11:25 am Jun. 5, 2012
But most reviews you’ll read about the album would have you believe the really big news is that this is Young’s first collaboration with Crazy Horse since 2003’s Greendale, a distance of some nine years and five albums. It would appear that the world (or the music world, anyway) has been breathlessly awaiting this reunion between Young and his legendary backing band.
There’s no question such a subset of adamant Horse fanatics exists: Young’s audience tends toward the obsessive and the sectarian. But for the rest of us, whether casual or lapsed fans, this bit of hype brings up some interesting things about Crazy Horse’s role in Young’s larger mythology, and how that myth has been built and burnished over the years. This is due, in part, to the portion of the Legend of Crazy Horse that tells us, “They’re not very good at music.”
Jimmy McDonough’s excellent Shakey, without question the definitive Young biography, devotes a great deal of time to sparring quotations from various bystanders and bandmates about the pros and cons of the Horse. (Young’s supergroup co-stars Crosby, Stills, and Nash, for instance, didn’t care much for them.) But a consensus of sorts is reached that Crazy Horse’s true power is their ability to both relax and inspire Young, despite (or because of) their pedestrian talents. They bring out his renegade side, and represent the antithesis of his slicker excursions.
It helps that much of the earliest Young & Crazy Horse material, from when the legend was first forged, went largely unrecorded. Very little survives of the period when the band featured Danny Whitten, who looms large in the Neil myth more because of songs written about him (and his death) than those on which he played. But Whitten was a distinctive guitarist and an arresting singer; his replacement, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, while something of a musical nonentity, came along and defined the Horse image that has prevailed over the past 30 years: goofy boneheads there to provide a thudding backbeat while Young’s guitar and voice soar.
In that respect, Crazy Horse is the perfect band for Americana, an album seemingly designed to eschew ambition in favor of a kind of basement-band simplicity. While capable of some loose and rangy funkiness in the ‘70s, the Horse-sound as we know it today was truly cemented in the ‘90s, when grunge made their pounding plods sound prescient. This approach has had varying results over the past 20 years: they seemed particularly lumbering on Greendale, buckling under the weight of Young’s ponderous folk-opera, but the new album’s dashed-off vibe proves a far better fit.
Indeed, Americana feels dashed-off even by Young’s notoriously spontaneous standards. The murky production (particularly Young’s vocals, which sound as though his microphone was placed inches from his guitar amplifier), botched intros, messy arrangements played messily, and post-song studio chatter (left in for vérité effect) all convey the sense that nothing too serious is being attempted here. Just some guys kicking around some songs, informal and caught on-the-fly.
Speaking of botched intros: opening track “Oh Susannah” takes a good forty seconds to find its groove before it lurches into an arrangement by ‘60s folk trio The Big 3 (an early vehicle for Tim Rose and “Mama” Cass Elliot), familiar to fans of kitsch-rock and lady-razor ads as the template for Shocking Blue’s hit “Venus.” Despite the initial fumbling, it’s a strong start to the album, with some typically squalling lead guitar breaks from Young, while the Horse manage a charmingly clunky approximation of the famous groove.
“Clementine” and “Jesus’ Chariot” (or “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” as it’s subtitled) provide more straightforward examples of the driving Horse sound. These no-frills stompers will go furthest to please the die-hard fans of Ragged Glory and Broken Arrow, and it’s hard not to hear the simplistically nostalgic appeal. A few innovations do stand out: “Clementine” features some nicely evocative backing vocals reminiscent of the eerie coos of Rasa (Mrs. Ray) Davies, found all over the Kinks’ Something Else. It is almost certainly an unintentional sonic parallel, but a welcome one. Elsewhere, “Gallows Pole” is rhythmically ham-fisted, but has some of Young’s best guitar work on the album.
Of course, some of the music on Americana is just very, very bad. I can’t imagine anyone was waiting for the N.Y.+C.H. version of the Silhouette’s “dip-dip-dip/ sha-na-na-na”-packed “Get A Job,” and if they were, they’ll be sorely disappointed. There are adherents to Neil Young’s voice in its “tuneless bleating” mode (“Welfare Mothers” goes over pretty well at concerts), but the Horse’s backup vocals here can only be described as atrociously non-musical, belying their ancient history as a doo-wop group. It helps to imagine this having been recorded at the tail end of a particularly rowdy wedding reception, but only a little.
While not nearly so unlistenable, murder ballad “Tom Dula” could have done with a few more takes and a few more muted microphones. And though it’s thematically interesting (the song and liner notes connect the British anthem as an antecedent to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” evoking the nation’s transition to independence, apparently) “God Save The Queen” doesn’t do much as a piece of rock music. (Trite though it is to say, Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” it ain’t.)
Finally, “Wayfarin’ Stranger” carries one of folk’s most indelible melodies, but it’s been done too often, and far better elsewhere.
Between the pretty good and the very, very, bad are “High-Flyin’ Bird,” “Travel On,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” pleasant enough throwaways with essentially interchangeable arrangements. Songs like these remind one of semi-famous off-the-cuff documents like the Dylan/Cash sessions or the various oldies-driven outtakes from Let It Be, suggesting that Americana could have made for a relatively satisfying bootleg.
Which is maybe the point. Young is renowned for having a massive backlog of unreleased material, and the logic behind what he’s found suitable for release has been idiosyncratic at best. There’s little question that this very obstinacy (perceived as eccentricity or rebellion, or both) is a key aspect of his appeal, his myth. So it should come as no surprise that, despite the fanfare surrounding Crazy Horse’s return, this album offers a lackluster display of their powers, or that another intriguing concept album would be so indifferently executed. But it’s become necessary to apply a kind of caveat emptor policy to nearly everything Neil Young releases, particularly as each album seems to act as a negation of the one before.
A friend suggested to me that Americana, with its amiably casual vibe, is just a warm-up for Young’s next, more developed outing with the Horse. If that’s the case, great. It wouldn’t be the first time Young thrusted a transitional experiment on his audience, and I suppose part of the fun in being a Neil Young fan is seeing what Neil Young will do next. We now expect him to confound expectations, to challenge notions of quality from a mainstream recording artist. I’m guessing the next album will be its own kind of refutation to this one, and hopefully an interesting one. But in the meantime, for all its faults, Americana can do nothing to tarnish either his legend, nor that of the controversial, beloved, and occasionally inept Crazy Horse. At this point, the bad stuff—and perhaps particularly the very, very bad stuff—only adds to the mystery.
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