Off the charts: Neil Young, Bruce Robinson, Kelly Willis, Brent Johnson

2014-05-09T09:30:00Z 2014-05-09T09:35:09Z Off the charts: Neil Young, Bruce Robinson, Kelly Willis, Brent JohnsonBy CHRIS JORGENSON The Billings Gazette

Neil Young

“A Letter Home”

Reprise Records

Anyone who read Neil Young’s autobiography, “Waging Heavy Peace,” knows he doesn’t exactly think linearly.

Last month he was raising money for his supersonic Pono music playing system. Now, he’s recording cover songs on an antique system that’s barely one step up from wax cylinders.

For his surprise release to celebrate Record Store Day, Young visited Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville to record songs straight to vinyl in a 1940s recording booth.

The ultra low-fi songs sound like they’re coming from the dusty horn of a wind-up 78 player.

And, that’s a good thing. It suits these acoustic songs, just Neil with his guitar and harmonica. It’s like “After the Gold Rush” played through the cracked dashboard speaker of a ’65 Impala.

Young covers Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” Springsteen’s “My Hometown” and a few others.

Most interesting, beyond Young’s whistled chorus, is his cover of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” an inspiration for his own “Needle and the Damage Done.”

And, of course, it wouldn’t be Neil Young without some inexplicable weirdness. In the intro, the playful Young reads from letters home to his dead mother.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

“Our Year”

Premium Records

For a long time, the alt-country couple Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis tried to maintain their separate music careers.

But, together, they were so good at cheating songs that their biggest fans wondered why they ever performed apart.

Last year’s duets album, “Cheaters Game,” settled it. They follow that with “Our Year,” more tales of heartbreak and failure and the occasional triumph.

It’s their beautiful voice, separately and in harmony, that make the couple so irresistible, and believable.

“A love as true as mine will make you do most anything/ Like hiding tears and heartaches,” Robison sings in his perfect tenor on “Hanging On,” a song Vern Gosdin recorded with Emmylou.

Their voices blend in a nice revival of the Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” gets a slow, shuffling pedal steel treatment.

In the end, Willis reasserts her independence with a nice roll through “Harper Valley PTA.”

Brent Johnson

“Set the World on Fire”

Justin Time Records

Bob Dylan never rocked like this.

Guitarist Brent Johnson trades licks with Alvin Youngblood Hart on Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning,” transforming it into a grinding Texas blues.

This is Johnson’s debut as leader, which seems surprising given his long history as a guitar slinger. He was recognized as a prodigy at age four, and by the time he turned 22 he was touring in Bryan Lee’s Blues Power Band.

Over the years, Johnson has made some powerful friends. Along with Youngblood Hart, Sonny Landreth is here, pitching in on the scorching “Long Way Back to New Orleans.”

Johnson blazes across the South Coast, with other Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired cuts like “Don’t Take it With You” and a slow, sweaty, 13-minute cover of Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By.”

And, he goes all ZZ Top on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Meet Me in the Bottom” and all Atlantic Rhythm Section for “So Glad You’re Mine.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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