Many of you know that I generally avoid writing negative reviews, opting simply to not review a recording if I don't like the music. But sometimes there are important popular releases which have significant enough problems to audiophiles and record collectors to call attention to them. The new Neil Young album Tuscaloosa may be one of those albums. I say "may" because this is simply my experience (and reports of some anomalies I've heard about from others which I'll get to in a moment).
The underlying sad story here we've all heard before: an artist goes to great lengths to make a great sounding album, hires the best mastering engineers, puts together a deluxe package and then the final product comes to market in inferior form because somebody somewhere along the way cut some corners leading to quality control issues.
First the good news: Tuscaloosa is a fantastic and genuinely important release in the Neil Young archive series. It finds the first incarnation of Neil's short lived Stray Gator's band firing pretty much with all cylinders on and then some. The performances are exemplary.
The version of "New Mama" here has a roaring fire lit under it that I've never heard applied to this song before -- completely electric and rocking, it is a completely different listening experience than the more hushed (and frankly CSNY-flavored) version found on Tonight's The Night. This version is just stellar, especially the stuttering 7/4 time ending -- initially, I had to check to make sure it wasn't a skip on the record! Wow. This is Neil Young playing tight like King Crimson! Frankly, I think this version of this song should have been released as a single back in the day, it's that good.
Neil's voice is in fine form and it is so nice hearing Pedal Steel legend Ben Keith soaring live without a net. This is essentially the band that recorded Neil's landmark album Harvest. The version of "Don't Be Denied" is arguably more impassioned than the take that came out on Time Fades Away.
Spread over three sides of two standard weight, well centered black vinyl LPs (the fourth side is laser etched with a neat Stray Gators graphic) the recording on Tuscaloosa itself and the mastering (by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grumman Mastering) are exemplary. The vinyl sounds great generally* and delivers a richer listening experience than the 192 kHz, 24-bit MQA version streaming up on Tidal. This is not to say that the stream sounds bad, but the vinyl gets the edge for a feel which is more true to how Neil's recordings sounded at this time... In other words, the stream is a bit on the crisp side, but not in a harsh manner. It is just different.
Since some of you, Dear Readers, have asked about my playback system, which is intentionally modest but respectable, here are the details. Most of my critical vinyl listening is done via a Music Hall MMF 7.1 turntable fitted with a Goldring 2400 cartridge, run through a red Bellari tube pre amp. For MQA streaming, I use Tidal played over a 2018 Mac Book Pro and run through a Mytek Brooklyn DAC.
*So what is my problem, you ask?
Welllllll... you see... my vinyl LP copy of Tuscaloosa came riddled with annoying (likely) non-fill and other distortion-inducing anomalies. If the noise had happened during one of the loud electric tunes, chances are it might not have bothered me much. But since it hit during the acoustic opening tune -- the gorgeous version of "Here We Are In The Years" (from Neil's debut album) -- well its pretty much the embodiment of an audiophile bummer. There were other occasional "pffts" and crackles here and there through-out the first disc. Side Three on the second disc sounds fine.
Now, if it was just me having this issue I'd probably write it off as a one off but the store I got this from has had some return issues including one copy that had a label pressed into the grooves!! They sent me a photo of the damaged record so you can see it here. That's pretty sloppy on the part of the pressing plant. I've heard back from some on forums on Facebook that there are some warp issues out there and at least one other person reported having similar non-fill noise on his copy of Tuscaloosa. So... yeah.... there are some quality control issues happening at the pressing plant somewhere in Europe where these discs were made.
The silver lining here is that I have also heard from many others on Social Media who say their vinyl version of Tuscaloosa is just fine. So, perhaps our copies are from an isolated batch from a rushed pressing plant that got a little sloppy to meet demand. I hope this isn't very widespread!
So... should you buy the vinyl of Tuscaloosa? Well, if you love Neil and want to hear his music in his preferred format, well then yes. Tuscaloosa rocks madly. Just be prepared that anomalies might exist. Hopefully you won't have the issues some of us have had.