Bleecker & MacDougal (1965)
Props to Neil for incorporating the electric guitar in so mellow a manner; trailblazing doesn’t always have to be bold, and this folkie’s nods toward rock comes closer to rhythmic curtsies than Dylan’s sandpaper salvos. For his part, Fred’s blessed with a deep, sonorous croon that come in handy when he leans in close for a rippling ballad (“Little Bit of Rain”, “The Water is Wide”). It’s here where he makes his mark, but he’s either unaware of this or intent on fulfilling some broader Greenwich expectation: Too many of these feature a singer unable to project himself into the action, preferring instead to let the dust cloud overtake his drawl. So while there’s enough rustic typecasting for me to get on board, it seems Neil could’ve used a bit of Zimmerman’s fire to spice up his delivery, because it’s rare I find a slacker aesthetic this middling.
Fred Neil (1967)
I’m told this has better songwriting than his debut, what with “The Dophins” and Harry Nilsson’s future success with “Everybody’s Talkin'”. And, if you squint hard enough, you can see Fred moving away from folk tropes and into something more distinctive. But when that something encourages your tendency to wander in circles, it’s hard not to wish for something safer.
Most of Fred Neil bobs in a gentle, midtempo wash of guitars, bass, and harmonica, taking cues from Bleecker highlights “Little Bit of Rain” and “The Water is Wide”. Whatever the reason—and lengthened song durations certainly seem pertinent—there’s far less grace here. Instead, Neil’s vocal pulse is even more aimless than before, the drums are lax to the point of being late (“I’ve Got a Secret”), and the harmonica turns in some solo breaks nestled between lazy (“That’s the Bag I’m In”) and embarrassing (“Sweet Cocaine”).
This all-encompassing malaise is especially troublesome when Fred and the gang try to raise the energy level a bit; they go through the motions of a blues romp (“Everything Happens”) or an underdog missive (again, “That’s the Bag I’m In”), but the pep just isn’t there. Besides, Neil’s voice isn’t particularly well-suited the more fervent of emotions.
Which reminds me: You know what also doesn’t fit with a group of musicians this meandering? A jam. And even considering the fact that “Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga” has no place ending a record this languid, it’s kind of a mess. For crying out loud, Sandy Bull proved you could pull these off at twice this length in a Western context, and he never grew as directionless as this.
I really don’t mean to sound so harsh. Fred Neil is by no means a bad LP, just a mediocre one; and its maker—to me at least—simply doesn’t earn the accolades thrown his way. So I’ll continue to admire the man for his later, untiring work with dolphins, preferring to leave most of his music to those attuned to its, ah, melatonin properties.
Between Sessions‘ title and the abundance of studio chatter, I have to wonder if Neil ever intended for this to be released. Regardless, this LP has the perverse fortune of being both jammier and more purposeful than its predecessor: “Merry-Go-Round actually hits that pining sense of angst Fred never had the direction to reach before; left-channel acoustic barbs entangle with the rhythm, providing tension for Fred to open up and roam, bolstered (apparently) by the lack of electric guitar.
And while that absence of current does Neil good, Old Man Focus continues to elude him. I can get behind the nebulous strum collages on “Looks Like Rain” and “Roll on Rosie”, but the group keeps riding the same grooves for far too long with far too little development. (Those tracks could learn a thing or two from “Fools Are a Long Time Comin'”, especially the way it breathes before crumbling into dust.) Plus, saving your only variety for the sudden ends is a rather rude tease.
Moral of the story: Fred at his loosest is (or can be) Fred at his sharpest. But it’s still not enough.