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3.5 out of 5 stars
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3.5 out of 5 stars
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I have loved much of Neil Young's music for four and a half decades now, and I admire him enormously as a musician and songwriter. But - oh Lord! - he can be a real cross-grained cuss sometimes. It's part of what makes his great stuff great, but it also means we get things like this, which is a frankly infuriating album.

What's so annoying is that it's a good idea, and, as far as I can tell, I like Neil's performances of this mix of covers of very good songs. But...he's had a whim to record the whole lot in a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth, which is effectively a poor quality microphone in a phone booth with extremely crude means of recording. The result sounds like a badly recorded 78, pressed off-centre and then used for generations of kids to eat their lunch off. It's awful. I can just about cope with the hiss, the scratches and the fades but the variable speed making the pitch wander is almost unbearably painful at times, as is the ear-piercing treble distortion on some of the harmonica.

I suppose after the brilliant Psychedelic Pill and the joy of hearing the great early performances on At The Cellar Door we were just about due for something pretty grim, and we've got it. The thing is, Neil himself won't give a hoot about what we all think of this. It's what he felt like doing so he did it. We can take it or leave it - it's behind him now and he's on to the next thing he feels like doing, whatever that is. I've got to admire him for it, even if I don't always like the results.

"I sing the song because I love the man, I know that some of you don't understand..." Well, I love the man, but this time I don't understand. However, like me, I'm sure Neil's legions of admirers will want to hear this anyway (although I'd recommend listening to some samples first so you know what you're getting). Personally, I won't want to hear it often, but I'll happily just chalk this one up to experience. He'll almost certainly put out something really good before too long but, however much it pains me to say it, I really can't recommend this album.
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on 6 June 2014
Like others, I knew the premise going in, but this is pretty awful. We've been used to getting the odd bum track or even the not quite so good album over the last few years, but don't forget we shelled out for this indulgence. For someone who is championing sound and the so called excellence of the PONO, the sound on this is (deliberately I know) awful. The songs are classics, and the spoken letter to the past makes its point I guess. But it sounds worse than a really bad bootleg. Imagine Neil sitting in his kitchen playing acoustic guitar and warbling through some quite good songs. This would be ok if you were there. Intimate, raw, live. Now imagine that you are on the other side of the closed kitchen door and recording this on your phone. And then you fork out a tenner for the recording. One star for being Neil Young, another for the good songs. But you could have made this so much better.
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on 28 May 2014
Neil Young has been a recording artist for 51 years and has established a reputation for doing things his way, sometimes baffling his audience (and record company) with whatever he decides to release.

A Letter Home is an album of cover versions recorded on a refurbished 1947 Voice -o-Graph recording booth which offered users a primitive form of recording personal messages or songs that people might use to send messages to their families. The album was rush released on April 19th (Record Store Day) but was not a typical RSD release as no participating shops were provided with copies to sell on the day. When news broke that the album was available through Third Man Records the initial pressing sold out in a day leading to at least one copy selling on eBay for over £100.

A few weeks later came news of a standard CD release and a vinyl boxed set – news that surely could have been shared earlier to avoid Young’s fans from panic buying that first “vinyl-only” release.

This review is of the vinyl box set, which is currently selling for a hefty £144 to UK buyers but was available (briefly) on Amazon for around £84 on pre-order. Fortunately, this reviewer paid the lower price.

The box set boasts 11 discs, a download code and a book that provides the purchaser with 6 copies of the largely the same material in various formats and in at least 2 grades of quality. I’ll come to the formats later while covering the music.
Neil Young’s musical roots lay in the folk music of North America and on A Letter Home he is effectively paying tribute to the song writers that provided him with those roots, including Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Don Everly and Ivory Joe Hunter, plus the modern day troubadour that is Bruce Springsteen. It won’t escape the notice of some readers that both Jansch and Everly died quite recently so in many ways this album commemorates those two writers as much as Neil’s parents, the primitive sounds of the Voice - o - Graph process and forties family life.

