An Enjoyable Acoustic Set From Neil Young

May 2, 2009 (Updated Jan 3, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A few captivating numbers!

Cons:A few boring ones, too!

The Bottom Line: This is a release only for big Neil Young fans. I'm not one, in particular, but I still enjoyed listening to this.


Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief description of the album will find what their looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review is probably not written by the point of view of a Neil Young fan.)

Overall Score: 4/5
Best song: “Harvest Moon”
Worst song: “Look Out For My Love”

Review Body:

Listening to this live album from MTV's Unplugged series proved to me one thing: Harvest Moon was by far Neil Young's greatest acoustic album to date. I know, some people might think I'm nuts or something, but I swear, the best songs on this album also happen to be the ones from Harvest Moon! Give me “Harvest Moon,” “Unknown Legend” and “From Hank to Hendrix” over his more universally beloved “The Needle and the Damage Done” any freaking time of the day.

The way that this album is programmed is exactly the same way that Rust Never Sleeps was programmed. Except whereas that album stated acoustic and ended electric, this album started acoustic and ended with a more participatory backing band. This is pure formula, but it's an effective formula. The first track that the female back-up singers come in (“Helpless”) always manages to sweep me away. Then, later, a drummer suddenly appears, which helps the album become a little more entertaining! Yes, I like this formula.

The most common criticism I've read of this album is that Neil only seems to be performing songs that were pretty much acoustic to begin with. That's not a deal-breaker for me, but that does go against everything that the Unplugged series was supposed to be. Young was supposed to perform his classic songs in radically different ways! As it states on the All-Music Guide, Neil Young was pretty much just performing his Harvest Moon tour set-list.

But at least he gives us a radically different way of looking at “Like a Hurricane.” The original, of course, was a freaking masterpiece for the electric guitar. Here, he brings in a dreary accordion sound, which makes it seem like a crusty old sea shanty. This has nothing on the electric version of it, of course, but that's just one reason Young's longtime fans might just treasure this album. I'm also really surprised that a rendition of “Transformer Man,” from his much-maligned Trans, absolutely rules. Of course, he plays it completely straight and without the vocoder, so we're left with nothing but Young's pure voice and an oddly mesmerizing backing band. And what a melody!

“Mr. Soul” is also different from the original version, although I find it to be somewhat boring. On the other hand, the piano-led rendition “Helpless,” from Deja Vu, is beautiful here. It's much rawer, of course, and I might actually like it better! (As you can tell, I'm not dwelling on it enough to form an actual opinion on that!) It's very captivating at any rate. I also think his rendition of “Pocahontas” is gorgeous, and certainly one of the top acoustic songs that he ever composed.

One of the primary reasons a hardcore Neil Young fans would want to get this release, probably, is for an unreleased song that he wrote in 1976 called “Stringman.” Unfortunately, the world wasn't missing much the 18 years the song went unreleased; it's a respectable piano ballad, but it's boring. Its appeal is left strictly to his fans. I'd say the most **boring** song of the album is a ballad from Comes a Time called “Look Out For My Love.” It's so boring that I can feel my brain collecting dust when I listen to it. He also pulled out “Old Laughing Lady” from his debut album, which I suppose is a fairly obscure pick! It's not one of his better songs, though, but at least it has a really cool harmonica solo. I always like a good harmonica solo.

I can't fault Neil Young for picking and choosing from a wide variety of his back catalog. I suppose I prefer this approach to just playing live versions of a greatest hits album. On the other hand, he did pick some mightily dull songs to play, so that's one of Unplugged's primary drawbacks... Oh, if only I could have chosen the set-list! Aw... I guess I can dream all I want...

This might be a fairly dull album from time to time, but still overwhelmingly enjoyed the experience. Still, you're going to have to be more than a casual Neil Young fan to really have a hankering to get this in your collection. This is surely one of his minor releases. But if you do happen to pick this up, I'm sure that you'll be at least mildly delighted at this. And you'll probably also come to the conclusion that this version of “Transformer Man” completely rules!

Track Reviews:

The Old Laughing Lady B
Wow, he pulled this one right out of his deep past (his fairly non-renown debut album), and I'm sure only a small handful of people in the audience even recognized it! The original was dead dull and slow moving, and this version is still dull but it's more quickly paced. So that improves it in my book. This surely doesn't have one of Young's best melodies, but it does have a pretty cool harmonica solo in it!

Mr. Soul B
My first reaction to this was “Hey! He's doing a Satisfaction cover!” But then I remember that he used to be in this country-rock band where he wrote a song that ripped off that song. Oh man, there must only be 100 people or so in that audience, but they're going nuts for Neil! (What, did they let his fans in there or something?) Anyway, apart from the whole ripping-off thing, this is a respectable performance from a respectable song. I don't seem to care for this one in an acoustic setting...

World on a String B+
This is a funny old song from Tonight's the Night. I hate to say it, but it's really missing a lot from its original incarnation. Without the electric guitar, this song sounds exactly like “The Old Laughing Lady.” Alright, I guess there's at least a sort of middle-eight section in here at least! Once again, Neil's harmonica solo is very cool. If you like his hobo harmonica, then this is a good album for you to get.

Pocahontas A-
Ah, this one's from Rust Never Sleeps, and it only goes to further my theory that that was the utter peak of his melody skills! ... At least in the '70s. The melody is sweet, his Mickey Mouse vocal performance is pretty well captivating, and he gives a very longing sort of feeling in that harmonica solo. Nice show, old boy!

