Like clockwork, about 18 months after the last Neil Young album arrives the new one, A Letter Home. Early rumors had pegged this one as a duets record with Jack White, but those proved to be unfounded. Jack White IS involved – he duets with Neil Young on two tracks and the record is out on White’s Third Man Records. Recalling Young’s experimental 80’s phase, this record comes with its own idiosyncracies – an album recorded entirely in a refurbished Voice-O-Graph box dating from 1947. The Voice-O-Graph (as shown on the album cover) is reminiscent of a telephone booth with barely enough room to accommodate Neil Young and his guitar. The standard edition is a direct to vinyl recording, warm crackles & pops present on the vinyl, CD, and download versions. The deluxe box set features an audiophile edition – just Neil and his guitar in glorious mono. You’d think this might come off as gimmicky – but it doesn’t. In fact, it is the 4th Neil Young record in a row that is an above average effort.
I’d consider Jack White to be on of the most unlikely musicians to break through to the mainstream. Not because of his talent – I believe that is undisputed – but because the abrasive nature of his early recordings didn’t scream out “Crossover Hit”. Nevertheless, Jack White has been a household name since about 2001 with the release of the third album by The White Stripes, White Blood Cells. I think recording the follow-up to that record at Toe Rag studios with Liam Watson (known to me through his wonderful recordings with the Television Personalities) gave Jack White a template to base his recording aesthetic on – clean, uncompressed sound. Third Man Records is doing amazing things (including releasing the upcoming Neil Young record), but Jack White is also a restless musician. With The White Stripes laid to rest, he still performs as a solo artist, with The Raconteurs, and with The Dead Weather fearing members of The Kills, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Raconteurs. It also happens to be my favorite Jack White project, post The White Stripes.
Toe Rag Studios in London, England got its start in the early 1990’s and quickly made its name as the go to source for bands / musicians looking to use analog equipment. One of the founders was Liam Watson, a one time member of the ever revolving cast of characters supporting Daniel Treacy in the Television Personalities. Though I have always loved the mid 90’s singles by the TVP’s that were recorded there (gathered on the Fashion Conscious compilation), there was a definite uptick in notoriety with the release of The White Stripes album Elephant which was recorded at Toe Rag / produced by Jack White. Though they are worlds apart musically, that album shared the same qualities as the TVP’s singles recorded at Toe Rag – sparse sounding, instruments with clear separation – allowing the no frills approach to inundate the listener with the feeling that the instruments were in the same room with you while the record played.