When the long promised first volume of Neil Young's Archives surfaced in June after a wait of nearly two decades, the sense of letdown was unavoidable.
What was billed as a treasure trove of unreleased material was an eight-CD package, much of which (including two full concert discs) was commercially available already. With a price tag of nearly $100 (DVD and Blu-Ray editions were even costlier), Archives wasn't much of a find.
Now we have a real curiosity: Young's first four albums, exquisitely remastered without any additional new material for about $11 each.
Sure, Young die-hards have owned this music on CD for years. But the clarity of these new mixes might signal it's time for an upgrade. It's special enough, in fact, to warrant a serious re-examination of the 1968 solo debut album Neil Young. More on that in a minute.
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But for anyone only modestly familiar with Young's early music — and these four recordings outline the folk and electric elements that defined his career — these reissues scream to be heard.
Young isn't the guitar rock power broker here that he was when he let his band Crazy Horse run free later in the '70s. But there are enough slow, deliberate and brooding rockers on these recordings to serve as cunning evil twins to his more fanciful hippie folk meditations.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), for instance, introduced the Danny Whitten-era Crazy Horse as well the jam staples Down by the River and Cowgirl in the Sand, even though its leadoff tune, Cinnamon Girl, remains the most efficiently emotive three-minute rocker Young has recorded.
Likewise, When You Dance and Southern Man (from 1970's After the Gold Rush) along with Words and Alabama (from 1972's commercial breakthrough Harvest) were galvanizing but ragged blasts of electric fire on albums noted largely for their calm acoustic appeal. And on these new reissues, the raw, unrelenting drive of those tunes reveals a crispness within their dark country-inspired contours to keep the music right in step with many of today's like-minded indie rock musings.
The overwhelming surprise here is Neil Young, an album often slammed by critics for its less-than-surefooted lyrical guise and ornate production. But the guitars and strings on this solo debut — and there are lots of both — simply glow.
The modestly fuzzed-out guitar on the opening instrumental The Emperor of Wyoming is the first clue of the album's renewed vibrancy. Then a sweep of orchestral strings runs smack into an electric guitar torrent on The Loner and I've Been Waiting for You, two tunes of almost frightening isolationism.
The show-stealer, though, is The Old Laughing Lady, on which the record's new mix of strings, electric piano and soul-inspired backing vocals are given a ghostly new presence. This is one of Young's great underdog tunes from one of his most overlooked albums.
As with Archives, these albums take us only as far as 1972. The next year gave us Time Fades Away, Young's bleakest, most unrefined recording. It has never been issued in any official form on CD. For now, the rediscovery of the Neil Young album is cause for celebration. But let's see if this excavation of Young's early music leads to digging up his most dangerous work.