I struggle with digital music sometimes.
I mean… I’ve heard plenty of good sounding digital recordings. Many are great, even. I’ve heard some standard CDs which sound quite fantastic (reviewed one just a month or so ago by Sharon Isbin, in fact… click here for that review in case you missed it). From a purely audiophile perspective, there are so many variables it does make this process of striking a balance between good sound and good music challenging at times.
I try to stay current as I can — hey, I was turned on to Doja Cat last weekend! I try to keep up with the flood of new releases, some of which are sent to me for review consideration by the artists and their labels (full disclosure). And some I just purchase on my own when the price is reasonable and/or I don’t have a direct contact to get an editorial copy.
One of my favorite singer, songwriter, guitarists has been prolific to a fault in recent years issuing a torrent of new albums and archival releases. I’m not complaining… It is great and exciting but also daunting to keep up with at times. So one has to make choices.
In recent years since I have had access to higher resolution streaming music services like Tidal and Qobuz — and a Mytek Brooklyn DAC to decode the streams properly — I will sometimes sample a new release to see if it is something I will “need” for my collection or perhaps I might even want to review for you, Dear Readers. This is an iffy tactic for me and I have to remind myself to not make snap decisions based on the digital recording.
“Just listen to the music,” I tell myself. That doesn’t always work.
When I finally got a copy of U2’s Songs of Innocence on vinyl I found I actually liked the album vs. the horrid sounding MP3 that was deposited on everyone’s phones some years back. After the firestorm of bad press had died down, I finally found a fairly priced copy of the album on vinyl and discovered it was actually a real good album that sounded good too! This led me to believe that many people hated the album not because of the privacy issue of finding it delivered to their phones without asking but simply because the original download they gave out sounded like… well… insert your favorite expletive!
So what does all this have to do with Neil Young?
Well, when I heard about another in Neil’s fabulous archive series of previously unreleased recordings, I made the mistake of listening cursorily to an online stream first. When I played bits of Songs For Judy, I was non plussed and decided to pass on buying it initially. I didn’t get pulled into the ambiance of the performances. I didn’t get pulled into the fascinating back story on why this album exists in the first place (both Tidal and Qobuz off no liner notes, only sort of basic of reviews which don’t really get into the compelling genesis of these recordings).
“What is the back story,” you ask?
Since I really don’t want to spoil your joy of reading the liner notes by journalist Cameron Crowe and guitar technician Joel Bernstein who were on the tour, I’ll just say this album revolves around a stolen tape which was ultimately bootlegged. Songs For Judy is essentially a fun-house high fidelity mirror view based on their original favorite 90 minute cassette of unofficial recordings from the acoustic sets on this tour, now properly sourced and mixed, chronologically sequenced and lovingly mastered for official release.
How does it sound? Terrific! Neil’s acoustic guitar, organ and piano sound rich and warm. The standard weight vinyl is super quiet and the noise floor disappears so just the music comes through.
On Songs For Judy you will hear earlier versions of some songs that surfaced on Rust Never Sleeps (“Pocahontas”), Freedom (“Too Far Gone”) and 1990’s Ragged Glory (“White Line”) plus some previously unreleased songs (“No One Seems To Know” and “Give Me Strength”). Many classics are here of course including “Heart of Gold,” “After The Goldrush,” “Tell Me Why,” “Harvest,” “Sugar Mountain, ” etc. The performances are loosely intimate, personable and moderately stoner-flavored (not a bad thing in most instances).
So, yeah, I was wrong to initially overlook Songs For Judy. If you are into Neil Young and don’t have this one, you probably need it. If you are a casual fan, there is much to enjoy here. And going back to those original streams, the 16-bit version on Tidal left me kinda flat (and still does, click here). The Qobuz stream at 24-bits and 88 kHz sounds fuller and less one dimensional.
For example, Neil’s piano on “Journey Through The Past” sounds quite a bit tinnier and almost rinky-dink flavored like a toy piano on the Tidal stream while on the Qobuz stream it sounds fuller and rounder. Neil’s vocals on the Qobuz stream also sound more realistic and rich, without the harsher digital edge endemic to some 16-bit streams (and some CDs for that matter).
I still like the vinyl version best as a more complete listening entertainment experience. I like the sound better there. Maybe it is the sympathetic vinyl mastering by Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Mastering. I don’t know. Songs For Judy rings truer to me on vinyl than other sources I’ve heard thus far.
You can find Songs For Judy selling for well under $20 in many outlets including Amazon (click on the title anywhere in this review to jump to that). Recommended.