Neil Young - A Letter Home

Neil Young - A Letter Home

Jack White and Third Man Records are still proving themselves to be the cutting-edge-old-new-school innovators of our time; we’re well into 2014 and we’ve already a veritable mine of musical gems and oddities that wouldn’t have occurred without them. On the surface it seems Third Man Records is just a vehicle for fostering new interest in vinyl, but the label does more than that. They are finding better ways to connect listeners to music, a connection that can be lost with the use of streaming, iTunes and even CDs.

Neil Young’s latest album was recorded in a 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine that has taken up residency at the Third Man Records store in Nashville. It’s a phone-booth-looking recording studio that records and cuts straight to vinyl. Vinyls can be taken home, or posted straight from the outlet to anyone. I remember, when it was first introduced a couple of years ago, it seemed a great gimmick but I never thought we’d see an album come out of it.

A Letter Home, thus, is Neil Young’s newest lo-fi compilation and also his official Voice-O-Graph contribution. Young introduces the album - a collection of cover songs - with a spoken word letter to his late mother, which really sets the tone for the album’s journey. He ties in the machine’s purpose beautifully, giving you the impression that he really did just go into the Voice-O-Graph, record some songs and mail them off for private listening. It all comes across as very personal and we’re lucky, it feels, to be allowed in to listen along. He covers songs written by his influences and his contemporaries; you’ll hear distinctively Young-esque versions of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Don Everly and more.

Highlights include Young’s whistling on Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’, some great piano playing on Tim Hardin’s ‘Reason to Believe’ and a classic version of ‘On The Road Again’, which the balladeer proves is a great song no matter the audial context.

The thing that is most striking about the album is its sound. It really goes to show that if you want to sound like an early 20th century folk/blues singer you really just need gear from the era. No amount of digital plug-ins is going to make you sound like the real thing. A Letter Home is scratchy, it’s got harmonic issues, the audio drops in and out slightly sometimes and it’s distorted but it’s real. The reality adds such a strong connection between you and the music - there’s no bullshit. You know that all he did was sit down and record some tracks; hours, days and weeks weren’t spent getting the takes together and it’s refreshing to feel that in the music. A Letter Home features Neil Young, the talented musician, in a 70-something-year-old recording booth, cut and dried.

Working through this album is a heart-warming endeavour. It’s not the most exciting Neil Young record to come in recent years, and it’s not the easiest to listen to, but it’s worth having. Fans are used to hearing Neil Young stripped back to guitar/piano and vocals, but there’s something eerie about this collection. It’s like being privy to a practice session; voyeuristic. More treasures from the old world, please.
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