Neil Young’s latest scribbles and jabs
From the late 1940s up until the early part of the 1970s, Americans were apparently impossibly thrilled to hear a sound recording of their very own voices. At least, according to the advertisements concocted by the charmingly named firm the International Mutoscope Reel Company of Long Island City, New York, which manufactured and marketed an incredible piece of technology called the Voice-o-Graph.
This device, during its heyday seen across the nation in amusement parks, arcades, and tourist spots such as the Empire State Building, was, in its deluxe version, a record recording booth that allowed customers to create an actual 6-inch vinyl record.
With a recording time of 65 seconds, and audio that sounded like the recording was conducted inside a garbage can, no one was using this device to create the next Sgt. Pepper’s, but rather to create keepsakes of their vacations or quick messages to mail home: “Dear Mom, the Grand Canyon is terrific! Wish you were here!” Nice, eh?
Well, jump cut to the present and we find ourselves on Record Store Day 2014. Jack White unveils at his Third Man Records in Nashville what is allegedly the only remaining operational Voice-o-Graph machine in the world. Beyond being another example of White’s preoccupation with arcane bits of Americana, the device is significant for another reason.
Neil Young has recorded his latest album A Letter Home using the Voice-o-Graph as his sole means of technology. No overdubs. No lead guitars. No effects. Just Neil, his guitar and harmonica and that’s about it. Oh, and the songs.
You see, A Letter Home is a covers album. Young has crafted his 35th album around a set of songs culled mainly from the ’50s and ’60s. Not necessarily songs that were influential to Young as a musician, but songs that seemed to have encouraged Young’s career or pushed him to compete. Hence, we get Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” two Gordon Lightfoot standards (“If You Could Read My Mind” and “Early Morning Rain”) and Bert Jansch’s mournful “Needle of Death” which might just be the crowning achievement on this record.
Young is a longtime devotee of the Scottish folk singer/guitarist and founding member of the band Pentangle, and Jansch’s anti-drug song is a perfect fit for Young both musically and emotionally.
Not all the songs on A Letter Home work quite so well, however. Young’s version of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” featuring Jack White himself pounding away on tack piano sounds somewhat contrived or rushed; a possible throwaway that seemingly treats the tune somewhat frivolously. And of all the Bruce Springsteen songs to have chosen, “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A might seem disappointing.
Equally curious is the hesitancy in his delivery of the Dylan tune, which gives it an improvised feel. Nevertheless, that’s probably what Young and White intended with this album.
Neil Young has made a career out of defying expectations, and he rarely repeats himself. He spent at least half of the ’80s putting out head-scratchingly-odd records that plagued his fans and record labels alike. A Letter Home takes its place alongside Re-ac-tor and Trans as entries in the Neil Young weird-out sweepstakes, but unlike those albums, at least his 35th sounds like he’s not trying to update his sound, but instead keep his past alive.
At least until next year when Young releases his EDM album. Neil Young featuring Bassnector, anyone?