The constraints of the recording booth and the nature of the material, out of necessity, limit the instrumentation to acoustic guitar and harmonica with occasional use of piano placed as close to the booth’s open door as is possible. So the recordings have a sense of 1940s authenticity about them and the mechanics of the recording equipment plays havoc with the natural tempo of the performances and add thick layers of surface noise to the finished product. As a result this makes for a very uncomfortable listen at times. At least that is the case with the versions that have gone through the full recording process provided by the Voice - o - Graph booth, which is the standard CD and vinyl pressings essentially.

Each side of the vinyl pressings begin with a spoken introduction from Young to his mother Rassy suggesting that she “starts to talk to daddy again” a reference to his parents’ (both now deceased) doomed relationship. It’s a touching message delivered in the most optimistic of tones that was typical of a younger Neil Young. For some reason the message that opens Side 2 is omitted from the CD and neither appear on the DVD, which is one of a number of variations across the formats.

The songs themselves are generally good choices – Tim Hardin’s Reason to Believe, Dylan’s Girl from the Snow Country and Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind being among the best moments on the record but there are no bad songs on the album. Sadly the recording quality on the standard releases means that most of their quality is lost to the vagaries of the Voice - o - Graph mechanics.

Thankfully Neil Young decided to include a second vinyl album featuring vastly superior versions of these recordings taken from a “direct feed from the booth” and while this version is still decidedly low-fi, it at least doesn’t suffer quite the same fate as the variable speed and distortions that plague the standard editions. Of course if you want the better version you do have to pay significantly more money as that is currently exclusive to the boxed set. I wonder if the record company can be persuaded to issue the direct feed separately at some point? (Next RSD perhaps?)

In addition to those 3 discs there is a set of 7 no. 6” singles (this is the format produced by the Voice - o - Graph cutting equipment) which on this occasion are presented in clear vinyl in record company sleeves which look great but sound dreadful. To further tempt completists Young has included 2 exclusive tracks among the 7 no. 6” discs which will please some and annoy plenty of others. I may have missed something but I never spotted this among the marketing blurb. The exclusives are an alternate version of Crazy (on piano as opposed to guitar) plus a version of Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind which are not from the direct feed source and so alongside the cleaner source sound decidedly weak and inferior. The question has to be asked though – why include the whole album on this peculiar format when no one in their right mind will play at least 6 of the discs when they have the ‘direct feed’ album to play instead?

The DVD is definitely worth seeing as it gives you a close up view of Young in the booth recording each piece in their entirety and a few interesting snippets of dialogue. The lack of commentary works in the film’s favour and makes the viewer feel like an observer to the process – you get to see the artist at work enjoying this little trip back in time to 1940s America as he reconnects with his own lost youth and his late parents. Jack White III contributes support guitar or piano and a second voice on a couple of tracks that works surprisingly well with Young’s vocals – mutual admiration visibly passing between each other’s smiles as they collaborate through the wonder of this technological relic – a product of much simpler days.

The 32 page book provided with this version is a large format (LP size) collection of sepia toned photographs of the sessions complete with lyrics and credits – it’s lovingly photographed and very atmospheric in tone. A massive improvement on CD sized booklets that simply don’t invite the listener to investigate anything other than the most rudimentary of details. That’s one reason why interest in the finer detail behind the creation of music has waned over the past 30 years and is a particular bug-bear of mine.
I can’t end this review without touching on the irony of Young’s current obsession with modern day recording formats and compare PONO - his newly marketed digital music player which allegedly provides the listener with the best possible sound ever – with the contrasting results displayed on this recording courtesy of the Voice - o - Graph recording booth. Only Neil Young can co-exist in two different times, exhibiting two different standards, contradicting himself and confounding his critics as he goes about his work – and get away with it.

