There is a strong argument that Neil Young’s best records are those made with Crazy Horse, the garage band who get to play stadiums. The country folk strains of the likes of Harvest, Comes A Time, Old Ways, Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind are what made Young bankable, but the motherlode is located in the tougher love of Tonight’s The Night, Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps, Ragged Glory and live album Weld. It’s the counterpoint that makes Young such a fascinating artist, as though even he recognises that as soon as things start getting too mellow it’s time to go wailing again (and vice versa, probably).
Americana is the first Young/Horse collaboration since 2003, a long layoff, and is made up mostly of electrified versions of American folk standards. Thus, the band’s trademark grungy, chugging riffage is applied to the likes of ‘Oh Susannah’, ‘Clementine’, ‘Tom Dula’ and ‘Jesus’ Chariot’ (aka ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain’), although ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger’ are played more or less straight, the latter even featuring acoustic guitars. These treatments unearth the sinister underbelly of some of these zappy campfire sing-alongs, revealing the darkness at the heart of many nursery rhymes and folk tales (e.g. ‘Oh My Darling Clementine’), although paradoxically the outwardly somber ‘Gallows Pole’ is here positively chipper.
However, these rocked-up versions of traditional material are far from an unqualified success. This is predominantly because most of the songs sound like first or second takes – the snippets of band dialogue, discussing how songs should go, at the end of several tracks, obviously deliberately emphasising the overall ramshackle feel of the proceedings. Granted, spontaneity is part of Crazy Horse’s DNA – it’s what made Tonight’s The Night such a killer album – but they were road-hardened when they cut that album in a couple of drunken nights. The offerings here are live rehearsals, or at best rough demos, made by guys who haven’t played together in quite awhile. There is certainly nothing as outrageously imaginative as Hendrix’s sonic deconstruction of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.
The Richie Havens staple ‘High Flyin’ Bird’ is a highlight, indicating that when the Horse go looking to do covers, as with the old 1959 Dewey and Don composition ‘Farmer John’ (the 1964 version of which by The Premiers appears on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation) they tackled on Ragged Glory, they are better served by the rock’n’roll canon rather than folk history. The nadir is reached with finale ‘God Save The Queen’, replete with children’s choir. No, it’s not the Sex Pistols, it’s the British national anthem. I’m sure there’s a rich subtext going on here about Young’s Canadian upbringing vis-a-vis his American residency, especially as it segues into ‘My Country ’Tis Of Thee’ (aka ‘Let Freedom Ring’), but that doesn’t make it any less painful to listen to. At least the massed 100 voices doing ‘American The Beautiful’ at the end of Living With War were of age.
This, then, is not destined to be one of Neil Young’s more memorable albums (with or without Crazy Horse), nor was it, one suspects, ever intended to be. It’s not even in the top half of that voluminous back catalogue. Hell, I’d even take Harvest over it but it sounds like it was a lot of fun to make, even if it doesn’t bear repeated listenings. You probably had to be there.