SOUND ‘ROUND: Men alone with their thoughts (and guitars)

BY JON R. LaFOLLETTE

NEIL YOUNG — HITCHHIKER (REPRISE)

Lost recordings, my ass. In a patented move favored by Boomer acts, Neil Young has exploited the past to disguise the fact the creative well is dry. These 10 songs were recorded in 1976 during a day-long session fueled by an iconoclast on a hot streak and a few lines of cocaine. The tapes were inexplicably shelved, and the album-that-never-was grew into one of rock’s many myths. Gripes about nostalgia and marketing gags aside, this is his most cohesive and affecting batch of songs in five years. Thing is, we’ve already heard all but two of them elsewhere in Young’s scattershot discography. From 1979’s seminal Rust Never Sleeps and up to 2010’s experimental Le Noise, the bones of this album have been picked clean. What dates this record are the characters Young populates his songs with — Nixon, Marlon Brando and Pocahontas live at the Astro Dome! But the tranquility of the performances and strength of the material shakes off the grime of history. “Powderfinger” is no-less devastating when stripped of Crazy Horse’s hungover guitars, and rarely has his quivering voice been so haunting on “Captain Kennedy.” The production is unadorned, the mood is bleak and the auteur seems weathered and weary. I’ll be damned if this doesn’t rock nonetheless. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Powderfinger” / “Pocahontas” / “Hitchhiker”

LET ’EM DOWN EASY

Before recording the songs that became “Hitchhiker,” Neil Young shared some material with Bob Dylan. “When he heard “’Hitchhiker’… he told me, ‘That’s honest.’ The moment still crosses my mind. It makes me laugh every time I think of it because Bob’s humor is so wry. I think it was his way of saying kindly that he song was not very inventive as far as creating a story goes, just that I was following a history of not making up anything new.”

HAMELL ON TRIAL — BIG MOUTH STRIKES AGAIN (NEW WEST)

This live disc is included as a bonus for those who purchase the vinyl copy of “Tackle Box” (reviewed in this column on Sept. 22) but is available on streaming services, too. Regardless of format, these songs are a preview to get your keister in the seats when Edward Hamell visits your town. His anti-folk polemics translate to the stage without losing an ounce of vigor, and being in front a paying audience strengthens his funny bone and sharpens his sarcasm. While humor is found in the macabre, the best laughs regard fatherhood on “Inquiring Minds,” in which Hamell attempts to save face for his inquisitive son. “So when he asks me about my past, and did I get high / I’ve been seriously thinking about my reply / I’m gonna lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.” But he’s not joking when he claims to be the happiest man in the world in spite of a devastating divorce (“When you got nothing, you got nothing they can take away”) and he’s dead set against racism, jingoism and Dancing with the Stars. But notice his most solemn lyrics come in the form of a tribute to Matthew Shephard and other victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Like every great songwriter before him, he knows sympathy is for others. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Happiest Man in the World” / “Inquiring Minds” / “Hail”

FATHER OF THE YEAR

Edward Hamell has hopscotched the country over the course of his 25-year career. He was born in Syracuse, New York and built his musical chops in Austin and New York City before settling in Detroit. But Hamell’s move to Motown was made largely for family reasons. “I’m a touring musicians, so it doesn’t really matter where I live,” he told The Journal News. “I could live infinitely cheaper in North Carolina or even on the West Coast. But I’m here for my son.”

A+ rare masterwork

A Near flawless

A- Run-of-the-mill good

B+ Flawed but notable

Neil Young on Spotify

Hamell on Spotify

Neil Young on YouTube

Hamell on YouTube