Neil Young's Archives project has been subject to so many delays, and rumors arising out of those delays, that its eventual releaseas a 10-disc box set as well as in other formatsis almost an anticlimax. The project is, however, the work of a master singer, guitarist and songwriter who has studiously refused to look back or repeat himself during the course of his recording career. So let's instead say its eventual release is a delayed, or perhaps prolonged climax.
Archives began as a follow-up to Decade (Reprise, 1977), an artist-selected anthology. It follows similar lines in that it presents both familiar and not so familiar material. But the crucial difference is that at a certain point in Archives' gestation, the possibilities offered by new technology seem almost to have become more important the content itself. Young himself may not be able to discern exactly when the medium became the message.
Young's search for a digital format that would accommodate the detail he wanted to include in Archives caused the first serious delay. Young determined that CDs weren't of sufficient versatility. He opted for DVDs, but in the process of configuring the package, high-definition technology evolved and subsequently begat another format, Blu-Ray.
This sequence of events probably didn't alter the inclusion of this particular piece of content over that one, but the final product begs the question of exactly how far afield it may have taken Young as he finished what is only the first volume of Archives. Multiple formats have led to confusing and confounding circumstances for the purchaser. The CD package doesn't contain video, obviously, so anyone opting for CDs will not be getting the movie "Journey Through The Past," though that disc is available on its own.
There are listeners, of course, who are not looking for the full interactive experience that is possible with Archives. To be fair, it's not as if Young is forcing anything on his followers current and future: you could argue he's simply providing choices (through a substantial investment of his own time and money). Still, the financial aspect of Archives is inescapable: the cost of the various packages may or may not be in line with the content includedunless the interactive aspect of the DVDs, especially in the Blu-Ray format, is an attraction. It's a fact that Archives may contain roughly the same proportion of unreleased material to released as did Decade (roughly 85/15)but during the years since its initial announcement, the impression grew that this was to be a treasure trove of previously unavailable material elevated to pristine sound and video quality by dint of the latest technical advances. To an extent that's still true, and it may become a more relevant definition as further volumes are issued.
But the preponderance of familiar tracks, not to mention the inclusion of two previously released live recordings, from the Fillmore East and Massey Hall, can't help but disappoint. In regards to these sets, there was much confusion upon their individual release as to whether they would be included in the larger package; their existence with or without additional material, or as edited selections within Archives, is symptomatic of the artist's mixed messaging and the audience's consequent misconceptions.
It remains a mystery too why Live at Canterbury House (Reprise, 2008) isn't here. At least until, on perusing the content on www.neilyoungarchives.com, Young suggests that there is an ongoing "Performance Series." The thought occurs that this series may be a good substitute for the mottled selections on the first volume of Archives or even picking and choosing single discs from it. It's difficult too to get some details about the Archives book. It's available in the DVD and Blu-Ray packages (but not the CD collection), or as a separate purchase, thus leaving unresolved whether it's an addendum to the info on the discs in terms of musicians and recording credits and other historical information.
It's easy to quibble over a multi-platform project like Archives, but fundamental questions are not quibbles, rather a response to seemingly arbitrary editorial choices that undermine both the value and the integrity of the project. Since this is just the first volume, it's fair to ask if subsequent packages will be in all available formats and open to purchase similarly. Perhaps it's naive for the music lover, given the methods of commerce available, to hope for a single definitive package.
But perhaps there is a method to Young's madness. With the individual releases already out along with the aforementioned Canterbury House, the option of obtaining individual discs and the accompanying bookYoung is not about to throw the printed medium awaypresent an avenue by which to customize a package to individual taste. And that's most appropriate when it comes to Young. When the collector gauges the relative quality of the single titles, there are definite peaks and valleys to be found among his discography, and these are reflected on the complete Archives set.
But once the music begins, this theorizing can perhaps be put to one side.
