Neil Young's "Psychedelic Pill"—"Don't Want My MP3"

"Don't want my MP3," Neil Young protests on side two's "Drifting Back (Part 2)".

Young's lifelong obsession with sound quality is well known and of course welcomed around here. He was one of the first musicians to express serious reservations about digital recording and playback. Back in 1993 he appeared on an MTV News piece along with Peter Gabriel and me too. You can watch it here. "We've lost the sound" Neil laments in the video—and that was before the scourge of MP3.

"When you hear my song now you only get 5%", he complains here, almost twenty years after his charge in that MTV News video, considered at the time to be outrageous.

"You used to get it all/blocking out my anger/blocking out my thoughts." And that's the true crux of the problem. Yes, MP3's sound sucks, but worse, it filters out music's emotional meaning and erects a wall between artist and listener, which is why people in the MP3 world don't really listen to music as much as they consume it in a parasitic manner, while doing other "stuff" (cooking, cleaning, screwing, exercising).

On this sprawling three record, five side triple-gatefold AAA album, recorded through a vintage Universal Audio tube console and Neve BCM10 junior console to a Studer 2" eight track analog tape recorder, mixed to Ampex 1/4" tape, mastered by Chris Bellman from the analog master at Bernie Grundman's and pressed at Pallas in Diepolz, Germany, Young lays down the sonic challenge, saying in the sound and production, "Here it is, here's what we once had, here it is again, listen and tell me that any digital format can even remotely approach this, not just sonically, but emotionally".

Of course Young is a realist so the sessions were also recorded to ProTools at 192k/24 bit resolution for eventual distribution on the PONO master quality download system and website he's been developing for the last few years and trying to convince the record industry to support. I have not heard the Blu-ray edition, nor do I know how Young thinks it compares to the AAA vinyl.

I'm not sure what demonstrates more Young's idealism in a crappy computer speaker iPod world: issuing AAA vinyl albums or trying to convince the record business and consumers to pay attention to sound. Like you and I Young can't understand how generations clearly interested in enhanced eating, drinking, driving, television and the rest don't seem to give a shit about sound quality.

To really hear the full, ragged garage band all-analog glory that's on the tape, vinyl is the only way to go! It's going to cost you though: around $80.00. For that you get 3 LPs, a hinged triple gatefold, and paper on cardboard jacket. For whatever reason (and there must be one because Young is deliberate about everything he does), the lyrics, credits and a very short note about each song are presented on a very small, stapled booklet— though it is printed on high quality paper stock.

This is Young's second album with Crazy Horse released in 2012, the previous one being the album of Americana— released last June, containing traditional American songs played with their dark, original intent. These two albums are Young's first collaborations with Crazy Horse since Greendale.

The mood and the lyrics mix equal parts wistful nostalgia and disgust, though there's sublime tenderness, wonder and a revelation of both general and searingly personal pain in "For The Love of Man," where Young sings "Who can understand what goes on/what is right and what is wrong/why the angels cry and the heavens sigh/when a child is born to live/but not like you or I."

The opener "Driftin' Back", built upon a two chord vamp, begins acoustically and then slowly transforms itself into what the Horse and Young do best: crunching feedback drenched, fuzz-box metal grinding onslaughts often juxtaposed (as here) with heavenly, multi-vocal choruses featuring soaring harmonies that are occasionally sabotaged by too much flange-play. Young sings about religious rip-offs, bizarrely about getting a "hip-hop haircut" and metaphorically about how commercialization has ruined his appreciation for Picasso.

Under (or almost alongside the vocals) bassist Billy Talbot plucks big, deep bass explosions, while drummer Ralph Molina cracks his snare drum, sometimes so hard you think it's going to break. If you're smart enough to crank up the volume, you'll worry that your drivers might break free from the spiders and surrounds and be delivered into your lap!

However, unlike with digits the louder you crank up this vinyl, the better it sounds, the more it washes over you, envelopes you and carries you away from where you sit and into Neil's physical and emotional universe.

There's Frank Sampedro's grinding guitar on one side of the stage, Neil's twisted metal wammy-bar extrusions on the other and bass and drums center stage. And what a stage! It's e-fucking-normous!. Wide, unbelievably deep and tall. If your system can play loud, go deep, and express dynamics, there are no limitations from this recording! NONE.

