNG ISN’T AMERICAN! NEIL YOUNG IS CANADIAN! CANADIAN! OH, THE ECSTASY! YES! YES! I FEEL LIKE A SONG!

Needless to say, I’ve re-edited my list and rescued Neil Young from altrockchick oblivion. Mes excuses. Joni will have to wait a week or two.

*****

The story behind Neil Young’s second album is pretty well-known, but I’ll summarize it quickly. The three most prominent songs were written while Neil was suffering from a 103 °F (39.5 °C) fever. The album was recorded in two weeks with a backing band originally called The Rockets who thought the gig was a temp job, and that after the tour they would go their merry way. They had obviously never encountered an artistic force with the intensity of Neil Young, and soon found themselves absorbed into his gravitational pull, rebranded as Crazy Horse.

I don’t know whether it was the fever, the less than stellar first solo effort or the fear of permanent banishment to fourth place behind Crosby, Stills and Nash, but there’s a sense of urgency about Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, as if Neil had to get the music out before it vanished or was co-opted into something out of his control. And while many works emanating from that motivation turn out to be stinkers, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere remains a highly influential and engaging listening experience almost fifty years after its release. The album is not without its flaws, some more serious than others, but it certainly managed to establish Neil Young as an artist with exceptional potential.

You’re drawn in immediately by one of the most compelling riffs ever composed, the guitar duet in double-drop D tuning punctuated by hand claps and a pounding snare that introduces “Cinnamon Girl.” There are dozens of sites devoted to teaching the home-schooled guitar player how to pull off a solo version; my favorite is from David Hodge at Guitar Noise, who patiently takes you through the first guitar part (the high strings), then comments, “Right away, you begin to see both the fun and the problems. First, this riff definitely sounds like ‘Cinnamon Girl.’ And yet, it’s not totally spot on.” He then reveals that the original version features two guitarists, and gives you some friendly advice on how to deal with any snobs in the crowd who might dis your solo attempt: “No one who knows ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is going to not know what you’re playing. If anyone does give you grief, you can always say, ‘This is how Neil played it at a private invitation-only acoustic show he did in Williamstown in 1973’ and see what happens.” Even if you’re not a guitarist, the riff is intensely alluring, stimulating body and soul in a way that firmly holds your attention.

The double-drop D tuning isn’t just a clever gimmick but the compositional foundation of the piece. Stripped away of the happy accidental chords you get from alternative tunings, the core of the song is a simple drone in D. When you get to the surprisingly melodic first verse, the chords are pretty simple (D-Am-C-G) but if you’re playing in standard tuning you have to remember add the D note to the Am and C to get the right sound and keep the drone alive. The bridge sounds like a break in the action, but the D note centering still holds all the way through the bridge until the final Am7. That tiny moment where we lose the D sets up a tension, a hunger for resolution—and the insistence on the continuity of the drone truly bears fruit when the first solo begins and Neil firmly plants his finger on the D note and picks away while the band carries the chord pattern and hints of the melody. It’s a brilliant move that gives me the shivers whenever I hear it.

Wanna improve your compositional skills? Catch something that will give you a 103 ° fever. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.

“Cinnamon Girl” is largely a lyrical poem, so there isn’t much in the way of narrative: the imagery is what counts. We should be very thankful that Neil altered the fever-induced original opening line, “I wish to marry a cinnamon girl,” a turn towards tradition that was out-of-sync with the era’s growing tendency towards contract-free cohabitation and would have wrecked the song by shifting the narrator’s perspective from a romantic flight of fancy to a strategy to acquire a prized possession (thank you, Neil Young Archives, for that information and more). The charm of the imagery is enhanced by the choice to sing it as a duet with Neil taking the main melody and Danny Whitten handling the high notes. I just love the way this verse sounds—lyrically and phonetically—and the images it inspires:

A dreamer of pictures
I run in the night
You see us together
Chasing the moonlight
My cinnamon girl

The bridge is also something of a mystery, for the character singing the lyrics could be the dream-ridden narrator or the cinnamon girl herself (“You see your baby loves to dance”). I don’t care one way or another: the melodic shift in the bridge adds additional variation and sets up the tension described above. And I love the song’s fade, with sustained distortion opening up to the brief but explosive guitar solo—a touch of blessed ambiguity instead of a fake happy ending. Although Neil Young would go on to write more complex songs with more powerful imagery, “Cinnamon Girl” isn’t designed for heaviness—it’s an engaging musical experience that allows your troubles to fade into oblivion.

