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“Neil Young, Spotify, and Why I Have a Problem with Calling Him ‘Grunge’ in the First Place”

Why don’t people hate Neil Young? I mean, he’s a galvanizing, inspiring and extremely original rock and roll artist, isn’t he? And all this time they’ll act like Green Day and Billy Corgan initiated a second holocaust. Eh, maybe someday I’ll figure it out.
Maybe it’s just that people don’t know him well enough. He**, I can tell you one thing: these Spotify mix misers don’t.
They are treating him as if he is “punk.” This, obviously, is even more licentious than saddling him with the expression “godfather of grunge,” which I’ve always been a little bit uneasy about, anyway (I mean his lyrics aren’t about doing heroin, domestic violence, rape and bombing the world, are they…)
Generally finding the original Beatles albums on vinyl such as Abbey Road to sound like they were recorded through a leaf blower, I have, as I’ve mentioned at many points on this publication of mine, had a glistening experience imbibing Young’s “Long May You Run” on said format. Even Harvest on CD, too, makes for a thoroughly layered and gorgeous listen — the sounds’ respective guttural trademarks come through with individuality and integrity, even within the digital mix. The primary reason why Harvest is enjoyable to listen to on CD, though, is that the team of producers recognized Young as what he primarily is, a singer/songwriter, and so mixed the album in such a way that makes the vocals pronounced, an appendage of the entire set of noises, rather than immersed within them.
Now, if you’re producing Sonic Youth, who mind you are Neil Young fans but nonetheless generate a starkly different type of music, you might bury the vocals deep within the mix, since what the band is doing on a considerable level is belting out noise rock, the type of thing which usually propagates some sonically vanguard aspects on the guitar and, frankly, comes with less inspired lyrics. Well, Young is the man who gave us “Love lost such a cost / Give me things that won’t get lost / Like a coin that won’t get tossed / Rollin’ home to you”; is the man who gave us “It’s these expressions I never give / That keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold”.
Young’s achievements might have been partly sonic. I’m only 34 now. I can’t fully speak for the cultural shift he might have galvanized at that time, although by the work with Crazy Horse he seems to more or less approximate the style of The Stooges and the MC5, even when he’s at his most abrasive. So he slows the music down, while remaining loud, and his songs aren’t anti-establishment: hence his “godfather of grunge” moniker, presumably.
Nirvana’s main breakthrough, according to popular lore, was fusing the heavy metal sound of the Melvins and maybe Aerosmith with a Beatles songwriting influence, or sense [1]. I was just looking up the Neil Young song “Welfare Mothers,” actually, performed with his backing band Crazy Horse and surfacing on the great live album Rust Never Sleeps, and I noticed, boy, it really sounds like dog sh** on Spotify! The vocals just get BURIED and the producers are treating Young’s handiwork as if it’s punk rock, or punk’s brother “noise,” the type of thing wherein the lyrics perhaps wouldn’t matter as much. To be exact, punk and folk are about as opposite of each other as you get. Sure, each is a simple music, and tends to chafe the establishment, but folk music is CONSTRUCTIVE — it does not attempt to denigrate the entire enterprise of life itself, the way punk rock certainly might (even the punk “nerds” like the Buzzcocks would deliver troubling missives like “‘Cause I’ve nothing left at all / At all / At all”, ad absurdum). Neil Young was constructive. He was Canadian. He was optimistic. Even his song about his deceased junkie roadie ultimately conjeals around a message of optimism: “(He’d) sing a song in a shaky voice / That was real as the day was long / Tonight’s the night”. He was a storyteller on the microphone, somewhat like original folk founder Bob Dylan on those strung-together narratives like “Tangled up in Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Is it Bob Dylan’s GUITAR SOUND that’s important? He** no. It’s that quirky voice, just like with Neil Young, relating that firsthand story on the mic straight from the gut. This is what we need more of with Neil Young production. The vocals on “Welfare Mothers” CANNOT DIE under the din of that regular, Stooges-approximating guitar sound. It simply cannot happen. It kills the entire operation.
I was looking for a single Neil Young song that was listenable on Spotify and found that even “Roll Another Number” and “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” two gems on the album Tonight’s the Night, are simply awful in the digital remasters. The vocals sound warped, the guitar flat, shapeless. Compare this with the Beatles’ remaster of “Mother Nature’s Son”: in my opinion they did make some faux-pas’, like treating that oboe or bassoon in the second half of the first verse, or even masking it entirely. But the important part is that the vocal BLEEDS FORTH, the vocal takes undeniable prominence within the mix, and this is a key respecter of the masterful songwriting at hand. Punk rock came at a time when there was nothing left, in rock and roll, to truly say. Oh, the perils of slotting that point in time too soon.
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[1] This is ironic of course as Aerosmith (attempts to) cover “Come Together.”

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