What will he do next? I have no idea of course, but whether it be good, bad or plain ugly, this rock ’n’ roll cowboy will do things his way. This is why Young can divide opinion so readily and why so many stand by him so loyally. ‘Journey Through the Past’, ‘Trans’, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’’, ‘Landing on Water’, ‘Arc’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, ‘Greendale’, ‘Americana’, and now ‘A Letter Home’ are all examples of albums that have repulsed or, at least, challenged his audience. It’s a pity that most people will read reviews of the standard release (or look at the current price) and walk away, leaving this particular letter unopened. For my part I’m glad I can hear the album in its finer form, although I have to admit that the box set is over formatted and as a result overpriced. I’d happily have settled for the direct feed LP, the book, DVD, CD (just to hear the ‘authentic’ version) and the essential 6” single which would have allowed the set to be marketed successfully at around £50 and not forced some people to Walk On.
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on 19 July 2014
What is the point?, commercially released '78s from the 20's & 30's never sounded this bad. Even the budget depression era releases from the notoriously shoddy Paramount label didn't sound this bad hot off the press. When we hear a really bad transfer, of say an old Son House 78', it sounds awful because it's taken from the only known (and well used) copy. Jack White's Voice-o-Graph booth is nothing more than a fairground attraction and not indicative of professional recording standards at any point in the 20th century.

Clearly then, this is album not intended replicate the golden era sound of pre-war recordings (odd considering Jack White's interests and Neil's analogue evangelism) . So what are we left with? Neil decides it might be a nice idea to spend the afternoon knocking out a few acoustic covers and then uses some novelty technology to add spooky attenuation to the sound. He could equally have decided to record the album through a tin can walkie talkie and come up with similar results. I have to say that anyone who has shelled out the big bucks for the box set has been had.
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The low frequency drone/rumble was so loud on my main system that it made this recording unlistenable, so I gave up after track 3. Be it the sound of the motor within the mechanism or artificially added, it is totally unacceptable in my opinion. I have now played it all the way through on a small all-in-one unit sitting in the dining room, and whilst the low frequency was still audible it was not reproduced at such low levels, or so accurately. However, the screeching treble in places was accentuated!

Had this been recorded on decent equipment, analogue would have been fine, then this would have been a great album of covers. in reality the mad idea of using cheap obsolete poor quality equipment has resulted in another NY CD that will simply gather dust on a shelf (along with his other "joke" albums Everybody's Rockin' &Arc). Don't get me wrong I'm a massive Neil Young fan and have been buying and listening to his work for approaching 50 years, but this was a waste of time and money.

For those reviewers that find this album listenable, all I can ask is what on earth are you playing it on!

Unless you are a completest - KEEP CLEAR.
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on 5 May 2014
Bought this one blind , well its Neil, so gotta be good , aye?

I knew it was an ultra retro booth recording , but when i lowered the needle expecting the normal fabulous sound quality , or at least hints of it......Neil on this release sounds similar {sonically speaking} to ancient Robert Johnson recordings , or even older Vocalion or Victor label 78's.

After the initial shock of what i'd just blown £20 on , i started thinking of flogging it off pretty pronto , but 1/2 way through side one i got used to its sooooo thin sound, its all listenable.It sounds like Neil is being projected into your hifi , via some distant, ghostly ,distant dimension of bygoneness.

Neil says we only get 5% of the music on MP3.
When he stepped into Jack Whites fully restored Voice-o-Graph Vinyl recording booth 100% was in the air , by the time it went through the ancient electro mechanical vinyl recording process , then got Re-produced by Neil & Jack, then mastered by the grand wizard of fabulous sound Bob Ludwig & pressed with care on 180g thick tasty vinyl.
The end result to your ears sounds like 2%!!

Ive got many , many records but this one is pretty much unique , time will tell how much turntable action this one gets , i suspect not much. We'll see.....yet strangely i do quite like it .
A quandry for sure....
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I was well aware what this album contained when I ordered it and the premise sounded fascinating. Neil Young sending sonic "letters home" which were recorded in an old 1947 "Voice-O-Graph" recording booth, including covers of songs, chat and a generally informal feeling. It had the feel of an intriguing, unique project. Unfortunately, even knowing all of that didn't prepare me for the sound quality on this album which is, frankly, appalling. Some people may be excited about the results of an artistic, strikingly different project like this, but I honestly found the scratchy, extreme low-fidelity sound difficult to live with. It's not something I can listen to through headphones, it has to be over the stereo system. Better results would have been garnered by using an eighties boom box with built-in microphone than on this album. It's a real shame, because Neil's choice of covers, including Patsy Cline's "Crazy", Dylan's "Girl From The North Country" and Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" could have been something truly worth hearing, if this album didn't sound like you were listening to it over an old football stadium PA system, which has had socks stuffed in the speakers to muffle the sound. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but only slightly.

