Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana
When news first broke that Neil Young & Crazy Horse were reconvening there was a palpable sense of excitement in the virtual air online yet for many that initial burst of joy quickly turned to apprehension when word seeped out that their first new release was going to be a collection of traditional folk songs, many of which are staples of childhood communal sing-a-longs and to cap it all off they’d recorded a version of the English national anthem God Save The Queen. The good news – and there is only good news with Americana – is that Crazy Horse are well and truly back in the saddle and have taken ownership of this batch of songs with the kind of brutal sensitivity that only they are capable of.
The opening track Oh Susannah was the first taste of the album to make its way into the general public and it gives a fair indication of how the rest of the record rolls out. The rhythm section is solid, plodding and beautifully primitive yet in Billy Talbot’s playing there is a melodic swing that belies the simplicity of the overall feel of his and drummer Ralph Molina’s interaction. The song feels like a loose jam committed to tape very early in its genesis and held together by that magical glue of familiarity and well worn comfort that binds Young and the band.
Clementine was for most of us a song that was akin to a nursery rhyme about the daughter of a miner. We didn’t really know or understand much about her but it was fun to sing along to, cross legged in the school assembly hall. Young takes that innocence and imbues it with tragedy by reinstating more of the original lyrics and indeed the meaning of the song that addresses either a father or lover’s ache for his lost loved one who has drowned in an accident. Young’s guitar adds gravitas to the tragic mood with its dark slashing chords ringing out amongst the words. Crazy Horse apply the same technique to Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be coming Round The Mountain) recasting our childhood memories of some lady about to arrive in a chariot drawn by white horses. Ostensibly a tale of the second coming of Jesus the band build a mood of heavy anticipation with Molina’s booming toms and Young’s wailing slide guitar.
Young has always reveled in rearranging and reinterpreting songs and on American he is up to his magnificent tricks all over the place. Both Tom Dula and the brilliant High Flyin’ Bird use arrangements that Young first played in his pre-Buffalo Springfield band The Squires while Gallows Pole utilises Odetta’s version of the folk classic. On that song, as on most songs on the album, Young’s voice is echoed and complemented by the Americana Choir that builds the communal feel of the album extremely effectively. The choir almost becomes the central instrument on Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land alongside guest vocals from Pegi Young and Stephen Stills. For a song that has been sung to death over the years and probably lost most of its original impact Young and Crazy Horse’s treatment brings it to life, stripping off the sepia tone coating and injecting it with technicolor. Reclamation at its finest.
Americana concludes with their take on God Save The Queen that retains a stately anthemic feel with its marching drums and backing vocals. Young explains in the liner notes that the song has its origins in the 17th century and was sung throughout the Commonwealth, including America prior to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This of course makes total sense in the context of Americana as a conceptual exercise and purely as melodic exercise it works wonderfully with Young’s guitar casting a sonic nod to Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner.
Americana reminds us how visceral, primitive and unique Crazy Horse are as a band when they are paired with Neil Young. Very few other artists could attempt to reclaim archaic traditional folk songs and pull it off so perfectly. If Greendale (the last album to feature Crazy Horse members) felt a little forced and contrived then Americana feels completely natural. Four men with guitars and drums, their voices and the essential ingredients of grit and simplicity as their tools. Crazy Horse rides again.