NEIL YOUNG Prairie Wind (Hed Artzi) It's "Country Neil" at the wheel of Prairie Wind - a laid-back, introspective, but somewhat slick album written and recorded after the legendary rocker's life-threatening brain aneurysm and subsequent recovery earlier this year. As expected, the material contains musical and lyrical debt-paying; the subject matter attempts to cover the big picture, with Young tackling his own mortality and looking back on his life through the eyes of someone who is facing the short end of the candle. It has all the ingredients for a masterpiece, but ultimately, despite a few superlative high points, Prairie Wind is just another middling Neil Young album that's surprisingly devoid of much poignancy or profundity. One way to listen to a Young disc is to predict if there are any songs which would deserve to wind up in a "best of" collection down the road. There's only a couple candidates here: "The Painter", the single which opens up the disc and finds Young in his most melodic mode, and "It's a Dream" a haunting ballad, with Young's spookily high vocals in perfect form. Ably backed by longtime sidemen Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham, Young offers pleasant but unmemorable acoustic-based odes to his loved ones, his guitar, and a hokey tribute to Elvis. And he winds up the mishmash of themes with "When God Made Me", a Brian Wilson-weird solo excursion with ethereal organs that sounds like Neil's prepared to meet his maker. Rather than a life-affirming piece of work, Prairie Wind sounds resigned and tentative - as if Young were making the least offensive and challenging music possible. It's not the swan song we were expecting, and here's hoping that Young will have many more opportunities to say goodbye in more emphatic terms. THE STOOGES The Stooges (Hed Artzi) Funhouse (Hed Artzi) The Stooges self-titled debut was released in August 1969, the same month as the fabled Woodstock festival. But the peace, love and harmony ethos of the hippie generation had nothing in common with the fiery rock & roll anarchy of the band from Detroit fronted by Iggy Pop. A quick listen to the reissues of The Stooges and its 1970 followup Funhouse will explain why. More dangerous sounding primal music had never before been recorded, and 35 years later, it still sounds for the most part like it could have been released last week. Containing proto-punk classics like "1969", "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "TV Eye" and "Down in the Street", the two albums provided the blueprint for both three-chord punk rockers and riff-happy heavy metalists. Both albums are being packaged with bonus discs containing alternate versions of all the songs. But it's the original material which is the draw here. The production on The Stooges, provided by Velvet Underground refugee John Cale, sounds slightly dated with the drums muffled by handclaps and other percussion. Funhouse, though, shudders with urgency that only a three-piece power rock band can provide. And with not-so secret weapon Iggy laying down his cocksure vocals, The Stooges possesses a combination that strips down rock to its howling essence. The White Stripes' Jack Black maybe stretching it when he calls Funhouse "the definitive rock album of America", but he's not too far off. Together with the Velvet Underground, The Stooges laid the foundation for the alternative nation that took root in its aftermath and still thrives today.