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Neil Young - A Letter Home (2014)


Josh Hurst
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I wrote the following first impressions of the new, Jack White-produced Neil Young record-- but the short version is: I am surprised and sort of baffled by how enjoyable and moving it is.

 

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It’s easy to slag A Letter Home for being less an album, more a gimmick—and a gimmick it is, at least in part: Analog fetishists Neil Young and Jack White teamed up to cut an entire record in an old-time recording booth, the kind that was once common at fairs and amusement parks; the booths beckoned rubes to record their own brief aural snapshots—cutting their own vinyl records, most of which were devoted to spoken-word remembrances, jokes, and other novelty communiqués. Here, Young holed up in this tiny booth—barely large enough to fit him and his acoustic guitar—to perform covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Willie Nelson, Gordon Lightfoot, and others; the resulting album is rushed and sloppy, the audio quality full of pops and hisses, sounding every bit as rough and muddy as, say, the surviving Robert Johnson tapes, or something off the Harry Smith anthology.

 

This is an elaborate novelty, and maybe just a tiny bit of a mind game; after all, Young has taken songs that are nearly all from the 60s and early 70s and made them sound like unearthed singles from the 1920s, a move that plays fast and loose with our conceptions of musical authenticity. It does more than that, though: It also drives home the looming suspicion that, these days, Young is less interested in music and more interested in being a tech-obsessed old curmudgeon—whether that means fiddling with electric cars, his Pono sound system, or Jack’s carnival recording booth. (Admittedly, the notion that Young doesn’t care about songs anymore is undercut by the enthusiasm he displayed when talking about some of these tunes on Jimmy Fallon not long ago.)

 

This perception that A Letter Home isn’t really about the music—that it’s more about the recording method—sets the stage for an unexpectedly moving and revealing program: Whether by intention or not, Young and White have proven the resilience of these songs, their transcendence over recording methods, concepts, and gimmicks. There’s an old Prince quote, about how a great song is one that you can strip back to just voice and a rhythm instrument and still have something that feels alive and complete. That’s what happens here: The songs are reduced to bare bones and frayed edges but still sound sublime—all of them—whether it’s the surprisingly jaunty take on “Reason to Believe,” a most tender “Girl from the North Country,” or a haunted “Needle of Death.” Maybe the best song: Willie’s “On the Road Again,” for which Jack pulls a piano right up to the door of the recording booth, pounding away and adding a distant duet vocal, the whole song constantly sounding like it’s about to come apart but never quite doing so.

 

The soul of these songs, and the warmth of the performances, cut through the hiss and scratches and pops—and in the end, the goofy recording technique is simply the delivery vehicle for a great, wonderfully ragged set of music, not a hindrance to it. That’s wildly, surprisingly moving—and for me, it’s one of the more endearing Neil Young recordings.

Partner in Cahoots

www.cahootsmag.com

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I've listened to this one every day this week. If there has to be a last Neil Young album, well... I'd have a hard time imagining a better note to go out on. But as long as he's up for it, I'll listen to anything he does. 

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Well, I love you guys, but I can't stand this album. It's a collection of old, familiar songs that have already been recorded hundreds of times, and in better fashion, by other people. And it's recorded on old technology, so it sounds horrible. Intentionally. This from the guy who keeps telling us that the problem with digital audio quality is the fidelity. The solution? Make it sound like a 1927 field recording, apparently. 

 

Neil Young, quite a card. He's going to do what he's going to do, and history has shown that he doesn't really give a rip what other people think. Okay. But this one ranks near the top of the many head-scratchers he's released over the years, and that's not a list you want to be on, in my opinion.

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Andy, did you like The Jazz Age, the Bryan Ferry Orchestra record? it too was recorded to sound old. And it gave us songs that were far from definitive versions. It was a novelty record, like this one. I don't take A Letter Home as a Neil Young Album in the sense that Harvest Moon or Freedom are Neil Young Albums. It just feels like they're sharing the results of some playing around, with some endearing little "messages to my mom" thrown in. I just enjoy hearing him play these particular songs, in this particularly sweet and casual spirit, 

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I don't see a contradiction. To campaign for the availability and advancement of quality audio recordings doesn't need to be seen as a contradiction to playing around with some old recording technology. I'm still distraught that SACD technology was pretty much abandoned right after I started replacing my favorite albums with SACDs, because SACDs sound 100x better than my old cassette tapes. Artists should have the option of making their work available in the most ideal format. But that doesn't mean there isn't something valuable and charming about "the old fashioned way." I still treasure my old cassettes, and if my college band ever got back together, I'd insist on recording on cassette to maintain a sound for that particular project that I loved. The spontaneity and simplicity of recording on a cheap cassette player that we set down in the middle of the room brought about moments that a carefully calibrated studio recording would never have produced.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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