SOUNDTRACK: NEIL YOUNG-Trans (1982).
By most standards this Neil Young album is a disaster. It’s so bad that despite updating his entire catalog and releasing all kinds of bootleg concerts, he has never issued this disc on CD in the States. So, just what’s so awful about this disc?
Well, mostly it’s awful as a Neil Young disc. Meaning, if you like Neil Young (either flavor: country/folk or hard rock/grunge) this disc is a big fat HUH?? Neil Young has gone all synthy? And not just synth but computerized synthy–sometimes his voice is utterly like a computer. It’s a travesty, it’s a shame, it’s an incredible surprise. Unless you listen to it without thinking of it as a Neil Young record.
But after all that introduction, the biggest surprise is the first song. You’ve been prepped for this weird album full of computer nonsense and you get the fairly standard (if a little dull) rockabilly type music of “A Little Thing Called Love.” It’s a pretty standard Neil Young song for the time. Hmm, maybe the album isn’t that weird.
Well, then comes “Computer Age” and the keyboards kick in. Interestingly, to me anyhow, this is the year that Rush released Signals. Signals was the album where Rush fans said Woah, what’s with the keyboards guys. Similarly, “Computer Age” makes you say, geez, was there a sale on keyboards in Canada? The keyboards are kind of thin and wheedly, but the real surprise comes in the processed vocals (Rush never went that far). The vocals are basically the 1980s equivalent of auto-tune (no idea how they did this back then). Because the song is all about the computer age it kind of makes sense that he would use this weird robotic voice. Sometimes it’s the only voice, although he also uses the computer voice as a high-pitched harmony over his normal singing voice.
“We R in Control” sounds like it might be a heavy rocker (anemic production notwithstanding) until we get more computer vocals. Again, conceptually it works (its all about the dominance of CCTV), but it is pretty weird as a Neil Young song.
And then comes yet another shock, “Transformer Man.” Yes, THAT “Transformer Man,” except not. This original version of the song is sung entirely in a processed super high pitched computer voice that is almost hard to understand). The only “normal’ part of the song is the occasional chorus and the “do do do dos.” It sounds like a weird cover. Sarah, who loves Neil Young, practically ran out of the room when she heard this version.
“Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)” continues in that same vein. Musically it’s a bit more experimental (and the computer vocals are in a much lower register). Although I think it’s probably the least interesting of these songs.
Just to confuse the listener further, “Hold On to Your Love” is a conventional poppy song–no computer anything (aside from occasional keyboard notes). Then comes the 8 minute “Sample and Hold” the most computerized song of the bunch and one of the weirder, cooler songs on the disc. It really feels like a complete song–all vocodered out with multiple layers of vocals, not thin and lacking substance like some of the tracks. It opens with personal stats (hair: blonde, eyes: blue) and proceeds through a litany of repeated “new design, new design” motifs.
This is followed by a remake of “Mr Soul” previously only on Decade. This is a new vocodered-harmonies version of the song.
The biggest failure of the disc to me is “Like an Inca” it’s nine minutes of virtually the same guitar riff. The chorus is pretty wonderful, but it’s a very minor part of the song itself. It is fairly traditional Neil song, I just wish it were much shorter.
So, this travesty of a disc is actually pretty interesting and, for me, pretty enjoyable. Most of these synthy songs sound kind of weak but I think that has more to do with the production of the time. I’d love to hear newly recorded versions of these songs (with or without the vocoder) to see what he could do with a great production team behind him.
Trans is not a Neil Young disc in any conventional sense, but as an experiment, as a document of early 80s synth music, it not only holds up, it actually pushes a lot of envelopes. I’m not saying he was trying to out Kraftwerk Kraftwerk or anything like that, but for a folk/rock singer to take chances like this was pretty admirable. Shame everybody hated it.
[READ: July 5, 2011] Five Dials 19
Five Dials 19 is the Parenting Issue. But rather than offering parenting advice, the writers simply talk about what it’s like to be a parent, or to have a parent. It was one of the most enjoyable Five Dials issues I have read so far.
CRAIG TAYLOR & DIEDRE DOLAN-On Foreign Bureuas and Parenting Issues
I enjoyed Taylor’s introduction, in which he explains that he is not very useful for a parenting issue That most of the duties will be taken on by Diedre Dolan in NYC. They are currently in her house working while her daughter plays in the next room. His ending comment was hilarious:
Also, as is traditional at most newsweeklies, someone just put a plastic tiara on my head and then ran away laughing at me.
I resist Parenting magazines, from Parents to Parenting to Fretful Mother, they all offer some sound advice but only after they offer heaps and heaps of guilt and impossible standards. So I was delighted to see that Five Dials would take an approach to parenting that I fully approve of. Dolan writes:
Nobody knows what works. Most people just make some choices and defend them for the next 18 to 50 years – claiming nurture (good manners) or nature (crippling shyness) when it suits them best.
And indeed, the magazine made me feel a lot better about my skills (or lack) as a parent. (more…)
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