July 21, 1993
Neil Young, Unplugged (Reprise 1993) -- The rush of new "Unplugged" recordings continues unabated. MTV, the only remaining hitmaker in the business (just try to find a current pop radio station that makes hits) has revitalized and recast the live recording in its series of "Unplugged" shows.
The new serving from Neil Young is representative of the lot. A bit too long (at 65 minutes), but heartfelt and covering nearly the full gamut of Neil's career. Unplugged shows the more accessible side of Neil -- he's rocking, but it's not in-your-face metal.
Unplugged is the equivalent of a double LP set. The first seven tracks (the equivalent of the first LP) are fair. On the second side (tracks 8 through 14), Neil really picks up the pace with fine versions of classics like "Helpless" and "Look Out For My Love", the much-overlooked "Transformer" (a great tune), and cuts from last year's Harvest Moon, including the title tune and the reflective "From Hank To Hendrix".
Neil has managed to keep his career going strong by both being an iconoclast (who could forget the barbed "This Note's For You", which was banned from MTV for years), and by reinventing himself from album to album. Neil veers from one extreme (the more acoustic Harvest Moon, made with The Stray Gators) to the other (metal to the max with his band Crazy Horse, as in Arc).
Unplugged shows that Neil hasn't run out of tricks. With over an hour's worth of music, you have to find a place to begin. Start with track 8. The good stuff.
Singles -- There don't seem to be any rock/pop singles anymore. Everything's a cross-over, sell-to-the-masses effort (see The Bodyguard soundtrack for a prime example).
Maybe you managed to hear the album version of "Harvest Moon" during its fleeting stay on the charts. There was something special about it. It was that voice. Familiar, enticing.
No, we're not talking Neil Young. Linda Ronstadt appeared as a background vocalist on the album version of "Harvest Moon". It turned your head. It's the first good thing Linda's done in years. It should have been a hit. It wasn't.
Warren Zevon, Learning to Flinch (Giant 1993) -- Old Warren, he's no dummy. He looks at all this "Unplugged" stuff and figures it's time to cash in. Maybe MTV won't extend an invitation to rock's resident Sam Peckinpah. He knows how the game's played. He makes his own Unplugged.
And it basically works. Learning to Flinch is a collection of live acoustic recording made by Warren during a 1992 European tour. Warren wrote some great songs (such as "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me") and some cult classics (such as "Werewolves of London" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner"), all of which are included on Learning to Flinch. Not an earth-shattering collection, but a healthy serving from one of rock's off-beat poets.
Warren's biggest problem, however, is that he delights in shocking his audience. His last release, Mr. Bad Example (Giant 1991) was a dandy recording and much overlooked by radio. Gone was the angry mall-crawler; in its place, we found a more focused artist, and a return of his irrepressible sense of humor.
But the back cover of Mr. Bad Example was weird, with its large, grinning skull. On Learning to Flinch, Warren's done it again. Another grinning skull smoking a cigarette. This is a non-user friendly trademark. Try to overlook it.
Paul McCartney, Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) (Capitol 1991) -- As long as we're trippin' down memory lane, how about a stop at the house of McCartney? Now, let's be honest. Paul peaked in his post-Beatle years with Band on the Run and Venus and Mars. Both great albums. Hard to surpass. Apparently a little too hard for Paul, as almost everything he's released in the last fifteen years has been forgettable. Duets with Michael Jackson? Come on.
But I like The Official Bootleg. This is one of the best releases from Unplugged. Paul and band (including Linda) are bouncy and in fine form. Paul plays the tunes he started with (like "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and "Good Rockin' Tonight") and then segues into some sweet Beatles numbers, including "Blackbird" and "We Can Work It Out". The Official Bootleg is inspired fun from the early days of Unplugged, as Paul showed that MTV was onto something big. Good stuff.
Suede, Suede (Columbia 1993) -- Yuck. This British import has been getting a lot of press, with comparisons from T-Rex to David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. Don't fall for it. The band's been seriously over-hyped. Pop music tends to be culturally-specific. Lots of times the music the Brits like just doesn't cut it in the States. You can throw Suede on that bonfire. Provocative cover, but flat, flat interior.
-- Randy Krbechek
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