Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Harvest is the one Neil Young album that everybody knows of. The reason? Almost undoubtedly “Heart of Gold,” that era-defining song of the early ’70s, all acoustic whimsy, swaying on a stool. Of course it is a terrific song, if a little diminished by ubiquity, but not hugely typical of, at least, Young’s latter-day work, especially when he saddles up with Crazy Horse.
But, by golly, that sweet acoustic ditty has done ol’ Shakey well. At last count there were over a hundred “Heart of Gold” covers, some of them good enough to warrant a yearly check of no small size passing through his mail slot. It did pretty well in its author’s iteration too, mind, hitting the coveted number one spot in the US singles chart (Young’s only sojourn there) and top ten in many other territories. Considering Young had only started dabbling with acoustic songs in response to a back injury, necessitating his sitting to play, how serendipitous must that fall have been? Mind you, his own comments as to where it took him were less than generous: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.”
On the back of the single, so too did Harvest flourish, likewise becoming a chart topper with Young’s biggest LP sales to date. Characteristically, given the sheer cussedness of the man, it contains a number of styles, some harking back to previous album After the Gold Rush, some more akin to future more country-inflected excursions. This reflected the musicians recruited, largely country session men making their first outing as the Stray Gators. Pedal steel player Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, and drummer Kenny Buttrey helped shape Harvest‘s sound. So did Jack Nitzsche, the producer and pianist who also played a part with Crazy Horse. Nitzsche decided to orchestrate a couple of the songs as well, an odd move at the time for an artist in other than easy-listening territory. And then there was the stark and bleak beauty of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” gaunt in its unadorned voice and guitar, a song as chilling as Bert Jansch’s clearly influential “Needle of Death.”
A year shy of its half century, how, then, has Harvest fared? How well have the songs lasted? How do they fit into the differing tastes of this century? These more recent interpretations help reveal the answer: better than expected. The original Harvest is an album I listen to for a wallow in nostalgia; these ten covers stand on wholly different ground.
Lee Ann Womack – Out On The Weekend (Neil Young cover)
With a much cleaner and crisper feel than the fuzzy edges of the original, Lee Ann Womack turns the story of “Out on the Weekend” into one much more of a lament, sadder in spades than Neil ever managed. To be fair, she has that sort of voice that has you already appreciating it won’t end well, heartbreak and homewrecking far more to her métier. The change of pronoun fits so well, it makes me wonder whether, like so many of Young’s songs, it should always have been sung by a woman. Breaking through around the turn of the century, Womack has always carefully kept her balance on the high wire separating chintzy from contemporary country. This cover is from her 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’, which critics hailed as exuding a “progressive traditionalism.” No, I don’t get it either, but if I had to guess, I think it means she isn’t averse to plying a bit of Americana into a mama’s coat of many colors.
Lucio Villani – Harvest (Neil Young cover)
There can’t be that many bluesmen who accompany themselves on a double bass, let alone Italian bluesmen who decide “Harvest” is a blues, and then croon it like a a drunken mobster, over the lurching rumble of their instrument. If there are, only one can make that turn out as classy and accomplished as this. A truly astonishing rendition, knocking all the other covers into copycat territory. Villani categorizes himself as a jazz-blues musician with a love of folk music, having also been classically trained. This “Harvest” cover comes from 2017’s Nightbreed (Blue Tales), featuring a few Tom Waits songs, some vintage blues standards, and the Trent Reznor/NiN classic, via Johnny Cash, “Hurt.”
Tindersticks – A Man Needs A Maid (Neil Young cover)
Tindersticks are the venerable miserabilists from Nottingham who combine an art house film noir soundtrack ambience with the extraordinary vocals of Stuart Staples. “A Man Needs a Maid” is a song long within their live repertoire; only now, during lockdown, has it made its way onto a studio tape. I can do without the syrupy strings of the Nitzsche production, so this has an easy head start, but the whole ambient dream sequence feel transcends the song way beyond the oft-suggested haunted feel of the original; if that was haunted, this is full-on possession. Staples’ bittersweet croon has only a passing acquaintance with any semblance of enunciation, swallowing as many words whole as he manages to spit out. Meanwhile, the rest of the band move spectrally around him, electronic thumps of percussion mixing with slow surfy twangs of guitar, Twin Peaks-like keyboards cradling the whole. The additional vocal is from Gina Foster.
David Clayton-Thomas – Heart Of Gold (Neil Young cover)
Let’s stick with strange vocals, Clayton-Thomas being the knotted tonsil front man for Blood, Sweat & Tears. In truth, I can offer no understanding as to how and why his take on “Heart of Gold” can or could ever be considered up to any reasonable par, but, y’know, I just like it. Kind of, with the responsibility lying mainly with the arrangement. The jittery clatters of the drums seem to keep his tuxedo tendencies just about at bay, with then, the chapel organ and girly chorus giving a glossy gospel sheen. The sideways swipe into reggae-lite comes both unexpected and refreshing, and Clayton-Thomas is just about hanging on in there, although I can sense the sweat (and really, the cod-Jamaican makes Sting sound a Kingston native). It comes from a solo disc called Canadiana, released in 2016. (All songs by Canadians, so you should see what else he tackles….)