This is a curio, a collector's item, something for completists only. Perhaps it wouldn't have seen a general release like this had it not been a Record Store Day item which was, in its original vinyl format, changing hands for what can only be described as silly money. For a fan, it's interesting to hear it once and then file it away with numerous other Neil Young albums that rarely see the light of day any more, so it's difficult not to be disappointed at a full album price. Had this been released at a much reduced price, it'd be easier to feel less hard done by, but this wasn't a budget label release and I believe many long-term Neil Young fans who, let's face it, are quite a tolerant, patient bunch, will be feeling like this purchase was less than essential. I would advise real caution before spending your money on this item, which makes Bing Crosby records recorded in the thirties sound like cutting edge audio quality. There is no doubt that Neil Young is one of the great artists of the last fifty years and his talent is recognisable even through the hisses, pops and slight speed changes on this recording, but this isn't a way you would ever want to introduce anyone to his work, because it's difficult for a long-time, massive fan of Neil's work, such as myself, to understand the appeal of this album, let alone the uninitiated.
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"A Letter Home' is essentially a curiosity of a record by Neil Young aimed at cocking a snook at a perennial hobby horse of his. He has consistently argued that the biggest problem with music today is sound quality not least the digital age of MP3's et al degrading our music. His long awaited high resolution Pono alternative may or may not be the answer, but why not in the meantime time strip it all back to mono and record on electro-mechanical technology. Ah, the good old days and with Neil at the helm what a prospect it could be? Indeed one of the top reviews here begins with the statement that "its Neil, so gotta be good, aye?

The answer is an emphatic negative as Neil Young like other great artists regularly releases product which can be sub standard and in this case frankly baffling. Many, including this reviewer, worship at the alter of old Shakey yet he has recorded some real stinkers in his time. Some of his 1980s output was horrific not least the pitiful "Landing on Water" and equally bad "Reactor". In more recent years "Are you passionate" would have better served the listening public by leaving it on the studio floor and sadly this also applies to "Letter Home". The recording quality process is a gimmick, the notes to "Ma" embarrassing and the covers are essentially a very conservative choice. It is difficult to recall a worse version of Dylan's "Girl From the north country" although its the Springsteen song "My Hometown" that suffers most. Granted the old Patsy Cline song "Crazy" does have some charm but that is probably because when we first heard it played the track sounded like this. The piano cover of Tim Hardin's classic "Reason to Believe" is workmanlike while his version of "Needle of Death" by Bert Jansch deserves better sound quality. Overall history will judge this Neil Young album as one of those that is neither essential nor a glorious failure for as it stands "A Letter Home" tells us more about the personalty of Neil Young than it does his music. Essentially he is now an old contrarian who loves to provoke and cares not about how is music is received. It should not however restrain us from being equally honest and recognising that he is not infallible, indeed that is part of his charm.
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on 27 April 2015
I love Neil Young and regard him as one of Rock's greatest geniuses - and he is genius. The sheer quality and quantity of his work over the years has been astounding - and of course with Neil Young you suspect a lot of his top class stuff still remains in the vaults. He really has given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people over a lot of years. However with genius comes eccentricity and "A Letter Home" is the very eccentric product of a very eccentric man. The songs may well be good but it's nigh on impossible to hear them because of the truly weird recording process. I bought this, listened to it once, and doubt I'll listen to it again in my lifetime. I just don't get the point - best if Neil had kept this experiment for his own amusement. And as others have said - why not issue a second disc recorded normally? How difficult would that have been? So it's very self indulgent and from me a reluctant but sadly merited one star only.
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on 31 May 2014
I've bought every album Neil has made, some styles I liked, some less so, even seen him live in concerts and travelled the length and breadth of the country to catch him. To have fun at the buying public, at full price, is not on. the "authentic "sound of a recording booth with scratch noises added, tinny thin sound is no joke. I've actually heard original old recordings that have sounded so much better than this. This album could have been so much better with the same material correctly produced and would have made this a real classic. Shame on the person who thought messing with the quality was a good artistic move. Avoid this for your collection!
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