It’s about the size of a phone booth, and when first introduced it felt like a glimpse of the future. Today, it’s a quaint novelty. But to Jack White and Neil Young, it’s a novelty that serves a noble purpose. Young recorded his new album, A Letter Home, on the 1947 Voice-O-Graph recording booth in residence in the Novelties Lounge of White’s Third Man Records office in Nashville. For $15, you can make a recording there, too.
Ultimately, A Letter Home is a crude addition to a career that has grown increasingly retrospective during the last decade, with memoirs and documentary movies arriving alongside new albums Letter offers 11 interpretations of songs that helped shape Young’s own music; the most recent is “My Hometown” from Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the U.S.A., and the oldest is Ivory Joe Hunter’s 1956 R&B ballad “Since I Met You Baby.” Muffled and full of hisses and crackles, the album has been exulted by Young as “one of the lowest-tech experiences I’ve ever had.” Meanwhile, one critic, Karen Mossman of the New Statesman in England, has called it “retro audio-porn,” noting, “The fetishizing of vintage studio equipment and super-creaky recordings has been a theme in pop for some time.” All this comes, by the way, at a time when Young is prepping the launch of his PonoMusic, which he describes as the future of digital music.
The Voice-O-Graph, which allowed people to record their own voices direct to disc, was once a staple of fairgrounds, game arcades, tourist attractions and the like. Most famously, there was one on the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. You would step inside, pop coins (35 cents in ’47) into the slot, and deliver your own 65-second song, poem or message of undying love; the machine would then feed it out on a 6-inch disc that could be mailed to friends or relatives, who could listen to it on their home record players. Though it first saw widespread use during World War II, when soldiers and their loved ones communicated via Voice-O-Graph, and peaked in popularity during the ’50s and early ’60s, the International Mutoscope Corporation released 42 different models under that name beginning in 1910. By the late ’60s, when access to tape recorders had become commonplace, the Voice-O-Graph was extinct.
White landed his booth through a Washington, D.C., novelties collector in January 2013. While it was working fine “right out of the box,” according to Ben Blackwell of Third Man, a few changes were made. Some were cosmetic — acoustic tile and floor carpeting were added along with a digital clock that counts down your recording time, and a small window was cut into the interior that lets you watch your disc being created. Third Man engineers made a few technical changes. By tinkering with the head cutters (which cut the grooves into the disc) and modifying the speed from 78 rpm to 45 rpm, they extended available recording time from 65 seconds to somewhere between 111 and 140 seconds, depending on the thickness of the grooves. They altered motors to make the sound better and more consistent. Finally, Third Man introduced new discs. The original discs were made with a laminated cardboard that withstood just a few playbacks, and Third Man only got about 30 of them with the machine anyhow, so they had to find a material that worked. They tried flexi-discs, which proved too soft for the cutters, and grooveless black vinyl, which proved too hard; acetates did the job, but they cost $9 each and only came in a 7-inch size, which had to be cut down individually.
Finally, Blackwell located clear polyvinyl discs that were the right size, reasonably priced and sounded good. After four solid months of work, White and crew put the Voice-O-Graph alongside the other archaic devices in their Novelties Lounge for Record Store Day 2013. Since then, according to Blackwell, they’ve gone through about 1000 discs; while on tour in Nashville, Weezer dropped by to re-cut “Suzanne” from their self-titled “Blue” Album, and The Alarm the British band MMX went through about 30 discs during their visit. But the bulk of the recordings have been by everyday White fans; if you cut a disc yourself and send a copy to Third Man, they’ll stream it on their web site. They bill their Voice-O-Graph as “the only machine of its kind in the world that is both operational and open to the public.” Blackwell quotes White as saying part of his mission is “creating things that don’t exist.”
Young’s album, which was released on vinyl by Third Man for Record Store Day 2014, certainly fits that description. Even Mossman, who begins by describing Young as “a man who puts out an album every 10 minutes but has, in recent years, demonstrated a relaxed attitude to quality control,” is frequently seduced by the warmth, eccentricity and throwaway quality of A Letter Home despite her sense that it is also an “act of caprice” and “feels like an affectation.” I’m with her, both pro and con. Whatever one thinks of his medium, or of his own description of the album as “an art project,” it’s hard not to be initially drawn into Young’s moody (even by his own standards) readings of most of these songs. The question is: On what sounds like a collection of demos, how long will that last? Even the best demos, after all, rarely have staying power, precisely because they are sketches. I think A Letter Home would work best as the bonus disc to a more substantial album. Even as a single CD, it’s no outrage to Young fans. But as a box set containing two vinyl albums, the CD, a download card, a “making of” DVD and seven clear vinyl 45s that sells for $109.98 on Young’s web site — well, as the saying goes, there’s one born every second.
And what of Jack White? Is the Voice-O-Graph just a fun play-toy or is it another element of what detractors consider his inflated self-importance? “Don’t get us wrong; we don’t do this as some kind of harbinger of change,” says Blackwell. “The Voice-O-Graph is strictly a novelty. But that doesn’t mean something heartfelt and beautiful can’t come from a novelty — or, as Neil’s record proves, something otherworldly.”