Had the title track been released in the early 21st Century, critics would have rushed to label it “alt-country,” the genre applied to artists like Neko Case who infuse country sounds and styles with an alternative rock edginess and more substantive, socially-aware lyrics than you hear from the mainstream Nashville crowd. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” takes the trite story of the country boy who finds the big city isn’t to his liking and makes it more interesting by turning the tale into a conspiracy of silence (everybody knows they exist in a rat’s maze but no one wants to admit it) and through chord changes rarely heard in country. While the verse lopes along happily in G major with an occasional C major punctuation, things get really interesting the shift to Em followed by the emphatic A major power chords, communicating strong intent. That mood is immediately tempered by a move to Cmaj7 to enhance the sense of underlying uncertainty and near gloom. The cascade of shifting moods reflects a narrator who desperately wants to get out but can’t quite commit to leaving. “I wish I could be there” makes the disgust expressed in the line “everybody knows this is nowhere” seem less credible. While it may be the shortest piece on the album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is a model of poetic and musical economy.

Lush, naturally reverberating dual acoustic guitars greet us when “Round & Round [It Won’t Be Long]” fills the headphones. While I love the vocal duet on “Cinnamon Girl,” the mingling of singer-songwriter Robin Lane’s voice with Neil Young’s results in the most purely gorgeous song on the album. Danny Whitten adds his falsetto voice to the choruses to intensify the forlorn mood of a song that deals with the self-destructive impact of individual pride in the context of an intimate relationship. What amazes me about human nature is exactly what is presented in this song: people don’t know when to quit, know when to fold ’em, walk away and get the fuck out of a relationship headed absolutely nowhere. “How slow and slow and slow it goes/To mend the tear that always shows” is an accurate depiction the life-draining impact on people hanging on to a relationship for silly reasons like pride, convenience, financial security, what-will-my-friends-say, what-will-my-parents-say, yada, yada, yada. While all relationships are characterized by ups-and-downs and persistent miscommunication, when you keep revisiting the same shit over and over and over again, you should have split on the second “over” and kicked yourself in the ass for getting to “over again.” I think “Round & Round” should be required study for couples thinking of living together in whatever form they choose—the piercing sadness of the song might cut through the romantic fancy long enough to remind the happy pair to avoid the tendency to see the other person as the person we would like them to be rather than the person they are.

Now we’ve arrived at the second fever song, “Down by the River,” a song that evokes a strong reaction in me just by hearing someone mention the title.

Ugh.

The “ugh” isn’t so much about the song as about the topic. I don’t like songs about people shooting and killing other people. I want to see guns banned from the face of the earth. Actually, I’d like to see all weapons banned from the face of the earth. Let the old men duke it out in the ring instead of sending young people to ultimately meaningless deaths in the name of god, country or whatever ism you’ve got. I tend to focus more on guns because of my thirty-two years of life experience in the gun-crazy United States.

Neil Young offered two different explanations for the lyrics, one offered shortly after the song became something of an AOR classic, and one fifteen years later. The first explanation is horseshit. The second is the one that fits the lyrics:

  1. “There’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick.” Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
  2. The song is about a man “who had a lot of trouble controlling himself.” Bingo.

I think Neil came up with the bullshit answer to appease the largely non-violent listening audience who dreamed of Graham Nash-painted futures with two cats in the yard. Had the song come out today, a perceptive critic might say, “‘Down by the River’ is an insightful exposure of toxic masculinity, a tale of how the male psyche can turn tender feelings into feelings of entitlement and possession that ultimately result in domestic violence, with murder serving as the ultimate statement of male control over the objectified woman.”

The music is built around a two-chord pattern, a trope that Neil frequently uses (as does Pink Floyd) to set up a meditative structure that leaves room for extended instrumental passages, largely guitar solos in Neil’s case. The instrumental sections in “Down by the River” are fairly sparse for the most part; the highlight of the first instrumental passage features another one-note solo with exceptional bite and bitterness reflecting the narrator’s single-minded evil intent. The tones and attack on both solos anticipate the grunge of the early 90’s, integrating distortion with manic bursts of fretboard rage. I don’t mind the length of the song—these are not pointless jams but music that reflects the core instability of the man who shot his baby dead. What I do mind are the “ooh-la-la” harmonies introduced in the lead-up to the chorus; it’s like transposing “You Won’t See Me” onto “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and even the dysfunctional group we hear on Abbey Road would have unanimously agreed that such a juxtaposition qualifies as a terrible idea. I don’t particularly “like” “Down by the River,” but I do appreciate the brilliance of the arrangement and Neil Young’s ability to explore the ugly side of masculinity with artistic detachment.

