For most of 2014, since June, the album I played every day to help keep me awake and inspired as I worked — was Jack White’s Lazaretto — that album had great verve and energy that fit any writing mood.

However, that all changed a month ago when Neil Young‘s latest masterpiece — Storytone — appeared on my musical horizon.

The most magnificent notion about Storytone is how it teaches you the nuts and bolts of how a song is written, performed, presented and orchestrated.  The entire album is a Neil Young primer on songwriting and hit making and every second of every ounce of each song is whiplash memorialization in exquisite triumph of man over mechanism.

This was my first response to Storytone on November 5, 2014:

The deluxe version of the album includes 10 “solo” songs where Neil sings simply and alone with a piano or a guitar accompaniment.  The effect is mesmerizing.  The emphasis is on intimacy and vocalization.  You can hear every breath and whisper.

Here’s the solo version of “Plastic Flowers.”

After giving you the bare bones version of each song, the deluxe version continues on with Neil taking the next, natural, step in the realization of a song beyond the individual, and he fully, and lushly, orchestrates all 10 songs all over again with a 92-piece orchestra, for a total of 20 songs in all; 10 songs with two differing performances each!

What was once a tiny and sparse song, now has a large and wonderful grander meaning — and if you don’t think 92 instruments playing together doesn’t transform a song from something wily into something whimsical, I challenge you to listen to “Plastic Flowers” again, this time, with gorgeous orchestration added:

What flexes from one version to another is the expansion of feeling and delight in purpose.  A simple song takes on a greater value by magnitudes.  The lyric runs deeper in the orchestration.  The melody sings just a bit higher and clearer and the intention of the song changes from an indoctrination into a conversation.

On a similar note on how orchestration changes the very essence of a song, here’s my friend Cy Coleman singing “One Brick at a Time” from his hit Broadway show, Barnum.  Cy is also playing his classic Jazz piano style and the rest of his trio are supporting him on bass and drums. Wild!

Now here’s the official version of “One Brick at a Time” fully orchestrated in the traditional Broadway style with Glenn Close singing on the original Broadway cast album.  Dull!

I love Cy’s Jazz Trio version much more than the official Broadway carnival orchestration because it is real and human an intimate — so sometimes a simple Jazz Trio with piano, bass and drums can trump a full Broadway orchestra.  It all depends on your moral needs and your capacity to be fulfilled by scheme or by dream, one stone at a time.

Cy’s entire Jazz performance of his Barnum musical is worth a listen all on its own — it’s quite brilliant in every way. Get ready to swing, baby!

Now, back to Neil Young.

When I think of some of Neil’s greatest hits, I can’t help but re-imagining how “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Helpless” and “Old Man” would significantly change with full orchestration.  I know Neil hears all versions of his songs in his head as he writes — but we do not — and that’s why getting a glimpse into the sounds of a mind’s eye is what makes Neil Young’s Storytone the David Boles Blogs Album of the Year!

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