Pegi Young is somewhat known as Neil Young’s occasional backup singer and as co-founder of the Bridge School for children with speech and other learning disabilities. Mainly though, she is known as Mrs. Neil Young.
As the spouse of a rock legend, the temptation to immediately dismiss Mrs. Neil Young as a credible artist in her own right (see Yoko Ono or Linda McCartney for reference) is an understandably strong one. But in Pegi Young’s case, such a premature rush to judgment would not only be unfair — it would also be dead wrong.
On Foul Deeds — her second solo album and her first for Vapor Records, the indie label started by Neil Young and manager Elliot Roberts — Pegi Young convincingly casts aside any such doubts. The fact is, Pegi shows herself to be coming into her own as both a singer and songwriter quite nicely here.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have great musicians like bassist Rick Rosas, guitarist Anthony Crawford, and the late, great multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith in the band. All of these names are familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Neil Young albums like Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind. Guys like keyboardist Spooner Oldham and even Neil himself turn up here as well.
But as the saying goes, you can have the greatest band in the world, and it still won’t mean a thing without great songs to match. Fortunately, the songs on Foul Deeds — divided equally between Pegi’s originals, and a handful of well chosen covers by people like Will Jennings, Lucinda Williams, and Devendra Banhart — are all pretty damn great.
Taken together, these songs also tell a story that flows like water from the first track to the last. Will Jennings’ “Pleasing To Me” sets the table nicely, describing an idyllic relationship with lyrics like “I watch the sunshine tangled up in your hair, and it’s pleasing to me.” Pegi’s smoothly pleasing voice, backed by Ben Keith (on Hammond B3 organ and pedal steel) and Crawford (on electric guitar), is also so convincing, that for a minute you’d be forgiven for thinking she actually wrote the song (she didn’t) about Shakey himself.
But then, the lyrics take a darker, more melancholic tone as the next three songs — all Pegi Young originals — take you through the different stages of a relationship on the skids.
Departing somewhat from the laid back country feel heard elsewhere on this album, “Broken Vows” finds Pegi singing the heartbreak blues in lines like “in sickness and in health, it’s a sickness and a sin, ‘cuz you’ve taken off yet again” as Keith’s pedal steel adds a perfectly understated touch of melancholy.
On the title track, she’s still hurting, but begging forgiveness for “all my foul deeds.” Talk about the stages of heartbreak!
But by the time of “Starting Over” she’s resigned to “starting over anew in a world without you.” “Who Knew” finds the once hurting party gathering new found strength and “making my place, might fall on my face.” So, how’s that for a series of songs that tell a story?
Another Pegi Young original called “Traveling” shows up twice here. Once, as a bare bones jazzy trio piece with Crawford on Fender Rhodes piano and drummer Phil Jones riding the cymbal brushes. It’s later reprised as a slow blues in a full band arrangement as a bonus track.
Continuing the tales of heartbreak, Pegi Young turns in a beautifully rendered version of Lucinda Williams’ “Side Of The Road,” where she is joined by her famous husband on electric guitar and harmonica, as well as the great Spooner Oldham on the Wurlitzer(!).
However, the best cover version on the album — and Pegi’s best overall vocal performance — is saved for a gorgeous version of Devendra Banhart’s “Body Breaks.” Joined once again by Neil Young on guitar and Spooner Oldham on piano, the song falls right in line with the overall theme of romantic heartbreak. But the mood is more dreamy and meditative, and Pegi’s torchy vocal serves as the icing on the cake. Think Norah Jones singing Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and you’d be pretty close to the atmospheric feel here.
The first 5000 copies of Foul Deeds also feature a bonus DVD of a Pegi Young concert filmed by Jonathan Demme at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater and produced by L.A. Johnson and Bernard Shakey himself. Playing in front of the familiar staging of Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II tour, one has to assume this film was made at the same time as Demme’s Trunk Show film document of that tour.
Featuring the same great band heard on the album — Keith, Crawford, Rosas and Jones — the film mostly features songs from Pegi Young’s solo debut (although there is also a nice version of “Starting Over” from Foul Deeds). Several songs feature split screen effects, which mostly work well (particularly when you get to see Ben Keith’s fingers on the dobro and pedal steel up close).
For me though, one of the best performances here is “Trouble In A Bottle,” where Pegi Young pulls off the rather impressive feat of making a song about alcoholism sound warmer than it has any right to. Guitar tech Larry Cragg also turns in a spellbinding electric sitar solo on the semi-psychedelic “Love Like Water,” that gave me instant flashbacks of the Box Tops’ old single “Cry Like A Baby.” And just when you think Ben Keith couldn’t surprise you anymore, he pulls out a freaking autoharp!
On Foul Deeds, Pegi Young has pulled off the near impossible task of establishing herself as a unique artistic voice able to stand quite tall on her own, and well outside of the long shadow cast by her husband. To those tempted to dismiss her, I’ve got three words for you:
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