During their brief but eventful late-’60s run, Buffalo Springfield released three critically acclaimed, though commercially marginal albums. The resultant 35 officially released tracks — barely enough material to justify a two-disc career overview — form the seemingly modest yet remarkably durable foundation of the band’s considerable reputation and import. And then, late last year, advance buzz surprisingly revealed that the long-rumored Springfield collection would stretch across four CDs.
The handsome finished product, Box Set, boasts over four hours of familiar favorites, demos and outtakes — 88 tracks in all, though only 57 different titles. The set is still marked by several troublesome omissions. Two Last Time Around titles (“Carefree Country Day” and “The Hour Of Not Quite Rain”) were deemed unworthy, as well as the bloated though revealing nine-minute “Bluebird” rave-up from the band’s definitive mid-’70s retrospective.
Also among the missing are such oft-rumored, unreleased tracks as “Sell Out”, “Whiskey Boot Hill” and “Looks Like You Made It”. And unfortunately, not a single acceptable live source was unearthed to help substantiate the band’s mammoth in-concert rep.
None of which is meant to diminish or belittle in any way the legacy of a great American band. At least one Springfield release, Buffalo Springfield Again, ranks as an undisputed classic, and their debut and finale deftly trace the era’s deceptively significant transition from folk-rock to country-rock as well as any catalog this side of the Byrds.
Perhaps more importantly, Buffalo Springfield is the first and perhaps most notable example of supergroup-in-reverse. Never mind that I consider Neil Young the greatest rocker of all time and CSN a pleasant but dispiriting aggregation of wasted talent — those enduring brand names, as well as Poco, solo Stephen Stills and (okay, uncle) Loggins & Messina helped shape and define, for better and worse, much of the ’70s’ musical landscape.
So despite the band’s limited official catalog and the set’s many omissions (both deliberate and unavoidable), maybe a bells-and-whistles four-disc testament is warranted. The ultimate judgment will undoubtedly depend upon the listener’s commitment, perseverance and, most of all, tolerance.
On the plus side, you get a handful of essential, oft-bootlegged gems (“My Kind Of Love”, “So You’ve Got A Lover”, “One More Sign”, etc.); a delicate Young-led “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” and a primitive “Baby Don’t Scold Me” that shame the official product; a worthy obscurity or two; and several enticing song fragments.
Of course, you also get undistinguished alternate takes; an early, sometimes pre-verbal “Out Of My Mind”; assorted Young and Stills demos previewing their respective solo careers; at least one instrumental dud; and several aimless song fragments. All of which are surrendered to the indifferent Cuisinart of history and reordered by recording date.
As any seasoned jazz enthusiast well knows, the largely arbitrary dictates of chronological sequencing can be maddeningly frustrating. The familiar tension and release, well-orchestrated rhythmic builds, long-cherished segues — all are sacrificed to the often impersonal expediencies of studio setups, session player availability and production schedules.
The disorienting transition from the embryonic “Broken Arrow” sketch “Down Down Down” to the studio polish of Richie Furay’s wan “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” to the caffeinated interplay of the unreleased gem “Neighbor Don’t You Worry” represents an especially jarring (though not atypical) Box Set progression.
All of which is well and good if such discontinuities and recontextualizations serve a greater end. Structured much like the Springfield box, 1993′s Janis Joplin retrospective intercuts familiar album tracks with lo-fi demos, unfinished outtakes and undisciplined live rave-ups, fashioning an intimate, roughed-up portrait of the singer — at once vulnerable and indomitable, playful and rivetingly intense — never fully captured on her regular releases.
In comparison, the insights and revelations here seem mere footnotes and margin scratchings: That the overproduced Buffalo Springfield could have been rawer, weirder, more substantial; that the unfortunate play of ego, talent and bad luck which ultimately doomed the band was already evident in their earliest demos; that Stills’ sadly arrested potential was even more enormous and promising than first imagined.
Obviously, any committed Springfield fan will cherish this collection’s many treasures. I only wish that its producers (including several band principals) had configured a more user-friendly objet d’art. Other all-encompassing career overviews (from the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly to Joy Division’s Heart And Soul) have adopted a somewhat clumsy, “literalist” approach, surrounding whole albums with worthy (and not so worthy) ephemera and arcana.
The “solution” on Box Set is, at the very least, novel; the collection’s final disc presents the first and second albums in their entirety. And though all but two of the finished tracks (“Baby Don’t Scold Me” and “Mr. Soul”) appear earlier in the collection, the additional disc would have been a tremendous boon if marketed as a genuine “bonus.” Unfortunately, given the package’s $59.98 list, Disc 4 hardly constitutes a freebie.
Not that Rhino et al. are bent on fleecing the consumer; Box Set is, first and foremost, a labor of love — right down to the liner’s “scrapbook” layout. Yet I can’t help but recognize the ever-vital (and eccentric) Young’s fingerprints all over the project. (In retrospect, “Buffalo Springfield Again” from last year’s disappointing Silver And Gold seems a hastily scribbled mash note from the vaults.)
As a de facto preview of the artist’s decade-in-the-planning Archives set, the Springfield box raises some unsettling concerns. Hard to imagine the near-perfect balance of After The Gold Rush (or even the proto-Southern rock of Time Fades Away) rethought and resequenced with various oddments and obscurities intercut for “context.” And equally hard to imagine the wary consumer slapping down an additional $15 for a “bonus” disc salvaging the albums’ original running order.
As for Box Set, after I finish this review, I’ll probably make a CD-R “sampler” of the collection’s many indispensable tracks (both familiar and newly discovered), retire my copies of the debut and the follow-up in favor of Disc 4, and archive the rest. Whether such belabored efforts in the name of pleasure are worth the time and resources of the casual fan (or even committed collector) is a question that has troubled music lovers since the advent of the multi-CD doorstop…otherwise known as the box set.