Clearly this is an album made by a rock'n'roll veteran mostly interested in looking back. In the anthemic "Born in Ontario," Young sings about his life's work and being on the road, making clear that his birthplace is the emotional and spiritual springboard for all that followed.

His "Twisted Road" recalls the first time he heard Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," "gave it a twist" and "made it mine." He recalls the first time he played and sang in the place where he "first saw Roy" (Orbison?), and when he first heard "The Dead on the radio."

In "Ramada Inn" he sings about a long relationship and what it takes to have and keep one. On the closer, "Walk LIke a Giant" Young looks back on his and his generation's idealism and its now seemingly futile attempts to change the world. "But then the weather changed," he sings, "And the white got stained/And it fell apart/And it breaks my heart/To think about how close we came."

The song ends though on an optimistic note. Young is not finished trying to create that idealistic world hatched from those seemingly spent ideas. As Crazy Horse hits dynamic percussive peaks and plumbs bass depths not heard previously on a very loud, very intense album, and as Young hits his strings with seemingly impossible greater controlled intensity than before, he sings "I want to walk/like a giant on the land."

Unlike the carefully crafted Greendale this record is the result of extended jams. Those who don't respond positively to it, or find it sloppy and/or even lazy are missing the point.

The long tunes like Driftin' Back do go on, repeating the two chord vamps seemingly forever. It would be impossible to listen to much of this as an MP3 file without getting bored and/or annoyed and I can't imagine it's much better on a seedee.

BUT, as an AAA vinyl record, you will never be bored because you will have "found the sound" that in 1993 Neil said had been "lost". You'll find the sound here hypnotic and mesmerizing as it washes over you. Along with the sound come Neil's strong intentions and intense emotions, even when the lyrics are sparse and the chording static.

You will get way more than 5% if your system can deal with the depths into which this record descends and the dynamics it delivers. You'll get 100% of what Neil intends for you to experience. Each and every one of Ralph Molina's repetitive snare cracks will energize you. You'll drift in the flow and remain energized by the snare and bass drum strikes, while every one of the appropriately metallic yet completely non-harsh and/or spitty cymbal hits will produce a mini-adrenaline rush.

The effect is the opposite of what I experienced the first time I heard Ry Cooder's Bop 'til You Drop, the first digital rock record. I had the highest expectations based on the hype I'd read, yet each beat was like an emotional pile driver, pushing me further into the ground. I couldn't get through the first side. I had actually become depressed and disoriented!

This sublimely recorded AAA production produced the opposite effect. I sat through all five sides in one sitting, volume cranked to almost stupid levels and there before me was Neil, his voice so transparent, so believably there. Behind him was Ralph Molina, each beat played with meaning, and just in front of him was bassist Billy Talbot hitting depth charged notes, each of which had clearly defined string transients and textural and harmonic details, making each note an event. To either side were Neil's and Frank Sampedro's gloriously gnarly three-dimensionally placed guitars. Connecting all of the parts was a sensuous wash of three-dimensional reverberant energy.

So simple, yet so physically and texturally complex. Yes, it's an expensive package, and maybe your system can't currently deliver it all but when the record is out of print and all that's left are the digits, even the eventual 192/24 bit ProTool PONO download, it will never compare sonically or emotionally to this physically satisfying edition. If you can find the cash, you will own a treasure, produced for limited consumption, but unlimited pleasure by a musical giant still walking the land.

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COMMENTS
optoman's picture

Did anybody get a chance to compare the vinyl to the Blu Ray Audio version? I think I read somewhere that Neil Young was keen on high quality digital audio, so a comparison may be interesting.

fivecolors's picture

I just received my vinyl copy. The blu ray pales in comparison. Without having vinyl on hand, it sounds pretty good. But if you have the vinyl to compare it to, the blu ray just is bloody awful. Sadly, my vinyl copy is going back (very noisy, quite a few major pops). 

I'm hoping replacement vinyl is a little less noisy. 

kimi imacman's picture

I bought the CD as the vinyl was SO expensive and actually thought it very good but after reading Mikey's very very positive review here I sought out a vinyl copy and received it today. (ebay UK £29!!!!! though all gone I'm afraid, sorry). Bloody hell, now this albums got real POWER!! I just want to crank it up and up and up.

Listens2tubes's picture

Ordered from Amazon. $69.99 shipped. YES!

