THE NEIL YOUNG ARCHIVE – EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE

Stu’s interest in the Neil Young Archive is piqued by David Solomon of Qobuz and Phil Baker, CEO of the Neil Young Archives.

Last Thursday night I was watching David Solomon of Qobuz interview Phil Baker, CEO of The Neil Young Archives, and a very interesting and entertaining broadcast it was too. As well as his current position, Phil Baker was also the person that helped bring Neil Young’s Pono player to market. I took a few things from the interview and it also piqued my interest enough to pop off and take a fresh look at Neil Young’s Archive. So, this week’s Stu’s views is going to be a two-pronged affair where I look at a couple of the issues raised in the interview and also a bit of a look at the Neil Young Archive again, but this time with fresh ears and eyes.

Neil Young Archives II Qobuz

Neil Young’s Archives II is now available on Qobuz

Before I start this piece, which is likely to be part review, part appraisal, and a part stream of consciousness (nothing new on that latter part then, Stu), let me say that I am a huge Neil Young fan. I got into him at a time when my friends in the early to mid-eighties were getting into heavy rock and the ‘New Wave Of British Heavy Metal’ and my first purchase was, if I remember correctly, After The Goldrush – now celebrating its 50th anniversary and available this coming Friday (19/3/2021) as a boxed edition. Most of my friends didn’t get his music and saw it as throwback hippy crap – I was undeterred and consumed Mr Young’s output voraciously. Look, I even think Trans is a fantastic record and well before its time – try listening to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and then Trans and not see at least some similarities, despite over thirty years separating the two records.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to see Neil Young with Crazy Horse (my favourite Young incarnation) at the Vieilles Charrues festival on July 21st 2013 – the eve of my birthday – with the festival being literally a ten-minute drive from our home. I was very excited about seeing Neil Young and wasn’t disappointed – it was an absolutely blistering performance that had me captivated throughout. At one point, and the reason I’m bringing this up is that it is perhaps the most magical musical experience I have ever witnessed: the band and Neil left the stage, feedback was played from the backstage area, and newspapers were blown across the stage to give a desolate cityscape feel. Then over the PA came the famous “No Rain. No Rain” chant from Woodstock and I turned to Linette and said “That’s mad, they are spraying water from the stage on us to coincide with that chant.” Only they weren’t. At that very moment the “No Rain” thing came of the speakers it began to rain. I will remember it forever and have goosebumps recounting the story even now – and I do tell that story almost as much as my Gil Scott-Heron, LSD, and Pinball story (no doubt you’ll get to hear it if you read Stu’s Views regularly)

ARCHIVES II

The reason this interview on Facebook was so timely is that The Neil Young Archive Vol II is now available to stream on Qobuz – Volume 1 that spans (1963 to 1972)is also available . Volume II is a mammoth collection of music and performances from the time of the “Ditch Trilogy” of albums (1972-1976) On the Beach, Tonight’s The Night, and Zuma – incidentally three of my favourite records from Neil Young and all are presented in High-Resolution. The Archives contains three previously released albums (the 2020 release Homegrown, plus the live albums Tuscaloosa, and Roxy: Tonight’s the Night), and also another seven albums worth of material. That’s a shed-load of music by anyone’s standards, but within the Archive II’s 139 tracks you have 49 that were previously unreleased, and 12 that are tracks that had previously never been heard before – so roughly half of Archives II is ‘new’ (but old, if you get my drift). Whether or not this will appeal only to die-hard Neil Young fans or a wider audience is debatable – even to enter into listening to this collection requires a modicum of commitment to the task in hand, and it’s certainly no ‘one-sitting’ endeavour.

