Neil Diamond Album Overview 1968-1972
Part 2: 1968-1972 Ambitious Singer/Songwriter/Hitmaker
The first two albums on Uni/MCA are a little spotty. They lack the
exuberance and consistency of the Bang albums, and do not have the ambitious
scope of his later works. At times, they are thinly-produced. The best songs on
both Velvet Gloves and Spit and Brother Love's Travelling Salvation
Show are the singles, followed by the well-known album tracks. There's a
good reason why both albums have a large percentage of "obscure" songs- they're
loaded with filler and these are, at best, pleasantly listenable, but hardly the
stuff that makes legends. Over the next few years, Neil would eventually carve a
niche for himself and would end up writing and performing the songs that he
would forever be associated with.
Velvet Gloves And Spit
contains the now-classic (but not a hit single) autobiographical "Brooklyn
Roads"- by far the best written, best sung and best produced song on the album,
particularly good because of the unusual percussive effect of the guitar. Other
singles, "Two Bit Manchild" and "Sunday Sun" sank without a trace on the charts.
The filler, "Holiday Inn Blues", "Knackelflerg" and "Practically Newborn" lack
the catchy hooks that Diamond became famous for (several songs sound just like
"Two Bit Manchild!"). This album has the most bizarre song in his entire
catalog, "The Pot Smokers Song", a melange of spoken testimonials from former
junkies merged with Neil Diamond's toothpaste-jingle-catchy choruses. The focus
of Velvet Gloves is on rock n' roll, though not necessarily great
rock n' roll. The reissue of the album added a much-needed 1970 re-recording of
"Shilo", probably the finest studio version of that song to date. The majority
of the songs were produced by Tom Catalano, who would produce Neil's finest
material over the course of the next few albums.
A slight improvement is his second
Uni album, Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show. Neil had gone to
Memphis and hooked up with the famed studio band at American Studios there.
Several classics made it on the album, but again, it does have a goodly amount
of filler. First- the filler: the album has several pleasant rock/country
hybrids like "Long Gone", "Juliet" (sloppily produced with a lot of studio
noises caused by an open mike), "You're So Sweet" and "Deep In the Morning" as
well as the jarring "Dig In". Let's put it this way- Neil's best lyrics are NOT
on this album! On the good side, the title track is Neil's most frenzied foray
into gospel-rock, and is still a staple of his live shows. "And the Grass Won't
Pay No Mind" is another classic. The most important song was added to the album
on its reissue- the unforgettable massive hit "Sweet Caroline", the very song
that put Neil Diamond, Mark II on the map. Unfortunately, a poor stereo mix
hampers the version of the song on this particular album. The mono 45 mix, or
the later stereo mix (more on this later) are far more powerful.
Neil Diamond started to improve his
batting average with his 3rd Uni album, Touching You, Touching Me. The
only bad tracks are "Smokey Lady" and "And the Singer Sings his Song"
(definitely not in the right key for his singing voice). Conductor/arranger Lee
Holdridge had joined the Neil Diamond studio team, and the remainder of the
album benefits greatly from his sympathetic string arrangements, his well-chosen
set of L.A. studio musicians and his dramatic use of stereo on his scores.
Almost half of the album is made up of good covers of songs by other
singer/songwriters ("Both Sides Now", "Everybody's Talkin'", "Mr. Bojangles"
,"Until It's Time For You to Go"). A couple of upbeat and humorous numbers
"Ain't No Way" and "New York Boy" round out the album. Neil's own
gospel-influenced "Holly Holy" (appearing here with, again, a weak stereo mix)
was the huge hit and bona-fide classic on this album.
Gold, Neil Diamond's first
official live album, was released in 1970. This is probably the only opportunity
we have to hear, on record, Neil singing his Bang material at a date when the
Bang songs were still relatively recent and with a four-piece band (including
Neil himself on guitar). Loud, raw, rip-roarin' and rockin' are probably the
best adjectives that I can use to describe Gold. The first song, "Lordy"
has no studio version. "Sweet Caroline" doesn't always work with the
stripped-down arrangement and has an odd guitar break in the middle, but "Holly
Holy" (oddly enough) works beautifully, and so do the Bang-era songs ("Solitary
Man" "Kentucky Woman" "Thank the Lord for the Night Time" and "Cherry Cherry") .
Standout track is "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show" which contains some
fabulous, emotional singing and a fiery sermon.
