Storytone A Twice Told Neil Young Album (Revised Mastering Info)

On Storytone Neil Young wears his heart on his sleeve and splattered on his windshield, serving it up both straight and backed by orchestral and big band arrangements. All of the performances are recorded live, with no overdubs.

The thirty something album from the sixty something artist gives fans Neil as open and vulnerable as he’s ever been on record—and his trademarked soprano is as liquid and supple as it was in his youth.

Many people harden up or are ravaged by cynicism by the time they reach Neil’s age, but he’s still out there searching for that heart of gold. He expresses it with an openness and vulnerability that today some mistake for weakness.

In stark, didactic terms he presses his strong environmental advocacy. “Who’s gonna save the earth?” he asks in “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”, backed on one record by a ukulele, and on the other by a swelling orchestra.

“End fossil fuel, draw the line, Before we build one more pipeline” he admonishes listeners, yet on the next song “I Want to Drive My Car”, Young, in a bluesy manic yearning, expresses another of his passions : “I wanna drive my car, I wanna drive my car, Further and further on down the road, I wanna drive my car.”

Perhaps not since The Beach Boys sang in their sermonic anti-pollution song “Don’t Go Near the Water” have ironic contrasts been so thickly applied. It matters not that he drives a bio-fuel powered car, he’s still “…gotta find some fuel.”

Most touching though (or “icky” depending upon how you receive them) are the songs about his break-up with Pegi and the ones about, and dedicated to, his new-found love Darryl Hannah. Those are expressed with equal directness, almost to where you may feel like you are eavesdropping. For instance, “I got my problems, But they mostly show up with you” (“Like You Used to Do”). “I’m Glad I Found You” says it all in the title.

On the first LP titled “Solo Storytone”, recorded and mixed by Al Schmitt at Capitol Studios, Young sings the songs live, accompanying himself on piano, acoustic guitar and ukulele. Most sound keyboard-composed— plunked out on a piano.

Neil sings the songs backed by an orchestra with chorus or a big band on the second record called just plain “Storytone” recorded and mixed by Al Schmitt on Sony Pictures Scoring Stage, Culver City, which of course is the same MGM Soundstage next to which Doug Sax had his 4 cutting lathe set-up, and at East West Studios in Hollywood. On the big soundstage now named for Barbra Streisand, he uses her old microphone.

The arranging, conducting and co-production credits are split with six tunes credited to Chris Walden and four to Michael Bearden, with orchestrations on the latter four by Patrick Russ. Walden has an association with Michael Bublé and “American Idol”; Bearden with Lady Gaga.

So you might find the orchestral record lush and inviting or chicken-fat laden. If you like, say, The Moody Blues Days of Future Past you will probably love the orchestral record, especially given some of the melodramatic subject matter. Not that Young hasn’t been here before on Harvest.

If you don’t like the strings, you still might like it. The unadorned record has its own set of weakness and strengths, with each song taking on a different life relative to the orchestral version.

Only a large soundstage could accommodate the forty nine person string section plus horns, woodwinds, percussion, harp, piano and forty plus chorus backing Young on “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”, “Glimmer” and “Tumbleweed”.

On “I Just Want to Drive My Car”, “Say Hello to Chicago”, and Like You Used To Do” recorded the next day at East West Young is backed by a rocking big band plus Waddy Wachtel and Mitch Holder on electric guitars. One of the great pleasures here is the big band version of "Say Hello to Chicago". Young is having such a great time.

The remainder of the songs were recorded with large string sections in two back-to-back sessions, a week later, again on the Sony Soundstage.

With Schmitt supervising (Niko Bolas and Chandler Harrold engineered at Capitol, Bolas and Steve Genewick at the other venues), and the late great Doug Sax and Eric Boulanger cutting lacquers (Boulanger will continue cutting at TML), how do you think this sounds? You would be correct!

The orchestral spread is richly and delicately portrayed on a wide and deep virtual soundstage. Dynamics are full-bodied and Young, placed front and center in three-dimensions is not hobbled by obvious electronic processing or added reverb. On a top analog front end you can feel his breath pulsing on the microphone diaphragm.

According to mastering engineer Eric Boulanger, Storytone was recorded, mixed and mastered in both digital and analog. At the recording sessions there was both 2" multitrack and 192/24 pro tools in addition to 1/2" 30IPS stereo and 192/24 "live" mix downs! During the mastering, both analog and digital, some songs used the "live" stereo mix and some a secondary mix from the multitrack. The vinyl was cut 100% analog, with the edits used for the digital version razor-bladed for the tape version. So if you bought the digital Storytone it's 100% digital. If you bought the vinyl, it was 100% analog and pressed at QRP.

Clearly some readers are still irked by Young’s comment about vinyl (from CD resolution files) being a “fashion statement”, while others wince at the $70 cost. Still others both wince and are irked, thinking Young is having a laugh at your $70 expense. But clearly he's not. He spent big bucks, you can be sure to give you an AAA double LP.

My take is this: get over the “fashion statement” line. As for the cost, first consider the sumptuous packaging: a gatefold jacket watercolor by Young of his Lincoln Continental on the cover and his super rare ’57 Eldorado Biarritz convertible inside, printed on finely textured paper, and full sized, color booklet on another textured paper stock. Co-mastering credits go to Eric “Boulangerie” but of course his real name is Eric “Boulanger”. In fact, he’s listed with the correct spelling as one of the violinists. Credit “auto-spell” feature for turning his last name into a bakery.

