I’ve been listening to Americana, the new release from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, a lot over the past week. The album came out last Tuesday (June 5) and is the first collaboration between Neil and The Horse since 2003’s Greendale. It features very nontraditional versions of traditional American folk songs. There is plenty of the Old Black sound to enjoy here. In typical Crazy Horse fashion, the album is an acquired taste, the harmonies are inconsistent, and the band rumbles along seemingly on the verge of falling apart, but it definitely rocks.
The reviews of Americana are mixed, as is usually the case with Neil and The Horse when they decide to experiment with different musical concepts. A quick perusal of the feedback on amazon.com ranges from “Neil Young and Crazy Horse are back with some SLOPPY JAMS!!!” and “Classic Horse Sound!” to “Oh Neil…Why?” and “Is Neil Just Messing With Us?” I laugh at the polarity that is so common polarity that seems to come with any project involving The Horse and whenever Neil turns adventurous.
Music critics seem to like Americana overall. Check out this guy’s review on youtube. He offers some good insights, although he and I don’t agree on some of the material on the album. Other interesting reviews here and here.
The first listen through should be considered “orientation”. You have to get accustomed to the rough, raw, and unpolished sound before the beat and drive and over-amped power starts to take effect. On repeated listening I find myself carrying around several of the tunes in my head. Then, ultimately, I see the flipping-the-bird-finger, edgy entertaining quality of the album. I like it.
As I have posted before, I became a certified Neil Young fanatic when Rust Never Sleeps came out in 1979 with Crazy Horse. I have all of the many Neil - Horse studio albums and a couple of dozen live bootlegs. This material spans over 40 years. I think Neil is at his purist when he plays with The Horse. There are, of course, many Neils for a Rustie to appreciate. You have the folk Neil, the country Neil, the blues Neil, the jazz Neil, the rocking Neil, the doo-wap Neil, the electronic Neil, the soul Neil, the CSNY Neil, and the acoustic Neil.
With The Horse, Neil is closer to the grungy Neil. Neil Young and Crazy Horse were a huge influence on grunge music. That crunchy, crackling, arcing sound is unique to their collaboration. Crazy Horse is the ultimate “garage band.” They are, in truth, not terrifically talented, but there is something about the synergy of them working with Neil that yields some very impressionable and memorable music.
Now, apply all that to traditional folk tunes like “Oh Susannah”, “Oh My Darlin’ Clementine”, “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”, and “This Land Is Your Land” and you have something you certainly don’t hear every day. The album isn’t grungy, but it does feature hard rocking renditions of typically folksy numbers. If you can make the adjustment then you are in for some pure fun entertainment. The album makes me smile, even laugh at times at its wonderful, distortion tinged audacity.
My favorite tracks are “Oh Susannah” (check out the wonderful stumbling way it opens in the link above) and “High Flyin’ Bird”, the latter a cover of a Billy Edd Wheeler tune that was made famous by Jefferson Airplane. For me, these tunes sound the most like what you expect from Neil and The Horse, just great cranked-up, steady rockers with a touch of blues. Neil takes a lot of liberties with the lyrics on all these traditional tunes. The words are all there (well, mostly - Neil adds some of his own now and then) but they have never been sung, arranged, and re-emphasized this way.
It turns out that Neil has apparently had this idea to retool traditional American folk songs for some time. Last October, he performed "Oh Susannah" live with Dave Mathews. The song seems to resonate with fans as there are already a couple of covers of it on youtube. This one is not that bad. Whereas this one needs more work.
I did not expect the album to be groundbreaking or anything (it isn't), so I bought it as an MP3 download instead of on CD. The download came with the songs as well as a video version of each tune in Windows Video Media format. Each video features old movie footage. Some scenes from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation are featured. Other videos include some silly documentary footage of early airplanes and depictions of depression era banjo playing. All the video complements the folk tune material and provides even more contrast, as if you needed it, with the sound Neil and The Horse blare out and belch forth.
Americana is not for the casual listener. It is probably something only Rusties can truly appreciate. It sits fine with me but Jennifer is still struggling to make it through the album even though she conceptually appreciates what Neil is trying to do. This is focused art in a blaring, intentionally rough form. But, the cool thing is that this is apparently just the first step in a larger renewed collaboration with The Horse. There are hints of new material that has been recorded as well, one song apparently lasting well over 20 minutes. That will hopefully be made available in a future album, possibly as early as this fall.
It is a great time to be a Neil Young fan. In the past few years he has produced three very good, very different studio albums, Prairie Wind (2005), Chrome Dreams II (2007), and Le Noise (2010). A couple of other efforts were Living With War (2006) and Fork in the Road (2009). He has successfully toured with CSNY in 2006 and solo in 2010. He's also put out three decent films during this time. Heart of Gold (2005, by Jonathon Demme), CSNY/Deja Vu (2006, by Bernard Shakey), and Neil Young Truck Show (2010, again by Demme). Now he's warming up with The Horse on an interesting, if at times difficult, folk-rock concept album. Perhaps Neil Young's most brilliant quality is his unceasing drive to experiment with his art. It keeps him fresh, relevant, and worthy of continued interest.
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