Neil Diamond Album Overview
Part 3: 1973-1980 The Early Columbia Years, from Mystic to Romantic

Double Gold was Bang's last Neil Diamond album. It was yet another compilation, but at least it was a worthwhile one. It basically contains 21 out of the 25 songs that Neil had recorded for the label. Music-wise, it's great. Value-wise, it's also a winner- it has most of the songs from The Feel of Neil and every song from other old LPs like Just for You, Shilo and Do It! without all of the wasteful duplications. Sound wise... well, we do have a few problems. First off, some of the songs are of poor fidelity. More irritating is the fact that the majority of the songs had their stereo signals reversed. This is pure sloppiness- it couldn't be that difficult to plug the right cable into the right jack and the left cable into the left jack!

Rainbow was the first of MCA's post-Neil compilations of previously-released material. Strangely, it emphasized Neil as a song interpreter, not a songwriter. Every song on the album is a cover of songs by other writers. Some of it is quite good, but the album relied too heavily on the sleep-inducing covers from Stones. About halfway through, it's easy to get seized with the insatiable desire to hear Neil singing Neil.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull showcases the flowering of Neil Diamond, Mark III- sensitive and intensely spiritual poet. A quick look at the lyric book shows how far he'd come since writing ridiculous lyrics like "Look at her now, yeah, barefoot and full of sassy" (on "River Runs, Newgrown Plums" from BLTSS). There's only 5 vocal-based songs here, and you'd better like "Be", because it reappears several times as a motif, woven in and out of other songs, as well as being reprised at the end of the album. There are long stretches of Neil-less periods, but at least they're made palatable by grandiose instrumental variations of the themes from his 5 songs. This was Lee Holdridge's last album with Neil, as their partnership was terminated over a dispute over songwriting credits for the film. Pity. By the way, if you don't have this on LP, you're missing out on some beautiful packaging. The CD doesn't come close.

His 12 Greatest Hits, MCA's second (and more logical) post-Neil compilation was and still is a sure-seller. The title says it all and the quintessential Neil hits ("Cracklin' Rosie", "Song Sung Blue", "Play Me", "I Am…I Said") are all here, although one song ("Shilo") was NOT a single and another ("Done Too Soon") was actually a B-side. The first incarnation of this title, on LP under MCA, contained live tracks ("Holly Holy" and "Sweet Caroline") from Hot August Night in-place of the true studio (hit) versions. This may have caused buyers to grumble, but had probably helped the long term sales of the Sweet Caroline and Touching You, Touching Me albums. Still, in any form, 12GH has the most musical bang-for-the-buck, hands down.

Serenade is a dense, somber, heavily orchestrated album- a far cry from the catchy sing-a-longs which were recorded only a few years prior. It was the last (and finest) Neil album produced by Tom Catalano and was conducted by L.A.'s best, Sid Feller (Ray Charles) and Jimmie Haskell (Simon and Garfunkel). By 1974, Neil Diamond was well into his "deep philosophizing" period, and this album resembles Jonathan Livingston Seagull in concept and in style more than any other title in his catalog. But, instead of being padded with soundtrack instrumentals, Serenade returns to the standard song format, and shows what he can do with some rather oblique lyrics welded to some of his most magnificent melodies with a minimum of musical filler. It doesn't have a lot of rock and roll on it- the mood is more introspective, and the focus is on an inward search for self, as well as ruminations about life, death and the afterlife. "Longfellow Serenade" was the Top 5 hit of this bunch, but the songs that were not hits, "I've Been This Way Before", "Lady Magdelene" (his longest song to date) and "Yes I Will" are the truly jaw-dropping masterpieces here. Only the light-hearted "Reggae Strut" sounds out-of-place. This title also comes in a hard-to-get quadraphonic version, which I just worship.

Beautiful Noise finds Neil going through a transition period. He hadn't dropped the pop philosophizing just yet- "Signs" is still evidence of his interest in cosmic things (it wouldn't sound out-of-place on Serenade). Several of the songs on Beautiful Noise fit together as a semi- autobiographical concept album of his rise to fame, and its personal cost, as well as a memoir of New York's Tin Pan Alley. In order to appreciate the flow of the songs as a musical biography, they probably need re-sequencing. "Beautiful Noise" establishes the album's central concept. "Street Life" and "Jungletime" show the ugly underbelly of the Big City, and recalls the temptation of being a street punk, until the allure of a career in music surfaces. An old-timer gives him some cautionary advice on starting out in "Stargazer". Neil himself had said that "Lady-Oh" was a love song written for a woman that he had watched from afar during his days struggling in the Greenwich Village scene. As he achieves success, he composes "Home Is a Wounded Heart", a pained song about his long periods of separation from his family. "If You Know What I Mean" was a #11 hit, but Neil didn't really need any "hit" singles to drive this album. Beautiful Noise is a brilliant, diverse album of sadness and joy, of life and change. It will make you smile, it will make you cry, it will make you tap your toes and it will make you think.