Like many a biography, starts slowly, with early recordings, but the compiler's creativity and eye for detail, not to mention sense of humor, become evident when navigating the options on a given song on a given DVD. Delving into the graphics of the file cabinet, lyrics to songs and photos of Young with his earliest bandmates appear, along with press clippings, personal letters and memorabilia. And while it's something of a challenge to track the proper paths on the disc (despite the tutorial on the site), the logic defines itself through use of the prompts.
That said, delving deeply into Archives requires plenty of time. The oldest music is unremarkable surf-and rockabilly-influenced rock until "I Wonder" appears: in a markedly different form, this tune shows up as "Don't Cry No Tears" on Zuma (Reprise, 1975). It's noteworthy not just as one of Young's first overt gestures to reclaim his own history but also for the fact, within this dense bank of information, that there's no reference to the song's future or that of its close cousin "Runaround Babe."
"The Rent Is Always Due" exhibits the same faint echo of other Young tunes, but more obviously the influence of Bob Dylan. There's also the realisation of how stilted Young's vocals sound at this point in his career. Working solo no doubt furthered his personal creative process and as the material from Buffalo Springfield appears, it's clear how much he learned about singing from working with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. It almost sounds like he relaxes in a group setting at this point, a tremendous irony considering Young's later iconoclasm.
The Buffalo Springfield Box Set (Rhino, 2001) is the source of four of the six unreleased or rare tracks of the 14 on the disc. This again begs the question: how much unreleased material has Young got stockpiled? No doubt the sound is improved over the 10 year old technology available when the Springfield package appeared, and it may be even more superior in the Blu-Ray edition.
The financial aspect of this project isn't the concern just of the consumer, but of the artist as well. It will have been expensive to create and configure the series of colorful graphics for each track on the DVDs reel to reel tape players, phonographs, photos of the artists who performed a given track, as well as the photo, document and lyric credits.
As with other, less ambitious, archive collections, the inclusion of unreleased alternate versions of previously released tunes, such as "Down To The Wire" (here in mono), raises issues of quality and collectability. This version of "Expecting To Fly" with an extended instrumental portion called "Slowly Burning," is an obvious choice because it sheds light on its source. But how many comparable items exist throughout this list of tracks? That ultimately may be the listener/viewer's call as much as it is Young's.
Traversing Archives suggests, however, that the philosophical debate on official and unreleased recordings can be fun as well as a frustration. Perhaps Young has actually created a template for this kind of exhaustive collection that other artists can modify to their own ends. That thought presents the first volume of Archives in a different light.
Back in 1988, Young re-signed with Reprise Records, a different artist than the one who endured a tempestuous relationship with Geffen Records over the previous five years. His first release under the new agreement was the long hoped for sequel to Harvest, Harvest Moon. He also delivered a Greatest Hits package (Reprise, 2004) and in general was such a model client that he re-signed again in 2005, in short order issuing yet another listener-friendly effort, Prairie Wind (not unlike Harvest or its sequel). Whether that commercial-minded approach extends to Archives remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to see how this project covers those years away from the label he's been contracted with for the better part of his career since leaving Buffalo Springfield.
Such thoughts occur when encountering the heart of this first volume, in the form of the most familiar material of Young's career, beginning with his first solo effort. The seeds for the eponymous debut appear here in the form of a promo single recorded with Jim Messina and George Grantham of Poco, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," the title song of his second album. Here it's heavily laden with strings, echoed further in the sentimental feeling contained in an early version of "Birds"not to appear until After The Goldrush (Reprise, 1970) and "What Did You Do To My Life." The sole outright rockers, "The Loner" and "I've Been Waiting For You," have all the melodrama the electric guitars could handle, not unlike the most commercially successful releases of Young's career.
A glaring exception to the pattern of (over)production is the solo acoustic track "Last Trip To Tulsa." More evocative still is the note on "Here We Are In The Years" from Neil Young. No explanation is given of the events that resulted in two editions of that first solo album, one in late 1968 and one in early 1969. If the underlying premise of Archives is to clarify, such an oversight is regrettable. Of course, this is an autobiography so the candor factor may rise and fall. Which may be inevitable because, as Young relates plans for Archive in his pro-Blu-Ray essay on the web, such additions are already a technological reality with the format. Unfortunately this implies the other versions of the collection are already obsolete, as extra content of the earliest recordings by the Squires is already available via digital download.
