During the opening notes of ‘Oh Susannah,’ it sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse are figuring out how to play their fabled instruments. Once they get acclimated though, the relentless Crazy Horse groove kicks in full force as if no time had passed.
Neil’s first album with the Horse since ‘Greendale’ (2003) and the first full-lineup Crazy Horse disc since 1996′s ‘Broken Arrow’ proves that time hasn’t altered the nature of this beast.
Neil, always one to keep his fans and critics guessing where his head is at, takes his turn at a slightly different game here. For this new album, Neil has pulled songs from the heart of America, featuring mostly traditional folk songs, to assemble an album that cooks along like a true Neil classic.
Call it an odd twist on the ‘Great American Songbook’ style albums put forth by Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney, to name a couple, but while both those artists ventures were successful (Stewart’s financially, McCartney’s artistically), Neil takes that American made car out of the driveway and puts in back into the garage.
‘Americana’ features eleven songs that cover a wide spectrum of American music, from the tried and true of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to the ’60s folk classic ‘High Flyin Bird’ (written by Billy Edd Wheeler, and made famous by Judy Henske and Jefferson Airplane ). Classic songs such as Leadbelly’s ‘Gallows Pole’ and the standard ‘Wayfarin Stranger’ also get the full Crazy Horse treatment. That means the guitars of Neil and Frank Sampedro slash and burn into the night, while the rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina chug along in a groove all their own.
Highlights include ‘Tom Dula,’ a song which dates back to the early ’20s but was made popular by the Kingston Trio in 1958 as ‘Tom Dooley.’ The version here carries the weight of the subject matter (the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster) with beautifully distorted guitars. ‘Gallow’s Pole’ will, of course, be familiar to many via Led Zeppelin‘s take on the song from their third album. In Young’s hands, it takes on the rhythm of an out-of-control jalopy, with the wheels about to fall off at any given moment.
One of the odder choices, it would seem at first glance, is that of ‘Get A Job,’ a hit from the Doo Wop era by The Silhouettes. They manage to keep the feel of hopping along, but put through a classic garage band filter, not unlike their version of the Premier’s ‘Farmer John’ from the ‘Ragged Glory’ album. The jewel of the album might just be their take on ‘Jesus Chariot,’ better known as ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain,’ where they take the song from a front porch good time banjo party and give it an ominous back porch stomp. ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ takes the volume level down a notch and works as a perfect fit for that gentler side of Mr. Young.
To these ears, this is easily one of the best things Neil has done in a long time. The material is, obviously, beyond reproach and the execution of the songs is near perfect… that is, if you love Crazy Horse. The only real flub is a take on ‘God Save The Queen,’ unfortunately not the Sex Pistols classic, but rather the traditional tune, which just doesn’t really go anywhere. While we doubt that Neil’s own well of songs has dried up, this is a certainly a great sidestep for him to take. There are countless great songs out there in the ether, why not bring some of them back down to earth?
Neil Young’s legend has essentially been built through obfuscation; he’s accumulated one of the most celebrated yet byzantine songbooks in rock by impulsively shifting course album to album, whether it means periodically alienating fans, band mates, and record labels alike. But when it comes to covering other people’s songs, he’s an unabashed populist.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “A Day in the Life”, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, “On Broadway”, “Four Strong Winds”– Young is obviously not the sort of artist who selects covers to reveal something new about himself, or to prove how cool his record collection is. Instead, true to his utilitarian ethos, he’s more interested in transforming the mythical into the practical, reclaiming once-vital songs that have essentially been overplayed into Muzak and investing them with a new sense of purpose. In Young’s hands, the most totemic songs in pop history become more flawed and, as a result, more down to Earth.
For this latest studio album– the first with Crazy Horse in nine years– Young applies that logic across an entire record. Americana joins Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom and Iggy Pop’s Après in this year’s aging-rocker covers-album sweepstakes, though it’s less about digging into personal favorites as reclaiming some of the most popular songs ever written. And we’re not talking about mere golden oldies here, but ancient public-domain standards that predate the existence of pop radio and the music industry entirely: “Clementine”, “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”, “Oh Susannah”, and the like. These aren’t songs anyone really listens to anymore, because we don’t need to.
