Neil Young phones home

A charming old-school release with Jack White

May 22, 2014

Having hyped the alleged higher audio fidelity of the Pono system a few months ago at South by Southwest—without ever bothering to play it for the crowd who assembled to hear him speak—in typically perverse fashion, Neil Young has released a new album recorded with some of the most lo-fi equipment he’s ever used: the antique direct-to-vinyl Voice-o-Graph at Jack White’s Third Man complex in Nashville, to be precise. Crammed into a what’s basically a converted old phone booth, we get Neil at his most intimate: just his voice, his acoustic guitar, and his harmonica, tackling a set of mostly pre-rock folk standards that he used to sing with his family in the parlor (hence the album title).

As such, A Letter Home is a spiritual bookend or companion to Americana (2012), though some might argue that tunes such as Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Tim Hardin’s “Reasons to Believe,” and the Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder if I Care as Much” have the edge on the earlier disc’s renditions of “Oh Susannah” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” Crazy Horse or no. At first blush, the scratchy quality might be off-putting. But as often is the case with Young, his passion for the material and unfettered joy in making a glorious noise ultimately carry the day, and the pleasure he takes in the material, the recording technology, and hanging with White is palpable.

Neil Young, A Letter Home (Third Man Records)

Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.

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