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A Letter Home - Open With Caution
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.