Stringman B
This is a ballad written in 1976 that has never been released before! How many songs has this dude written? He pulls away the acoustic guitar and brings out the piano, which was a nice change of pace I guess. This is a nice little song, and I wonder what it would have sounded like with full instrumentation... But as far as his songwriting goes, this is one of his more boring ones. (Zzzzzzzzz!)

Like a Hurricane A-
I don't think I'll ever see Neil Young in concert, but if I did, this would be the #1 song I would have wanted to hear him perform. So, it's great that he does it here! On the other hand, I'm not particularly enthralled with this. He sings it with a lone accordion making it sound like some crusty old sea shanty or something. It's an interesting take, but to be frank I'm quite bored with it. Nice melody, but that's it.

The Needle and the Damage Done B
Ah, he does one from Harvest, which I assume that most of the audience wanted him to perform from beginning to end! (He gets a major eruption of applause from this one—that's how I know!) I'm looking at my old Harvest review, and I'm giving this a slightly higher rating even though there's very little that's changed between the two version. Hey, maybe I like Harvest better now, or something! I will admit that it has a pretty nice hook in it.

Helpless A-
Oh yeah, Neil Young made a few albums with a bunch of hippies called Crosby, Stills & Nash once. I remember that. This one was on Deja Vu, an album that pretty much everybody in the world likes more than I do! This was also one of the better songs on it, so I do actually like hearing him do this. He plays the piano on this one, again, and it's very nice and mellow. The female back-up singers that pop in give it a nice, dreamy texture. A lot like Harvest Moon, I guess. (And he also says “Big Bird's flying across the sky!” Yeah, I'd like to see that!) Anyway, this might just be the sweetest moment of the whole album. It might even be better than the original in its own way.

Harvest Moon A+
Ah yes, this is from Neil Young's latest album, which also happened to be one of his best albums of all time. I mean, just hearing this next to these other songs just makes that bleeding obvious doesn't it? .... OK, a shuffly drummer pops in for the very first time, so maybe it's the power of the drums that make me say that. But seriously. I think this song completely rules over everything else on this album so far. I LOVE THIS SONG! It's almost exactly the same as the original, but that's quite alright with me! (But there's no slide guitar. Maybe that's electric or something! Screw it! Contribute to global warming and bring back the slide guitar!!!!)

Transformer Man A
Ha! He performs a song from his most odd-duck album of them all, Trans, that funny electronica album that you can't find anymore. Of course, this unplugged setting means that we can finally hear that song without those weird vocodor things, and ... whatdayaknow? It sounds like a Neil Young song! And it's a very sweet one at that with one of the hookier and more captivating melodies on this disc.

Unknown Legend A-
So, yeah, Harvest Moon is pretty much Neil Young's best album ever according to this live album. (Never mind that it was an acoustic album, so he didn't have to change them very much!) Somehow, he's able to recreate much of the dreamy texture that was all over the original... Of course, it's not quite as hopelessly captivating, but it's definitely up there. This is the perfect song to sit back to and soak up!

Look Out For My Love B-
This is one of the more boring songs from 1978's Comes a Time. Perhaps a little more boisterous and energetic than the duller original, and the female back-up singers are certainly worth their weight in gold. But this is not such a remarkable song... the hooks are rather dull, and it's not as memorable of a listening experience as many of these other songs. It goes on for six minutes, too, which is longer than the original.

Long You May Run B
For whatever reason, I haven't gotten around to reviewing the Stills/Young album Long May You Run, and this is actually the first time I heard this song! Well, it's a nice little country ballad! I took a listen to the original, and this is a little more slowly paced and “contemplative,” if you want to call it that. I'm not extremely wild about this one, though. It's a typical Neil Young acoustic song. If that turns you on, then all the more power to you!

From Hank to Hendrix A
Seriously... Harvest Moon is an utterly awesome album. These selections positively rule over everything else here! Although this is basically the same thing as the original version, by why should I complain about that? (On the other hand, I guess the whole point of the Unplugged series was *not* to perform the well-known songs exactly the same way that they originally appeared!)

Concluding Remarks:

Neil Young's Unplugged is a strictly for-fans-only release. There's a lot of good stuff here, but nothing overwhelmingly great for the casual fan.

Read more Neil Young reviews by Starcollector!

Neil Young (1969) | Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) | After the Gold Rush (1970) | Harvest (1972) | On the Beach (1974) | Tonight's the Night (1975) | Zuma (1975) | American Stars 'N Bars (1977) | Comes a Time (1978) | Rust Never Sleeps (1979) | Live Rust (1979) | Hawks & Doves (1980) | Re-ac-tor (1981) | Trans (1982) | Everybody's Rockin' (1983) | Old Ways (1985) | Landing On Water (1986) | Life (1987) | This Note's For You (1988) | Freedom (1989) | Ragged Glory (1990) | Weld (1991) | Arc (1991) | Harvest Moon (1992) | Unplugged (1993) | Sleeps With Angels (1994) | Mirror Ball (1995) | Dead Man (1996) | Broken Arrow (1996) | Year of the Horse (1997) | Silver & Gold (2000) | Rock Road Vol. 1 (2000) | Are You Passionate? (2002) | Greendale (2003) | Prairie Wind (2005) | Living With War (2006) | Chrome Dreams II (2007) | Fork in the Road (2009) | Le Noise (2010)


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