Topanga 1 (1968-1969) ends where Topanga 2 (1969-1970) begins, with the hard-core country influenced rock and roll Young made with Crazy Horse in late 1969. Along with the sparse acoustic solo material such as the three live cuts, from Live At The Riverboat and Live At The Fillmore, this music consolidated the impression of Young as he began to perform with Crosby, Stills and Nash. That trio's own music, while not unlike Young's, didn't display the same urgency, or the same inclination to improvise in the electric realm (nine and ten minutes cuts of "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" respectively), or anywhere near the same penchant for the unpredictable.
More so than the more densely arranged version that preceded it, the title song has a purity echoed in the acoustic textures of "Round And Round" and "Running Dry." Both ballads fit so well within the booming bass and drums surrounding them that, by dint of superior sound quality, all analytical reservations about Archives disappear.
That is, until the listener encounters an unreleased cut from the recently released Live At Canterbury House, a reminder that this splendid disc was a composite of two separate shows! Because it is a performance unto itself, and wholly comparable in atmosphere and musicianly quality, Live At The Riverboat not only begs to be heard in its own right, but also prompts conjecture about how the "Performance Series" will evolve in tandem with Archives.
The plethora of rumors preceding the release of Archives escalated to near fever pitch with the release of Live At Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and had just subsided when Live At Massey Hall came out, to die away again until Live At Canterbury House was released. At the point the first title came out, no real details had been confirmed about what was to be included in the larger archives release (already delayed how many times). So again the potential purchaser was faced with a dilemma.
The release of Archives answers those questionssort ofand suggests more because, with the inclusion of Live At The Riverboat, there are now four titles in what, with the June release of the package, is now formally confirmed (in the Q&A on the website) as an ongoing series of live releases. Just as less extensive archival packages contain more or less content, not all of which carries over from one format to another, so with Archives. Of the four titles now in the "Performance Series," one (Canterbury House) is only available separately from the box, Fillmore East and Massey Hall are previously released separately and part of the boxthankfully with no additional or different content at least at this point (recall the internet capability of adding to Blu-Ray)and Riverboat appears as part of the 10-disc set. The more you explore Archives the more it becomes apparent its commercial saving grace may be the on-line availability of individual discs (along with the book and the poster that comes in the boxes) from the website devoted to the archives.
Live At The Riverboat suggests, somewhat less than resoundingly perhaps, that collecting the "Performance Series" may be preferable to going for any of the larger box sets. Certainly the beauty never fades from the sound of Young with a sole acoustic guitar, performing gems like "On the Way Home" and the perennial "Sugar Mountain," and as he reaches for less familiar selections like "The Old Laughing Lady" he truly brings them alive. Then there are his between song raps, which rightfully deserve their own tracking listing and titles: they are so focused they might well be rehearsed rather than impromptu. And who would have thought Young, the dark, brooding self-styled loner, was such a comedian?
If all this sounds familiar it might well describe Canterbury House. Each item displays almost identical virtues. That begs the question, again, of archive releases becoming redundant sooner rather than later, but that response also arises from Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Miles Davis packages. It's all about the selection of material, which can vary slightly but crucially, as seemingly minor changes make major differences. And that's not to mention the nuance within the respective performances. It's hard to think of more unselfconscious yet eminently professional concert performances than these late 1960s shows of Young's. They are all the more remarkable when it's remembered he was just beginning to do such tours on his own.
Here again finance looms into view. The consumer faces a decision about whether the whole series is worth collecting, or whether a customized selection of the individual discs might be preferable. Archives poses tough choices on a number of fronts, particularly in regards to the "Performance Series," because the cost for Riverboat as with the other individual discs is higher than the price at other outlets. The price differentials can approach upwards of seven dollars in some cases, for items that vary in running time from approximately forty-five minutes to over an hour. Perhaps the inherent contradictions presented by Archives should not be such a surprise: by the time it's near its halfway mark, this first volume seems the logical extension of the archiving phenomenon that began with the acceptance of the compact disc back in the 1980s.