ViciAudio's picture

These days there are many LP's being released in the US and Europe with different matrix codes and, presumably, different masterings.

What's the deal with this great album? Does it have "CB" on the matrix of the US market LP? And also in the EU market LP? Is it confirmed to be the very same cut, or are we going to find they have different matrix, different cuts, and different sound and / or playback performance?

EU: Reprise Records 9362-49486-0

US: Reprise Records 531980-1

Michael Fremer's picture

Yes, the U.S. edition has the "CB" scribe. I don't know about the EU edition but my general rule is "country of origin" rules, which in this case would be USA. 

The Fleetwood Mac double 45 EU editions were NOT cut from the analog masters and didn't sound nearly as good as the USA editions so I'd be very wary of buying this one as a EU import and if I was living in the EU I'd buy the American version to be sure...

kammerathdk's picture

 

My copy is a EU-edition: The sticker on the shrink  wrap says ‘Pressed at Pallas’ and ‘Mastered for vinyl at Bernie Grundman’. The labels have ‘Manufactured in Germany. 531980-1’, and there’s a ‘CB’ in the dead wax. I believe I’m listening to the same cut as the one reviewed here.  And I agree that the all-analogue audio is awesome – the top-grade is certainly appropriate.

I would also normally follow the country of origin rule (Beatles are far superior on Parlophone as compared to Capitol, whereas I prefer the US Columbia originals when it comes to Dylan’s early work ), but Neil’s recent records (Fork in the Road, Dreamin’ Man and Le Noise) were all pressed at Pallas in Germany after getting a US pre-treatment (country of origin?). In this case it seems that US and EU discs are identical – pressed at the same plant. From the comments on the excellent review of Dylan’s Tempest, it also seems that both the US and the EU editions were pressed in Europe.

As regards the price, I picked up my copy in a local shop in Copenhagen for only 50 USD. Living in Denmark I’ve often had to buy US-imports; after paying 150 USD for the 200g Greendale and 250 USD for the numbered Official Release Series 1-4 set  (when they were still in print, including shipping and taxes), I think Psychedelic Pill is a bargain even if you’re paying 80 USD.

Thanks for providing all these detailed and well-balanced vinyl reviews to help us to avoid ‘non-gourmet’-pressings. Keep it up.

Martin's picture

For example, I have several copies of Bob Dylans "Slow Train Coming", including a US white label promo. The US copies all sound great, apart from noisy vinyl. I have a dutch pressing with dutch stamped matrices. Not so great sounding, but quieter vinyl. Then I have two dutch pressings, one has the US promo matrix on side A, with dutch stampings on side B. Then the other dutch pressing has the US promo matrix on side B, with dutch stampings on side A. Guess which ones sound far superior, great sounding, dead quiet vinyl. Go figure.

Or the dutch pressed "Various Positions" from Leonard Cohen, with "MASTERDISK  BK" stamped into the deadwax, ie., US metal. Much superior to the US original Passport pressing... 
I think my copy of the "The Future" is also dutch pressed, with US stampers.

Then the German pressing of "Sticky Fingers" with T.M.L.  and the A3/B3 matrices written into the deadwax, US metal straight apparently from Doug Sax. Far better than any US pressing I've heard. But the local German later pressings are all more distant than that TML pressing.

Then some AC/DC German pressings of "Back in Black" and "For those about to Rock", where you get "RL" US stampers popping up from time to time, usually though only on one side of the LP... Bob Ludwig always blows away any competition...   

Adding to the wierdness is where you get both the original US metal stampers, generally written into the deadwax, plus the local european, stamped in typeface into the deadwax.

It's just plain wierd. I don't think there's any logic or sense to it.

Michael Fremer's picture

Loved the detail in your comment! However, while the Doug Sax mastered "Sticky Fingers" seems to have captured many people's fancy, it is not the original. I have it on direct authority that the original was mastered from the original analog tape at Artisan and that Doug Sax's cut was later and not "the document," though I'm sure it sounds good. After all, it's from Doug!

