A nod to a simpler time

Doug Gallant
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Neil Young’s A Letter Home has a ‘charm all its own, a wonderful simplicity’

During the making of 1990’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken 2, Emmylou Harris introduced a beautiful ballad with a reflection on what she saw as a disturbing trend in recording.

She said that in the making of records over the years some people had gotten entirely too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect.

I can’t help but wonder what she’d think of Neil Young’s A Letter Home.

Young went the other way for this record.

A Letter Home sounds like it was pulled from the recording archives at The Smithsonian.

That’s because Young chose to record this collection of songs that have special meaning for him using vintage technology from the 1940s.

Specifically, Young recorded the album at Jack White’s Third Man Records studio in Nashville using a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth.

Those booths, which were not much bigger than a telephone booth, allowed people to make simple voice or musical recordings for decades before being phased out.

And that’s what you get with A Letter Home, simple, almost primitive recordings.

But they’re simple, primitive recordings of some very fine songs, none of which, incidentally, were penned by Young.

Young populated this record with material by some of his favourite writers, a group that includes Gordon Lightfoot, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Don Everly and Tim Hardin.

He describes the album as “an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology (that) captures and unleashes the essence of something that could have been gone forever.”

Young and White essentially recorded the album live to a one-track mono recording unit. No boosts, no bells and whistles and certainly no overdubs.

Those who strive for perfection may find the sound on this record a little raw and somewhat jarring, but for me, A Letter Home has a charm all its own, a wonderful simplicity; everything is

reduced to a man, a microphone and a song.

And these are great songs.

Included in the mix are Ochs’ Changes, Hardin’s Reason to Believe, two Lightfoot songs, Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind, and Dylan’s Girl From The North Country.

There are also two Willie Nelson entries, Crazy and On the Road Again.

Springsteen’s My Hometown and Ivory Joe Hunter’s Since I Met You Baby also made the cut.

In a move some might call a little strange, the record begins with a spoken letter from Young to his mother in which be brings her up to scratch on what’s happening in his own life and what’s happening in general on the planet.

Yes, that may sound a little weird, but then again the record is called A Letter Home.

And his “letter” is not uninteresting.

Young also speaks a second time, before going into Hardin’s Reason to Believe, explaining, in part, why he chose these songs.

A Letter Home took a spin or two to connect but, now I have to say it could become a favourite. The songs are great, and Young’s performance has an emotional rawness to it that draws me in.

This release comes in several formats, from a barebones release to a deluxe boxed set that includes two vinyl LPs, a CD, a DVD and seven vinyl singles.

A vinyl edition of this set was released earlier this year on White’s record label but was not in wide distribution.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at dgallant@theguardian.pe.ca or 629-6000, ext. 6057.

Organizations: The Guardian

Geographic location: Nashville

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