Neil Young Archives Qobuz ii

Available to stream or to download in hi-res

Young is clearly committed to high-resolution playback, and from the off on the Archives II it is clear that the sound quality is a step up in, for want of a better word, reality. I suppose given present company we ought to refer to this as an increase in fidelity. It’s clearly better than CD on the likes of Cortez the Killer where you can do a direct A/B test, but then “Better” is, of course, somewhat subjective, but listen on a decent system and there is an obvious jump in the things you look for when listening closely and analytically. There’s more separation, more detail and a more lifelike feel to the music you are listening to.

To buy the files it’s €199 but you can have the CD (RedBook obviously) for a good deal less. In this last regard I’m somewhat divided in my opinion – I want to have and to hold physical media as it feels like I actually ‘own’ something, but the hi-resolution files do sound better. This is obviously something that is not unique to Young or other artists’ material and is beyond the scope of this piece but that whole physical media/digitally stored/streamed media discussion is one I’ll look at in the near future. Now €199 is a chunk of money and so it depends on your level of wanting to own simply everything that an artist has done. In honesty, I’m much more likely to stick with the Qobuz files and perhaps the CDs sometime down the line.

NEIL YOUNG ARCHIVE

I first took a look at the Archive the very day it was launched. If I recall correctly the Archive was free for a year back then and then you could either choose to continue, or otherwise – I didn’t.

Neuil Young Archives

The Neil Young Archives is a little different to a normal website to say the least.

As I mentioned, I am a huge fan of Mr Young and was very excited at the prospect of being able to access and stream content hitherto unavailable to the masses, as well as more information about the recordings, access to information about past gig and much more. The NYA could perhaps be seen as a very in-depth Roon-like environment but only for one artist and with a far wider scope – there is content on there that is about politics etc (which I, incidentally, really like)

Sadly, I was disappointed with what I found the first time around. The interface confused the life out of me – it’s idiosyncratic to say the least and it was wholly incomplete, to the point where I would find something I thought would be interesting only to find nothing there. However, that was a good few years ago and the archive has grown. I suppose the way to look at the Archive is not as a standalone entity that is plonked on a server and left to fester. Rather, it is a living and evolving entity that has content added almost constantly. It also gives you access to the man himself and his thoughts – Young abandoned Facebook some time ago and so one way to look at The Neil Young Archive is perhaps a kinda Facebook page (with a Roon-like experience) that has been on performance-enhancing drugs.

Cynics may well look at the archives and scream “Money Grab!”, and if I’m absolutely honest that thought has been a pretty persistent one in the back of my mind from the off with the archive, but Baker maintained in the David Solomon interview that Young’s intentions were honourable and that his main motivation behind this project was to bring quality streamable content to fans that is available nowhere else. The question must be asked what problem there is with artists making a living, anyway!

RUSTY

This has led me to sign up for an account and to revisit the archive.  I signed up for the Rust account at $39.99 a year  and this gives me access to all the albums, infocards, timeline events, Hearse Theater screenings, and playlists that the Classic subscription ($19.99/year) gives you plus On Demand videos, performance timeline and the ability to request your favourite live shows. There is another level at $99.99 but I’m not entirely sure what the extra benefits are on that one if I’m absolutely honest.

Neil Young Archive Movietone

You ccan access a good few movies, music videos and more here.

First impressions are that the site hasn’t changed much and it is still a bit of a beast to get around. I get the whole wanting to make it feel a little (read a LOT) different, but I just feel that the layout is all a bit contrived and difficult to use – though with that said you do get used to it pretty quickly and I suppose it represents a different user experience that takes you away from that usual run-of-the-mill online UI design.

The main navigation is the MENU over on the left-hand side of the top-bar (for want of a better word) and it’s here you will find most of what you are looking for. There’s a search function, the home page, the file-cabinet, the time-line, and the playlist. These represent the areas I reckon you are likely to access the NYA the most, but then you have links for the NYA Times-Contrarian, The Movietone Theater, and Hearse Theater. There are also links to where you can get info about how to get the best from the experience by way of optimising your audio set up on your computer – there is also an Android and iOS app that is available for free.

