For decades we’ve been able to expect nothing of Neil Young but the unexpected. One minute he’ll be serenading us with restrained acoustic sensitivity, the next he’ll bury us with an all-out feedback barrage. Now the 68-year-old musical extremist has managed the impressively nimble feat of putting his creative machinery in reverse and drive at the same time.
Young is preparing for the launch later this year of PonoMusic, the playback system he describes as the future of digital music delivery. His company claims its player will bring “the soul back into music” devalued by the compressed sound quality of MP3s. Its recently completed funding campaign became the third most successful in Kickstarter history, topping $6 million. Following years of development, the Pono player is expected to be commercially available in October.
At the other end of the sonic spectrum is Neil’s new album “A Letter Home,” which he characterizes with much affection in Rolling Stone as “one of the lowest-tech experiences I’ve ever had.” It was recorded over a few days with the assistance of Jack White in a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth at White’s Third Man Records complex in Nashville.
The Voice-o-Graph is a bit of vanished Americana. Once a staple of arcades and state fairs, the recording booth is a relic from a time when people had never heard the sound of their own voices. You’d step into the phone booth-sized contraption and declaim your song or poem or message of love, and then — miraculously, it must have seemed — out popped a disc capturing your voice and performance. The booth in the Novelties Lounge at the Third Man record store is believed to be the only such machine in the world still operational and available to the public.
Neil Young recorded a song in the Voice-o-Graph while visiting White last year, and was so taken with its unburnished, primitive sound that he returned to cut a full album. Consequently “A Letter Home” sounds like it had been discovered among a batch of scratchy old records in some dilapidated country barn. In keeping with the cramped confines of the vintage booth, the album draws its repertoire principally from Young’s youth as a solo folk troubadour, including songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot.
The record’s production credit reads “Reproduced by Jack White III & Neil Young.” Early reports that it would be an album of duets were false. White rolled a piano up alongside the Voice-o-Graph to accompany Neil on one song, and the two did squeeze into the booth together to play and harmonize on the Everly Brothers’ “I Wonder If I Care as Much.”
Vinyl copies of the album on Third Man Records began appearing without fanfare last week on Record Store Day. The Reprise Records CD and downloads arrive May 27, along with a limited-edition boxed set containing two vinyl albums, the CD, a download card, a DVD chronicling the recording, and seven clear vinyl 45s.
The star of this deluxe show is the decidedly un-deluxe Voice-o-Graph machine. For an example of how the booth makes your modern self sound like an old 78 rpm record, check out Jack White singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” athttps://soundcloud.com/thirdmanrecords/jack-white-in-the-record-booth/.
Once he acquired the booth early last year, White kept its refurbishments as faithful to the original specs as possible. Some discreet acoustic tile and floor carpeting were added, as well as a digital clock that counts down the recording time. No attempt was made to alter the space. “It is a tight fit,” said Ben Blackwell, the native Detroiter (and Dirtbombs drummer) who oversees manufacturing and distribution at Third Man. “Space was at a premium in the arcades. But that’s a big part of its romance. If someone were to make one of these nowadays they’d put a couch and a cell phone charger in it.”
The only significant physical alteration involved a small window cut into the booth’s interior that allows you to watch your record being created. This reflects a shift in the machine’s basic novelty. The Voice-o-Graph once gave users a taste of the technological future; now it serves as a glimpse into the old-fashioned world of disc cutting.
The quality of the records the machine vends has been significantly upgraded. Originally the discs were nothing more than lightly laminated cardboard. “These things were not made to last,” said Blackwell. “Finding the right medium to cut into was a complicated process. We tried black vinyl but it was too rigid. Then we tried flexi-disc material, but that was too soft.” When he realized how close he’d come to Goldilocks territory, Blackwell laughed. After much trial and error, a clear polyvinyl proved to be just right.
So if you find yourself in Third Man’s Nashville neighborhood, you can stop by the store and pick up a copy of Young’s album, then record a song of your own for $15 (or maybe one of Neil’s) in the same booth he used. You are also encouraged to send a copy of your disc to Third Man to become part of a permanent Voice-o-Graph archive that can be accessed through the label’s website. White and his team hope this onetime disposable novelty might inspire a new page in the cultural record of our times, a page you can help write.