Despite the fact that Neil Young is one of rock’s greatest songwriters, some of his best songs are barely songs at all. Classics like “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Cortez The Killer”—and overlooked gems likes “Love And Only Love” and “Slip Away”—are simple, sturdy chord-frames on which Young hangs a handful of lyrics before getting down to business: playing the shit out of his guitar. The thing is, he needs simple, sturdy Crazy Horse to do that, and his legendary backing band has been out of Young’s picture, studio-wise, for almost nine years. According to rumor, a new Neil Young And Crazy Horse album is in the works—and in preparation of that, the group has released Americana, a rousing collection of folk standards that anticipates the potential for one hell of a comeback.
Equal parts stopgap, warm-up, and crusty homage, Americana doesn’t take its subject matter, or itself, too seriously. The pre-fame Young served his time as a coffee-shop folkie, but he mangles whatever memories he has of that time with a blistering rendition of “Oh Susannah,” which kicks open the album irreverently, choosing to retool the entire song rather than pay tribute to it. “It sounds funky,” Young tells the rest of the band at song’s end, as the distortion pools around his feet—and he means it in the good way. From there, the first-take, jam-session vibe doesn’t let up. Chestnuts such as “Clementine” and “Gallows Pole” come out positively roasted. Bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina wobble along like creaky clockwork, and rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro lays down a typically thick coat of mud-and-guts primer; even on a spirited, unabridged run through Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the arrangement’s country-rock corn is given a good, hearty charring.
Ever the contrarian, Young closes Americana with a punky mauling of the British national anthem, “God Save The Queen”; somewhere, the Johnny Rotten of “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” snarls in outrage. Then again, Young is a native Canadian and therefore a former Commonwealth resident—and he’s always had a broad view of what constitutes Americana. He and Crazy Horse exercise that prerogative on “God Save The Queen” by slopping barnacled guitars and martial drums over angelic backing vocals, then mashing the words of the song’s twin, “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee,” into the whole glorious mess. Potent, corrosive, and sometimes frustratingly playful, Americana proves the old adage that great artists can sing the phone book—or just tear the fucker in half.