Monday, May 26, 2014


Neil Young has never met an off-the-wall idea he doesn't like.  Follow up a huge, international hit album like Harvest with a ramshackle, buzz-killing live album of new, loud songs?  Check.  Meet the unknown art-punksters Devo (pre-fame) and make an unwatchable film?  Did that.  Embrace the latest gizmo, the vocodor, and once again send most fans screaming away with the album Trans?  Ya, that worked out well.  You show him something different, and he'll want to do it right then, and release whatever the results are.  That can work well, or horribly, but he doesn't care, he's on to the next project while you're still complaining about the old one.

A stop at Jack White's Third Man Records store/studio in Nashville introduced him to the refurbished, 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth, pictured on the cover.  It was a nifty place where you could make your own instant record, albeit a scratchy, mono disc of the day, and this is the only working one left in the world.  Entranced, Young decided it was perfect for the series of cover versions he'd been mulling, songs that had proved inspirational to him over the years.  These include Dylan's Girl From The North Country, Gordon Lightfoot's Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind, and Willie Nelson's Crazy, via Patsy Cline.  Plus, he starts each side of the record (if you get the vinyl), with a call to his late mother, telling her about the wild weather we're having, all these old numbers he used to do that he's re-recording, and asking her to patch things up with his dad.  I guess he felt the magic booth had some spiritual properties.

It is all pretty interesting, even with the pops, clicks, and low fidelity the machinery offers.  Do we really want to hear these numbers in that way?  Some of them are quite lovely, including his versions of Phil Ochs' Changes and Ivory Joe Hunter's Since I Met You Baby.  They offer invaluable insight, especially Bert Jansch's Needle Of Death.  Not only did it provide the template for Young's own Needle and the Damage Done, you can hear how it informed the basic Young acoustic style, most notably the similarities with his Ambulance Blues.  These are indeed some of the songs that made the man.  Others though, are throwaways.  Nelson's On The Road Again sounds like the last song played on the bus before everyone passes out, and the odd choice of Springsteen's My Hometown seems more of a nod to a fellow star traveler than any great inspiration.

With just Young's acoustic, a little piano (presumably parked nearby the booth) and some help from White (playing Phil to Young's Don on the Everly's I Wonder If I Care As Much), you can't get more basic than this.  However, I would have been happier hearing a live show featuring these numbers, as some of them have been played acoustically the last couple of years.  That, no doubt, will be released someday as well.

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