NEIL DIAMOND - Glory Road: 1968-1972 (2 CDs)

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2 CD set. "4 1/2 stars. The double-CD Glory Road: 1968 to 1972 set raises all kinds of mixed emotions. On the one hand, it's a great idea to distill down the highlights of Neil Diamond's career on Uni Records; on the other, that was the period that moved him in the direction away from being a rock musician and songwriter, and toward being the kind of performer that others -- mostly his earlier teenaged fans'

parents, aunts, uncles, and even grandparents -- adored in the movie The Jazz Singer. Given the woeful mastering of much of Diamond's Uni Records catalog, most of which has never been properly upgraded, this two-CD set is difficult to criticize -- the producers recompiled the original master tapes and did a significantly better job here than they did on the original CDs, which dated from five years earlier. The producers have also done an excellent job in the compiling, for the most part, seizing upon the most personal songs out of those early Uni sessions (dating from mid-1968), starting off with the two most startlingly personal compositions that Diamond had cut up to that time, "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo" (which he'd actually cut earlier for Bert Berns at Bang Records, who'd refused to release it). Thus, the album opens with a break from Diamond's bubblegum past, though it's not a total break -- "Two-Bit Manchild" does bear a resemblance, in tempo and some instrumentation as well as structure, to "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You"; indeed, merge it with "Cherry, Cherry" and you've almost got the Monkees song. You move up through those startling pop variations and extensions, and the establishing hit "Sweet Caroline," as well as the mature compositions like "And the Grass Won't Pay No Mind," into the Memphis sides and his emergence as a white soul singer rivalling Elvis Presley. And then, somewhere past "Stones" and "Song Sung Blue," you get to the place where Diamondbecomes a symphonic pop singer/songwriter, culminating with his Hot August Night album -- he was still of interest, but not as viscerally exciting as he was when he was miming "Solitary Man" on American Bandstand (on the same show in which the Electric Prunes mimed to "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night"). Between the use of the best of his current songs of 1968-1972 and the choice of some excellent live versions of early songs like "Kentucky Woman" and "Cherry, Cherry," the set becomes a celebration of the first six years of Diamond's career, not just the Uni years. It's all the perfect compliment to Columbia's triple-CD In My Lifetime set, with minimal overlapping of songs and excellent annotation -- the only flaw in the latter is the session information, which isn't nearly as thorough as it is on the Columbia set."- AMG