Oldies golden and otherwise

By Graham Reid

With an embarrassing breathlessness, American rock writers greeted Living With War by 61-year-old Neil Young as if it was to be a turning point in the anti-Bush/anti-war campaign.

All noted Young had knocked it off quickly in a fit of anger, but you have to wonder what took him so long to get round to considering the state of his (adopted) nation.

Some have hailed it - linking it with previous albums like Freedom, which hardly seems a compliment - and praised him for his courage. But that seems like saluting his politics rather than the album.

These songs with titles like Shock and Awe, Impeach the President and Flags of Freedom are mostly bludgeoning, tuneless rants and Young's lyrics are angry but at times laughably banal. Will anyone's opinion be changed or confirmed by hearing him yelp "don't want no more lies"?

Elsewhere, Young demands a strong man as leader (isn't that what a significant number of Americans thought about the incumbent?) and then gets in his clumsy qualification that "maybe he is a woman, or a black man after all".

This will appeal to camp followers of similar political opinion but musically it is leaden.

And while it may be filled with righteous, if belated, indignation, if you are looking for a reference point it isn't Young's passionate, affecting Ohio but those clunking diatribes on the Lennon/Ono Sometime in New York album.

From the Sounds of Silence through American Tune and beyond, 64-year-old Paul Simon has articulated the fears and hopes of his generation.

Unlike Young, for his new album Surprise - in a gagging, sentimental cover - Simon takes musical risks and extends himself. Brian Eno provides the sonic landscapes - loops, electronics, weird bass - and it is mixed by Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Tom Waits).

From the opener How Can You Live in the Northeast? which questions preconceptions and assumptions through Outrageous, which adopts the voices of the impotent middle-class malcontents ("It's outrageous the food they try to serve in public schools") to Wartime Prayers, which questions the holiness of those who would kill in the name of their God, Simon stretches himself and his audience in evocative and allusive lyrics.

The most straightforward tracks show Simon hasn't lost an elegant simplicity - Another Galaxy is a beautifully optimistic spin on She's Leaving Home, and Father and Daughter speaks for itself.

As on his previous and underrated album You're The One, these are musically complex meditations on the past and God, sometimes with regret, sometimes with wry nostalgia about the certainties of yesteryear. But as always Simon addresses the complexities of the world with ambivalence and doubts.

With a supporting cast which includes Bill Frisell, Steve Gadd and Herbie Hancock, this is Simon on top form, and not looking to repeat former glories or styles as he addresses the post-September 11/Iraq War atmosphere with a poetic sensitivity. He may not be as fashionable and hip as Young, but he's made a more interesting album.

With Mercenary, the 65-year-old Dr John takes on music associated with lyricist Johnny Mercer, the songwriter who penned the words for Moon River among other classics.

But unlike others - notably Rod Stewart - who have taken on what is known as the American Songbook, Dr John doesn't feel the need to be overly respectful, so twists these melodies into his own style. Don't come here expecting to sing the familiar tunes of songs like You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby because Dr John syncopates them out of shape.

It doesn't always work - he coasts clumsily through Dream, and his unconvincing I Ain't No Johnny Mercer is more accurate than he would like to think - and at times you wish he had paid more attention to the material. But the result is agreeable enough, although it isn't a highwater mark for either Dr John or the Mercer back-catalogue.

Finally, something from someone so old he's ... well, dead.

Johnny Cash enjoyed a career revival in his final decade thanks to stripped-down sessions with Rick Rubin.

Now out of the family vaults comes Personal File, a double-disc collection of solo songs he recorded in his home studio in the early 70s.

Although in authoritative voice - and oddly talking in manner, which suggests he is addressing an audience - the songs veer from sentimentality (There's a Mother Always Waiting At Home) to Irish ballads (Galway Bay), through folk songs and country ballads (Missouri Waltz), spoken word (his reading of the poem The Cremation of Sam McGee), and swathes of religious material.

Some are striking interpretations and if you like the idea of hearing Johnny sing just to you this has an engaging intimacy. It isn't Cash's Basement Tapes as some have suggested - the songs where Dylan, with the Band, reinvented himself - but is interesting marginalia in a long and respectable career.

Neil Young: Living With War
Herald rating: * *
Label: Warners
Righteous indignation and accusatory lyrics set to clunking tunes.

Paul Simon: Surprise
Herald rating: * * * *
Label: Warners
Anxiety-prone singer-songwriter teams up with Brian Eno for innovative comeback.

Dr John: Mercenary
Herald rating: * * *
Label: Parlophone/EMI
New Orleans funk master takes on songs associated with the great Johnny Mercer. A draw.

Johnny Cash: Personal File
Herald rating: * * *
Label: Sony
Not really like the brooding Rick Rubin sessions, more musically diverse.

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