REVIEW: Neil Young and Crazy Horse - American

I know, I know. Where do I get off writing a review of Neil Young? I’m just some guy who loves music, and that genius of a rocker has been creating some of best (and most heartfelt) music the world has ever known for nearly 50 years. This ornery old man (Young, not me), whose voice sounds increasingly like it emanates from his jowls, can do whatever he wants. Nothing he might produce today can diminish the sheer greatness of his 70’s work. “Down by the River” and “Cortez the Killer” have two of the most awe-inspiring guitar solos ever. I’ll cut you if you think otherwise. “Ohio” is perhaps the greatest protest song this side of Bob Dylan, and “A Man Needs a Maid” manages to contain the most sorrowful sexism I’ve ever heard.

Mr. Young (decorum required!) is the very model of what an aging artist should be. Instead of rehashing what we’ve heard for decades, he instead innovates, experiments and pushes boundaries. You want a concept album about driving an electrified 1959 Lincoln Continental across country to make a point about oil consumption (which, incidentally, later blew up)? Check. You want a topical album about how criminal the Bush Administration was? Check. You want a rockabilly or soul album? Check. You want the best-damn soundtrack to a Jim Jarmusch movie ever? Check. You want country folk? Check. Check. You want proto “grunge”? Check. Check. Check. And do you want an entire album of folk standard with Crazy Horse? Turns out, probably not.  

Americana is a mess. It purports to be a record of amped-up American folk standards -  although, “God Save the Queen” is on there (I guess Queen Elizabeth still rules Canada in a technical sense and that Canada is part of “America” in another. But come on!) – but the only thing that is truly amped up is the meh.  Made with legendary on and off again Young collaborators Crazy Horse, the record sounds tossed-off in all the wrong ways. When they do their thing right, the unit sounds like a boat about to heel into the ocean, adding desperation and excitement to even the most basic of rocks songs. When they do their thing wrong, as is demonstrated on this record, they impersonate an unfocused and untrained bar band that plays little more than C, D and G chords (albeit with a lot of gusto).  

Things start out by raising false hope with the highlight of record, “Oh Susannah.” The first few seconds consist of the band tuning up, and it sounds like the tech just put one or two microphones in their practice room and hit record on the 4-track and walked away. There’s a nice chanting in the background, and even better guitar from Mr. Young. In Horse’s hands “Oh Susannah” sounds positively threatening. Like a crazed killer standing outside a woman’s bedroom window with a banjo instead of a cleaver. This could have a fun single. Maybe the “b sides” would have been the nice stomp of “Tom Dula,” or possibly the delightfully ridiculous “Jesus’s Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain)”, and if they had stopped there it would have been enough.

But they didn’t stop, and the rest of album sounds like Neil Young singing and playing old folk tunes at an open mic night. Absolutely nothing is added to songs like “This Land is Your Land,” “Get a Job” or “Wayfaring Stranger” (check out Johnny Cash or Jack White’s version of the latter song to see what can be done with a little bit of creativity). I suppose no kittens were harmed in the process of releasing them, but there’s no artistic sense to it either. 

This record aside, I certainly hope Mr. Young keeps releasing records until he’s a 105. In a sense, every note he plays on his old Les Paul is worth hearing, but Americana is a prime example of a good idea that’s lazily executed.