It’s remarkably telling that Neil Young, whose Kickstarter-backed Pono digital-music service claims ‘high-quality’ audio, recorded “A Letter Home” in a tiny booth manufactured the year Frank Sinatra sang “Night and Day.”
In that way, “A Letter Home” could be seen as a bookend to his career. The album is openly citing Young’s influences and pays homage to them by recording the songs with a vintage sound.
But don’t call it a covers album.
“It’s actually more of a piece of performance art,” said Young in a story in Billboard. For serious fans though, it should be essential listening.
“A Letter Home” is produced by Jack White and Young — “Hotel Yorba” meets “Harvest Moon.” ”A Letter Home” was recorded mono on White’s refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth. Young calls it “an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology.”
About recording in the Voice-O-Graph, Young tells Billboard: “You only get one shot. So when you do it, you’ve got to do it. There’s no fixing it. You really have to be prepared, which is really good for the music instead of going in and patching it together with little pieces of digital gaffer’s tape and stuff… The whole idea of a performance is where you feel a song when you sing it…It’s done, and when everybody listens to it, they should feel it, too.”
The deluxe version that comes with the box set of “A Letter Home” includes a download card for a “high-res audiophile” version, but most listeners will probably become more familiar with the “standard audio.”
The acoustics on either are noticeably distorted. Both audio versions have plenty of static and noise, courtesy of the recording booth. The “high-quality” version softens the static and sharpens the vocals, but the tinniness remains. For all its hiss and distortion, even Young admits it’s another experiment in music recording.
But it doesn’t really matter whether there’s more static on one version than another — the content and feeling come through either way. The sound quality creates a vibe, placing a gauzy blanket on the music to simulate that step back in time.
It’s a greatest-hits of classic songs, an eclectic mix from folk, rock and country legends along several eras, including “Girl From the North Country” (1963) by Bob Dylan; “Needle of Death” (1965) by Bert Jansch; “I Wonder If I Care As Much” (1958) by Don Everly; and “My Hometown” (1985) by Bruce Springsteen.
While most fans may still like to hear original work from Young, the songs he chose are clearly personal. “Needle of Death,” for example, inspired Young to write “The Needle and the Damage Done,” a stark and honest look at addiction.
Well-trodden songs like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (1980); “Since I Met You Baby,” by Ivory Joe Hunter (1956) and “If You Could Read My Mind,” by Gordon Lightfoot (1970) may bring listeners back to a hazy summer day, or the freedom you had when you were a kid.
Listening again to Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” it’s easy to see how lyrics in popular music are shaped by generations and current events. But the lyrics easily fit in with the continuing racial tension that silently grips the country.
Young’s inspiration to refurbish that ’80s hit shows its relevance and timelessness, while Everly’s “I Wonder If I Care As Much” is not as well-known, but Young plays it more wistful and offbeat than many other tracks.
Maybe what made these songs so appealing for Young was not so much that they shaped his career; it’s that they shaped his heart.
On May 27, “A Letter Home” was released as a limited-edition deluxe box set with CD, digital album, DVD, seven vinyl singles, and more on Reprise Records. The vinyl edition of A Letter Home was released on Third Man Records and Reprise Records April 18.
Watch Young record “Needle of Death” in the Voice-O-Graph, with handwritten lyrics on the wall and Young looking rather cramped in the little booth, but sounding authentic nonetheless.
Dig It or Ditch It: Dig It
The track listing:
A Letter Home intro
Changes (Phil Ochs)
Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan)
Needle of Death (Bert Jansch)
Early Morning Rain (Gordon Lightfoot)
Crazy (Willie Nelson)
Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin)
On the Road Again (Willie Nelson)
If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
Since I Met You Baby (Ivory Joe Hunter)
My Hometown (Bruce Springsteen)
I Wonder If I Care as Much (Don Everly)