Put yourself in Bang's shoes...
their favorite cash cow, Neil Diamond, had left and was recording hits for Uni
and selling records by the truckload. Bang had already released a "greatest
hits" package. What to do now? Answer: Compile more of the same-old songs onto a
new album, and find something truly "new" to add so the kids will buy it. So
what's new? An alternate take of "Shilo" with a snappy new musical backing
track, courtesy of American Studios. And an alternate take of "Solitary Man"
with some nifty stereo overdubbing. Then call the album Shilo, after the
"new" title track. Who cares if the remainder of the tracks is made up of the
Tap Root Manuscript is
neatly divided between "songs that comprise "The African Trilogy"" and "songs
that are NOT "The African Trilogy"". Of the latter, "Cracklin' Rosie" was the
big single- a remarkable pop confection that will remain stuck in your head and won't go away, no matter how hard you try.
Others include the jazzy "Free Life", the melodramatic ballad "Coldwater
Morning" and a rather downbeat cover of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother". "Done
Too Soon" is a litany of famous people who had died prematurely. Side 2
completely consists of "The African Trilogy", supposedly a composition about
Man's 3 stages of life, although the narrative link between the songs is not
always very clear. Neil, listed as the main performer and credited as the
composer of the piece, actually doesn't appear on the majority of it! Quite a
bit of it is instrumental or chorale music. His only vocal performances are on
"I Am the Lion" and the drum-based "Soolaimon".
Do It! Is another of Bang's
shameless money-making schemes. It contains yet MORE songs culled from Neil's
first 2 Bang albums, and newly re-tooled "Do It" extended, with some additional
stereo overdubs. It also managed to introduce, for the first time, two NEW songs
that were rejects and demos. The better of the two "new" songs, "Crooked Street"
is a simple tune, played with only an acoustic guitar. Based on the informal
vocal quality of the song, and the minimal backing, this one has the words
"songwriter demo" written all over it. The weaker track, "Shot Down" is played
with a band, but lacks the catchy quality of ALL of Neil's self-penned Bang
works. Lacking a good melody, and indifferently sung, "Shot Down" sounds like a
reject- something that Neil (while he was still actively recording with Bang)
had wisely discarded but got dredged-up here as bait for record buyers. But, Van
Morrison had it worse. An ENTIRE ALBUM of his Bang rejects was released.
Stones contains primarily
cover versions. Unfortunately, several of these don't even come close to rock,
so the net result is an album with an unusually high percentage of
snoozers that just don't work well on a Neil Diamond album ("If You Go Away"
"Husbands and Wives"). Two of the covers are excellent, Tom Paxton's "The Last
Thing on My Mind" and Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" which Neil made his own
here. The three Neil-penned songs, "I Am...I Said", "Crunchy Granola Suite" and
"Stones" are undoubtedly the best things on the album.
Moods, in many ways, closes
a major chapter in Neil's career. This was his last album of new material for
Uni/MCA, and the last studio album that relied heavily on his trademark acoustic
rhythm guitar. About half the album is devoted to upbeat, catchy rockers. Among
them are "Song Sung Blue", the infectious, gospel-rock "Walk on Water", the
humorously absurd "Porcupine Pie" and "Gitchy Goomy". The seeds of Neil Diamond,
Mark III were planted here, with the other half made up of gorgeous ballads,
ranging from the exquisite, 3/4 time "Play Me", the melancholy "Morningside", to
the hauntingly moving "Captain Sunshine", all beautifully orchestrated by Lee
Holdridge. Even hours after playing Moods, the songs will still ring in
Hot August Night, Neil's
second live album, completes his main line MCA/Uni catalog. It's the definitive
Neil Diamond live document, with an extraordinary integration between his
acoustic guitar-dominated rock band and a full orchestra (but with no brass- not
that you'll miss it), best shown on "Prologue/Crunchy Granola Suite". Lee
Holdridge's scoring on this album ranges from dead-on accurate to transcendent,
at times granting songs a depth that was absent on their earlier studio
incarnations. Neil's voice had developed a rather husky quality on this album,
giving an aching tenderness and sensitivity to the 3 back-to-back ballads on
Side 3. The tempos also slow down somewhat on Side 4, with "I Am...I Said" and
"Holly Holy". At the end of the set, Neil and his band play a serious kick-ass
version of "Soolaimon/Brother Love". Highly recommended, and the use of your CD
player's "repeat" button is practically required to play the whole thing AGAIN.
This article is Copyright 1999, K.F. Louie.
May not be reproduced without the written permission of the
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