I'm not exactly certain as-to who this compilation album, And The Singer Sings His Song, is aimed at. People who want to buy Neil Diamond albums with not much in the way of hits? People who want to make Neil richer than he already is? People who just want to look at a new cover? Once MCA had gotten the primary "hits" package done (see entry for 1974's His 12 Greatest Hits), just about every subsequent repackaging of Neil's Uni/MCA period material would be either a) redundant b) extraneous or c) bordering on exploitive. It's not that the songs are bad, it's just that I don't see a real purpose for buying this. But, somehow, And The Singer Sings His Song found its audience, and it sold enough copies to become a certified gold record. Go figure.

Love at the Greek rates about midway in quality when considering all of Neil's live albums. It doesn't quite have the raw enthusiasm of Gold, or the emotional wallop of Hot August Night- you never get the impression that Neil is giving a part of his soul on LATG. But, looking at it realistically, his subsequent live albums are vocally not as good as LATG- it's a darn shame that you will listen to it, knowing that he would never again sound that good on a live album. The mix is not particularly good- the drums are too far away, the bass drum lacks any kick and the music itself does not have much of a dynamic range. And Neil's own voice is not miked close enough. By 1976, Neil had become a great stage performer, and his both his singing and speaking voice had developed a wonderful low-end rumble. LATG does not feature an orchestra, and the band's substitution of synthesizers or Hammond organ sounds passable on hits like "Holly Holy" and "Sweet Caroline" but songs like "If You Know What I Mean", the "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" medley and "I've Been This Way Before" sound curiously "flat" without the string flourishes. Note that the CD release had dropped 2 songs from the original 2 LP set: some fine renditions of "The Last Picasso" and "Longfellow Serenade".

I'm Glad You're Here With Me Tonight introduces Neil Diamond, Mark IV- romantic crooner. For rock n' roll fans and the small-but-very-vocal metaphysics contingent, this was a distressing turn of events. Neil shows that he can still rock ("Desiree", "Dance of the Sabres"), but those moments are far-outnumbered by MOR-styled songs like "I'm Glad You're Here With Me Tonight", "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", "Once in a While". Neil bats 50/50 with the covers- "God Only Knows" is boring (trust me, you're not going to trade-in your copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys anytime soon), while "Free Man In Paris", with a re-arrangement and removed from its folk roots, adds a moody and slightly surly spin on the old Joni Mitchell song. Band members Alan Lindgren and Tom Hensley had taken over the conducting/arranging duties, and this album marks the first full merger between his studio band and his live band.

You Don't Bring Me Flowers was originally intended to be a double album called The American Popular Song. Several of the cover tunes were deleted at the behest of the record company. A lot of the songs that remained suffer from disco-ish arrangements, overproduction and mechanical playing, which hasn't aged well. It's a little sad, and a waste of a terrific band (a.k.a. The Neil Diamond Road Racing Team). One of the things that I'd loved about Neil's music was the balance of electric and acoustic instruments, and clever string arrangements, both of which were lost on this album, while they jacked up the use of synthesizers and downgraded acoustic guitar to the supporting role of sound "texturing". Tom Hensley's "The American Popular Song" gives a tantalizing hint of the album's original concept, not that it makes sense with the existing lineup of songs on the album. "Diamond Girls" has a persistent sound effect that sounds like a far-away car alarm going off. "Say Maybe" is a pleasant little ditty, but is completely demolished by the energetic live one on the Reader's Digest Set. I've saved the worst for last: the infamous Neil and Babs duet, "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" which is probably the Neil song I dislike the most. It was tolerable when Neil sang it solo, but as a MOR duet, that song lost Neil his credibility with a rock audience and established him as an Easy Listening superstar.

September Morn is not a great, or even good album by any means. Neil's voice is magnificent on this album, but if the truth be told, just the voice alone cannot salvage it. The originals are fairly undistinguished (nothing sticks in your mind immediately) and almost half of the album is made up of covers- without the personal stamp or spark of life that made earlier ones like "The Last Thing On My Mind" or even "Free Man In Paris" so entertaining. Neil even ended up mutating his own "I'm a Believer" into a strange MOR/samba-beat hybrid. September Morn may be useful as background music, but it's a little painful to hear Neil in decline like this and it's really easy to want to file this album away and forget about it. Well, at least he had one more great album left in him: his next one, The Jazz Singer.

Most soundtracks to flop movies have a tendency to sink along with the movie. Neil defies convention: The Jazz Singer was his biggest seller, selling 5 million copies. Luckily, Neil chose not to harp too much on the movie's soapy central theme (man defies his Orthodox cantor father and becomes a pop singer) as the songs on The Jazz Singer are, at best, only loosely associated with the movie itself. Of course, Neil sang a few piano-based syrupy love ballads that became hits ("Love on the Rocks", "Hello Again"), but the album's true pleasures are the large number of rousing rockers and upbeat songs like "Amazed and Confused", the Top-10 hit "America", "Hey Louise", "On the Robert E. Lee", "You Baby" and more. It's pure joy to hear some Neil music with chugging rhythm guitars again, after several LP's worth of MOR-styled music. There are two traditional Jewish hymns, "Adon Olom" and "Kol Nidre", but with today's CDs, you can easily edit them out and forget that this is actually a movie soundtrack and think of this as Neil's last rock n' roll-oriented album.

This article is Copyright 1999-2000, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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