A Vivoscene Feature Review by Jason Motz
Vivoscene rating 8.0
For the first album with the full Crazy Horse lineup since 1996, Neil Young and his occasional band of not-so-merry-men have gone way, way back for source material. Using traditional American folk ballads as a crux, Young’s first “covers album” is a surprising addition to his mercurial catalogue.
While a certain magic to the Horse is missing without Young’s own verse, the eleven hand-picked songs are antecedents of Young’s own visionary and poetic verse. Built around familiar folk tunes, Americana is the closest hybrid Young album to date: the tunes are straight out of the garage but the feel is every bit as folkie as Harvest. Throw in some country honk and some (possibly) ironic doo wop playfulness, and what you get is Americana. Call it Heavy Folk, just don’t think of this as Ragged Glory: The Sequel.
Compared to the dark masterpiece of Sleeps with Angels and the caustic Scud Missile fury of Ragged Glory, Americana is a veritable a ray of summer sunshine. From the few snippets of studio banter one surmises that the sessions were loose–bordering on chaotic–but spirited. The twin guitar beast behind the Horse, Neil and Poncho Sampedro, sounds heavier than ever before.
Since the last full Horse album, Neil has become even more fastidious of a sound freak (hard to imagine that) producing some of the finest albums in terms of pure dynamcis. (Hell, the only redeeming factor of Chrome Dreams II was its mass of sound). The pulsating rhythm of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina is, as always, meat and potatoes time-keeping, but this time with a garnish of Texas hot sauce. The fresh energy of the group is immediately palpable. As a vocalist in a group scenario, Neil hasn’t sounded so sure-footed vocally since Mirror Ball which had him fronting Pearl Jam. The added vocal glaze of a child’s choir works much better this time out than it did on Chrome Dreams II. Here, the choir serves as an decoration to the proceedings, as on “Clementine”, and less of a persistent, functional appendage to the songs.
Listening to Americana on the eve of another US election, it’s difficult not to look for overly political commentary in the songs. Whenever someone dusts off the Guthrie nugget “This Land is Your Land,” you can bet there is a statement being levelled. Americana is much less polemic than the Reagan-era clunker Hawks and Doves, but it serves as an analogy of the times. If nothing else, the theme of rediscovering roots makes for a tidy proto-American stance: This is our land…we are the people…we will fight to keep it that way.
Neil’s version of Land is a weathered blast of Horse-spun garage spuzz. One wonders why the band didn’t cover this before now. Not typically a covers band, the Horse version of Land ranks with their Weld-era “Blowing in the Wind”, albeit less of a hydrogen blast of apoplectic guitar skronk.
You can stream the entire Americana album here:
The beauty of Crazy Horse is their simple philosophy: like it or lump it, we don’t care. Never a band for polished, sinewy play, the band has earned its keep getting knee-deep in barnyard shit, with rolled-up sleeves, and grassed-out gourds. As fearless adventurers, they have played an important role in their relationship with Young. He may not use the band for a decade at a time, but when he needs their fire, they come a-stoking as though the sessions and touring never stopped. It is one of the more functionally dysfunctional relationships in all of Rock. At times the Horse has been little more than a prop for Neil to make some noise with. His indifference to the livelihood of his collaborators is legendarily harsh. No band, however, has been as kicked and abused as often and as vigorously as the Horse. And yet, when the time to serve is nigh, the Horse appears obligingly…and delivers. (Well, by and large they deliver. 1987′s turgid Life and 1996′s twin turkeys of Broken Arrow and Year of the Horse are painfull exceptions). This is loyalty bordering on insanely self-destructive. This is the realm where the Horse dwells. And by Christ, do they make a bloody good racket.
With Americana, Neil and the Horse are playing to their strengths and playing unconsciously: nothing here sounds forced or overly rehearsed. However, it is a bit heavy on their signature sludgy guitar stomp; maybe another acoustic ramble or some creaky pump organ to break up the mood would have been ideal. As it is, the album is the most accessible Horse album in ages. Sure, the aggressive aural experimentation of Neil’s Le Noise promised greater plains than Americana, but overall, the album works. Humanity would not have suffered had the Horse stayed in the barn, but for longtime Neil fans, the Horse was overdue for a return.
Album opener, “Oh Susanna”, is a galloping freight of fire. One hopes that when the Horse tours later this year, this will become a set staple. So to ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’ which may seem like a hideous idea, but the band pulls it off with scruffy aplomb.
For a reprieve from the garage-y vibe, “Wayfaring Stranger” is offered in sacrifice. Highlighted by Neil’s cold, vulnerable voice, the track stands out as the album’s lone gentle number, and possibly the best cut here. “Stranger” offers us a glimpse of how Harvest would sound if given the full weight of the Horse. (Should Neil ever run out of ideas, he could always re-record albums with anyone one of his alternate backing groups: Tonight’s the Night as done by the Shocking Pinks, On the Beach as done by the Blue Notes or a CSNY run through of Arc. The Ducks go Trans.)
“Tom Dula” (better known as Tom Dooley for those of us reared on the Kingston Trio) is a savage epic boasting quintessential soloing from Young that bridges the epoch since “Southern Man”. The solo is brief, mud-encrusted, technically bereft, but full of feeling and malice.
“Clementine” is the album’s dark heart. During these numbers, Americana plays as strong as latter day Johnny Cash or Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. This grisly, menacing and creepy side of Neil might be new to many Neil fans, but it reveals both the goofy humour of the artist and the underlying perspective of a man who has seen his fair share of deep shit. In “Tom Dula” and “Clementine”, Neil and the Horse have produced granite masterworks.
Album closer “God Save the Queen” is the stiffest track here, the one that comes close to sounding trite and uninspired. Bordering on insipid, the warm gush of the choir tries to coax a melody out of the mangled chords that Neil rends from his bleary, almost atonal guitar. But it serves a purpose as a call for peace, freedom, and humanity. The performance is searing, with Neil’s guitar at its blistering best. As an album closer it is a fitting number with the choir getting the last few notes. A graceful end to a rambunctious ride astride the Horse.
On the downside, there is “Get a Job”, a staggeringly silly doo wop run-through. While it is not the worst thing Neil and the Horse have recorded (that honour still goes to the gleefully moronic and sadly unreleased track “Rock Rock Rock”), its confusing inclusion on the album is either a misguided selection or a brilliantly subversive missive meant to annoy casual fans expecting “Powderfinger Part 2″. Either way, there it is…a giant swinging turd midway through the album.
If there ever was a Neil template, “Get A Job” is it: a throwaway number meant to illustrate the innate weaknesses of his voice and his collaborators’ musical gumption. The same type of song that when it works, (“Cinnamon Girl”, “Hey Hey My My”, “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World”) becomes a classic; when it fails (“Piece of Crap”, “Dirty Old Man”, “Home Grown’”) eke out as a gaseous monstrosity. But in Neil’s hands, these type of songs can carry a certain weight. The bravery of putting this track out on the album is evidence that as he nears 70, Neil still has some mischief up his sleeves.