NEIL-YOUNG-ARCHIVES-MENU

The Neil Young Archives’ menu is your main navigation

The NYA Times Contrarian is essentially an online newspaper (it looks like a newspaper) and this I think is a pretty interesting concept from Neil Young and co. Yes, there is a fair bit of stuff about Young but there are also articles about politics, environmental news, law, religion, art, and much more. It’s an interesting read, actually, though I would suggest that this will depend on your political stance and whether you agree with the angle. There’s also Letters To the Editor (self-explanatory), Viewpoint (op-ed pieces), and Bandstand (music-related articles).

The File Cabinet is a pretty cool place and has everything Young has done filed away in a Ul that looks like a filing cabinet. It’s a bit clunky to use but fascinating to rummage through. Click on a file, it opens and you can watch/listen to whatever it is you are interested in and then buy it (there is a cool feature to find your local record store or you can buy it online through Neil Young’s Greedy Hand Store), read the lyrics if it’s a song, or have a look at other documents that relate to the file you are looking at.

Neil Young Archives File Cabinet

The Neil Young Archives File Cabinet is where you can scroll through virtual files. The little meter art the top shows your internet usage and you can switch to 320Kbs if need be,

Linked to the File Cabinet is the Time-Line which is everything Young has done set out on a chronological time-line…

Neil Young Archive Timeline

Another way to explore the content of the NYA is to use the timeline

If you do subscribe you can also put together playlists of tunes which is pretty cool but so far in my life I have created exactly one playlist…ever!

SOUND QUALITY

It’s very good if you are able to stream at full resolution, but for those that aren’t you have a 320Kbs option available at the flick of a virtual switch. Our internet is pretty pants and I found I had to listen at this lower resolution a fair bit of the time. One thing that did bug me was that I wasn’t able to stream content to our main system without having the computer connected, though I believe that integration is possible with BlueSound OS. You can get around this issue if you have BlueTooth on your DAC (I do) and you can then stream whatever album or tune to your main system, though not in high-resolution, which sort of defeats the object a bit. I also have an Auralic G1 streamer and using the app on the iPad I was able to play what I wanted very easily via Airplay and in my opinion in better quality, and by a good margin, than via Bluetooth.

The app is pretty good actually and you get all the albums in a grid format, the Timeline, The NYA Times Contrarian, Hearse Theater, and the Greedy Hand Store. Actually, I found it easier to navigate around what I fancied listening to via the app, particularly on the iPad.

SUMMING UP

The Neil Young Archive is very interesting to explore and it’s very cool to listen to very different versions of tunes you know well. It’s a bit clunky on the computer, and a bit weird to use at first, but you can find yourself getting lost for hours in the sheer amount of content. Sound quality is very good when our connection allows for hi-resolution playback and Young should be applauded for taking this step of bringing hi-resolution music to the masses – even if that is a select mass.

I would have liked to have more access to the video content other than what is showing in the Movietone Theater or the Hearse Theatre, but then that is also part of what I rail against in the “on-demand” world too – having things show for limited periods is kind of old school, but kind of cool too.

There are a lot of BUY links on everything and I can’t help but think that to a large extent the Archives are in no small way a tool for selling Young’s output. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

Will I continue my subscription beyond this year – I don’t know the answer to that, though the rolling annual charge may mean that I forget to cancel the subscription this time next year anyway.

I am a fan of Neil Young, I just find that the scope of this Archive is very far-reaching (it’s pretty daunting, really) and demands you focus on just the Young for days on end, though of course, you are able to pop in and out. With that said, I can see myself spending hours and hours exploring the NYA, as I can see many other fans too. Actually, the more I use it the more I start to love it…

I sort of love it and at times dislike it intensely. Others will feel the same, I’m sure.

Much like Neil Young himself then!

Not really a review but it gets my Editor’s Choice Award simply because it’s awesome…and annoying…but awesome too!

Stuart Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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