Not the Pazz and Jop 1972 – #5

Neil Young – Harvest

I will always stan for Canadian artists (except Bieber – screw that guy). I still feel a slight rush when I see something recognizably Canadian in an American movie or television show. I love it when I learn that some famous entertainer has a Canuck connection. I’m not confused about where this weirdness comes from – I grew up in an era where our national culture was not very interesting (to a person of my age), and our government felt the need to step in and put rules in place to try and help our artists develop free of the oppressive shadow coming from the south. (As good as acts like Trooper and April Wine might have been, they were mostly Canada-only pleasures.) When I see one of our own break through, it gives me an unearned sense of pride. In 1970s pop and rock, with a few exceptions like BTO, that was mostly limited to one-offs, like Nick Gilder. (I didn’t have a lot of interest then in the music of our international superstars, like Gordon Lightfoot (who I was wrong about), Joni Mitchell (probably wrong) or Anne Murray (yeah, I’m good).) Now, we have Drake and The Weeknd and Carly Rae and Alessia Cara and Shawn Mendes and even that twerp from Stratford.

So why didn’t Neil get more love from Canadian radio in the ‘70s? He was a massive star and insanely prolific, but other than endless repeats of “Heart of Gold”, I don’t remember hearing him very often. (I’ve checked, and this wasn’t just another case of Cape Breton being behind the curve.) Was he not Canadian enough for our culture overlords? His dad was a hockey writer, for God’s sake. Sure, he worked in America with mostly American collaborators, but he probably bled MAPL syrup. Remember when Bryan Adams got so upset about CanCon? (I know Robert Barrie does.) Why wasn’t someone speaking up for Neil two decades earlier? Of course, he didn’t really need the help – “Harvest” was the best-selling album of the year.

This record is awesome. I’ve owned it on CD for about two decades, but hadn’t played it through in ages (because I pretty much haven’t been playing any of my old CDs for the past decade). It’s a (mostly) understated album, with relaxed drums, guitar and piano leading the way, occasionally jolted from their reverie by harmonica or harder guitar. I like every song here, including the two hits, but highlights include “Out on the Weekend”, which washes over you, the gentle pedal steel guitar contrasting with the harmonica, then is followed by the pleasant slow country crawl of “Harvest”. The cinematic orchestral flourishes of the haunting “A Man Needs A Maid” (no, it is NOT chauvinistic) are my favourite thing here (and would be more impactful if he did not go back to that well later in the record on “There’s A World”), and “Are You Ready for the Country?” is the bounciest track, led by Young banging on the piano like a drunk at a house party. The record peaks with the simple and heartbreaking “The Needle and the Damage Done”, ending with an epic duel between loud guitar and a relaxed piano melody on “Words (Between the Lines of Age)”. CanCon at its finest – no matter what our government of the day may have thought.

(Originally posted on Facebook, June 8, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #14

Joni Mitchell – Blue

My wife does not like Joni Mitchell’s music at all. I don’t feel quite the same (I owned on cassette and enjoyed often her 1988 sort-of comeback “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”), but in deference to the love of my life, I usually skip her tunes when they come up on a Spotify playlist. The problem is her voice: there are those too frequent moments when it sounds like a small bird is being gently murdered. She can never quite shake herself of the need to aim for those higher notes, even though the sound doesn’t really change, it just feels strained. I thus came to this with a lot of resistance, though half the tracks here were familiar from long passive exposure.

The songwriting cannot be faulted. I know next-to-nothing about Mitchell and her career arc, but would be unsurprised to learn she was a favourite of desperate artsy girls and boys lying stoned in dorm rooms trying to figure their shit out. There’s a nakedness to her confessional lyrics, a leaving-it-all-out-there (Kris Kristofferson supposedly told her to “keep something to yourself”) approach to her art that should draw young aesthetes to her. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet” just gutted me with that sense of desperate desire for another person that we all – if we’re both lucky and cursed – have felt. (And, weirdly, the strain in her voice works for this song.) I especially liked the songs where it is Joni and her piano (except “My Old Man”, which is a microcosm of the things that can make her a difficult listen) or guitar, and when she combines those and reins in somewhat the vocal tics, the results are sublime, as in “Blue” and “River”. “Little Green” was new to me, and I love this gentle song about the daughter she gave up for adoption. In the end, while I won’t be playing this regularly – I would like to stay married, for one thing – I can see myself coming back to it, all alone and wallowing in Joni.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 18, 2021)