Neil Young etches old favorites into wax for 'A Letter Home'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It starts with a message for his mother, filling her in on his days and the weather, asking her to say hi to dad, telling her he misses her, and then come the songs, a mix tape sung out loud as a warm hug and hello.
Neil Young’s latest record, A Letter Home, is an artifact that feels like one, recorded in Jack White’s primitive Record Booth, a reclaimed contraption at his Nashville Third Man Records playground that allows average folks to record their voice directly onto a six-inch acetate. Here, Young takes that intention to heart, cutting 11 songs into the grooves aided only by his guitar and occasional splashes of harmonica, banjo and piano. And so these songs — some 30 and 50 years old — sound removed from time, aided by the primitive recording technology but driven by the tremendous quality of the songs and Young’s own sharp delivery. There are crackles and pops and all the imperfections that are the likely outcome of recording into this machine, but with Young singing them, there’s an immediate magnetism.
The songs, even those that originally seemed miles from Young’s style, all play like old favorites. He certainly spent plenty of time strumming along to the Everly Brothers, for example, and caps this collection with “I Wonder If I Care as Much.” Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death” is interesting, as Young years ago admitted he subconsciously copped the structure of his own “Ambulance Blues,” from 1974’s On the Beach. Here, he’s obviously given it more than a few trips around the fretboard, feeling the changes and taking Jansch’s music to heart. It’s a similar story on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” a peer whose own body of work could easily intimidate a lesser musician, or on a pair of Willie Nelson tunes. Here, they’re all just another jam Young wanted to play.
And that’s what’s so charming about this collection. The songs that Young sings into White’s ancient box don’t sound rehearsed as much as they sound worn and lived in. These are not songs that were strategically chosen as much as sound like songs Young plays for himself in those quiet, solitary moments when he’s exploring the music he loves. He’s as much of a fan as anyone, and it’s not difficult to imagine him alone on the ranch and singing Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” for no one in particular, harmonica blowing, fire crackling nearby and the words drifting off into the air.
Here, the crackles are courtesy of the ancient recording technology that is truly pushed to the limits when White bangs away on the piano and Young hums out the tune on harmonica on “On the Road Again.” The sound is perfectly imperfect, a snapshot of any night where Young is just playing for himself, sharing songs that he loves and lending his own personality to the words and the chords.
Instead of the campfire, he’s packaged them together on this record, dedicated it to his mom and sent it off to the turntables of America instead of letting the sounds dissipate.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org