Sound: To attempt to count the number of artists who have covered songs originally performed by Neil Young would be a staggering chore, however to have the man himself provide his own take on celebrated rock classics is another story. For his thirty-fifth studio album, Neil Young has joined forces with Jack White to provide new takes on established rock favorites while recording them all on a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth.
Using an approach which has been all but hastily abandoned in an attempt to continue progressing with new technology attributes a heavily nostalgic quality to this new collection of material, which was already an interesting venture for Neil Young. Following a brief introduction to the album from Young comprised of a discussion between him and his mother, "A Letter Home" begins with a cover of short-lived American protest singer Phil Ochs' "Changes," a song driven by delicate acoustic guitar and romanticized vocals which warmly compliment the antique recording method.
It soon becomes apparent that the common sounds found throughout "A Letter Home" are soothing cascades of unplugged classic rock covers, which alongside the recording style leaves little room for any dramatic expansion or improvisational work, as is the point behind the album. Songs such as Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country" show Young falling into a more comfortable position vocally, whereas on Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" a more prominent focus is placed towards the actual guitar work. The album soon proceeds into a memorable cover of Willie Nelson's "Crazy," which noticeably captures the previously mentioned intention behind this effort.
While the album includes plenty of solid moments, "A Letter Home" does have it's share of technological disadvantages. When it comes to such selections as Young's cover of the Bruce Springsteen classic "My Hometown," the rough recording approach does affect the end product; Young's signature combination of melancholy vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica work make a well-welcomed appearance, and could have easily become a rock radio hit if not for the dated recording technology. While the decision behind this album remains entirely evident, it's tough when Young executes an admirable performance that's worthy of his embracive legacy and the end result is damaged by the decision itself. // 7
Lyrics: Following more than five decades in the spotlight of the music scene, Neil Young's voice remains in noticeably solid shape, especially when considering that following countless nights of recording and performing live this is his thirty-fifth studio album. There are moments throughout "A Letter Home" which show Young's age beginning to take a somewhat apparent toll, particularly when it comes to hitting the high notes on "Needle of Death." That being said, there are other moments where Young hits those exact same notes with apparent ease. Perhaps the alternations in performance can be attributed to the recording process, which often times was limited to one take. // 7
Overall Impression: Neil Young drafts an antique recording method and the assistance of Jack White on his new covers album, "A Letter Home." While the inspiration to create a nostalgic-sounding record at times hurts the end result which appears on the album, Young ultimately comes out on top throughout a compilation of classic rock covers. // 7
- Lou Vickers (c) 2014