Neil Young

For the past several days, I’ve had Neil Young’s newly remastered solo debut playing on repeat. Robert received a copy of the Neil Young Archives Official Release Series HDCD and I swiped it from him. (Actually, I was like, “May I please listen to that awesome stuff, please?”) Young’s first four albums, Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Goldrush, and Harvest, make up the first offering from the NYA ORS:

Each one of these albums were meticulously transferred from the original analog master tapes using the finest equipment and the shortest signal path at Redwood Digital by John Nowland.

These HDCD 24-bit 176kHz digital transfers were assembled and then mastered by Tim Mulligan in what has become the standard for diligent and conscientious mastering techniques.

Once the mastering stage was complete, a sample rate conversion utilizing a Pacific Microsonics HDCD Model 2 processor resulted in the HDCD 16-bit 44.1kHz CD master.

Yes, this is a wonderful-sounding release with outstanding space and detail. So I took the new disc home (don’t tell Robert!) and I compared it to my totally unremarkable mid-1980’s vinyl pressing. I was surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find that I still preferred the vinyl. While there are aspects to the sound of the compact disc—the thrusting, physical stereo effects during Young’s memorable solo in “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” the frighteningly accurate depiction of room ambience in “The Last Trip To Tulsa”—that prove momentarily exciting, I remain consistently drawn to the more natural delicacy and fleshy warmth of the vinyl. While the CD can draw me to the details, the vinyl can bring me to tears. The vinyl does a better job of conveying an emotion. There: A breathing man strumming the brass strings of a gorgeous guitar, singing his sad heart away, while the weepy violins rise and fall, the bass does a soulful turn, and the back-up singers sigh and wail with his pains.

So there are 180gm vinyl versions, too. (Robert received those, as well, dammit.) They are beautiful.

Each box set (and all corresponding jackets included within) are numbered with gold foil stamps and limited to 3,000 units. The records were pressed by the Pallas Group in Germany.

Tom Biery, General Manager of Warner Bros. Records and vinyl enthusiast commented: “In all my years of working vinyl releases, I was shocked at just how incredible these Neil Young re-masters sound. There is no doubt in my mind that when listening to these recordings on the new, upgraded vinyl format, it will be as close as anyone will audibly come to actually being in the studio listening to the original master tapes. It now sounds as if you are in the room with Neil during the session.”

But of course he would say that. I want to know what Robert Baird thinks.

(We’ll find out what Robert thinks in the March issue of Stereophile, on newsstands right around Valentine’s Day. Buy a copy for your sweetheart, along with the vinyl set.)

I was also surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) by just how well Neil Young’s first album stands up—against time and against everything else. For so long, I had ranked Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere as my favorite Neil Young album, but having listened again, it’s his debut that sounds fresher, more dynamic, more ambitious, and more deeply beautiful. There’s a controlled passion to “If I Could Have Her Tonight,” felt throughout the song, but embodied perfectly in the drum fill and driving bass line that, at about 1:45, bring us to the close—a sort of punk rock desire and force, mingled with Young’s country riffing and waltzing vocals, which altogether create a stirring, swaying journey. I can’t keep from closing my eyes and shaking my head. Also, the brevity of the album’s songs—“If I Could Have Her Tonight,” “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” “What Did You Do To My Life?”, and “I’ve Loved Her So Long” all clock in at under three minutes—adds to the work’s intensity and charm. Its melodies and sweeping sighs beguile and plant themselves into your chest.

Besides these first four albums, I’m only vaguely familiar with Young’s On The Beach, Zuma, Are You Passionate?, and Chrome Dreams II; I’ve spent a bit more time with Living With War, which people seem to either love or hate, for various reasons.

What’s your favorite Neil Young album?

Scott Arnold's picture

Stephen: I've been trying to answer that question for years. "Tonight's the Night" is tonight's answer. "After the Goldrush" is a close second. For something early, live, and ragged (in the best possible way), try "Time Fades Away."

Bongo Fury's picture

If you can find it, Neil issued a legendary EP in 1989 called Eldorado. It was issued in Australia. Has an incredible version of "On Broadway" that I use as a reference track. Of his current catalogue, I love On the Beach. Completely remastered four years ago. One of the few CDs that sound incredible--does everything right--much better than the original vinyl. Love the "live in studio" feel of Zuma. The best vinyl copies just rock. Danger Bird is incredible from a soundstage and layering perspective.

Laurent's picture

On the Beach is singularly perfect in my opinion. I just found an old vinyl copy digging through the bins over the Holidays... The songs are kind of aggressive and twisted, or wistfully hopeless, and the insides of the jacket has a lovely paisley print on it. Beat that!

Chris S.'s picture

I'm gonna agree with Laurent and Bongo Fury: On the Beach is pretty sweet, particularly the restrained, though long-going quality of "For the Turnstiles." Unlike BF, I like the vinyl mix better. Though, along with Bongo Fury, I also have a pretty sweet rarity: the yet-to-be-released-on-CD version of Time Fades Away, an early live album.

Paul S.'s picture

On The Beach is my favorite. Time Fades Away is is up there too. Both are part of Youngs's "ditch period." I also agree with Stephen that there is something special about the self-titled album as well even though I don't think I could make it all the way through "Tulsa" at this point. But the shorter songs were pleasantly uncomfortable. I think you got it right Stephen with the phrase "controlled passion." Now I may have to dig this one out today and play it!

Trey's picture

Wow, I have to pick a favorite? Man. Tough task. Harvest Moon is great, Freedom is cool, the early stuff is crucial, I even like his latest. I don't think I can pick a favorite.

Christian's picture

At the very moment I'm listening to Ragged Glory (CD release) and I like it very much.