Neil and the Horse twist 'Americana' classics into ragged gems
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Many bands, as they march on into their third or fourth decade, settle into comfortable settings, at least in the studio. The slick, clean sounds of the Rolling Stones since 1989 or the Kinks in their final days are not unlike a comfortable, air-conditioned condo in Pensacola. Yes, they’re still living and they feel vibrant, but the urgency is gone, just as a retiree loses the will to deal with the snow and cold of the Northeast after their working days end.
Neil Young, certainly, has never settled on anything. He spent most of his 2000s rooting around various concepts, recording with different bands and experimenting with old songs, new styles and bizarre themes to various results. Crazy Horse, meanwhile, have locked into a groove to the point of abandoning all subtleties and flair, like an transmission that loses three gears and “reverse” as the years and miles pile on.
But, oh, those remaining gears are sludgy and mean. On Americana, Young and the Horse take classic songs from the folk songbook and twist them into ragged rockers, reclaiming lost verses and leaving little likeness to their better-known incarnations.
“Oh Susanna,” bearing no resemblance to the campfire song we all learned as kids, rips through on a primal beat that would cause the raunchiest songs on Re-Ac-Tor to take notice. As a pure rock song, it’s effective, mean and fun; I imagine this one would be just as much fun to play as it would be to stand on the floor and hear at a show.
And as a pure programming note, placing this song first was a clever move. The notion of recording an album of traditional songs is a dodgy one. Couple that with a list of songs that many learned before turning five, and there would be plenty of reason to be hesitant about this record. “Oh Susanna” puts those fears at bay, and that trend of rendering these common songs near unrecognizable is set.
That remains constant throughout the record. If a song seems familiar upon looking at the back cover, it’s twisted into something new by the time it appears in the running order. “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain)” takes on a nasty edge, and paired with Crazy Horse’s near-demented backing vocals, it creates a surreal effect.
And though it doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of these tunes, the humor of including “God Save the Queen” is appreciated. Perhaps Young wanted to pay tribute to America’s motherland before wrapping up the record, complete with working the song back into “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” before it ends.
The highlight may be “High Flyin’ Bird,” which would simply feel at home on any Crazy Horse release of the past 20 years. It doesn’t need the context of classic songs or forgotten traditionals in order to work, and it doesn’t play like a curiosity or experiment. It just rocks, plain and simple.
Of course, like most of Young’s projects since 2000’s Silver & Gold, this set is not perfect. Young leans heavily on a choir for some songs, a trick he picked up for 2006’s Living with War, and some of the songs simply wear on the listener. “Tom Dula” can be a tough listen, save for the guitar work, and “Get a Job,” while it pays tribute to the Horse’s doo-wop rootes, sounds more like Young and Crazy Horse wanted to make themselves laugh.
This record, more than anything, was an exercise intended to whip his band back into shape and reintroduce them to the scene. There is no settling, no desire to polish the songs or craft a pretty record. This is dirty, rusty and mean. And with a career so full of exercises and experiments, this certainly ranks as worthy of the effort.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org