Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Back to Basics: Neil Young's A Letter Home

Neil Young. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)

There's a certain irony to the news that Neil Young considers his newest release to be "low-tech." After all, he's been complaining for years that the Mp3 is an inferior audio technology for music, even though all of his music is available in that format. He's even developed an audio system, and player (Pono), that uses FLAC audio files, larger in size and presumably in audio quality. That said, his new album, A Letter Home (Third Man Records), was recorded in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph, quite literally the size of a phone booth. Jack White, who co-produced this album, purchased one for his label storefront in Nashville. In this small space, Young has recorded 11 songs that he considers chestnuts of the folk and country music catalogue. A good friend of mine sent me a pre-release copy on CD no less, although the album has been released on LP. A limited edition package containing CD and LP formats plus a DVD is scheduled for release on May 27.

The album itself has a rawness that resembles the original Edison recordings of the 19th Century rather than anything from 1947. But the spirit of the music and Young's performance is all that matters, and he's really done more here than simply cover the most familiar songs in contemporary music with an antiquated technology. Most other artists might treat this as a novelty, but this is Neil Young, an artist who likes to surprise us. So he's done something comparable to what we heard a few years ago on his album, Le Noise (Reprise, 2010), where he featured new, personal songs enhanced by Daniel Lanois’s interesting soundscapes. Since A Letter Home looks to the technology of the past, the sound is deliberately dreadful. The fidelity is tinny, razor sharp to the ear with little bottom end. It's in mono, which is fine, but the production values are lean. If it wasn't for the performance value, which is strong, this could be considered Young's worst sounding album ever.

A Letter Home opens with Young talking to his mother like a kid checking in from summer camp. (This was the original intention of the Voice-O-graph) He's concerned about her and the fact that she's not "talking to Daddy" right now, advising her to talk to him "since you're both there" at home. He also talks about his favourite "weatherman" Al, in reference to Al Gore, weatherman for the "whole globe." Young is particularly good at drawing his listeners in with personal stories while punctuating them with political comments.The best cuts are "Needle of Death" written by Bert Jansch, which inspired Young's own tune, "The Needle and the Damage Done." (You can watch Young recording the song here.) Phil Ochs’ beautiful ballad “Changes” is really strong. Two songs by Gordon Lightfoot, “Early Morning Rain” and the international hit, "If You Could Read My Mind," get a fair rendition, although the former is significantly better in my opinion, because it’s iconic qualities are a better fit with the concept of the album. Lightfoot’s version of the latter is far too familiar to most audiences so Young’s version adds little insight to the work. The classic "Girl From The North Country" has a lot going for it, as Young adds the standard harmonica opening before launching into the verse. It's a solid performance in spite of the poor sound quality. "Crazy," one of Patsy Cline's signature songs, actually works best because Young sings it a little softer than the other tracks and thus reduces the distortion on the recording. His whistling solo is particularly charming.

But the album also has some misses. "My Hometown," written by Bruce Springsteen, fails to inspire and Willie Nelson's famous hit, "On The Road Again," is unlistenable. While Young sings well on the album and he's actually in tune through most of it. I suspect the one-take nature of the recording, assuming it was all done in one take, has energized Young and reminded us just how unique his voice truly is. Even as recording technology has evolved, his voice hasn't changed much in the past 40 years. Consequently, for some fans, A Letter Home is the definitive Neil Young album because all we hear is his unadorned, vulnerable voice accompanied by acoustic guitar. (How they got the piano in there for two songs is a mystery.) It’s just too bad the distorted veil of the technology used to record it, puts up the occasional aural roadblock preventing us from connecting to Young and the songs he so clearly cherishes.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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