They’re practically part of our collective DNA: songs that you whistle while you work or use to sing your baby to sleep or to entertain impatient kids sitting around a campfire. Invariably, they’re also songs whose simple, sing-along melodies obscure the real-life maladies– poverty, unemployment, lost love, murder, crises of faith– that originally inspired them over a century ago. As such, Americana isn’t so much a covers collection as a concept album in the vein of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads: new variations on age-old themes that still resonate loud and clear today.
Alas, it’s also the sort of album where you pretty much know what it’s going to sound like just by reading the record’s spine and tracklist. What you see is what you you get: old-timey tunes subjected to Crazy Horse’s desecrating grungy grind. And given the over-familiarity and brevity of the source material, it’s a novelty that wears itself out quickly. While Young and the Horse effectively tease out the unpleasant undercurrents in songs like “Oh Susanna”, “Wayfaring Stranger”, and “Clementine” (which reinstates the oft-omitted line about macking on the deceased title subject’s sister), Americana doesn’t so much amount to a caustic commentary on the modern-day American condition as capture a bunch of old pals trying to rediscover their chemistry by sloppily jamming on some standards– and in some cases, like the repetitious eight-minute trudge through true-crime tale “Tom Dula”, driving them into the ground.
Compared to his previous state-of-the-nation addresses, Young doesn’t so much attack the material as playfully mess around with it; nearly every track here concludes with some cheerful studio chatter that suggests what we just heard was the Horse’s first-ever pass at the song. This slackness defines Americana more so than its political intent; as the tracklist moves forward to relatively more recent fare like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and the Silhouttes’ late-1950s standard “Get a Job”, you might as well be listening to the Shocking Pinks.
But just as the aforementioned Murder Ballads capped off its orgy of carnage with a surprisingly redemptive cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End”, Americana boasts a similarly high-concept denouement: Only Young would deign to close out a tribute to the American folkoric tradition with a cover of the British national anthem. Whether it’s a backhanded salute to the country that incited the American Revolution in the first place, or simply a sly nod to his own roots in the Commonwealth, Young’s “God Save the Queen”– with its drunken drummber-boy beat, squealing electric-guitar fanfare, and cheeky choral vocal–proves to be just as blasphemous to Britain’s most sacred song as the namesake number by his one-time muse Johnny Rotten. It ain’t exactly Hendrix doing “The Star-Spangled Banner”, but then that’s precisely the point: It’s Young’s way of saying that– even when you’re dealing with another country’s intellectual property– this song is your song, this song is my song.
I’ll just admit that when I read the track listing for “Americana,” the first CD by Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 9 years, I sighed.
Yes, I wanted to hear new music from Young but gees, do we really need another cover of American folk classics such as “Oh Susanna,” and “This Land is Your Land?” A few bars into the first track on the album, I would have answered with a heartfelt affirmative that only deepened as I heard more of these beautifully re-crafted songs.
Leave it to Neil Young to create such — let’s say elegant — rock versions of the folk classics many of us learned during elementary school sing a-longs — “This Land is Your Land,” “Tom Dula” and “Clementine.”
If a listener doesn’t tune into the words on some of the songs, it’d be easy to mistake them for modern-day rock anthems. That’s especially true on the album’s opening track “Oh Susanna,” which is awash in electric guitars and throbbing drums plus Young’s unmistakeable voices, which still have the strength and nuances they held a few decades ago.
That’s not to say that Young fires up every song he covers. “This Land is Your Land,” is a fairly straightforward cover of the much-loved Woody Guthrie tune. Same for “Travel On.” Swap out the electric for acoustic guitar on that tune, which starts with Young singing a-capella, and you could picture families playing and singing this around a campfire.
Young’s 11-song album ends with a cover of the de facto British National Anthem “God Save the Queen,” which has sparked a fair amount of outrage in the British press. The gripes seem to center around the song’s inclusion on an album titled “Americana” and the tweaks Young made to the lyrics and melody.
Young’s notes about each song on the album include his reminder that “God Save The Queen” may well have been sung in North America before the American Revolution. The tweaks, he writes, were made in part to recognize America’s subsequent independence.
I’m certainly not advocating offending a country by changing its National Anthem but Young, a Canadian by the way, certainly seems to have put a lot of thought into the song before he made the not-really-offensive-in-my-view changes. Add to that the notion that many of the songs Young covers are thought of as stuffy and old-fashioned at best by younger generations, and it leaves you questioning if such remakes are truly outrage worthy.
My view is that anyone who can make songs such as “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” cool again and introduce classic songs to a new generation is a genius, in my view.