The Very Best of Neil Diamond… ??
by Paul Simpson
PA Music Scene
I did something this afternoon I’d never done before: I listened to an entire Neil Diamond album. Not just any album, mind you, but “The Very Best of Neil Diamond– The Original Studio Recordings,” a compilation of 23 songs, spanning Diamond’s entire career, and for the first time, containing material from all of the various studios for/with whom he has worked. You probably haven’t heard it yet, because it won’t be released to the public until Tuesday, December 6, 2011. What follows here shouldn’t discourage you at all from buying the album if you’re a fan, but I’ll just note here that I remain a respectful non-fan of this prodigiously talented songwriter’s performance as a recording artist.
I’ll start right out by saying that “Solitary Man” is one of the most magnificent songs ever written; however, Chris Isaak was the one who figured out its essence and recorded the version that sticks in my mind. Just as “All Along The Watchtower” belongs to Jimi Hendrix, and not its author, Bob Dylan. Artistic life is funny that way. There is a story out there that when Dylan heard Hendrix’s version, he cried–not because Hendrix ruined it, but because Hendrix took it where the songwriter wanted it to go–way beyond Dylan’s performance capabilities. Could well be apocryphal, but the point remains: Being a great screenplay writer doesn’t mean you’ll be the best star of your own films; being a great songwriter doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else out there who won’t interpret your creation much better than you ever could, and maybe you should just let them do it.
To get right to the point about why I’ve never like Diamond’s recordings of his own songs: massive over-production. There is a great scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Uf7xo_1hEM ] in which a young prince tells his father that he doesn’t want to inherit his lands….”I just want to…SING….” at which point a ridiculous orchestral arrangement is piped in out of nowhere, which comes the recurring comic theme throughout the bit. That scene, for me, sums up how Neil Diamond has spoiled almost every song he’s ever recorded.
The songs are good, some of them great–but who the hell decided to go crazy with the echo-chamber vocals and the goddam strings and horns? One of the selling points of this collection is supposed to be the liner notes, which comprise three pages of comments by Diamond on his nearly half-century career. That’s a pretty constipated song-biography for a supposedly comprehensive ultimate “best of” collection, but even so, the liner notes provided excellent clues to the mystery of why I like Neil Diamond songs, but not his renditions of his own work.
The album opens with “Forever In Blue Jeans,” and Diamond writes in the liner notes that his inspiration for the song was “Richard Bennett’s wonderful opening guitar lick…so seductive that the melody I started singing over his guitar practically wrote itself.” Bennett is a wonderful guitarist (also a long-time sideman for Mark Knopfler), and the simple acoustic guitar intro is indeed wonderful–for several bars I was thinking Taj Mahal might start singing. So one wonders why the Neil Diamond vocals begin with him sounding like he’s singing in an echo chamber, and why the production team deemed it necessary to drown out Bennett’s wonderful guitar playing with pipe organ, synthesizer, and strings. It’s completely inexplicable, and it wrecks the song.
Cut four is “Cherry, Cherry,” and again I read Diamond’s liner note comment and wondered how he could have missed his own correct assessment of a great little song, and applied that judgment to more of his work. “[We] made a fun little demo…We never could top that unprentious, good feeling demo at the full session, so they ended up releasing the demo. [emphasis added] It went top five in America and marked the true beginning of my career in music.” Well, Hello.
“I Am…I Said” is also a very pretty song, really lovely. In the liner notes, Diamond says that it took him four months of 24/7 writing to complete it. But then, like the Python Holy Grail gag: “…a great Lee Holdridge string and horn chart was written and recorded.” Once again, a fine song became ponderous, overwrought. Sounds like a Broadway production, which is fine, on Broadway.
And this beat goes on. “Sweet Caroline” is probably his most famous song of all. Listen to his description of its genesis and (in my opinion) demise in his liner notes: “[It] was written in a Memphis hotel room the night before it was recorded…the studio house band…created the basic track of one of my biggest and most durable hits ever. Coproducer Tom Catalano then brought in arranger Charlie Calello who wrote the unforgettable string and horn charts (bah-bah-bah)…” [emphasis added] Wouldn’t you love to hear the original version–fresh from a Memphis hotel room and recorded by a four-man studio band–before it got all larded-up?
Diamond reports that he doesn’t “remember too much about writing or recording” The Monkees #1 hit “I’m A Believer, and indeed, his version sounds a lot like theirs, which again makes me think that Neil Diamond’s songs are best when they are unmanipulated by producers. “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” has always struck me as creepy, and I’ll just take him at his word (in the liner notes) that “this was my love song to all the screaming teeny-boppers at my early shows.” Cut #11 is “Holly Holy,” and again we have pretty cool song tarted up by the ubiquitous Lee Holdridge “who was inspired enough by the tracks to write the most magnificent string and choral parts.” I wanted to scream.
“Solitary Man,” as I’ve said, is a gorgeous, brilliant song, and it starts out just fine, as do most of Diamond’s songs. But–who deserves the blame for inserting the entirely ridiculous “Hawaii 5-0” horn section hammered into the midst of this gorgeous ballad? The liner notes do not say. The liner notes do tell us that Diamond wishes he could “remember who played that electric piano riff on the opening of” “Song Sung Blue,” and again, it’s probably the best part of the song, before the producers got ahold of it and started with all the reverb, strings, horns, and whatever else they felt like throwing in. “Red, Red Wine” again featured producer over-reach, and “they decided to throw in some violins…” Diamond shares my thankfulness that UB40 came along and did a Jimi Hendrix to this very fine song, which otherwise would have been lost to musical posterity in the haze of recording studio excess.
Diamond seems clueless as to why his “show closer after more than forty years”–”Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”–is such a crowd pleaser, which says a lot about the production nightmares he has allowed to overwhelm his songs over the years. He describes the song as “very unique,” “very odd,” “you couldn’t dance to it,” “but it caught on nonetheless,” and he seems truly mystified. Listening to it, I thought of what Springsteen and the E Street Band would have done with it, and it made me a little sad for Neil Diamond.
By the time the album ended, after listening to several more songs overproduced to the point of melodrama, I was feeling kind of jaded. But then–through the magic of alphabetical organization–my iTunes library segued perfectly into an album by another Neil. Neil Young comes right after Neil Diamond, and beautiful simplicity of his After The Goldrush washed over me like a cleansing wave.