While a mood of reflection descends upon on our nation, what better day than today, this 8-year anniversary, to reflect on something approaching its 50th? Like many people, I have stacks of books by my bed, but beyond all the stacks, flat and visible on a nightstand, I keep a copy of The Americans, Swiss photographer—and Cocksucker Blues auteur—Robert Frank‘s epic, black-and-white meditation on what America looked like in the 12 or so months following the summer of ‘55.
Just eighty-three photos winnowed down from oh, twenty-seven thousand, Frank’s book winds up in my hands time and time again, and if, as Rod Stewart says, “every picture tells a story,” I’m by now pretty sure I’ve forged a story from each of its melancholy images.
But that’s what photos do—the good ones, anyway. Reduced to two dimensions, stripped from time and place, photographs compel us to find the metaphor. To search for meaning. That freedom to look and think and wonder, it’s a large part of The Americans’ stark, open-ended beauty. And for Frank’s subjects, too, contemplation shows up as a favored mode of expression. As Anthony Lane writes in the current New Yorker:
Was there ever a book as full of looking as Robert Frank?
The Beatles remasters have finally hit the street and all across the world, music fans are gorging themselves on the most fabled and revered repertoire in pop music history. This may well prove to be the last hurrah of the CD age and certainly the marketing gurus at Capital have been working overtime to make sure we’ve all very aware of the Beatles as we approach this holiday season. It’s highly likely that the Fab Four will prove to be the best selling artists of this decade, an incredible feat for a group that disbanded nearly 40 years ago. So the question—the only question, for the Beatles are hardly an unknown quantity—is simply are these new versions worth it? Are they that much different? Should people who’ve already bought these albums umpteen times buy them again? I’ll try to answer that question here for those of you who still might be on the fence.
Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972 on Blu-ray is truly the most impressive hunk of pop culture multi-media I’ve ever seen. A massive and hefty THING, it forever raises the bar for rock gods with deep catalogs and treasure troves of unreleased rarities. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and Prince pay attention, because from now on Archives is the box set by which the others will be judged for some time. It’s an entirely new way of providing deep fan access to an important recording artist’s life’s work, more a multi-media autobiography than mere box set. The user interface forces you to really contemplate Neil Young as you poke around and you become deeply immersed in all things Neil as a result. Obviously that’s the goal and Archives absolutely succeeds on that level.
Young’s attention to audio fidelity is legendary—some of his classic 70s albums have never come out on CD due to his dislike of the way they sounded—and the 24bit/192 KHZ PCM audio possible with the BD format showcases his music as never before. There are some very, very high fidelity audio discs out there, but none of them sound as good as the material on Archives. It is as if one was present in the actual studio (or audience) when the performances were recorded. High quality transfers were made directly from the original analog tapes—or at least with the shortest signal path possible—and it shows. FM radio classics like Cinnamon Girl and The Loner have never sounded better, but on the more intimate folkie material covered in the set, the audiophile qualities of the BD format really shines. The size of the room the songs were recorded in, the space around the voice and guitar, the buzzing vibrations of a single guitar string—all of this is quite audible on Archives. The sound quality is magnificent. I’ll say it again, I’ve never heard better. For sound quality alone it would win the gold medal, but that’s not the half of it. There are a gazillion nooks and crannies on the set.
In terms of the extras, a mass-produced facsimile of a hand-carved leather-covered 237 page color scrapbook is loaded with such amusing ephemera as one of his sports writer father’s columns about then 11-year old Neil’s “chicken business” and contracts Young’s mother signed on behalf of her minor son so he would be paid BMI royalties on his Buffalo Springfield compositions. The cover letter tells Mrs. Young that she should “be very proud of your son. He is not only talented but a young gentleman.” Young’s parents must have kept every notebook and scrap of paper he ever wrote on. Young’s father was convinced of his son’s genius at a young age. I loved reading his account of seeing his son perform in Carnegie Hall in the early 70s and how proud he was. (Hell, I’d be proud if I was Neil Young’s father, wouldn’t you be?). There are scads of handwritten lyrics and reviews cut from endless magazines and newspapers. In terms of the books one usually finds in a major artist box set, this one also goes right to the head of the class. I’ve never seen another even half as good. All in all the packaging is attractive (if not necessarily that durable) and it’s a gorgeous thing to unwrap. It’s a shoe-in for several Grammy awards (not that anyone cares, but still…)
There are 128 tracks, nearly 60 of them never heard before spread across the ten discs. The old metal file cabinet user interface is nothing that innovative, but it’s probably the most appropriate considering the depth and archival purpose of the set. There is a nice looking “timeline” that displays photos, video clips and hidden tracks along the way. The set contains the first release of Young’s 1973 documentary Journey Through The Past and twenty video clips. Some of them are totally wonderful (like Young walking out of a record store with bootlegs of his music, the mind-blowing CSNY live performance, an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show and a 1970 performance at the Finjan Folk Cafe) but this is where my first problem with Archives comes in. The video content, whilst containing several gems, isn’t nearly enough. Not enough to justify the price, the fan expectations and not nearly enough to satisfy the wide open spaces of the storage available on Blu-ray (couldn’t most of this material fit on like TWO Blu-ray disc?). Where, for instance is the amazing BBC “In Concert” performance from 1971 or more of the CSNY performance?
My biggest problem with Archives, though, is not what is or isn’t on the set (Blu-ray owners will get updates from Blue-ray Live as long as their players are hooked up to the Internet, so Young could always add things later as he pleases) rather it’s the list price. This is where I become deeply ambivalent about Archives.