Jun/06/2009 Filed in: music reviews
In the wake of Bob Dylan's successful 1985 expanded anthology Biograph, it seemed like every rock artist of note was lining up for CD box-set canonization. And true to his reputation as a futurist, David Bowie tried to outdo them all with 1989's Sound + Vision, which supplemented the usual greatest-hits-plus-rarities format with a bonus disc of visual content that would showcase the glorious new CD-Video format. There was only one problem with his attempt to revolutionize the box set: no one knew what the hell a CD-Video disc was, let alone owned any kind of device that would allow one to view it.
It was around this same time that Neil Young started talking up an ambitious career-retrospective project called Archives, and given the amount of unreleased songs Young routinely dusted off in his concerts, fans had come to expect nothing less than a parallel-universe repertoire every bit as rich and deep as his official one-- a Decade to last for decades. But as gleaned by anyone who's gone to a Neil Young show expecting to hear the hits but treated to an hour of Greendale instead, being a Neil fan requires a certain amount of patience. Twenty years since its first public mention, Archives has gone on to usurp even Chinese Democracy as the ultimate lost-album punchline. But the long-delayed arrival of this first volume seems less a matter of archeology as technology. And like the Bowie box, there's some confusion about how exactly you're supposed to use the thing.
Neil Young is an odd sort of perfectionist, favoring a raw immediacy in his recordings that often means leaving the mistakes in for purity's sake, but he's obsessed with making sure those mistakes are mixed and mastered to sometimes unattainable standards of fidelity. (He refused to release arguably his finest album, 1974's On the Beach, on CD until 2003 for this reason.) So it appears that the advent of Blu-ray HD audio technology was the missing piece that has allowed Neil to realize his multimedia masterplan for Archives. What little public comment he's made about Archives' release has taken the form of evangelical praise for the medium, urging fans to adopt the new technology like a Best Buy salesman working on commission.
The first volume of Archives arrives as a 10-disc set, spanning the first 10 years of Young's career and, somewhat confusingly, three different formats. For the most ardent audiophiles, there's the $300 multimedia-enhanced Blu-ray edition that includes six compilation discs; the previously released Live at the Fillmore East and Live at Massey Hall; an additional solo concert recorded in 1969 at the Riverboat coffeehouse in Toronto (though it boasts a tracklist similar to last year's Live at Canterbury House set, also included here as an unlisted bonus throw-in); the first DVD release of Young's infamous tour-documentary-cum-existential-road-flick, Journey Through the Past; plus online-update capabilities through which users will have access to more material.
For equally fervent fans with inferior home-entertainment set-ups, there's a $200 version boasting all of the above musical and multimedia content in a DVD format. And for those who just want some Neil on-hand in the car to soundtrack future road trips forevermore, there's a basic eight-disc $100 CD box with all the tunes but none of the extras. (All versions come with mp3 download codes, though we all know how Neil feels about iPods.)
Regardless of the format, each version of Archives makes the same convincing case: For Neil Young, the years of 1963 to 1972 were marked by a rapid maturation and a series of successful stylistic reinventions that rivaled the Beatles. Starting out as the surf-rockin' frontman for Winnipeg garage combo the Squires, he quickly transitioned into the folkie busker cutting early demos of "Sugar Mountain" for Elektra Records in 1965; the wide-screened psychedelic visionary in Buffalo Springfield; the savage electric warrior of 1969's Crazy Horse debut, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; the heroic hippie wingman for Crosby, Stills and Nash; and then the country-rock traditionalist of 1970's After the Gold Rush and 1972's Harvest. On top of summarizing a tidy 10-year span, Archives Vol. 1 ends symbolically with Neil at his commercial peak, before a growing disillusionment with rock stardom and the death of close friends would usher in a more darkly compelling phase of his career......click here to read more...