Neil Young A Letter Home (Reprise)
The 35th studio album by Neil Young, A Letter Home was originally released on Jack White’s Third Man label in April, on Record Store Day and as a 12-inch slab of black vinyl. But of course it was.
Well, here it is again, digitised for CD: as releases go a perverse yet contradictorily symbolic act of submission to the nature of things, for this is music initially captured as it once was captured, on a 1940s Voice-O-Graph, the technical details of which shall not detain us here except for me to say that it is an electro-mechanical process and it entails recording in a “booth”. (With a piano? Hmm …)
The results are stark. The collection opens with Young sending an audio epistle to his late mother, to explain how he is and what’s going on. He then sings other people’s songs back to us in the same spirit, as if from the distant past, as grainy, be-crackled and seething with sonic wiggles as Blind Willie McTell.
It’s a brief, almost passing effort comprising 11 songs by such figures as Willie Nelson (“Crazy”), Tim Hardin (“Reason to Believe”), Phil Ochs (“Changes”), the Everlys (“I Wonder Why I Care as Much”), Bert Jansch (“Needle of Death”), Dylan (“Girl From the North Country”) and Springsteen (“My Hometown”) – an invocation of a particularly stubborn strain of American sensibility, encoded as ever in a solitary voice, a solitary guitar, a solitary piano and a wheezing, lonesome harmonica. Frayed-collar rather than blue-collar.
You’re not listening to songs so much as attempting to pull up the past as if it were an old pair of trousers, and then rope it into place with lengths of digital cable. It is both ridiculous and oddly moving.
Royksopp & Robyn Do It Again (Dog Triumph/Wall Of Sound)
This five-track “mini-album” (isn’t that an EP?) is a proper collaboration between the Norwegian duo and the Swedish singer. It’s a varied beast: there are flickering electronic textures and ambient-as-2001 flute flutters on opener “Monument”, but then “Sayit” is a dirty dance-pop monster (with the creepiest robot-voiced declarations of desire since Boards of Canada).
“Do it Again” is certain to soundtrack a heap of parties, festivals and bad behaviour this summer: Robyn’s appealing, shiveringly sweet vocals lead a surging, ecstatic (in every sense) rave-up belter: “I don’t want to stop/ I know I should/ But let’s do it again”. Then “Inside the Idle Hour Club” is the comedown: woozy, wavy, lush, long. Not exactly cohesive then, but hey – it’s a trip.
Sharon Van Etten Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
Sharon van Etten survived crippling shyness and an abusive lover before her breakthrough with 2012’s Tramp.
Her self-produced fourth album executes another dramatic confidence leap. Unflinching before love’s stormy weather, she demands fearless devotion on “Afraid of Nothing”, then laces the dreamy lilt of “Our Love” with stinging lyrics.
Her stately, circling melodies insinuate slowly but the stress on stealth suits her: it gives her voice time to linger and throws her atypically direct entries into sharp, piercing relief. When she aims straight, on the romantic vivisection of “Your Love is Killing Me” or the drunkenly defiant “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”, she sounds like a singer taking total command of her heart-stopping voice.
The Secret Sisters Put Your Needle Down (Decca/Republic)
Still in their twenties, still a pair of god-fearing, unassuming (and occasionally bickering) sisters from Alabamee, Laura and Lydia Rogers have come a long way. How far? Let’s put it this way: when Bob Dylan heard they were recording their second album, his people sent some unfinished songs over to the studio for the sisters to complete. The result of that “collaboration” is “Dirty Lie”, and the beautiful truth is that that’s not the best song here by any stretch.
Sure, Put Your Needle Down is as old-fashioned as a handwritten letter. But there is more to it than that. Because with T Bone Burnett at the helm, this is no lazy exercise in nostalgia. These songs bounce, buzz and bubble along with timeless life. And jeez louise, those harmonies!