ViciAudio's picture

I've been investigating this and it seems like the EU version also has "CB" etched to the matrix, so in this particular case it seems safe to assume they share the same mastering. Thank you! Great music, and wonderful review!

uphoria6's picture

Excellent review Michael, I think that you nailed Neil's raison d'etre. Your review put me over the top on whether or not to purchase Psychedelic Pill. I was fence sitting because I find it isn't as strong as Americana. The songs wander a little too much even for Crazy Horse and the lyrics are not Neil's strongest. Americana has the added benefit of truly classic lyrics to go with the Crazy Horse amble that we all know and love. They even get funky on "Oh Susanna" which sounds like a tribute to Santana. I had the same experience with Americana that you had with Psychedelic Pill. The vinyl is rich beyond belief. It has become my "demo disc" for how good records can sound over digital. The thing just breathes. I'm looking forward to my Pill vinyl which should be in the mail from Amazon this week...thanks!

Mark

Smafdy Assmilk's picture

I loved the idea behind the way they recorded this album. I own much of the same recording gear and have always been inspired by the way it shapes music.

But, opening the album with an essentially two chord song that needlessly meanders for nearly 30 minutes is a bit too much to ask anyone to endure, especially when played by a band as unexceptional as Crazy Horse. I kept thinking of that scene with Chico Marx endlessly playing a song after claiming he'd forgotten the ending. I now sypathise with Groucho's sentiment of, "That's funny, I can't think of anything else."

And does music get any less involving than the pointless and musically flat Born In Ontario? To add to my disbelief, the album sequence goes right into another song with the same rhythm, flat melody and key immediatly after. This band needs a producer!

And speaking of unexceptional, the recording, although praised here, is bland and unremarkable. It's like eating at an expensive restaurant only to discover the chef refused to add salt. I guess the AAA process is truly more important than the outcome in the audiophile world. The only way to make it sound good is to turn up the volume and engage the Fletcher Munson curve.

I'm sorry I spent the money on this one. Uninspired, relentless and boring. But other than that, at least it costs a lot.

Michael Fremer's picture

As I wrote, not everyone will appreciate the subtle underpinnings lurking below the 2 chord vamps. You are clearly one but I did issue a warning.

However: if the sound of that record did not blow you away, then I can only conclude your system may not: go low, produce full blown dynamic contrasts, may lack transparency, or can't image all that well because that recording does all of those things...

I'm sorry you can't appreciate the stupendous noise machine for all of its glories but it takes all kinds!

mrspu90's picture

hi Michael

Can you explain why Pallas Print are making so bad vinyl (180gr) these days.

I bought 2 copies of Psychedeli Pill and the new Qotsta,and every record was warped,so i wasn't able to play it, without destroying the cartrigde in the long run.

 

kind regards

bo

Kirby's picture

I was siting on the fence whether or not to get this Lp as I have already ordered the Bluray, but Michael's review has put me over the top and I ordered it and Americana on vynl. I already have Americana on Bluray so I'll do a comparison of the two formates when I get all the copies in my greedy litle hands. Having just seen Neal & Crazy Horse perform many of these songs live a month or so ago it will be interesting to hear how the album versions compare to the live ones. I can understand  how some may find "Driftin Back" a little too much if they were expecting "Harvest" but this Crazy Horse, the best garage band in the world! Can't wait to get my albums P.S. I posted a couple of pics of the concert in the photos section of this site, if anyone cares to have a look. It was Young's Birthday and the whole crowd sang Happy Birthday to him (Very Cool)

Billf's picture

I don't have the vinyl of this (too rich for my blood), but the Blu-ray is very reasonably priced and sounds great. It also has a video component, including some images that would seem to indicate that the Loner may have some issues!

Rayman's picture

Recorded the same way but "only" $45.

 

The sound is amazing and the original garage band still knows how to jam.

chiledub's picture

Hey Smafdy Assmilk, if you really have an only played once copy of the vinyl I'll take it off your hands "as is" for the shipping costs.

"De gustibus non est disputandum"

What's an example of what blows your hair?

Rayman's picture

a gourmet restaurant either. Good chefs don't need salt...just good ingredients and talent. Like Master Chef N. Young.

J. Carter's picture

EVERY gourmet restaraunt uses salt they just don't use so much that you notice it. I completely agree with his assesment of the album in every way. I own the BluRay and iTunes versions and I love Neil Young but there's very little special about this album. Maybe the gourmet restaraunts you go to serve Kool Aid and you've been drinking too much of it.

Michael Fremer's picture

As I wrote, it's special not in the "Greendale" way but in a far more minimalist and spare way. People who complain about two chords may be the same ones who don't feel gourmet restaurants serve large enough portions.

