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A Tribute to Neil Young
(No. 6/Caroline, 1989)
Can it get any more hip than this? Neil Young, the perpetual hippie, the guru of grunge, the timeless icon, feted by the likes of Nick Cave, Sonic Youth and the Pixies.
I picked up this record (yes, on vinyl), one of the first tribute albums, when it was first released at the close of the 1980s. I had just started switching over my music collection to CD, and whether this release wasn't originally available on disc or whether the high price of CDs at that point stopped me from getting it in the new digital format, I can't recall. But when I ran across a copy of The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young in a local used CD outlet recently, I scooped it up immediately. I hadn't heard the album in well over a decade.
Hearing it again was startling, a happily bizarre time trip in some places, a massively disappointing experience in others. There are at least half a dozen wonderfully individualistic interpretations of Young's work included on The Bridge. Victoria Williams' squeaky vocal reading of "Don't Let It Bring You Down" cuts to the heart with its minimalist instrumentation. It's haunting, lovely ... which makes doubly disheartening her awkward, Patti Smith-lite tremolo styling on "Words," where she teams up with avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser. "Words" was not included on the original vinyl release and its bonus track status here only serves to bog down the tail end of a very inventive tribute album.
Henry Kaiser's other contribution to The Bridge sees him teamed with David and Rosanne Lindley on the medley "The Needle and the Damage Done/Tonight's the Night." It's a much stronger, if somewhat less original interpretation of Young's music. Here the vocals augment rather than distract from the lyrics. And the blazing guitar solo near the close of the track is a fitting tribute to a side of Young that is somewhat overlooked on The Bridge, his ability to wring passion from just a few notes on the guitar.
The other truly outstanding tracks include Sonic Youth's version of "Computer Age," which has been stripped entirely of the keyboard and vocoder modernism that graced Young's original. This certainly isn't the "anthem to a microchip utopia of the future" that Rolling Stone magazine heard on Young's Trans album. Nick Cave, meanwhile, brings his signature brand of melancholy to "Helpless." It comes close to being the perfect song for Cave, the only stumbling block being his inability to sell me on his intimacy with that, "town in North Ontario."
On "Winterlong," by the Pixies, Black Francis and Kim Deal hit the vocal bull's-eye with the sort of lazy style that has always made Young's voice so distinctive. On the flip side of that coin though, Dinosaur Jr. proves that Neil's ability to sing slightly flat and still sound great is a skill that's tough to mimic. Their version of "Lotta Love" manages to miss almost all the notes but the result is simply awful. Hit delete!!!
The Bridge is an album you likely won't find in every CD store but it is available through online sources. Of course, it's not going to be a favorite with every Neil Young fan out there. But if your musical taste is sufficiently broad, as Neil's indisputably is, The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young demonstrates the agility of the man's musical influence. And it is very, very cool.