Low fidelity: Young in the Voice-O-Graph booth at Third Man Records in Nashville.
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Review: A Letter Home by Neil Young – a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time

A Letter Home was recorded in a Voice-O-Graph booth in Jack White’s “novelties lounge”. With cover songs and lo-fi crackles, it is an object study in the pros and cons of retro audio porn.

The photo shows Neil Young recording his new album in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine, currently housed in the “novelties lounge” of Jack White’s studios. For those too young to remember, Voice-O-Graphs were found at state fairs and seaside arcades. For a modest fee, a punter could record a personal message for a loved one – or, in the imagination of Graham Greene, a loathed one – which was then pressed on to a keepsake vinyl. “Like talking on the phone . . . but a thousand times more thrilling!” the adverts claimed. Neil Young addresses his departed mother (“Hey, Mom, Jack and I have discovered loads of the old songs I use to sing, so I’m going to send some of these to ya!”) and dashes off a dozen or so cover versions.

The swiftness and economy of the booth doubtless appealed to a man who puts out an album every ten minutes but has, in recent years, demonstrated a relaxed attitude to quality control. All this is also an act of caprice. Young’s big project at the moment is a digital music service called Pono (the Hawaiian for “righteousness”), designed to provide the listener with the best-quality audio experience possible – which A Letter Home most certainly isn’t.

The fetishising of vintage studio equipment and super-creaky recordings has been a theme in pop for some time. Years ago, I sat in a crowded pub with a boy who played me wax-cylinder blues songs from the 1920s through a single headphone, the voices indecipherable beneath 90 years of dirt, wind and scratching. Shoving my index finger deep inside my ear, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the furniture of the record was more important to my date than the music itself; this kind of retro audio-porn feels like an affectation, the musical equivalent of the artisan crisp or the fixie bike.

On A Letter Home, accompanied by guitar and a bit of whistling, Shakey’s voice emerges as a froggy echo travelling up the U-bend of time. But his selection of tracks is exquisite. These are tiny, three-minute wonders, mostly from the 1950s or 1960s, the kind of magic melodies that make the shoulders sink and the eyes float into the middle distance: the gloriously sulky “Reason to Believe” by Tim Hardin; the gorgeously sweet “Changes” by the protest singer Phil Ochs. Generally, Young whacks the song up a key and does it a bit faster. Apart from the sound quality – warps, crackles, wavering – the main difference is in the delivery, which is eccentric, each track tossed off like a naive sketch. “Changes” was already in his wheelhouse – he performed it at Farm Aid last year – and it works because it is just obscure enough to benefit from recasting.

But you do wonder what he hoped to “bring” to Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”. And “Needle of Death” suffers because no songwriter deserves decent sound quality more than Bert Jansch, whose every ghostly harmonic and thumb-squeak was an essential part of his recording. The song inspired Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” and perhaps this whole venture is an exercise in auto­biography. Sometimes, even the speed of his playing seems to say: “We all know why we’re here.”

For me, the real time-capsule effect  comes when you’re pushed to revisit the original tracks. There’s a certain kind of song here that just doesn’t get written any more – urbane, late-1960s folk-pop beloved of America’s network TV shows, all cinematic strings and new-man lyrics as tightly wrought as doilies. On the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” (“I walk away like a movie star who gets burned in a three-way script”), Young’s voice frees that extraordinary tune from its original, sugary setting. Elsewhere the olde-time treatment doesn’t make much sense to me: he opens Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, inspired by Boeing 707s, with a thunderous glitch, pulling the song back to some dusty, one-horse studio straight out of a Coen brothers movie, long before the days of Pan Am.

The trick works better with the more frivolous songs. They brought a piano up alongside the Voice-O-Graph and someone – presumably Jack White – played warped honky-tonk alongside Young in the manner of a saloon-bar dame. It sounds a treat in Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” (Young plays Hyde Park in June) because the song is approached as a kind of musical joke. Likewise, “Crazy”, the smooching Patsy Cline hit, written by Willie when he was a slick-haired back-room boy at Pamper Music Publishing. Young’s version is so jaunty that it sounds like a demo, recalling a time when pop songs really were throwaway things. Perhaps this album was meant to be heard just once and chucked out. But then, why the deluxe box set?

In recent years, Young has been documenting his life through archives, films, bizarre autobiographies and records a bit like this one – it’s a vast, Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce-like task that he will probably never complete, since the scope of the project seems to be changing all the time.

Among all the ephemera, there must exist out there some manner of royalty cheque from Neil to Nelson and Dylan and Springsteen, whose “My Home Town” is covered on A Letter Home. I hope someone is framing them. That’s one rock relic I’d like to see.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.