I’ve been going through another Neil Young phase again recently, which as far as I’m concerned, is a very good thing. Sure, he’s had his career ups and downs, but the majority of his recording output is wonderful and I find that even the so-called missteps are fascinating and fun to listen to. For some reason, I prefer playing his albums at night, after I get off work. Two relatively new entries in his burgeoning catalogue are the ones getting the most play at my place lately.
Live At the Cellar Door is a recently unearthed and released solo recording from 1970, culled from three shows that Neil did at the famous club. It’s just Neil by himself — his band Crazy Horse doesn’t appear on this one. Neil sounds young and almost giddy at times as he introduces the songs, sometimes veering off into a spiel about something weird. But when he’s playing the songs, armed only with an acoustic guitar or playing the piano, he truly shines. Neil’s voice has always been one of those love it or hate sorts of things. Personally, I like it a lot, believing his vocals have proper amount of passion and sincerity to elevate these songs to greatness. And great ones they are, classic songs from his early years such as; Tell My Why, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, After the Goldrush, Expecting to Fly, Old Man, Birds, Don’t Let It Bring You Down, See the Sky About to Cry, Cinnamon Girl, I Am a Child, Down By the River, Flying On the Ground is Wrong. Listen to these songs and prepare to marvel; all over again: this is just pure songwriting excellence. In my book, or on my stereo, it doesn’t get much better than this. Great tunes and the sound quality is surprisingly very high for such an old club recording. Go ahead and sing along.
The sound quality, however, isn’t so good on A Letter Home — but that was the whole point. The album, recorded and released last year, was recorded in a refurbished 1947 Voice-a-Graph recording booth — a tiny unit that resembles a phone booth. It’s certainly not state-of-the-art sound, which may bother some of the pickier listeners out there, but if they ignore this album just for that reason, they are nothing but idiots anyway.
For A Letter Home Neil recorded a whole set of covers and played it all on his acoustic guitar. It’s a very stripped-down sound, not only due to the sparse instrumentation but also due to the way it was recorded in that old booth. It’s akin to listening to a vintage 78 rpm record; snaps, crackles, pops and all. So, no, this one will certainly not appeal to the audiophile crowd, but once again, I think that’s one of the cool things about this album. This is Neil’s genius working at full throttle, and the rough nature of the recording process only enhances the emotional power of the songs.
The song choices alone are brilliant, covers of tunes by Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Bert Jansch, Don Everly, Bruce Springsteen, and Ivory Joe Hunter, plus two songs each by Willie Nelson and Gordon Lightfoot. Besides all the cover tunes, the theme of the album is indeed “a letter home,” that being a musical message to Neil’s late mother. The spoken word asides to “Mom” at several points in the recording border on hokey, or just plain annoying, but hey, it’s Neil’s concept, so the more power to him. Unlike the Cellar Door recording, this isn’t vintage Neil Young, but it’s still mighty satisfying.