Consider how much it must have cost to record on the Sony stage and hire all of the musicians and hire Al Schmitt and crew, and how big ones balls would have to be to “do it live” (as Bill O’Reilly might say), Frank Sinatra style, and bare one’s soul before a large orchestra. This is an experience Sinatra was for more used to than is Neil Young! Not to mention recording analog and digital, stereo and multitrack.

If you’re not favorably disposed towards Neil, you might say “Well that was his choice, his bucket list, and his life that he wished to expose to the world, but why should I have to pay for it?”

Of course, you don’t have to, but if you’re a serious Neil fan, who’s been with him since Buffalo Springfield and you’ve watched his ups (first four albums, and so many others) and his downs (some of the Geffen years in particular) you know it’s always an honest and vital communication between artist and fan that produced so much great music. The misses generally are as interesting as the hits.

The last few years for Neil have been tumultuous ones. He’s been busy “on and off the field”, with Le Noise produced by Daniel Lanois and released in 2010 (it’s already a collector’s item), Americana, a lo-fi album in Jack White’s recording booth, Psychedelic Pill with Crazy Horse and now this one where like Bob Dylan, he chose to record live in a great studio engineered by Al Schmitt. At least Neil, unlike Dylan, allowed Doug Sax to master the record!

Storytone is not 100% successful (though sonically it is), and some of the orchestral stuff veers into pure chicken fat, but nowhere is Young less than honest about his life or about what he’s thinking. He certainly stepped outside of his comfort zone in an attempt to connect with his fans, but then he usually does and that’s why we’ve been with him for all these years.

Storytone wouldn’t be the “introduction to Neil Young” album (that would be Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and/or After the Gold Rush), but for fans it makes a heartfelt, meaningful connection.

(On a more personal level, forgive me if I’ve told this one before, but I had a very torrid love scene with a very young Daryl Hannah. I was in The Groundlings Improv school and one day the instructor says “We have a very special guest who is going to work with us today. Her name is Darryl Hannah and in a few days she will make her screen debut with another up and coming young actor named Tom Hanks. She plays a mermaid.” So out walks Darryl Hannah. Think a few years before “Bladerunner” Darryl Hannah.

The instructor says “Let me set up the sketch.” He looks at all of the students, points to me and says “okay, Michael, you are Darryl’s husband (I say to myself “thank you!”) and Darryl, you are very jealous because you think Michael is carrying on with someone in his office but he’s not. Michael comes home from work and you have to do something to make sure he still loves you. And Michael, you walk through the door just expecting the usual greeting.”

Now at that time I was new to acting. I’d done some standup and that’s about all. So we start the sketch. I enter saying “honey, I’m home” and Darryl runs over to me and begins a passionate embrace and kissing. She’s all in, so I act totally surprised. Actually I didn’t act it, I was surprised by the intensity. I start telling myself “Wow, she really digs me. She doesn’t have to be that wrapped up in me unless she really wanted to be (etc.)”. I don’t recall all of the set-up particulars but they included repeating the scene a few times, with her getting more intensely into it each time.

By the time the sketch was over, I was red-faced and had a frontal protrusion that no amount of crotch retraction could hide. The instructor, who was very gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) looks at me and then down and says “Oh my!. I hope you brought enough for everyone!”).

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AnalogJ's picture

I kinda get your opinion of the 2 discs regarding concept, ideas, and orchestration. What I don't seem to read is how songs stand as songs? Are there strong hooks? Are these memorable songs? Are these songs likely to be remembered on their own down the road as stand-alone songs? I'd like to know more about this album from that perspective.

Michael Fremer's picture
The tunes sound mostly plunked out on the piano. Some of the melodies are strong. Strong enough that they have made a groove in my brain and I find myself humming and whistling them as I go about my day (when the music is off). Neil's Crazy Horse stuff is more 3 chords and a shot of testosterone. This is more melodic. Yet even the chant-like "I Wanna Drive My Car" works because of the arrangement. Some of the songs shift radically between the "unplugged" and orchestral versions.
kozy814's picture

Mike, If I had that story in my front pocket (pun intended), I would tell to everyone I ever meet. Great stuff, made my day!

azmoon's picture

Got the CD to check it out considering the LP price and have enjoyed it - especially the orchestra version. The Chicago song is great - reminds me of a Ray Charles type song.

OldschoolE's picture

Hmm, can't quite picture Neil with full rockin orchestra, but having not heard that yet, I'll have to check it out. After all, I am a fan since the days of Buffalo Springfield and have watched through his career.
In spite of what I or anyone may think of him divorcing his wife for Ms. Hanna and his recent flubs talking about his Pono project and music, the one thing that can be said is that the guy is honest. In his own time he will come out and talk about very personal things in some way that is honest even in art form.
I just started reading his autobiography book "Waging Peace" and so far it's a good read and really does give good insight into the man Neil Young and what he is about and how he functions. He really lays it out on the table. In fact, that book really explains why he does what he does and it's pure of heart. It was written before his separation with his wife Peg and I admit I get a little creeped out thinking about that and his subsequent romance with Ms Hanna (and her history). At the same time I don't think Neil would do or did anything to hurt his now ex-wife, not only for the sake of his children, especially his son, but his own honesty. We don't hear much from her side of things, but who are we to pry.

Hey, Michael, really interesting story about Ms. Hanna and your experience. What an experience!

Paul Boudreau's picture

He just keeps on rolling (sort-of pun intended). Now if I'd only bought "Greendale" when Classic Records was offering it!

Fsonicsmith's picture

Given that you are a fellow MOT, it should have been automatic that no, you don't have enough for everyone and barely enough for the wife.

Michael Fremer's picture
Milton Berle