Neil Young: Americana

Written by May 29th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Americana
(Reprise)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon gets a lot of mileage out of imitating Neil Young’s trademark whine in odd song choices. At first glance, you might consider the rock veteran’s new album, Americana, to be particularly ripe for parody, considering the set contains such seemingly tame, un-Young-like classics as “Oh Susannah” and “This Land Is Your Land.”

Any chuckling fades away pretty quickly once Young and Crazy Horse, his reunited partners in crime, sink their teeth into the groove of opening track “Oh Susannah.” While bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina build the rhythm from the skeleton of Shocking Blue’s late-60’s hit “Venus,” the guitars of Young and Poncho Sampedro slice and dice through the Stephen Foster tale about an Alabaman with a banjo on his knee. It’s ferocious, it’s furious, and, as Young can be heard exclaiming at track’s end, “It’s funky!”

In a career full of stylistic curve balls, Americana finds Canadian-bred Neil Young dusting off the United States songbook to reveal the darkness at the heart of not only those oft-sung songs, but also the country that birthed them. By placing them in the crunching electric setting that only Crazy Horse can provide, Young doesn’t so much reinvent the songs (many of these arrangements were borrowed from other versions) as he does invigorate them. These songs have stood the test of time, and this fascinating album shows the reasons why.

This is no dry history lesson. The first three songs bust out of the box with such impact that it almost provides too high a standard for the rest of the album to match. After the swinging opening salvo of “Oh Susannah,” Crazy Horse supercharges “Clementine.” If all you know of this song is the version sung by Huckleberry Hound in the old Saturday morning cartoons (and I must admit that I fall into that group myself,) prepare to be schooled.

With a children’s choir along just to emphasize the song’s roots as a kids sing-along classic, Young and his buddies crunch their way through what is a truly creepy story about a miner’s daughter who falls to a watery death and the men she leaves behind. It’s telling that the band leaves in the verse about the narrator moving on with Clementine’s sister after her death, a verse often left out by spooked teachers. Young doesn’t judge; he just powers through the song until only rubble remains.

Next up is “Tom Dula,” a song often known as “Tom Dooley” that was once a genteel folk hit in the 50’s. Needless to say, there is no gentility in Crazy Horse’s take, with Molina’s drums threatening to bust through whatever your listening device of choice might be. Hearing Young sing, “I stabbed her with my knife,” rock fans will immediately flash back to his own murder ballad “Down By The River,” and make the pertinent connections.
Putting aside the source material for a moment, this band simply sounds fantastic. Who knows why certain groupings of individuals have more chemistry than others, but the fact remains that Young always seems to step up his game on Crazy Horse collaborations. Their assault is still something to hear after all these years, and Neil’s voice remains a thing of wonder, wounded and woeful one moment, forceful and fired up the next.

The danger with a project like this is that the artist can lose touch with the material if the onslaught is too overpowering. At times Americana skirts perilously close to this fate, but Young’s interpretive skills as a singer help strike the right balance. It also helps that the band eases off the throttle on occasion to let the melodies breathe a little bit.

“Travel On” lopes along amiably like one of Young’s early-70’s folk-rock gems, expressing wanderlust in understated but lovely fashion. There is also moody beauty to be found in “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” with the electric guitars shelved in favor of acoustics and Young turning down the volume on his voice to a hushed, confessional tone.

It’s also neat to see Young expanding the zone for what fits into the category of Americana. While no one would ever confuse Neil and Crazy Horse for The Five Satins, their lovingly clumsy take on the 50’s doo-wop smash “Get A Job” is too much fun for the listener to care what notes are being missed.

When Young does tackle a very well-known song, he bends it to his liking. Musically, he plays Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” pretty straight. But he uses the lyrics found in Guthrie’s original manuscript of the song instead of the ones more commonly sung. These forgotten lyrics play up Guthrie’s rebellious streak much more and reveal the song’s origins as an anti-“God Bless America.” It’s also quite relevant to hear the narrator referring to his friends at the “Relief Office.”

Americana also includes spirituals in its rundown of the country’s musical heritage. “Jesus’ Chariot” is more commonly known as “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain,” and it’s usually sung with Sunday School politeness. Crazy Horse turn it into a raging beast, providing a brand new arrangement for the song that makes the chariot sound like a bringer of pain rather than salvation. It couldn’t have been more threatening if Jesus was riding in on the gunboat from “Powderfinger.”

The album closes out, ironically enough, with “God Save The Queen.” It’s a bit of a wacky choice, and even the heavy guitars can’t quite overcome the marching beat that keeps the song from ever getting airborne. A verse of “My Country Tis of Thee” is thrown in for good measure, but it’s all a bit of a letdown after all the high points that came before it.

I’m not sure that Americana ever achieves the thematic unity that Young desires. While all the songs are American songs, they come from all over the place in terms of styles and time periods, which makes it a bumpy ride, albeit a thrilling one. Trying to tie them all together as a summation of everything that’s going on in the country then and now is a pretty big leap, but who really cares when you’ve got such an excellent batch of songs featuring Young and his old buddies in such sizzling form?

In the end, I think that the album would have been just as fine had it compiled a bunch of songs from England, or Russia, or Timbuktu. That’s not a knock on American music. It’s a compliment to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, who, when they’re at the top of their game like they are here, can make music of any origin rock.

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