The only thing you can count on with Neil Young is that he’ll surprise you. From the mellow balladeer who created the chestnut "Heart of Gold" to the raging rocker who stormed through the damaged live distortion of Rust Never Sleeps, the Canadian singer-songwriter has been defying expectations since the 1960s. With frequent excursions into country as well as synthed-out 1980s albums that left fans baffled, Young has switched fields faster than a Heisman Trophy running back.
Over the last few months his chameleon-like tendencies have never been more apparent. Last March at SXSW he rolled out his now Pono digital music system that promises to deliver the highest possible fidelity from digital music files.
Then earlier this week Young turned up on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon alongside Jack White to tout his new album of covers, A Letter from Home. Cut at White’s Third Man Records in Nashville using a Voice-O-Graph recording booth, the new LP redefines how primitive a commercially released recording can sound. The restored booth, a fixture in amusement arcades and carnivals of the 1940s through 1960s, it would let you record a song then immediately produce a a 6" vinyl disc, ready to take home and play on your phonograph.
Jack White and Neil Young talk about the experience of recording in the Voice-O-Graph booth.
Drawing on a collection of songs that were musical landmarks in Young’s formative years, the notion of using the Voice-O-Graph to record the new LP grew out of a visit by Young to White’s studio. The former White Stripes frontman shares Neil’s fascination with both retro and cutting-edge technologies. Both drive electric cars and love tinkering with decades-old gear.
During the Tonight Show segment, Young is seen stepping into the Voice-O-Graph booth and recording the Willie Nelson classic "Crazy" accompanying himself on acoustic guitar Then, in real time, the Voice-O-Graph churns out the vinyl disc, ready for instant playback. He then tackles Ivory Joe Hunter’s wistful ballad "Since I Met You Baby," banging the melody out on a funky-sounding piano accompanied by Young’s harp in a rack.
Watch Neil perform and record "Crazy" and "Since I Lost You Baby" in the Voice-O-Graph booth, and dig the state-of-the art 1947 recording technology here.
Like all of Young’s recorded output, A Letter from Home, due out on May 27, clearly won’t be for all tastes, but should appeal to the listener who’s interested in cutting straight to the feeling of the man and the music. As with listening to the raw and hissy performances of early blues greats such as Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, listening to A Letter from Home is about capturing the essence of emotion rather than every sonic nuance. The recording will be issued as a CD, digital album, and in a limited deluxe boxed set that you can read about here.
Each side of the record begins with a message to the singer’s late mother updating her about Neil’s life since her death. Songs include "Needle of Death" by Bert Jansch—the inspiration for Young’s own "Needle and the Damage Done", Bob Dylan’s "Girl from the North Country," Don Everly’s "I Wonder If I Care as Much," and Bruce Springsteen’s "My Home Town" along with several more.