"Journey Through The Past" is one of Young's most beautiful compositions, the literal-minded title and lyrics deceptively straightforward, just as they are on many of his best songs. Played solo on a grand piano, as on Live At Massey Hall, this song could hardly be more affecting: the author's fragile vocal reinforces the melancholy of the melody as the words describe not just a means of traveling back in time, but taking that path as a means to the futurea future where choices, decisions and actions in general all remain in their proper perspective.
It's presumptuous to say that Young, flush with the commercial success of Harvest, in combination with the even greater celebrity according his work with Crosby Stills and Nash, merely indulged himself in the cinematic form. But it's difficult to avoid the notion given the less-than-crystal clarity of the narrative and camera work of the film Journey Through The Past. Jumbled juxtapositions of cinema verite scenes with vague imagery may or may not seem linked together by the footage of CSNY and Buffalo Springfield, or the other way around. Regardless, the cumulative combination appears more like vague ambiguity than conscious, artful creation.
The film was no blockbuster, commercially or critically, upon its initial release, but in the context of Archives, it gains more focus. Near 40 year hindsight on concert shots of CSNY call into question the validity of the idolatry they engendered, especially as seemingly random intervals illustrate the contradictions of the time and the group's own relationships. Shots of limousines for people singing about political strife and social inequality undermine their credibility, as much as the performance footage implies comparison between the collective talent of both the Springfield and CSNY. Does Young believe the former was a better performing band than the latter? Is he intimating Richard Nixon and David Crosby are both equally full of themselves as they pontificate? Or that Young himself isn't so different from the plantation owner he rails against in "Southern Man" (Young's California ranch as plantation)?.
The film becomes terribly ponderous in its last half hour or so because there's so little music in that segment and, not surprisingly, the music on the DVD closely aligned with this same periodNorth Country 71-72is somewhat ponderous itself. The crisp simplicity of Topanga 3 (1970) is comparable to most of what appears elsewhere in the form of studio or live recordings of Young and Crazy Horse on vintage, classic material. These give way to performances which are charmingly sloppy at best, like "Are You Ready For The Country," or sanctimonious and sodden with strings, such as "A Man Needs A Maid."
With the possible exception of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia, 1965) and Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965), there may be no rock of modern times with more clarity of purpose than Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Gold Rush. Flush with confidence arising from his solo shows, the chance encounter and earthy spontaneous bonding with the California bar band Crazy Horse constitute symmetrical pillars of Young's career. The higher profile and more refined approach of Crosby Stills and Nash, to whom Young brought more than a modicum of idiosyncracy, seems in retrospect a patchwork of disparate elements never so seamless as Young and The Horse: their chemistry flourished both in the studio and on the stage.
There's as much to be said for the ringingly succinct version of "Cinnamon Girl" that begins Topanga 2, as the beautiful sprawl of "Cowgirl In The Sand" and "Down By The River" from Live At The Fillmore. In contrast, neither "Helpless" nor "Country Girl" have ever sounded more studied, especially as CSNY compare with the splendor of Young with Crazy Horse on Don Gibson's country standard "Oh Lonesome Me." From the mournful harmonica that introduces the song's world-weary pace, to the vulnerable delivery in Young's voice, it's possible to feel the fragility of the moment in the lyrics and the musicians' capture of a truly collective moment.
As with Archives at large, the three discs comprising this flashpoint period in Young's career are sprinkled with rarities, including an excerpt from the performance at Woodstock in the form of the slight "Sea Of Madness," and unreleased gems such as the Stray Gators version of "Journey Through The Past" that never made it on to Harvest, and rare gems of the time including "Bad Fog Of Loneliness" and "See The Sky About To Rain."
