Review

NEIL YOUNG’S PSYCHEDELIC PILL
New, three-record, vinyl release showcases Young’s analog love

By Michael Fremer

Don’t want my MP3,” Neil Young protests on side two’s “Drifting Back (Part 2)”.

Young’s lifelong obsession with sound quality is well known and of course welcomed around here. He was one of the first musicians to express serious reservations about digital recording and playback. Back in 1993 he appeared on an MTV News piece along with Peter Gabriel and me too. “We’ve lost the sound,” Neil laments in the video — and that was before the scourge of MP3.

“When you hear my song now you only get five percent”, he complains here, almost twenty years after his charge in that MTV News video, considered outrageous at the time.

“You used to get it all/blocking out my anger/blocking out my thoughts.” And that’s the true crux of the problem. Yes, MP3’s sound sucks, but worse, it filters out music’s emotional meaning and erects a wall between artist and listener, which is why people in the MP3 world don’t really listen to music as much as they consume it in a parasitic manner, while doing other “stuff” (cooking, cleaning, screwing, exercising).

On this sprawling three record, five-side triple-gatefold AAA album, recorded through a vintage Universal Audio tube console and Neve BCM10 junior console to a Studer 2” eight track analog tape recorder, mixed to Ampex 1/4” tape, mastered by Chris Bellman from the analog master at Bernie Grundman’s and pressed at Pallas in Diepolz, Germany, Young lays down the sonic challenge, saying in the sound and production, “Here it is, here’s what we once had, here it is again, listen and tell me that any digital format can even remotely approach this, not just sonically, but emotionally”.

Of course Young is a realist so the sessions were also recorded to ProTools at 192k/24 bit resolution for eventual distribution on the PONO master quality download system and website he’s been developing for the last few years and trying to convince the record industry to support. I have not heard the Blu-ray edition, nor do I know how Young thinks it compares to the AAA vinyl.

I’m not sure what demonstrates more Young’s idealism in a crappy computer speaker iPod world: issuing AAA vinyl albums or trying to convince the record business and consumers to pay attention to sound. Like you and I Young can’t understand how generations clearly interested in enhanced eating, drinking, driving, television and the rest don’t seem to give a shit about sound quality.

To really hear the full, ragged garage band all-analog glory that’s on the tape, vinyl is the only way to go! It’s going to cost you though: around $80.00. For that you get 3 LPs, a hinged triple gatefold and paper on cardboard jacket. For whatever reason (Young is deliberate about everything he does), the lyrics, credits and a very short note about each song are presented on a very small, stapled booklet — though it is printed on high quality paper stock.

This is Young’s second album with Crazy Horse released in 2012, the previous one being the album of Americana — released last June, containing traditional American songs played with their dark, original intent. These two albums are Young’s first collaborations with Crazy Horse since Greendale.

The mood and the lyrics mix equal parts wistful nostalgia and disgust, though there’s sublime tenderness, wonder and a revelation of both general and searingly personal pain in “For The Love of Man,” where Young sings “Who can understand what goes on/what is right and what is wrong/why the angels cry and the heavens sigh/when a child is born to live/but not like you or I.”

The opener “Driftin’ Back”, built upon a two chord vamp, begins acoustically and then slowly transforms itself into what the Horse and Young do best: crunching feedback drenched, fuzz-box metal grinding onslaughts often juxtaposed (as here) with heavenly, multi-vocal choruses featuring soaring harmonies that are occasionally sabotaged by too much flange-play. Young sings about religious rip-offs, bizarrely about getting a “hip-hop haircut” and metaphorically about how commercialization has ruined his appreciation for Picasso.

Under (or almost alongside the vocals) bassist Billy Talbot plucks big, deep bass ex-plosions, while drummer Ralph Molina cracks his snare drum, sometimes so hard you think it’s going to break. If you’re smart enough to crank up the volume, you’ll worry that your drivers might break free from the spiders and surrounds and be delivered into your lap!

