Monday, November 5, 2018

Neil Young Debut LP

By 1968, Neil Young already had a stellar musical history behind him. Young released his self-titled solo debut on Nov. 12, 1968, his 23rd birthday. The LP featured many of Young's trademarks, including biting guitar work and his signature vocal style. But within that context, he also used a variety of colors to paint one of the most distinctive and eclectic records in his long, storied career.

It all kicks off with "The Emperor of Wyoming," a country-style instrumental that launches into "The Loner," which remains one of Young's greatest songs and one of the earliest showcases for his signature sound. The beautiful ballad "If I Could Have Her Tonight" follows, taking cues from Buffalo Springfield. Meanwhile, the underrated "I've Been Waiting for You" features one of Young's greatest arrangements, especially the instrumental centerpieces – like the fuzz guitar. It's one of the album's most potent, and unheralded, tracks.

The LP ends with "The Last Trip to Tulsa," a psychedelic narrative that revolves around Young's voice and acoustic guitar. The song builds as its story unfolds, making it one of his most engaging numbers and a fitting conclusion to his solo debut.

The album was released with no name or title on the cover, just a painting of Young. In fast-moving '60s fashion, the LP was recorded in the summer of '68 and released in November to a 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 utilized after the demise of mono records. Basically, it phase-shifted the channel info so that when stereo records were played back over a mono radio signal they emulated the mono mix. A side-effect of the process was a softening and muddying of the sonic properties of the recording evident on the original pressings of Neil Young. When Young heard the result, he decided the Haeco-CSG had to go. In the process he heavily remixed three tracks additional creating an instant rarity for collectors. At the same time, the cover art was changed to include his name. Adding to the discographic confusion, the original jackets lasted longer than the first run of LPs, so the remixed LPs often showed up in the no-name covers.

[Even more fun for collectors is that 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?) So, collectors note, 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, 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 and were issued with a Reprise label (not WB as later pressings were). 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.]

Despite all the collector fun, this is Neil Young's moving and breathtaking debut. Every time I listen to it, I become more and more certain that it's among Neil Young's finest, if a far cry from LPs like Harvest and After the Gold Rush (kind of like comparing the Grateful Dead’s Debut with any of their other studio LPs). It's worth repearing, the tracks "The Loner", "If I Could Have Her Tonight", and "The Old Laughing Lady" are all stellar, but the best tracks are the deeply moving "I've Been Waiting For You" and the psych epic "The Last Trip to Tulsa." 

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