Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Tap Root Manuscript" by Neil Diamond (October, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Ah, our first Neil Diamond album has finally appeared! 

Apparently, this album was quite a big deal when it originally came out. It was Neil's sixth album, but his first where he decided to experiment and step outside of the standard Neil Diamond box. The first side of the album was your standard Neil Diamond album, but then the B side featured The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet.) It was this African trilogy that showcased Neil's experimental side. It features a lot of African influences, as you can probably imagine.

Side A (which I will refer to as "Typical Neil.") It features the awesome single "Cracklin' Rosie" and a handful of luke-warm Typical Neil songs. Nothing real amazing but a couple catchy songs here and there. "Cracklin' Rosie" being the best one.

Side B is when things get weird. Almost comically weird, since it's coming from Neil Diamond. But kudos to him for branching out and changing up his formula! This part of the album is very African-ish. Instrumentally and even lyrically. I'm not sure where his love of African music came from, but he pulls it off as well as he probably could. It isn't bad by any means, but Neil Diamond is kind of a novelty act for people my age, so this is just strange to me. "Soolaimon" is really catchy though. It sounds like a Typical Neil song, but with an African guest vocalist doing some soprano opera stuff in the background. 

Needless to say, this isn't album I will ever actually purchase, but I commend Neil for experimenting and trying something new. It paved the way for other musicians like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon to try similar things, and that's pretty cool.

Dad's Take:

Poor Neil Diamond. Today he is known mostly as that guy you "BOM BOM BOM" with at sporting events. As a result, kids have trouble taking him seriously. But it's always kind of been that way. He's like the Vincent Price of popular music. No matter how popular and talented he is, it's almost impossible not to associate him with cheese.

What the kids don't realize is that there was a time, when I was first getting heavily into music, when the man could do no wrong. His records flew off the shelves. You might not necessarily have wanted at the time to admit that you were buying them, but if you're around my age, you did. You know you did. Funny how women admit it readily and guys are hesitant, but we bought them too.

The thing is, despite some incredibly stupid major hits that we couldn't help singing along with (seriously, have you ever paid attention to the lyrics of "Song Sung Blue" and "I Am I Said"?), the guy had some songwriting chops. By the time this album, his most ambitious to date, came out, he'd been around for a long time, writing both for himself and for others. ("I'm a Believer" by the Monkees anyone? And that's not his only Monkees tune.)

The first side of this record is ambitious, with some fairly heavy songs in addition to the poppy "Cracklin' Rosie." Nicely done orchestrations, and emotional songs make side one a worthy offering.

It's the second side where he pushes the limits and surprises us all with his "African Folk Ballet." Of all people, who would have expected it from Neil Freaking Diamond? But it goes back to the Vincent Price comparison. Both men took themselves seriously, and were better than their reputations with the cognoscenti. This is Neil Diamond doing what Vincent Price did when he did Shakespeare. Both men have the chops to pull it off, but they still bring their particular brands of cheese to the effort, even if it's mostly in eye of the beholder.

In neither case is the reputation fair. Vincent Price was a truly fine actor, giving his best even in silly roles. Neil Diamond earned his continuing massive popularity with an endless string of hits and albums. If Diamond's experiment here fails, it's more a failure caused by the listener's expectations and the baggage of Diamond's reputation. But that's a legitimate cause of failure.

The suite is creative. It's interesting. It's entertaining. It's pulled off nicely. Neil Diamond's particular brand of bombast works in this kind of piece. Some of the songs, especially the enduringly popular "Soolaimon," are very good. But it ends up almost seeming like a novelty record because, from this particular performer, it seems really, well, novel.

And it's totally unfair. Truth is, this is a good album, an ambitious project pulled off admirably. It broke new ground, and is, by any measure, a success. It showcases why Neil Diamond is so hugely popular. Fact is, when he's good, as on this record, he's really good. He's legendary, and deserves to be seen that way.

But still.

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