Classic covers in a box

Neil Young’s new fantastic covers album “A Letter Home” was recorded in Jack White’s refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph, a vinyl recording booth that produces instantaneous, low-quality recordings. This move has a lot of people justifiably scratching their heads. Why would a guy who has campaigned for better quality digital music for years make an album in a crappy old do-it-yourself recording booth?

While the confusion is understandable, Young still has a point to make. His Pono digital music player, which promises to give listeners “high-resolution” 24-bit audio as opposed to the standard compressed fare we usually listen to, won’t come out until October. So, for now, everyone’s still listening on their flat iPods or tinny smart phones, and what’s the difference? Might as well make a record that sounds like it was recorded on a toy boombox.

The project would be easy to write off if it wasn’t so damn good. Instead of sounding like a “F U” to the recording industry, Young has contextualized the album as a personal “Letter Home” from a son who is far away from home to his mother, giving the low-fi recording quality a purpose. It’s bad because it’s personal. And from this perspective, it really works. It starts with a hokey, rambling, spoken word “letter,” setting the tone, but then really begins with a setlist of obvious songs that Young never would’ve allowed himself to record if he wasn’t in a cheap box.

Remember, this is a man who forced diehard fans to endure his play “Greendale” in its entirety at live shows in 2003, as well as the man who began his last album, the mostly wonderful “Psychedelic Pill,” with a 27-minute-long song. In other words, he enjoys being difficult. And so the only way he’s going to perform as a classic folk jukebox is if the production sounds like crap.

But the thing that happens, which really wasn’t all that surprising, is that, despite the muffled, distorted sounds, Young sounds great because he’s doing what he’s always done best: just sing and play the guitar. And since the songs are so good, it ends up sounding more like a classic Neil Young album rather than a one-off gimmick.

His cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” is so natural it’s beautiful. And it reminds you of Young’s beginnings as a Dylan-wannabe. He does say after all (in “Driftin’ Back”) that hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” on the radio is what inspired him to pick up the pen and create a music world all his own.

Likewise, his versions of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” are just pure joy. Longtime folk listeners will look at the tracklist and roll their eyes, but I’m telling you, just lay down your arms, put the record on, and it might as well be 1972.

My favorite song on the album is the Bruce Sprinsteen cover “My Hometown.” Simon Vozick-Levinson of Rolling Stone openly wondered why Young would pick a “third-tier single” of Springsteen’s rather than “literally anything from ‘Nebraska’.” When I read that comment, before I listened to the album, I thought I would surely agree. But he’s so wrong. As soon as Young starts singing, “I was 8 years old and running with a dime in my hand/ Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man,” I immediately understand why the song was chosen and why it was a good pick.

The nostalgia and the short story-like descriptions fit in perfectly with the romance of the whole project. What better song to sing in a Voice-o-Graph from 1947 than one about the decline of “your hometown?”

Despite releasing albums almost every year, Young always finds some way to make them feel essential. When he released “Living With War” in 2006, during the grey doom of the Bush years, the album seemed like a middle finger to the president and made me realize how something that used to be so common in popular music (albums critiquing the policies of the current administration) had become so rare.

When it was released, there was a feeling like, “Hey, we forgot rock can do this. Maybe music can still have an impact.”

Then through each step since, the homemade video for “Fork in the Road” that spoke to the narcissism of social media, the album of traditionals that connected us to our roots again (“Americana”) and the jam rock record that reminded us psychedlic rock is only as dead as we let it be, Young has willed himself to be relevant. “Letter Home” is, at this point, just another fascinating record.

4 1/2 stars out of 5.

DOWNLOAD NOW: “My Hometown.”