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Neil Young & Crazy Horse, ‘Americana’ – Album Review

Reprise Records

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?

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