First published on 1 Jun 2012. Updated on 25 Feb 2014.
Is there a sound as clearly defined and instantly recognisable as that which ignites when Neil Young and Crazy Horse team up? The four guys together are a hard-wired unit who never let anything slip out of the groove.
So it’s great to have the gangs back together after a long nine year wait, and a batch of solo Young albums of varying quality. Like some dopey fan at a gig wanting to hear the old ones, I’m more excited when Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and the mighty “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar are in on the deal than when Young has something big to say, and does it with originality, as he has on five albums since the last Crazy Horse collaboration (the dodgy rock opera, Greendale).
Having said that, you have to ask; is it a good idea to cover a bunch of ancient American folk songs? Well, it’s not a bad idea. As you’d hope, there’s a solid and clear-eyed reinvention at play. Crazy Horse mess with tempos and tradition, and that signature adrenalised wall of rock’n’roll kicks up the dust on every track. They haven’t sounded this good since the joyous Ragged Glory back in 1990.
Our starting point, and immediate oddity, is ‘Oh Susannah’, the highly un-PC minstrel “b-a-n-j-o-! on my knee” standard which is transformed into a rocker of the flying anvil variety. You don’t even realize as you move on to the next track, ‘Clementine’, that it’s the “Oh my darling, oh my darling” one, until you catch a few snippets of the chorus lyrics. Otherwise there is not a jot of melodic similarity. The story (a gothic tragedy of a girl drowning in a river by a gold rush town in front of her father/brother/depends on the version) is blanketed with a tumbling fieriness and the dark musical weight it deserves. Nick Cave would struggle to match the grim emotional devastation here.
More death and murder follow on ‘Tom Dula’ (a.k.a ‘Tom Dooley’) the true tale of a guy who sliced his wife up with a large sharp knife in 1866 and was hung for his crime. (Thus, “Hang down your head Tom Dula.”) Unable to help themselves, the band jam this one out for eight minutes, which is about average for Crazy Horse I guess.
The looming theme on the album, and it continues with ‘Gallows Pole’ (more hanging) and ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ (a more optimistic spiritual quest to get home cross-country to ma and pa) is that the American frontier in the late 1800s and early 20th century was a tough son of a bitch place to be. And that some of the songs kids hum or sing along to, having seen them on cartoons, are actually pretty perturbing.
‘Jesus Chariot’ is ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’ retitled, flicked over to a minor key and arranged like 1990’s headbanger ‘Fucking Up’. But ‘This Land is Your Land’ is strummed out acoustically and straight down the line. So not much point to that beyond a doffing of the cap to Woody Guthrie.
Young, the Canadian, is happy playing the American throughout, and does so most overtly at the end of the record on an odd thumping waltz deconstruction of the British national anthem. During the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, it was the Sex Pistols who irked the establishment and dumped on the street parties and flag-waving. Here’s a newly controversial diamond jubilee moment, a reclamation of the traditional piece which Young has suggested was popular in America prior to both the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence, before subsequently morphing into “My Country Tis of Thee “ – same tune, new post-colonial vibe.
Young’s rudimentary instrumental take on the (let’s face it, completely shit) tune, and his customary wavering adenoidal vocals are already under scrutiny in the Britloids.
One unusual and untested addition to the regular Crazy Horse sound on the LP is a children’s choir which lends a haunting counterpoint to the scary stuff on a fair few songs.( I get the feeling Young’s been listening to ‘The Langley School’s Project’.)
Americana is of course a genre now, and it would be nice if some of it was as noisy and swinging as Americana the record, and not so anti-rock and self-regarding. This album might be forgotten pretty quickly or become a cult favourite, or an unlikely hit. (Maybe the sequel could be Canadana?) In any case it’s a flawed but intriguing, and in the most part pleasing effort. I’ve never said this before, but … play it loud.
Americana is out now.