Neil allows us to recover from the trauma of “Down by the River” by placing the more traditional country feel of “The Losing End [When You’re On]” in the follow-up slot. The song has some interesting structural features, like extended opening lines in the verses to allow for greater exposition and a longer and more varied chorus, but in the end it’s an inoffensive listening experience and little more (though I loathe the silly “pick it Wilson” encouragement before the solo). It’s followed by “Running Dry [Requiem for the Rockets],” which features a melody reminiscent of too many English folk tunes (like “Scarborough Fair”) to hold my interest for very long.

The trace of traditionalism revealed in the altered first line of “Cinnamon Girl” becomes outright sexist bullshit in the third fever song and closing piece, “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Neil gets a double “Oh, for fuck’s sake” for writing this crapola:

Old enough now to change your name,
When so many love you is it the same?
It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game.

“Ahem,” she responds, in preparation for one of her rants.

Look. The Pill evened the playing field by giving women the same reproductive freedom men had enjoyed since the beginning of human civilization. The feminist movement freed women to seriously consider life possibilities beyond a trip to the altar. Sure, there are women who play games, but it’s not the woman in us that causes that—all human beings, regardless of gender, are fully capable of existing in a self-generated world of lies and deceit with the intent of manipulating others to give them what they want. And Neil, we don’t want to be the woman of your dreams, especially if your dream objectifies us, robs us of our choices and diminishes our basic human rights. And fuck the Wikipedia contributor who said that the song deals with a “promiscuous woman,” and fuck all the male reviewers like Matthew Greenwald who also used the pejorative “promiscuous” label and called the song “one of Neil Young’s most lasting contributions” and “a true classic.”

Harrumph!

Although the lyrics make me want to puke, the melody is indeed captivating and the extended guitar passages form a fascinating meditation combining short passages of sweetness with longer passages stringing together gritty bursts of distortion that make the heart skip a beat. The guitar work on this song is worthy of deep study by budding guitarists who can learn a lot from the off-beat phrasing, sudden shifts from manic to minimal, and Danny Whitten’s rhythm guitar response. On the musical downside, I think the in-verse transition from bash to “tone it down, fellas” is poorly executed, rescued only by the stinging burst of guitar that introduces the deeply offensive lyrics listed above. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was 49 years ago and men should be forgiven for their childish sins of obliviousness, but timelessness is one measure of the value of art—and the lyrics to “Cowgirl in the Sand” make the song as dated as bell-bottom trousers.

Although that one song hit one of my hot buttons, I would still give the album a thumbs-up if I offered such a service. The guitar work alone is worth the price of admission, and an instrumental-only version would indeed be a “true classic.” The lyrics vary from brilliant to bad, but we already know through the virtue of hindsight that Neil Young would significantly and consistently improve his lyrical contributions. One other thing I find odd about listening to Neil Young is to discover how unexpectedly catchy is melodies are. I say “unexpectedly” because he doesn’t have a particularly melodic voice (like McCartney). Still, whenever I put on this record or After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night, I find myself humming his tunes for days.

Hmm. Maybe the surprising melodic strength of Neil Young’s songs is really an insidious Canadian experiment in mind control! Maybe the whole “Canadians are nice people” belief is a myth, and they’re using their outwardly pleasant demeanors and catchy music to lull us to sleep while they take over the whole world! And hey! Didn’t Joni Mitchell and Neil Young take up long-term residency in Los Angeles, California, US of A? Are they really spies, like Phillip and Elizabeth in The Americans, seeking to undermine American sovereignty?

Then again, if one country seriously needs to be taken over by the Canadians, it’s the United States of America. This could work out.

I’m planning to review The Hissing of Summer Lawns and After the Gold Rush in the next few weeks, so in the meantime, if you hear I’ve opened a conspiracy-oriented website, you’ll know I’m onto something.

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