Hank Williams Jr. feat. Eric Church – Are You Ready For The Country (Neil Young cover)
Too obvious? Country = Hank Williams? Well, no, it is way less country than the original ever was, even with the wailing fiddle. Hank Jr. is as more comfortable with this sort of outlaw mode rather than just aping his father, the sort of music where the guitars are electric and the drums pinned to the floor. So it follows that “Are You Ready For
Some Football The Country” is a glorious stomp. I confess the presence of Eric “the Chief” Church seems to add little, other than to attract his demographic into the sales. To me, his vocals sound desperately thin compared to the holler of Hank’s number one son. This comes from Williams’ last recording, one of his highest performing, 2016’s It’s About Time. Of course, it is arguable that Williams didn’t know it was a Neil Young song at all, not least as he retains the lyrical change, earlier adopted by Waylon Jennings, and which gives an altogether more narcissistic twang to the narrative.
Motorjesus – Old Man (Neil Young cover)
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this one. One glimpse of the edgy band name and I knew exactly what was in store: a European hair metal power ballad. With a dateline of 2010, I was going to be disappointed if they weren’t Swedish, so it is a little annoying to report they are German. Their specialty, apparently, a “high octane mix of classic heavy metal and dirty hard rock.” But I come to praise Motorjesus, not to bury them. I like how they have put this together, the guitar intro reminiscent of early Genesis. It’s true, the wait for the inevitable lurch into a higher register came later and less dramatically that anticipated, the hope being for some Stairway-type calisthenics, if not to heaven, well, at least as far as Heidelberg. But it’s OK and I wish them well.
Blitzen Trapper – There’s A World (Neil Young cover)
Please forgive the poor quality of this clip, the best I could find of Blitzen Trapper’s idea to play the whole of Harvest live, as a set piece. The Oregon band released it as a record store day wheeze; unlike many such conceits, it has not since appeared in a more conventional release. No CD, no digital (unless you bought the album), scarcely any YouTube presence. It is better than this photo footage (of a different gig) suggests, and there are better tracks, but I felt this one worth the signposting. Blitzen Trapper seems made for this sort of folk/country/rock fusion. They change little of “There’s a World”‘s arrangement, give or take the lack of the orchestra, something ruefully acknowledged by vocalist Eric Early.
Smoke Fairies – Alabama (Neil Young cover)
Another example of how to tighten up the ragged edges that are so much part of core Neil, yet still to retain the impact of the song. “Alabama” is surely to Harvest as “Southern Man” is to After the Gold Rush, and it’s very much in the same Lynyrd Skynyrd bothering style; it’s classic Young, and the Stray Gators channel a fair facsimile of the Horse. The Smoke Fairies, not that you can tell, are two girls from Sussex, on the southern coast of England, with a penchant for the blues. Or rather, a bluesy scrunch to wrap around their exquisite harmonies, which seem more inclined to the folk tradition. A marriage that is especially successful here. I can’t find the credits, but the almost spectral fiddle is a wonder. This is the only lift here from the 2011 cover disc Harvest Revisited, a Mojo magazine commission, worth seeking out if you can.
Simple Minds – The Needle And The Damage Done (Neil Young cover)
The oldest cover here, this rendition of “The Needle and the Damage Done” is as astonishing for the how as for the who. Simple Minds are more characteristically seen as big-bluster, big-sky rockers, renowned more for their late 20th century bombast than this. Totally rewiring the song, they’ve made it a scary electronica leviathan. Jim Kerr’s falsetto vocal is the fearful wail of a man fearing he is the damage next in line for the needle. Together they conjure up the sound of a sordid basement where something unspeakably bad has happened, preferably as the credits roll and the houselights come up. From an otherwise pretty naff selection of covers the band put out in 2001, as their flame was beginning to flicker, it was a sign there was still some originality alive in the old warhorse. Charlie Burchill’s guitar in the coda is gloriously and defiantly old school too, and a reminder of past glories. (I hope you listened that far!?)
Fulbert – Words (Between The Lines Of Age) (Neil Young cover)
It is the first few stark piano notes that cement this version as the only one to consider. The echo reverberates and some, through, if you will, the lines of ages, the somber mood permeating into every claustrophobic pore. I thought the brushed drums and muted guitar might destroy the mood, but Fulbert forsee that risk, the spooky piano then allowed to lope through the forest, altogether like the grim reaper on absinthe. Fulbert? Not, as I first thought the Korean resident French DJ, rather the nom d’oreille of one Xavier Plumas, who with Francois Chevallier sets to painting an aural mood of forest and woodsmoke. From a 2005 album entitled Les Anges à la Sieste, which might loosely translate as Snoozing Angels, I think that sort of sums up the charm of this track.