Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 -- Review Part the Second

As you read in the first part of my review of Neil Young Archives Vol. 1, just opening this box set and cataloging its contents was a daunting task. Fun, but jeez... this is a serious retrospective from a guy who's been continually cranking out great music for well over 40 years. I knew it was going to be a great package, but I didn't know it would be this great.

Anyway, it's time to move on to the important stuff: the music and the extra goodies. The "Neil Young Archives Vol. 1" was made available in three formats: CD (yawn), DVD (not yawn), and Blu-Ray (wow). I'll say up front: I haven't experienced the Blu-Ray edition, for a simple reason. I do not have a Blu-Ray player, and if I was going to purchase the Blu-Ray player that made sense, it would be the Sony Playstation 3. But let me tell you, as the father of a kid who's going on 10, I'd have no hope of using the PS3, ever. My kid would abscond with it for video game playing purposes immediately, and no amount of parental threats or outright coercion would help my cause. Additionally, my music listening tends to focus around my Macintosh these days, and my Mac reads DVDs. Finally, the Archives were given to me by my wonderful ladyfriend Kat, and she chose the DVD set, and I was all too happy to receive this amazing gift. So no complaints there.

Blu-Ray? DVD? Whaaa?
I will tell you that the DVD and Blu-Ray content out of the box is exactly the same. However, the Blu-Ray edition has some very cool features. First, you can browse through the myriad of extra content while you're listening to the tunes, which DVD won't allow to the degree that Blu-Ray will. Second, and perhaps more important, purchasers of the Blu-Ray version will be able to download updated material from Neil directly to their Blu-Ray players, so it's a gift that keeps on giving. One other note: while the DVD version I have encodes the audio at a very respectable 24-bit, 96kHz digital audio resolution, the Blu-Ray edition takes it a step further with 24-bit, 192kHz audio. Not to criticize this aspect, but as a professional in the audio field, I can tell you it's pretty hard, even with the very best equipment in the world, to hear the difference between these two outstanding quality formats. Still, I'd highly recommend the Blu-Ray to anyone who can swing it. Barring that, get the DVD like I did.

Oooh, sounds goooooood.

So, this review is based on the DVD edition. Why did I give a "yawn" to the CD version earlier? It's simple. First, while the music is the centerpiece of this collection, a lot of the entertainment value comes from the tons and tons of video clips, full movies, photos and other memorabilia available in the DVD and Blu-Ray sets. Second, while the audio quality of the DVD and Blu-Ray is in high resolution audio -- so good, it's comparable to analog -- the CD is boring old 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital. Let's face it: if you're going to get this amazing collection, it is absolutely worthwhile to nab it with the best-sounding audio you can get today. Just don't waste your time with the CDs... get the DVDs or the Blu-Ray. I absolutely promise it's worth the difference in price.

What's in the Box, Man?
For the purpose of this part of the review, I'm going to give you an overall picture of the contents of the DVDs. Later on, we'll start to look at each disc in detail. As I mentioned before, the discs are cataloged by date. On each disc, you'll find several things:

1. Songs/mixes that you've heard before, on Neil's released albums, except in audio quality that blows away any version you've heard previously.

2. Songs/mixes/alternative takes that you haven't heard before (unless you got some kind of bootleg or heard Neil play them live at a show sometime). These songs are unreleased materials, and it's an amazing experience to suddenly hear a "new" song recorded with Crazy Horse or from Harvest that you'd never heard before. What a treat!

3. Audio interviews, video clips, and photos that correspond to the era of the disc. You also get some retrospective interviews with Neil that were filmed in the late '90s, with Neil commenting on various aspects of his career at the time.

Those are just the "regular" discs. Additionally, you get three discs that are complete live shows (Canterbury House, Riverboat, and Massey Hall), and on disc 9, there's the entire Journey Through The Past movie. Yes, many Neil fans already own this stuff (with the exception of the Riverboat, which was released with this collection for the first time), but in his defense, the quality of the audio and/or video in this set exceeds anything I've experienced in earlier releases.

Are You Experienced?
The actual experience of the NYAV1 is awesome. For the purpose of today's review, I put in the "Topanga 3 (1970)" disc, but the vibe is similar in all the others as well. When you pop a disc in, you get a main menu from which you can choose to play the entire thing, select individual songs, get more stuff (more on that later), or setup the disc's audio and video settings.

Should you opt to select songs, you are taken to what might be the coolest, funkiest system of content selection I've ever seen. Remember the file cabinet in the poster? Well, it's represented on screen as well.

Since the screen is only so high and the drawer is so deep, by clicking the screen the cabinet opens and closes accordingly, allowing you to access more songs.

When you choose a song, you get a close up of the folder of that track. Each folder contains slightly different things. In all cases, you can play the song and get the song's lyrics. Most song folders also have tabs for photos and for memorabilia, which range from handwritten lyrics sheets to posters and more.

If you're like most hard-core fans, the first thing you want to do is hear some tunes. When you press 'play', the screen changes to show a video representation of the recording playing back to you. These scenes are terrific. You see a tape reel rolling, or an old turntable spinning the actual track on the album the recording is found. Each song has its own video, all in a similar vein.

On some of the folders, you'll note that there's a sticker "pasted" behind the normal info area. These will usually contain extra audio or video content that pertains to the song you're checking out. Click it!

In this example, we find a cool video of CSNY performing "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" at the Fillmore East.

Happy Easter (Eggs)
I mentioned earlier that in addition to all the contact of NYAV1 that's laid out for you in obvious fashion, there are also easter eggs -- the software programmer's word for hidden features. Finding them isn't very hard... move your cursor around, and when something lights up, click it. You won't regret it. In this case, note that the roach clip turns white when I hover on it. When I clicked it, I found an alternate mix of "Don't Let It Bring You Down".

Misty Water-Colored Memories...
I mentioned that in each song folder, you get some cool stuff to look at in addition to the song itself. Note the "Photos" and "Documents" tab in this "Southern Man" folder.

When I click "Photos", I get a pic of Neil looking pretty Confederate.

In the "Documents", I find Neil's distinctive handwriting with the song's lyrics.

It's already been estimated by one reviewer that sponging up all the info on each disc will take about 2-1/2 hours, and there are over ten discs in this package. A little overwhelming? Sure, but trust me , if you're a fan of Neil, you'll relish every moment. I'm already starting to slate some "Archive Time" into my daily schedule. I can't think of a more valuable way to spend awhile each day, immersing myself in this wonderful collection.

That's all for Part 2 of the review! In the next part, we'll start to talk about the contents of each disc. A forewarning: please don't expect me to launch into any critical reviews of Neil's creative output. First, I'm biased as hell since I love almost everything, and second, I think it's a little ridiculous to put qualitative opinions on music and film that's been out for decades. But I would like the opportunity to tell you more about the details of all the discs. Stay tuned... and don't be denied.

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