Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Bleecker & MacDougall - Fred Neil
Elektra EKS 7293
Like a lot of people I heard about Fred Neil long before I actually heard him. The first song of his that I heard was Nilsson's cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" but I only became interested in him when I realized that Jefferson Airplane had recorded not one but two songs inspired by him - "House at Pooneil Corner" and "Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil." I started noticing more songs by him, the Airplane and the Youngbloods covering "Other Side of this Life," It's A Beautiful Day doing "The Dolphins," H. P. Lovecraft recording "That's The Bag I'm In" and many others. I liked all these songs so I figured I should check out the man himself. It took awhile though to track down one of his LPs, he was never all that successful and his records were out of print. This was the first one I bought and it is still my favorite. The album kicks off with the rollicking "Bleecker & MacDougall" with John Sebastian blowing up a storm on his harmonica. The song features him standing at that intersection, the center of the New York folk scene, wanting to go home to the girl who loves him. The song's simplicity combined with its expressiveness sums up much of Neil's appeal to me. He conveys a strong feeling with grace and economy. The song reminds me of the Lovin' Spoonful. Neil was a folkie but he had a bluesy streak in his music which is evident on "Blues On the Ceiling" and "Sweet Mama." "Little Bit of Rain" is one of the best songs on the record, a heartfelt folk song about remembering the good times rather than the bad after a relationship is over. "Country Boy" is uptempo country blues and is given a lot of energy from Sebastian's frenetic harp blowing. "Other Side to This Life" is my favorite of all of Neil's songs and judging from all the covers of it back in the 60s, I'm not alone in that opinion. It is a classic folk-rock song but Neil's version is more folk than rock which is why I prefer the cover versions, especially the Airplane's one which has a lot more propulsion. Nonetheless Neil's husky voice imparts a lot of feeling to the song and the folk treatment gives it a pleasant sense of intimacy. The song's lyrics speak of aimlessness and a search for direction, which seems like a very 1960s theme to me and I recall getting a lot of resonance from it back when I was in college with a similar outlook on life. "Mississippi Train" rocks out more than most of the songs on the album and is given a big push from Felix Pappalardi on bass and Pete Childs on electric guitar with Sebastian once again wailing away on his harp. Side two opens with "Travelin' Shoes" which is also a folk-rock tune. "The Water is Wide" is a traditional song that has been traced back to Great Britain centuries ago. Neil's slow, aching version of this tale of the inconstancy of love sounds contemporary and it is the loveliest song on the album. Neil returns to the blues for "Yonder Comes the Blues." "Candy Man" is a jumping tune with a warm vocal from Neil. It is another one of my favorites on the album. "Handful of Gimme" is a slow country blues with more terrific support from John Sebastian. "Gone Again" is a folk-rock song with one of Neil's best vocals, he reminds me of Ian Tyson on this song. It gives the album a strong finish. Listening to this album, it is easy to understand why people back in the 1960s were so knocked out by Neil. I've heard a lot of 1960s folk albums but very few not by a guy named Dylan are this lively and consistent. It doesn't sound dated or academic, it is still meaningful and engaging. Neil was a good vocalist and an excellent songwriter well worth investigating if this sort of music appeals to you. As a Lovin' Spoonful fan I'd like to acknowledge John Sebastian's immense contribution to this album, his harmonica provides almost all of the instrumental color, this would be a much duller album without him. Recommended to Tom Rush fans.