Then as now, the level of Neil Young's prolific creative output is virtually impossible for even he to keep up with, which is why the release of The Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 generates as much if not more rumor, speculation and debate as it did during its repeated delays. Still, that sensation can't equal the level of fascination conjured up by the best of the music itself, which is haunting and cathartic, an effect that no doubt struck the artist as he assembled this package.
Disc 00 EARLY YEARS (1963-1965): Aurora: The Squires, from the 45 RPM single (mono); The Sultan: The Squires, from the 45 RPM single (mono); I Wonder:
The Squires, previously unreleased song (mono); Mustang: The Squires, previously unreleased instrumental (mono); I'll Love You Forever: The Squires,
previously unreleased song (mono); (I'm A Man And) I Can't Cry: The Squires, previously unreleased song (mono); Hello Lonely Woman: Neil Young & Comrie
Smith, previously unreleased version; Casting Me Away From You: Neil Young & Comrie Smith, previously unreleased song; There Goes My Babe: Neil Young &
Comrie Smith, previously unreleased song; Sugar Mountain: Neil Young, previously unreleased demo version (mono); Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing: Neil
Young, previously unreleased demo version (mono); Runaround Babe: Neil Young, previously unreleased song (mono); The Ballad Of Peggy Grover: Neil Young,
previously unreleased song (mono); The Rent Is Always Due: Neil Young, previously unreleased song (mono); Extra, Extra: Neil Young, previously unreleased
Disc 01 EARLY YEARS (1966-1968): Flying On The Ground Is Wrong: Neil Young, from the Buffalo Springfield Box Set (mono); Burned: Buffalo Springfield, from
the album Buffalo Springfield (mono); Out Of My Mind: Buffalo Springfield, from the album Buffalo Springfield (mono); Down, Down, Down: Neil Young,
previously unreleased version (mono); Kahuna Sunset: Buffalo Springfield, from the Buffalo Springfield Box Set (mono); Mr. Soul: Buffalo Springfield, from the
Buffalo Springfield Box Set (mono); Sell Out: Buffalo Springfield, previously unreleased song (mono); Down To The Wire: Neil Young, from the album Decade
(mono); Expecting To Fly: Buffalo: Springfield, from the album Buffalo Springfield; Slowly Burning: Neil Young, previously unreleased instrumental; One More
Sign: Neil Young, from the Buffalo Springfield Box Set; Broken Arrow: Buffalo Springfield, from the album Buffalo Springfield Again: I Am A Child: Buffalo
Springfield, from the album Last Time Around.
Disc 02 TOPANGA 1 (1968-1969): Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: Neil Young, from the stereo promotional 45 RPM single, second pressing; The Loner: Neil
Young, from the album Neil Young; Birds: Neil Young, previously unreleased version; What Did You Do To My Life?: Neil Young, previously unreleased mix; The
Last Trip To Tulsa: Neil Young, from the album Neil Young; Here We Are In The Years: Neil Young, from the album Neil Young, second version; I've Been Waiting
For You: Neil Young, previously unreleased mix; The Old Laughing Lady: Neil Young, from the album Neil Young; I've Loved Her So Long Neil Young, from the
album Neil Young; Sugar Mountain: Neil Young, previously unreleased stereo master: Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing: Neil Young, previously unreleased live
version; Down By The River: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Cowgirl In The Sand: Neil Young with Crazy
Horse, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, from the album Everybody Knows
This Is Nowhere.
Disc 03 LIVE AT THE RIVERBOAT (TORONTO 1969): Sugar Mountain: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; The Old Laughing Lady: Neil Young,
previously unreleased live version; Flying On The Ground Is Wrong: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; On The Way Home: Neil Young, previously
unreleased live version; I've Loved Her So Long: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; I Am A Child: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version;
1956 Bubblegum Disaster: Neil Young, previously unreleased song; The Last Trip To Tulsa: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; Broken Arrow: Neil
Young, previously unreleased live version; Whiskey Boot Hill: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; Expecting To Fly: Neil Young, previously
unreleased live version.