However, unlike with digits the louder you crank up this vinyl, the better it sounds, the more it washes over you, envelopes you and carries you away from where you sit and into Neil’s physical and emotional universe.

There’s Frank Sampedro’s grinding guitar on one side of the stage, Neil’s twisted metal whammy-bar extrusions on the other and bass and drums center stage. And what a stage! It’s e-fucking-normous! Wide, unbelievably deep and tall. If your system can play loud, go deep, and express dynamics, there are no limitations from this recording! NONE.

Clearly this is an album made by a rock ‘n’ roll veteran mostly interested in looking back. In the anthemic “Born in Ontario,” Young sings about his life’s work and being on the road, making clear that his birthplace is the emotional and spiritual springboard for all that followed.

His “Twisted Road” recalls the first time he heard Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” “gave it a twist” and “made it mine.” He recalls the first time he played and sang in the place where he “first saw Roy” (Orbison?), and when he first heard “The Dead on the radio.”

In “Ramada Inn” he sings about a long relationship and what it takes to have and keep one. On the closer, “Walk LIke a Giant” Young looks back on his and his generation’s idealism and its now seemingly futile attempts to change the world. “But then the weather changed,” he sings, “And the white got stained/And it fell apart/And it breaks my heart/To think about how close we came.”

The song ends though on an optimistic note. Young is not finished trying to create that idealistic world hatched from those seemingly spent ideas. As Crazy Horse hits dynamic percussive peaks and plumbs bass depths not heard previously on a very loud, very intense album, and as Young hits his strings with seemingly impossible greater controlled intensity than before, he sings “I want to walk/like a giant on the land.”

Unlike the carefully crafted Greendale this record is the result of extended jams. Those who don’t respond positively to it, or find it sloppy or even lazy are missing the point.

The long tunes like “Driftin’ Back” do go on, repeating the two chord vamps seemingly forever. It would be impossible to listen to much of this as an MP3 file without getting bored and/or annoyed and I can’t imagine it’s much better on a seedee.

BUT, as an AAA vinyl record, you will never be bored because you will have “found the sound” that in 1993 Neil said had been “lost.” You’ll find the sound here hypnotic and mesmerizing as it washes over you. Along with the sound come Neil’s strong intentions and intense emotions, even when the lyrics are sparse and the chording static.

You will get way more than 5% if your system can deal with the depths into which this record descends and the dynamics it delivers. You’ll get 100% of what Neil intends for you to experience. Each and every one of Ralph Molina’s repetitive snare cracks will energize you. You’ll drift in the flow and remain energized by the snare and bass drum strikes, while every one of the appropriately metallic yet completely non-harsh and/or spitty cymbal hits will produce a mini-adrenaline rush.

The effect is the opposite of what I experienced the first time I heard Ry Cooder’s Bop ‘til You Drop, the first digital rock record. I had the highest expectations based on the hype I’d read, yet each beat was like an emotional pile driver, pushing me further into the ground. I couldn’t get through the first side. I had actually become depressed and disoriented!

This sublimely recorded AAA production produced the opposite effect. I sat through all five sides in one sitting, volume cranked to almost stupid levels and there before me was Neil, his voice so transparent, so believably there. Behind him was Ralph Molina, each beat played with meaning, and just in front of him was bassist Billy Talbot hitting depth charged notes, each of which had clearly defined string transients and textural and harmonic details, making each note an event. To either side were Neil’s and Frank Sampedro’s gloriously gnarly three-dimensionally placed guitars. Connecting all of the parts was a sensuous wash of reverberant energy.

So simple, yet so physically and texturally complex. Yes, it’s an expensive package, and maybe your system can’t currently deliver it all but when the record is out of print and all that’s left are the digits, even the eventual 192/24 bit ProTool PONO download, it will never compare sonically or emotionally to this physically satisfying edition. If you can find the cash, you will own a treasure, produced for limited consumption, but unlimited pleasure by a musical giant still walking the land.

Previously published: December 29, 2012 at analogplanet.com