Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘Y’.
Dwight Yoakam is said to be the new King of Country.
Quite how he achieved this prestigious distinction nobody could rightly inform me.
But all the brouhaha in the serious rock press attests to something quite unique.
That this hillbilly rockin’, honky-tonkin’ cowboy found it desirable – like Willie and Waylon before him – to ply his wares outside Nashville’s conveyer-belt industry is not surprising.
What is surprising is the way the popular music industry and a spoon-fed media jumped on Yoakam like he was some dinkum spoutin’ oilfield.
Just what is so downright special about Dwight Yoakam? His 1986 debut album was a respectful ode to his downhome country forefathers, and he even managed a few ‘originals’, even if they did sound suspiciously familiar. In short, it was ordinary fare.
Now the hoopla takes on an almost sinister perspective with the release of Hillbilly Deluxe – one of the few albums in recent memory released on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. Sinister, because after repeated listenings I cannot see anything to justify the excitement, except perhaps the man’s sultry good looks.
There he is, posing on the sleeve with his holey designer-billy jeans, the perfect image of a modern-day cowboy stud. On the back, even the leather on the toe of his shoe is skillfully peeled for the art department’s camera.
The trouble with an image generated by the Hollywood machine is that it’s difficult to maintain, or in this case grow, an identity. This is corporate America, folks, and it’s an unfortunate fact of 1987 that ad-copy often comes before product. And if Bruce Springsteen can be swallowed by his own hype, then hokum Yoakam’s bound to believe the instant mythology rather than the reality of his current position.
All paths in this labyrinth lead to one conclusion: Hillbilly Deluxe ain’t great shakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got what it takes, if you’re quite happy with refried chicken. All the herbs and spices are provided per the recipe, but it just doesn’t add up to much.
The three ‘originals’ I would cock my ear for are ‘Little Ways’, ‘1000 Miles’ and ‘This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me’. The first is naggingly familiar, and the second and third both sport nice instrumental bits and clever lyric imagery, though he often spoils it by resorting to cliched couplets.
The three covers are more like distant memories of his past influences than living interpretations, although ‘Little Sister’ swings rather better than Ry Cooder’s 1970s re-creation.
But Yoakam really goes off on his pitiful attempt at a classic country tragedy, ‘Johnson’s Love’, and the tepid teenage fantasm ‘Throughout All Time’. They’re not even truly awful, which is a pity for all future bad taste archivists. If Dwight Yoakam lives through all the hype, he may yet contribute something of value, real personality and experience; for now, the trad country tones ring hollow. 5/10
Dec 1981/In Touch
Reactor is the best meal Young’s gone and dished out in years. It’s 100 percent crazed/crazy; a rock record par excellence that has Young taking the piss out of everything in sight. At the same time, he keeps that yearning sad-eyed coyote howl to take us down. The sound is even more distorted and amped-up than the heavy half of Live Rust and its. Rusty nail rock. His intentions are clear from the outset with ‘Opera Star’ and its chicken club take-off. The classic is a funky ‘T-Bone’, which repeats the immortal lines “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-Bone” ad infinitum. Every song is a winner. The parting shot, ‘Shots’, which fires its stunning gunning round at us in the night, is an effective serious aside with degenerated ‘Hurricane’ guitar blasting. Young, not Dylan, is the new Woody Guthrie – forget it if that statement means nothing. Young’s more vital, honest and necessary right now than 99 percent of punk’s sold-out shit idols. So enjoy. 8/10
Neil Young’s new album is a revelation. Old hand Young has leapt back from the farm and its brain-gelling sprays to inject some fresh blood into Life.
It was a stroke of sheer genius getting the grungy garage sounds of Crazy Horse together with technology. The sound of straining amplifiers and indiscreet guitar fingering topped with synthesisers lovingly reproduced by digital recordings really has something going for it.
The first four songs are magic, and although it’s all downhill from there, nothing on Life gets anywhere near the bottom of the barrel.
Young is writing lyrics with conviction again, and much of the time they’re fiercely funny. The very first song is enough to get the general idea. It’s called ‘Mideast Vacation’.
Imagine the sound of Crazy Horse mutated and twisted into a weird rhythm, weird sounds. Add Young’s unique voice and lines like: “I was Rambo in the disco/Shooting to the beat/When they burned my effigy/The vacation was complete.”
The availability of sampled sounds has been a treat for Young, and they add the final touch to the new album. The big sound is regularly interspersed by various appropriate noises, which creates an extremely visual music: a kind of Dolby surround-sound without pictures.
With its musically-predictable rock pastiches, the second half doesn’t quite measure up to the promise of the first. But Young still manages to invest two songs of stupefyingly banal potential with hilarious and frighteningly real sentiment; listen to ‘Too Lonely’ – in which the character is “too lonely to fall in love” – and ‘Prisoners Of Rock And Roll’ in which he berates “record company clowns” and sticks up for garage band ethics. 7/10
Yet another hot rap act is Young MC, whose Stone Cold Rhymin’ sees a fresh, listenable variation on the basic theme. De La Soul fans might like this guy’s all-fun perspective, clear enunciation and a funky music base which gets away from the harder, less friendly style that dominates rap.
It’s not all humorous, but the single ‘Principal’s Office’ is one number that’s especially hilarious. Not a world-beater, but there’s a self-assurance here that’s winning. 6/10