Monday, June 9, 2014

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - My Journey Home With Neil Young

When I first heard Neil Young’s latest album A Letter Home I was taken aback by this faint sounding bunch of covers. It was clearly Neil, and these were songs I was happy to hear him play, but the quality of the recording was so primitive. I just couldn’t get over it. Why would he do this? I had only listened to the LP at this point and there lies the crux of the problem. To fully "get" this album, one has to get the deluxe version and watch the DVD. As soon as the video comes to life, one enters a very special session where Neil Young and Jack White embark on an emotional and technological voyage together. Somehow Jack White has managed to get the world’s only working example of a “Record Your Voice” booth; a boardwalk attraction from the 1920’s that looks like a phone booth and allows any person to sing a song and leave with a hastily pressed record. The records that the booth itself produced (which also come in the deluxe version) sound even worse than the LP but are interesting artifacts. So here is this piece of ancient technology, and Neil Young decides to record a bunch of old favorite songs on it. Seems simple enough.

When you pop in the DVD however, there is a seamless mixture of black and white footage whenever Neil is in the booth, but as soon as he steps out it turns to sumptuous color footage. The audio is also much better. Neil essentially takes you through the process with him. We see that his songs are too long to fit on the little automatic records, thus they are running a line out of the booth so some editing can take place. Suddenly I realized I was loving this album. Going inside the creative process with these two great musicians is a rare and wonderful privilege. And make no mistake – Jack White’s imprint is all over this album. He joins Neil on a couple of songs, singing harmony, playing piano even playing lead guitar on one song. He is also clearly playing the role of chief engineer and producer. His deep involvement makes this an essential item for Jack White fans as much as Neil Young lovers.

As for the material; it is really hard to find fault with songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” or “If You Could Read My Mind,” Phil Ochs’ “Changes,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” etc. The songs all clearly mean a lot to Neil and for the most part he plays them straight and folksy without doing much to make them modern. And the direct connection to his earlier days is really the point here. Perhaps the most poignant and important parts of the whole recording are the two spoken-word pieces he includes. They are short letters to his dead mother. He explains what he and Jack are doing; playing the songs he used to play when he lived with her on Grosvenor Ave. as a teen in Canada. In the most touching moments Neil asks his mother to talk to his father in heaven. They were divorced long before their deaths, but Neil is trying to fix things for them in the afterlife. “Remember to talk to Daddy” he pleads. This is a very important milestone in Neil Young’s career. In a totally non-commercial move he tips his hat to his heroes, his own past and tries to fill some holes in a broken heart.
- Paul Epstein

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