Heard Here

Neil Young
Are You Passionate?

If Neil Young is not directly addressing himself in the title of his brand new record, he should consider asking himself the question, “Am I still passionate?” Young’s new release on Reprise Records is a thoroughly listenable endeavor that unfortunately lacks the delicate angst of his strongest work. From an optimistic standpoint, the legend has perhaps mastered the song craft to such a level of ease that the songs have turned into vapor. At worst, Neil Young has fallen into easily decipherable formula. In a song titled (perhaps as a self-proclamation) “Mr. Disappointment,” Neil laments, “I lost the feeling, I lost the time.” Young’s previously tenuous confidence level may now chart in negative figures.
The opener, “You’re My Girl” kicks off the record with a get-down Motown groove reminiscent of the Four Tops’ “Sugar Pie Honeybunch.” However, there is no sense of irony or facetious appropriation evident in this song or any of the others on this record that features co-producer Booker T. Jones (of the MGs). Neil Young’s signature combination of piercing, honest voice and rustic guitar sound are remarkably at home within the Motown-tinged framework. Many forget or were never told that Neil Young, before his Buffalo Springfield days, played guitar in a band signed to Motown Records whose singer was none other than (no joke), a teenage Rick James. Young may be rekindling the fire of his forlorn R&B days.
Are You Passionate?’s most strikingly awkward moment is “Let’s Roll,” an unbelievably tacky foot-stomping number inspired by the events of Sept. 11. The statement “Let’s Roll” has entered the lore of Sept. 11 after Todd Beamer heroically uttered the catch phrase before storming the cockpit of Flight 93, successfully subduing the hijackers, and sacrificially crashing the plane in Pennsylvania. Young, with morose candor refrains, “time is running out, let’s roll,” over a dark organ bass. Young has often used unsettlingly ripe material in his work. One may recall that he chanted “four dead in Ohio” just weeks after the Kent State massacre.
Since the slogan “Let’s Roll” has served as a call to arms appearing on posters and bumper stickers nationwide, we wonder if Young has remained true to the disenfranchised and rebellious iconic persona that he carved out for himself in the’ 60s and’70s. Lines like “No one has the answer / but one thing is true / you got to turn out evil when it’s comin’ for you” are unforgivable and even reprehensible.
The album’s title track is its best song. The dirge-like “Are You Passionate?” is led by a memorable melodic single note guitar line that nostalgically harkens back to the 1950s oeuvre of dreamy guitar ballads like Santo and Johnny’s classic, “Sleepwalk.” Although the tune isn’t groundbreaking, Young artfully poses a series of questions to a lover as well as to his listeners and to himself.
Other songs that surface above the fine line of mediocrity include the driving and semi-badass “Goin’ Home” that has Young’s band doing their best impression of Neil’s regular supporting cast, Crazy Horse. Other highlights are “Two Old Friends,” which resurrects The Band’s late lead vocalist Richard Emanuel, and the sexy and loosely structured closing track, “She’s a Healer.” But Are You Passionate? mostly fails to leave much of an impression. It is interesting for a listen but essential only for the most dedicated of fans.

–Jason Klauber

Guy Mendilow
Soar Away Home

Before Guy Mendilow graduated from Oberlin College in 1999 he was a constant presence in Oberlin’s folk scene — performing at the Cat in the Cream, participating in the Cat’s Friday jam sessions, and, as evidenced by the combination of folk idioms on his debut album, Soar Away Home, honing his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer.
Released last year on Earthern Groove Records and recorded in Oberlin’s Timara studios, Mendilow’s debut effort powerfully displays the brand of folk music he calls “Third Stream.” Illustrating Mendilow’s diverse experiences, including time spent in Mexico and South Africa, and his mastery of several languages, Soar Away Home features American blues, Appalachian folk, traditional African rhythms, Israeli folk and even overtone singing (a vocal technique allowing the singer to produce more then one tone at the same time).
This unique hodge-podge of sounds can be quite mesmerizing. The various idioms get explored on a song by song basis without packing the disparate styles into one song, and it’s a real thrill to hear Mendilow open with a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song before diving straight into his own folk-blues number, “Soar Away Home.” Mendilow pulls this move throughout the record — moving between styles as divergent as classical Indian music and fiddle-fueled Appalachian folk without a hitch.
Mendilow is a proficient songwriter in his own right as well. Though his tunes that revel in the folk/blues styles reminiscent of Tom Rush and early Paul Simon are competent additions to that genre, Mendilow really shines when he lets himself explore the more disparate elements of his musical repertoire. The wonderfully haunting “Experiment in tintal for overtone singing, cello & violin” features drone-like classical Indian melodies played under Mendilow’s masterful overtone singing. And “Porch Song” is a beautifully wistful instrumental featuring a jazzy piano solo by junior Brendan Cooney.
But ambitious as all of this is, Mendilow’s debut suffers from vocals that, despite the singer’s years with the American Boychoir, remain quite ordinary and contain a pretentiousness that undercuts much of the talent and versatility displayed on the record. On his folksier tunes, Mendilow’s voice relies too much on his backup singers, including alum Bridget Matros and sophomores Avery Book and Erika Kulnys-Brain. His singing, except for his convincing turn on the traditional blues number “The Saint James Infirmary Blues” and the aformentioned overtone singing, doesn’t communicate the conviction of his material demands. This is all the clearer when Mendilow’s lackluster baritone comes up against the fuller tones of his backup signers. And such tracks as “Cursed Miracles: The Story of Ishmael and Isaac,” in which Mendilow recounts in spoken word the well-known Biblical story of the two half-brothers as a commentary on the current crises in Israel, is just too heavy-handed to take seriously. Though the intentions on this track and others are admirable, one can’t help feeling that the record would do better if it took itself a little less seriously.
Though there is certainly nothing wrong with displaying one’s affinity and talent for folk idioms from all over the globe, Mendilow does so at the expense of the depth of his songs. Mendilow would do better to focus his seemingly inexhaustible folk music repertory to a couple of genres or a unique combination of the two.
Regardless, Soar Away Home is without a doubt an ambitious start for the Oberlin alum and one hopes that the promise shown here can blossom into something truly magical in the coming years.

Guy Mendilow will be performing at the Cat in the Cream as part of his solo U.S. CD release tour on April 22 at 9 p.m.

–John MacDonald

April 19
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