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Friday, March 30, 2012

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, "Ragged Glory"

Neil Young and Crazy Horse
"Ragged Glory"
Reprise (1990)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

You're more likely to hear about Neil Young the folk hero because, well, folk is more hip than rock. As we established when looking at his album "Rust Never Sleeps" however, Young's biggest influence on future music was his electric guitar playing. The songwriter, when working with backing band Crazy Horse of course, preferred a lo-fi form of shredding, filled with distortion. Grunge guitar heroes like J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) and Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) all derived from his approach. It's only fair that the "godfather of grunge" got a chance to release his own grunge album.

"Ragged Glory" was released in 1990, following the grunge era's sludgiest moments but prior to the mainstream breakthrough of Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Pearl Jam's "Ten." Young suffered his roughest decade from a critical standpoint during the '80s, partially because of his desire to constantly adjust his style (Geffen Records sued Young for $3.3 million because, according to the label, his music was "non-commercial" and "musically uncharacteristic"). Fortunately, the raw sound that Young embraced in the late '70s with Crazy Horse was just coming to popular fruition in 1990.

"Ragged Glory" follows the recording approach of "Rust Never Sleeps" closely, by design or not, which helps ensure the quality of the end result. "Rust" was recorded live during the ensemble's tour, taking studio hijinks out of the picture. "Glory" wasn't recorded live, but the band did jam together in a storage facility belonging to Reprise, rather than record instrumental parts individually. In theory, Young could have adjusted the levels all he wanted following the recording, but he opted to leave what was as is. As a result, various instruments are muffled throughout, adding to the desired effect.

Furthering Young's signature style is that fact that Crazy Horse really isn't that good. Young had picked them up at a bar in Los Angeles during the '60s without any formal tryouts. Ralph Molina's drumming is as simple as it gets, and Frank Sampedro's guitar playing is just as rough as Young's. Of course, we can never assume that Young isn't actually an awful player himself, but most critics (including myself) like to believe that after playing for so long, his scratchy sound was by design.

The group opens with a pair of folkier tracks left over from the '70s ("Country Home" and "White Line"), but the album takes off with third track "F*!#in' Up." The song, which is only censored within the title, rocks both the lyrical and instrumental attitude of the burgeoning grunge scene. From there on out, the band rocks together with a combination of dirty guitars and Eagles-style backing harmonies, sometimes pushing past ten minutes during extended jams (see "Love and Only Love" for the most improv sections).

Young claimed on "Rust Never Sleeps" that "it's better to burn out than to fade away." He certainly never burned out (as many of his followers within the grunge movement did, unfortunately), but more importantly, he never faded away either. It's tough to do so when you make quality records like "Ragged Glory" 30 years into your career.

INTERESTING FACT: One track on "Ragged Glory" was not recorded in the instrument shed. Album closer "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)" was recorded in the Hoosier Dome (now the RCA Dome).

F*!#in' Up by Neil Young & Crazy Horse on Grooveshark

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