Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Was Zuma the album that finally allowed Neil Young to ditch the encumbrance of being just the fourth name in a list of four?
Before the cloud fills with angry retorts, exhorting Shakey’s eternal place as King of the Gods, back down a little and let me explain.
For sure Young was huge before Zuma‘s 1975 release, that’s obvious, but he wasn’t, how you say, massive. Young made his name in Buffalo Springfield, alongside Stephen Stills; on that band’s implosion, their solo recordings each got notice and were garnished with praise. Stills arguably leapt ahead when he teamed up with Crosby and Nash, even if it then took Young joining to make the supergroup a superlative group. Fast forward past the post-Four Way Street wreckage: Manassas was giving Stills some huge credibility, and Young was in need of a band. Of course, he already had one, but they were arguably just background noise up until this point. Nerds (yes, that’s us) knew all about Crazy Horse and possibly had their separate records, but only with Zuma did Young bring them in the forefront and put them in sizable writing on the cover.
I would assert that this made the difference, catapulting Young ahead his onetime partner. Manassas may have had all the classy talent, but the Horse had pure, um, horsepower. Never again would Stills equal his rival, no matter how long he may run. Young didn’t even need the Horse to maintain his pole position, but, give or take the International Harvesters or Promise of the Real, Booker T’s MGs even, it seems only with these guys does Neil really fly. Unless, paradoxically, he is entirely alone.
Zuma came out in 1975. My first year away from home at college, adrift in London after my friends had gone home for Christmas, I needed some aural sustenance. I chanced upon a copy and, remembering I liked After the Gold Rush and Deja Vu, I took it to my room. Blown away would be how I would have summed it up then, it being difficult to find an age-appropriate phrase to convey it better today. It still has the capability to blow me away today, leaping out of the speakers with a raw majesty. (OK, a ragged glory, not ashamed to purloin the phrase used later.) Playing like a man possessed, all Young’s slo-mo soloing, all fingers and thumbs, a clumsy finesse, seemed echoed by new boy Poncho Sampedro’s playing, with the reliably wonky metronome of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina anchoring it all in a messy splurge. The songs were astonishing, from straightforward bar-band thrashes to yearning spiky desert blues.
O, and Cortez! A song I don’t believe Young has ever bettered, or even could. Sure, he has spoilt it a few times, playing it live with a reggae signature coming first to mind. I am uncertain I have forgiven him for not playing it on the one time I saw him and the Horse live.
Zuma performed well if not to Harvest and Goldrush levels. It hit #25 on the Billboard chart, taking twelve years to attain gold status. It certainly boosted his status after the then received disappointments of the preceding Ditch trilogy of albums. (I wonder how many of the legions who now proclaim these three his best thought so then?) In the many lists of best Neil Young songs, at least three of the tracks would be in my top ten. (Sadly, the closest I’ve come was in 2014, when Rolling Stone ranked four Zuma songs in their top 100.)
So, how well has it been covered? Some songs (“Cortez,” “Barstool Blues”) have been versioned frequently; others, hardly at all. Let’s see.
Allison Moorer – Don’t Cry No Tears (Neil Young cover)
There are a lot of covers of this emanating from my side of the pond, it seeming of particular inspiration to the indie class of the ’80s: Teenage Fanclub, the Wedding Present and Del Amitri, all straying little from the 4:4 template. Any of them would have done, but I really wanted to spotlight Allison Moorer’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” and I really had to struggle to find it.
Allison Moorer was at an interesting stage of her career. Having followed up some well received country (and near western) fare with the never more Crazy Horse sound of Duel, a terrific album, her 2003 live showcase Show reflected that direction, dropping a month or so earlier. Whilst a tad prettier than the stomp laid down on Duel, this is a very credible version, her swampy vocal and the swirling organ give it a more bitter riposte than the more matter of fact intructional of the original. She means it and won’t covet any dissent. Today Show would seem to be expunged from history, with not a whisper of it available anywhere, but even when all the water’s gone, my feelings for Moorer’s cover linger on.
27 – Danger Bird (Neil Young cover)
I know little about this Boston band, except they seem to operate in a lo-fi, lo-tempo of scuzzy guitars enshrouding often quite delicate melodies, thus entirely apt for this, the least conventionally structured song on the album. The stutters and starts of the original “Danger Bird” are ably managed by the three-piece, and the female vocals, again, seem just to be right. This seems a recurring theme in the covering of the maverick Canadian, where women seem better able and more comfortable in inhabiting his body of work. Songs From the Edge of the Wing was 27’s first recording, an EP, with that title surely drawing comparison with the drawing (Neil’s own) that graces the album sleeve of Zuma. The chorus, when the second voice sotto voce blends in underneath, is exquisite–less, it’s true, when the male adds some counterpoint, but that grows on you. If some quibble that the guitar is a carbon copy of the original, let them; it’s a fine solo.
Taylor James – Pardon My Heart (Neil Young cover)
No, it is Taylor James, and yes, it is an appropriation of the lanky “You’ve Got a Friend” cover singer, this singer naming herself in honor of the other, a staple in, I guess, her father’s record collection. “Pardon My Heart,” an acoustic interlude between the scratchy electrics elsewhere, here it is transformed into a slice of prime Canadiana. These forays into full albums always seem to produce, to me, unknown Canadians of no small sounding talent, invisible outside their border. Young, of course, is himself is a Canadian by birth an upbringing. The pedal steel and the hesitancy of the husky vocal imbue a greater gravity; Ms. James isn’t just sorry, she’s devastated.
