Neil Young'A Letter Home' (Reprise)
Neil Young's sporadic concept records aren't for everyone. "A Letter Home" should be.
While still an esoteric venture, Young recorded it in a refurbished 1947 Voice-O-Graph, the songs he chose are familiar ones, making this more accessible than previous out in left field Young releases.
Among the songs: Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," Bruce Springsteen's "My Home Town," Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and "Crazy," and Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." They are a reflection of Young's roots and musical backbone, made all the more clear by the heartfelt and intimate delivery.
Now, back to the box.
Young, 68, was captivated by the Voice-O-Graph that Jack White had restored and made available at his recording studio in Nashville, Tenn. Typically used by amateurs to record one song at a time, which is immediately laid down on vinyl, Young decided to cram himself into the phone booth-size contraption and record an entire record.
The songs sound like they came from another age, complete with scratches, pops and imperfections usually only heard on old vinyl records. Adding to the idiosyncratic approach, Young fashioned the entire record as a letter home to his deceased mother, delivering her a playlist of some of his favorite tunes.
It's clear these songs are a part of Young's musical DNA, and it's almost as if the listener is being invited into his living room for a private concert, delivered from inside a phone booth, of course.
Natalie Merchant 'Natalie Merchant' (Nonesuch Records)
Natalie Merchant has never been one to pull punches.
From her start singing deceivingly jovial-sounding tunes about tough topics like child abuse and air pollution with seminal 1980s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs through her 21 years as a solo artist, Merchant has made her mark as an unflinchingly honest artist.
That fearlessness continues on the self-titled and self-produced "Natalie Merchant," her first collection of entirely original songs in 13 years.
On the haunting "Giving Up Everything," Merchant sings about mercy killing her craving, giving up her "cursed search for meaning." Think of it as her version of John Lennon's "God."
Not everything is a downer. The opening track, "Ladybird," is a jaunty toe-tapper. But that's quickly followed by "Maggie Said," which begins with the line: "Maggie said dig one more shallow grave before I'm dead."
With her distinctive voice still in strong form as she enters her 50s, together with the lush backing of strings, piano, organ and the occasional woodwinds, Merchant creates a rich musical tapestry that transcends the typical vagary of pop music.
Lonesome Shack'More Primitive' (Alive Naturalsound)
More than anything else the blues is meant for dancing. The guys in Lonesome Shack seem to know this deep down in their bones.
These three middle-aged white dudes from Seattle surely have little in common with Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and the great bluesmen of north Mississippi who developed the distinctive and influential Hill country blues sound. But they share knowledge of the same truth: Nothing soothes the soul like boogie music.
Lonesome Shack's new 10-track album, "More Primitive," is the group's first for Alive Naturalsound Records, the label that discovered The Black Keys and released that now platinum-selling group's first album. It has an authentic, lived-in feel. At the same time it's more accessible than the group's previous work.
Ben Todd lovingly re-creates a sound that's mostly disappeared with the deaths of Kimbrough and Burnside with vocals that are high and plaintive in the old style and yet lyrically modern. His acoustic and electric guitar work creaks and crawls ("Old Dream," "Evil") or builds to a ramshackle sprint (beat tracks "Big Ditch," "Wrecks"), depending on the mood. Everything's driven along by a tirelessly bouncy groove provided by bassist Luke Bergman and impressionistic drumming from Kristian Garrard.
On the title track, Todd sings, "I want to live, I want to live more primitive" to a Pied Piper beat, and not only do you believe him, but you also want to join him in the pursuit. Dancing all the way.