Neil Young unplugged from creative outlet

Review: With its author stretched too thin by other projects, `Silver & Gold' goes nowhere.

April 25, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

For the last dozen years or so, Neil Young albums have come in basically two versions.

The most common is Electric Young, the sound that powered the likes of "Ragged Glory," "Mirror Ball" and "Sleeps with Angels." Although its raging guitars and sledgehammer drumming suggest the sonic fury of hard rock, Young's wan voice and mournful melodies keep things from ever seeming too heavy or aggressive.

Then there's Acoustic Young. This is a sound that was first introduced with "Harvest" in 1972, and which Young revives about every seven years.

In this incarnation, the music takes on a mellow, folk-rock cast, as Young's wan voice and mournful melodies are echoed by the whine of pedal steel, and cushioned by a gentle blend of acoustic guitars and female harmony vocals.

Young's last album in this vein was "Harvest Moon" in 1992, which means his new Acoustic Young album, "Silver & Gold" (Reprise 47305, arriving in stores today), is almost a year overdue.

So how come it sounds so tossed off?

It isn't just that the arrangements are so minimal as to seem unfinished; the writing itself is sketchy and tentative. Some tunes, like the folksy "Daddy Went Walkin'," have a vaguely second-hand sense to them, as if they were cobbled together from half-forgotten oldies. Others, like "Horseshoe Man," are rambling and unfocused, sounding as if Young never got around to the editing process.

It's not surprising, really, that he'd be too distracted to give this disc his full attention. Young, remember, did the lion's share of the writing for last year's CSNY reunion album; in fact, it was rumored that many of those songs were originally intended for this album.

If that wasn't enough, he also spent time working with Stephen Stills on an as-yet-unreleased Buffalo Springfield boxed set. To his credit, he tried to turn that to his advantage by using the experience as inspiration for "Buffalo Springfield Again." But as much as the song tries to hark back to the glory days of Young's time with Stills, Richie Furay, Jim Messina and Dewey Martin, it evokes the group's impact more vividly than its sound.

But then, most of the songs here work better as ideas than as tunes.

There are exceptions, of course; "Red Sun," a lovely, end-of-the-day meditation, deftly mines the Celtic bedrock of country music, with the cracked innocence of Young's voice contrasted nicely with the tart warmth of Emmylou Harris' backing vocal.

But "The Great Divide" and "Razor Love" are so predictable they could almost be packaged as generic Neil Young. And even those are better than the title tune, which finds the singer verging on self-parody.

Mercifully, it's all over in less than 40 minutes. But despite the value implied in the title, "Silver & Gold" is mostly tinfoil and brass, the sort of album even hard-core fans will have a tough time appreciating.

Neil Young

"Silver & Gold" (Reprise 47305)

Sun score: ** 1/2

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