Idlewild – Lookin’ for a Love (Neil Young cover)
A male voice, lest you feel this piece going all the way of Cinnamon Girl (the all-women tribute album, not the song). “Lookin’ for a Love” was a b-side from the Scottish R.E.M.-lite band Idlewild. Honestly, though, that descriptor is an unfair epithet, as they have a whole lot more to them than aping the Athens icons. Almost uncharacteristically, vocalist Roddy Woomble sounds almost hesitant here, not a bit like Michael Stipe, with the background of trebly jangle shining a whole different light on the song, one that refreshes more than the bedroom gurners who provide the majority of versions I could trace. Woomble has two faces: as well as front man of this band, he has a concurrent life as a deep-thinking trad-influenced folkie, a guise I personally prefer. I wonder how Woomble would tackle this song in that mode? I think fiddle and accordion could add something.
Norah Jones – Barstool Blues (Neil Young cover)
Often defined as the best song on Zuma that’s not about conquistadors, “Barstool Blues” is certainly one of Neil’s most hummable tunes, and who would have thought Norah Jones would give it such grace. Aficionados of Ms. Jones will know she has much more than jazzy hues on her palette, being equally handy with country and indie textures, the latter best shown in her work with Modest Mouse. For the former, you could do worse than seek out her side project, the Little Willies, who do delightfully ragged versions of their own material and of classic country staples. This version, much in the style of the Little Willies, comes from 2010 Bonaroo. What is of particular relish is the ramshackle piano, especially the solo, where she plays it like Shakey plays guitar, as if with boxing gloves on. Please take that as a slight on neither–it is the basis of the charm of his guitar style, and I feel that Jones, no slouch on the piano, is paying some tribute to that here.
The Shoe – Stupid Girl (Neil Young cover)
Not so many of versions of this one. I thought maybe because the lyrics so misogynistic (about Joni Mitchell, say some), but there is no shortage of covers for the Stones and Garbage tunes of the same name. But the Shoe drops quite an ear-opener and jaw-dropper here, better than the original. Just echoed voice and rudimentary keyboards, chords only, and not many of them, with a rather uplifting flurry into maybe a couple of single notes towards the end. I had to play it repeatedly to let it fully soak in. Perhaps because the singer, Jena Malone, is an actress of some repute; the duo of she and bandmate/keyboard functionary Lem Jay Ignacio, have raised quite a stir in the media. I guess more people have read about them than heard them. Without a clue of how their other stuff is, this possibly invites investigation, if my head shakes in disappointment at me should I do so.
The Melvins & Mudhoney – Drive Back (Neil Young cover)
Quite a recent one, this, dropping barely a couple of months back. Along with the preceding track, one of the two generic rock-by-numbers offerings so often offered as balance to the better tracks on nearly every NY album. From an EP put together by members of each of these Seattle grunge veterans, a genre arguably defined and birthed through the wilder excesses of Young’s work with Crazy Horse, together with the shared love of a plaid shirt, the main note of interest is that this version is actually clearer and better defined than the presumedly deliberate sludge of Zuma. With also a slightly more imaginative bass and drum pattern. Otherwise, a little pointless.
Carrie Rodriguez with Tim Easton – Cortez the Killer (Neil Young cover)
OK, the song most of you have opened up this up for…. So which one of the many and varied? We have covered a lot of Neil on Cover Me, notably on the Fifty Best Covers. I was annoyed that this version missed the cut, so it is a delight to finally get to talk about it here. Carrie Rodriguez is a talented Texan, a childhood violin prodigy until she switched to fiddle, swapping from Oberlin Conservatory to Berklee School of Music. She can sing, too, with strong and confident phrasing and a mellow timbre. With Lyle Lovett a friend of the family, she unsurprisingly gravitated from the classics towards a form of Tex-Mex Americana, later paying her dues alongside Chip Taylor. Four duet albums and she was out on her own. Here she joins Tim Easton, as part of a special commission for UK music magazine Uncut, part of their 2007 tribute to Neil Young and easily the highlight of that project. Easton sets an almost Cowboy Junkies vibe to it, with Rodriguez’s vocals of an altogether less northern latitude than Margo Timmins, providing a warmth to balance the icy guitar, just a hint of background fiddle creeping in at the end. Majestic. (Editor’s note: And it’s good, too!)
Soulsavers – Through My Sails (Neil Young cover)
I’m no fan of the original “Through My Sails.” It feels like a tacked-on leftover, as well as being the sole track dispensing with the Horse (discounting the near-solo “Pardon My Heart”). And it’s only got bloody Crosby, Stills and Nash shoe-horned in. Somebody owe them a favor, I wonder? Certainly it is an odd track to follow “Cortez,” and many, I suspect, are only too happy to lift the needle. But, transformed by English studio boffins Soulsavers, a swirling backdrop sets up a mystical pedestal upon which Mark Lanegan, with Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy) on second vocal, can give a gravity lacking in the original. (I say second vocal as it isn’t quite harmony, even anything but, if still gelling in a way it shouldn’t.) A real silk purse to end the show.