Disc 04 TOPANGA 2 (1969-1970): Cinnamon Girl: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Running Dry (Requiem For
The Rockets): Neil Young with Crazy Horse-, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Round And Round (It Won't Be Long): Neil Young with Crazy
Horse, from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Oh Lonesome Me: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, previously unreleased stereo mix; Birds: Neil Young
with Crazy Horse, from the 45 RPM single (mono); Everybody's Alone: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, previously unreleased song; I Believe In You: Neil Young
with Crazy Horse, from the album After The Gold Rush; Sea Of Madness: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, from the original soundtrack album Woodstock; Dance
Dance Dance: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, previously unreleased version; Country Girl: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, from the album Deja Vu; Helpless: Crosby,
Stills, Nash & Young, previously unreleased mix; It Might Have Been: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, previously unreleased live version.
Disc 05 NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE - LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST (NEW YORK 1970): Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; Winterlong; Down By The River;
Wonderin'; Come On Baby, Let's Go Downtown; Cowgirl In The Sand. All previously released live versions.
Disc 06 TOPANGA 3 (1970) Tell Me Why: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold Rush; After The Gold Rush: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold
Rush; Only Love Can Break Your Heart: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold Rush; Wonderin': Neil Young, previously unreleased version; Don't Let It
Bring You Down: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold Rush, first pressing; Cripple Creek Ferry: Neil Youngfrom the album After The Gold Rush;
Southern Man: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold Rush; Till The Morning Comes: Neil Young, from the album After The Gold Rush: When You Dance, I
Can Really Love: Neil Young with Crazy Horse, from the album After The Gold Rush, first pressing; Ohio: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, from the stereo 45 RPM
single; Only Love Can Break Your Heart :Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, previously unreleased live version; Tell Me Why: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, previously
unreleased live version:Music Is Love:David Crosby, Graham Nash & Neil Young, from the album If I Could Only Remember My Name; See The Sky About To
Rain Neil Young, previously unreleased live version.
Disc 07 LIVE AT MASSEY HALL (TORONTO 1971): On The Way Home; Tell Me Why; Old Man; Journey Through The Past; Helpless; Love In Mind; A Man Needs A
Maid/Heart Of Gold (Suite); Cowgirl In The Sand; Don't Let It Bring You Down; There's A World; Bad Fog Of Loneliness; The Needle And The Damage Done;
Ohio; See The Sky About To Rain; Down By The River; Dance Dance Dance; I Am A Child. All previously released live versions.
Disc 08 NORTH COUNTRY (1971-1972): Heart Of Gold: Neil Young, previously unreleased live version; The Needle And The Damage Done: Neil Young, from the
album Harvest; Bad Fog Of Loneliness: Neil Young with The Stray Gators, previously unreleased version; Old Man: Neil Young with The Stray Gators, from the
album Harvest; Heart Of Gold: Neil Young with The Stray Gators, from the album Harvest; Dance Dance Dance: Neil Young, previously unreleased version; A
Man Needs A Maid Neil Young with the London Symphony Orchestra, previously unreleased mix; Harvest: Neil Young with The Stray Gators, from the album
Harvest; Journey Through The Past: Neil Young with The Stray Gators, previously unreleased version; Are You Ready For The Country?: Neil Young with The
Stray Gators, from the album Harvest: Alabama Neil Young with The Stray Gators, from the album Harvest: Words (Between The Lines Of Age): Neil Young with
The Stray Gators, from the original soundtrack album Journey Through The Past: Soldier Neil Young, previously unreleased mix; War Song: Neil Young &
Graham Nash with The Stray Gators, from the 45 RPM single (mono).
Disc 09 JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST - A FILM BY NEIL YOUNG: Available for the first time since its original theatrical release in 1973 In surround sound and
stereo. Includes rare performance and documentary footage of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and scenes from the recording of the
Harvest album featuring Neil Young with The Stray Gators. Special features include theatrical trailer, radio spots and archival galleries.