Neil Young is an artist I’ve known I should be into for a very long time. I’ve never had anyone around to give me a roadmap of where to find the real gems, hemorrhoids so I’m sure there are some deep cuts of his that I would really love but have never heard. I just haven’t confronted the tremendous catalog this man has to explore his depth.
Well here goes my listen to this well-known cut from 1970. Download Southern Man and listen along!
Two things strike me right away: the instruments are THICK and the sound is very CLEAR. It’s rock and roll in it’s most direct and uncomplicated sense. No mix tricks, cheapest no fancy arrangements, visit no virtuoso licks. Amplifiers and microphones: love.
Hard panned to the right is the piano. Hard panned to the left is the guitar. Drums are basically riding the center (kick, snare and hihat) with overheads filling out the stereo spectrum nicely but not too extreme. Bass is slightly left but basically centered.
The way the piano and the guitar are playing in the same register, dancing around the same notes in the chord but never really playing exactly the same thing gives SUCH a cool stereophonic effect. First of all, the piano is pretty clean while the guitar is a bit distorted. Since they are hard panned you get this smoothness from the piano with this raw aggressive flavor from the guitar. It’s like peanut butter and jelly or butter and salt– the sum is greater than the parts.
Also the rhythm section is pretty much playing the same phrase. The combination of these all hitting together but not always identical makes for a powerful statement which is always varying yet always familiar. I love it. They really captured a moment here, I don’t think these musicians would ever play it the same way twice. Thank god for recording! Also a modern record would never get this sort of freedom. The imperfections are its perfection. You get the full expression here, and it’s clearly a correct statement that needed to be said, musically.
Now the vocals. This is so cool. It sounds like five voices, I have no idea if that’s right. Two harmonies on the left, two harmonies on the right with a lead wailing on top right down the middle. Backgrounds are clean (except some distortion when the signal overloads), but the lead sounds almost like it was sung from a bullhorn! You’ve got VERY loud “oohs” which are Crystal clear comparatively while the lead vocal “sounds” loud when really it’s just the distortion and echo. The end result of the dirty/clean vocal matchup forwards the dichotomy laid down by the gritty guitar vs smooth piano.
The song is long by today’s standards but these guys just jam. The interplay is incredible and it has so much girth. Sonically, it really communicates. To sum it up, this song maintains its integrity all the way through as classic rock. (I hate that term, but it fits here) it’s not super high vocabulary, but it does make it’s point: directly and aesthetically. It is exactly what it is and nothing else. Thanks Neil!