What makes "Psychedelic Pill" special is clearly not complex chord constructs or even melodic brilliance. It's about the quality of the noise....

J. Carter's picture

I didn't say I didn't like the album it's good and the sound quality is very good but I just didn't find it as special as you did but maybe it's the BluRay and the record just might give a much better experience. I'm just not into 25 minute and 16 minute songs that tend to be monotonous like this occasionally is either. To each his own I guess.

Michael Fremer's picture

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow! LIke when listening to "Einstein on the Beach." Very repetitive, repetivive, very. Very, repetitive (etc.).

storym's picture

Neil Young and Crazyhorse Ragged Glory is one of my favorites, especially all the extended jams. Then I heard Driftin' Back. Don't want no mp3 indeed. It's my favorite on the album and I could listen to Neil and the Horse groove for hours! Give me Neil and the 2 chord vamp any day. Thanks Mikey!

sluggobeast's picture

Love Neil -- and it's great when he grinds it out with the Horse. This album redeems himself after the relatively abysmal "Americana." But the price is way too steep for me. I've purchased some of the his recently vinyl issues (and reissues), and they're superb -- but cannot invest that much in this one.

my new username's picture

https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/poprock/detail/-/art/Neil-Young-Crazy-Horse-Psy...

I don't know anything about that German site or if they'd even ship overseas but at about $45 it seems like a good price.

nogan's picture

Thanks for the review Michael. Damn your web site is addicting. I bought the Pill and Americana on vinyl. Waiting for them to arrive.

WaxtotheMax's picture

I readily admit that I was intoxicated by the "myth" of digital superiority from the beginning of the format. By 1993 however, I had the pleasure of being reacquainted with a Pioneer system a band member of mine had. It was then when I was listening to an original press of Harvest that my doubts about digital media were confirmed, and my senses flooded with the memories of analog bliss. Nothing short of DVD-A or Blu-Ray (possibly not even that) will match a nice well-kept analog Lp...Bravo! Mr. Fremer AND of course Mr. Young, Especially YOU Mr. Fremer, when you slammed Sir Dave Mustane of "no fixed guitar talent" after his unbelievably stupid comments concerning this matter. Thanks for the information, smokin cool review of Neils latest and a good laugh!

sask2012's picture

Has any one  listen to Rush 2112 lp vs The blu Ray 2112 audio ?

deaconblue66's picture

It's actually normal size, but when you hold it you become a GIANT.

Now go walk like one!

Steve Edwards's picture

I bought the album (actually, my wife drove 24 miles to Port of Sound record store in Costa Mesa last Saturday morning to get if for me!) and I'm glad I own it.  I also feel it will be one of those recordings that will age like a Mt Veeder cabernet.

BUT, I don't hear the crack of Molina's snare drum as Michael describes it.  Oh it's there; I just wish they had brought him farther up in the mix, i.e. Steve Ferrone's snare drum in You Don't Know How It Feels from the Tom Petty Wildflowers record.  Now granted, as loyal reader and contributor to this forum, Jim Tauegia once stated, "Mikey's system is akin to the Hubble Telescope."  And like a lot of recordings, familiarity garners appreciation.  But the drums, in my opinion, didn't get quite the same treatment as the guitars.

This is a classic example of the Neil Young / Crazy Horse sound, in all its "ragged, garage-band" fuzz and feedback.  If you don't know whether you should or you shouldn't, do it.

Play on

jstro's picture

After reading reviews and looking at the price of this lp I was a little nervous  BUT I absolutely love this album and my wife does too. The recording and pressing is glorious the simplicity of the songs makes it even more conpelling. Mikey thanks again for AP! 

cement_head's picture

Been listening to this record on Spotify for about three months - wanted to make sure I liked the music before taking the plunge.  Two days ago I ordered the vinyl for $55 delivered from Amazon.  Last night a friend of mine and I gave it a spin.

Wow.  Ramada Inn was so heavy, so dark, and so relentless we were speechless.  How is it the NY & CH are making better music now that they did 40 years ago?

The sonics that Mr. Fremer reviewed are bang on - we cranked this record up and it was if were were in a live show, at a live show.  This is a stunning vinyl record.  Absolutely stunning !

liveal's picture

This is one of the most thorough album reviews I've read. The music is good but you definitely make me want to hear it on vinyl.

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