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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Vinyl Cave: Neil Young by Neil Young
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Buffalo Springfield may have had a short life as an active band, but it launched the careers of a number of musicians who have remained active in the business since the '60s. The roster included one major 20th-century legend still shaking things up in the 21st: Neil Young, who released nearly as many albums in the first decade of the new century as he did in the 1970s. He's also recently launched Pono, a high-resolution digital music platform, which lit up Kickstarter recently with pledges in excess of six million dollars.

But that's all getting way ahead of today's story. Buffalo Springfield splintered for good in early 1968 and Young moved on quickly, securing a record deal with Reprise Records and getting down to studio work in Los Angeles. Young's first solo recording sessions established a trend: co-producing with David Briggs, an association which continued until Briggs' passing in the mid-'90s. Another trend set by Young right off the bat was unpredictability. What other singer-songwriter would kick off his or her first statement to the world with a loping country instrumental?

In a career arc known for wide stylistic shifts from album to album -- and occasional total detours -- to this day Neil Young, as a piece, remains possibly the most eclectic of Young's many LPs. Along with a pair of instrumentals, it incorporates chunky rockers-plus-strings such as "The Loner," a couple more odd and moodily baroque Jack Nitzsche creations featuring prominent female backing vocals, short and catchy fuzz guitar numbers, and an opaquely psychedelic acoustic epic in "The Last Trip to Tulsa."

Although neither are credited on the jacket, Young says in Waging Heavy Peace that the rhythm section for the album was Jim Messina (bass) and George Grantham (drums), who were probably then already in the process of putting together their own country-rock group, Poco. The album's Wikipedia entry also lists a few other session players who participated, including Ry Cooder, who is credited on the album jacket as co-producing the Nitzsche tracks.

In fast-moving '60s fashion, the album was recorded in the summer of '68 and released in November, to an apparently muted response ... apart, that is, from Young himself. At some point after his work on the album was completed but before it was pressed, Reprise ran the mixes through the Haeco-CSG process, altering the sound from what Young was expecting.

CSG was a short-lived work-around used by some labels after the demise of mono records; basically, it phase shifted the channel information just enough so that when stereo records were played back over a mono radio signal (or record player), elements appearing in both channels would not end up being louder in the mix when the two stereo channels were combined. When not used carefully, a side effect of that process is a softening and muddying of the sonic properties of a recording, fully evident on the original pressings of Neil Young.

When Young heard the released album he decided the Haeco-CSG had to go. In the process he also heavily remixed three tracks -- creating an instant rarity. At the same time, the cover art was changed to include his name on the front. Adding to the discographical confusion, the original jackets lasted longer than the first run of LPs, so the remixed LPs often show up in the no-name jackets. Even more fun for collectors is at some point in the early '70s, a pressing plant grabbed the wrong stamper for side two, and the CSG mix made a brief, accidental reappearance. To a certain extent this mistake makes sense, as when the remixed sides were created, only side one notated it as such in the deadwax (the area without music around the label) with a RE-1. After many years of hunting for the original mix, I've never seen a side two that says RE-1, indicating the remix. Confused yet?

(An inside baseball aside, here, for those who would like to try and find a copy of the original mix. The original pressing and the initial run of the remixed LPs both use the "two-tone" orange and tan Reprise label. To identify an original mix on a record using this label style, just check the deadwax on side one: the etching in the deadwax will not include RE-1 anywhere. Finding the mispressing from the '70s of side two is trickier, since that side apparently never indicated RE-1. First, make sure the record does not have the Warner Brothers "bubble" logo on the label; copies with that style are too late of a release. After that, look at the number/letter code at the end of the matrix info in the deadwax. If it has a variation of -1 and a letter it should be the original mix; the remixes end with -2. For example, the full matrix info on the copy I found reads 30818 RS6317B - 1C. I suspect all the mispressings are likely 1C stampers, but it's certainly possible the mistake happened more than once.)

On the whole, Young's opinion of the CSG'ed album's sound is right on. The revised version is certainly a clearer-sounding production and a great listen. However, the original release has a certain charm; to my ears, the blurring of the sound adds to the mystery for this sometimes eccentric batch of songs. And, for fans, the different mixes of the three tracks are absolutely essential listening.

Here are some notes on the differences I heard in these three tracks.

"If I Could Have Her Tonight": On the original mix, an electric piano part is prominent in the mix. That is mostly mixed out on the verses in the remix and moves to the opposite channel during the choruses, switching positions with the main guitar riff. Also, the drums and the right-channel guitar strums are a touch more prominent in the original mix. The song is faded differently as well; on the original mix, the fade begins earlier and is drawn out much longer, though both mixes end at about the same point.

"Here We Are in the Years": These two versions show a very different approach to the song, changing it from an essentially keyboard/strings-based song to a guitar-based track. In the original mix, an organ fades in on the right during the piano intro, and continues through most of the song. I don't hear it at all in the remix. There's also quite prominent strings beginning about the middle of the song, which were mixed out until almost the end on the remix. At one of the song's shapeshifts, the left channel piano is much louder in the original mix. Overall, the guitar parts are de-emphasized or buried in the original mix. And while the remix has a quick fadeout, the original mix proceeds through a lurching slowdown to a final chord decay, crossfaded with a kind of stomping/heartbeat sound for the fade out.

"What Did You Do to My Life": This song also has at least one very different element, in that the right channel guitar on the original mix plays arpeggios throughout, including a distinctive melodic figure during the choruses. That's completely gone on the remix, replaced by a loud tremeloed guitar. The fuzz-pedal guitar in the left channel is also also more prominent in the remix, as are the vocals. Since everything comes through clearer in the remix, though, the rhythm section really doesn't sound much more buried than it did on the original mix. The original mix has a very quick fadeout, but the remix repeats the final lines several more times before fading.

Overall, I think the original mixes are a better fit on the album than Young's revisions, though I'd be hard-pressed to declare any of the three are "better" than the replacements ... just a different snapshot of a certain time and place. Neil Young may be one of his only records to miss the charts, but it was the first Neil record I ever owned -- and it's still one of my favorites. (Reprise RS 6317, 1968)

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