Neil Young – Fork in the Road – Reprise

by | May 8, 2009 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews | 0 comments

Neil Young – Fork in the Road – Reprise 518040-2, 38:44 ***1/2:

(Neil Young – acoustic & electric guitar, vocals, producer; Ben Keith – lap steel guitar, electric guitar, Hammond B-3 organ, backing vocals; Anthony Crawford – acoustic & electric guitar, piano, Hammond B-3  organ, backing vocals; Pegi Young – acoustic guitar, backing vocals, vibraphone; Rick Rosas – bass; Chad Cromwell – drums; Niko Bolas – producer, engineer, mixing)

There is a willfully off-the-cuff articulation to Neil Young’s newest rock album, Fork in the Road. For those who have been following Young’s sometimes erratic solo career, you can put Fork in the Road somewhere between Re-ac-tor and Living With War, which were both ragged, full-throttle records that pinpointed with snapshot conciseness just where Young was in his life. On Young’s current batch of low-fidelity material, he sings about the past (where we’ve been), the present (our contemporary problems) and the future (hope is alive again). Musically, the ten tracks overflow with stout and distorted Les Paul electric guitar fills, Chad Cromwell’s thumping drums, and on most songs, slightly sweetening backing vocals that add balance.

Thematically, Young’s latest venture is a socially-conscious travelogue centering on the American automobile, with appropriate tunes such as the shuffling "Fuel Line," the bluesy "Get Behind the Wheel," and the self-deprecating title track. On the grunge opener, "When Worlds Collide," Young depicts his road trip from California to Washington, D.C., when he drove his hybridized Lincvolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental outfitted with a biodiesel-electric motor. Young describes places and people he saw and things he did along the way: floating on the Rio Grande with a Coca Cola in his hand; a man out of luck who spends his days in a jail cell; and old folks cruising down Route 66. Young continues both the contorted music and his passion for going green on "Fuel Line," an ode to ending dependence on oil companies. Throbbing "Johnny Magic," which nods to Young’s tune "Hey Hey, My My," is a tribute to visionary mechanic Jonathan "Motorhead Messiah" Goodwin, Young’s partner in the Lincvolt endeavor []. The cut is a not-quite-eloquent plea to change the system by replacing the rules.

Young has written about his vehicles and the road before. "Long May You Run," "Drive Back" and "Motor City" are but a few examples of Young’s fascination with traveling down the byways and highways. The blues jammer "Get Behind the Wheel" is not one of Young’s best car songs, but its utter simplicity gives it a plain-spoken rock and roll charm. "Hit the Road" has a likeminded musical and lyrical stance, a craggy, mid-tempo tumbler that easily could have been performed by Crazy Horse.

Young is on shaky ground, though, when he heads straight into counterculture, political territory, such as during boogie toss-off "Cough Up the Bucks," a rant against greedy Wall Street denizens, which mimics "T-Bone," a similarly patterned and repetitive track that showed up on Re-ac-tor. If "Cough Up the Bucks" sounds as if it was penned and produced in a single afternoon, it probably was.

Young provides his most personal and poignant performance on country-colored "Light a Candle," where he expressively unplugs to sing about sincere inner transformation: Young’s folksy acoustic guitar, assured vocals, and Ben Keith’s masterful lap steel furnish the sparse piece a potent persuasiveness.

Fork in the Road doesn’t rank with Young’s best work, lacking the comprehensive focus of Rust Never Sleeps or Harvest, but it does have the organic, buckled impact of underrated outings such as Zuma or On the Beach. Casual fans who only remember iconic hits like "Heart of Gold," "Cinnamon Girl" or "Southern Man" can ignore this Fork in the Road and safely stay on their familiar path. But for those who prefer to take the road not taken, and welcome a different perspective, Fork in the Road is a detour worth traversing.

1. When Worlds Collide
2. Fuel Line
3. Just Singing a Song
4. Johnny Magic
5. Cough Up the Bucks
6. Get Behind the Wheel
7. Off the Road
8. Hit the Road
9. Light a Candle
10. Fork in the Road
— Doug Simpson

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