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.
 

VG and S
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.

BLTSS
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.

TYTM
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
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.

SHILO
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 same-old stuff?

TAP ROOT
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".

DOIT
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
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
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 your head.

HAN1
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 author.

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