Sunday, June 24, 2012

Neil Young & Crazy Horse "Americana" (3.5*)

I guess, when you’re looking to head off into Retro territory there are two extreme paths you can choose.

You can, should you want to employ twenty-first century technology and match it up with an attitude or sensibility that comes out of the era you’re looking to recreate, end up with something like a perfectly recorded period piece. That would deliver a seventies punk recreation where you could hear the singers’ spittle hitting the microphone or someone singing the acoustic blues with perfectly recorded fingernails scraping along guitar strings.

Alternatively you can take yourself back to the technology that applied at the time and produce something that sounds like it came directly out of the era you’re looking at without stopping along the way.

Most exercises in retrospectivity fit somewhere in between those extremes, with perfectly recorded reproductions played through vintage amplifiers (or whatever), but when you’re looking at the latest effort from Neil Young & Crazy Horse it’s worth stating those extremes because there’s a fair bit of both here.

It’s around nine years since Greendale, the last time Young let the Horse (in the studio sans guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, though he played on the subsequent tour) loose on a fan base that, largely, yearns for the primitive garage band thrash the outfit delivers (basically because anything else is a fair way beyond their actual capabilities), and with the Horse in harness you’re more or less right back in the second approach outlined above, regardless of whether you’re using the latest techno wonders to do the actual recording.

Regardless of what you think about Neil’s recent recording history, there’s no denying the guy’s prolific. Possibly too prolific, in the sense that a little time spent on polishing the product might be better than first thought = best thought, which is where he seems to have been sitting for a while.

Regardless of how prolific you are, sitting down to write a book (Waging Heavy Peace, apparently semi-autobiographical, due out later this year) the effort’s possibly going to steer you away from writing songs and while you’re thinking about the past you’re going to remember things you were doing back when you were starting out in the early sixties.

Those reminiscences apparently included versions of Oh, Susannah by The Thorns and The Company's version of High Flying Bird as played in Ontario clubs and incorporated into the repertoire of Young’s band, The Squires, joining She’ll Be Comin ’Round The Mountain, Tom Dooley and Clementine in their regular set list.

That’s one part of the equation.

On top of that, it’s hard to avoid suspecting the origins of this particular exercise probably trace back to the preparations for the Young & Crazy Horse appearance at the MusicCares tribute to Paul McCartney in Los Angeles back in February, where their cover of I Saw Her Standing There was apparently one of the highlights of the show. If you’re going to go back to 1963, why not go all the way back?

Of course, when you’re talking Neil Young things aren’t that simple.

Sure, he might wake up one morning with memories of singing God Save the Queen at primary school and decide to have a bash at it here, but he also does a bit of research, digging out the oft-forgotten second verse, goes the full back to childhood kick with a kids choir thrown in for good measure and throws in some of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee (same tune, different lyrics), the unofficial anthem of the United States before The Star Spangled Banner got the official gig in 1931.

And if you thought it was just a matter of digging out a few old chestnuts and redoing them as garage rock thump after the artistic and political stances on Greendale, Living With War, Fork in the Road and Le Noise he goes to some trouble to spell out the fact that many of those old hootenanny staples everybody sang so cheerfully back in the day were concerned with murder, sex, and political turbulence in circumstances where physical danger lurked around the corner for those who were inclined to question the status quo.

So you have the original Old Left lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, and in interviews Young has talked about She’ll Be Comin ’Round The Mountain (covered here, but renamed Jesus' Chariot), generally held to be a Negro spiritual, referring to the second coming of Jesus, with she being the chariot he’ll arrive on but points out an alternative narrative. She, in this reading, is union organiser Mary Harris "Mother" Jones promoting union activity in Appalachian coal-mining camps.

Not quite your usual good time campfire hootenanny interpretations.

As Young and the Horse stomp through Oh Susannah (Stephen Foster filtered through an early sixties arrangement by The Thorns with a nod to Shocking Blue’s Venus), Clementine and Tom Dula (both a la Fort William, spring 1965), Gallows Pole, and a dose of fifties doo wop withThe Silhouettes‘ 1957 hit Get A Jobit certainly sounds like they’re having a ball reliving bits of the past.

At this point I’m inclined to point out that Crazy Horse started off as a Los Angeles-based doo wop outfit called Danny And The Memories, so it’s not just Young’s past we’re revisiting.

Proceedings are rounded off with Travel On, the Haight-Ashbury folk-rock fave High Flyin’ Bird, Wayfarin’ Stranger and, just to wind things up, God Save The Queen. This one seems to have a few Yanks scratching their heads, but I have a suspicion The Squires and their peers, playing rock’n’roll for the kids on the Canadian prairies, were regularly told to finish the night’s entertainment with a rendition of the anthem, along the same lines as the situation where a Northern Ireland club owner insisted John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers finish with the anthem in November 1967 (as preserved on Diary of a Band)...

As with all things Neil, your mileage is likely to vary considerably, and I must admit initial exposure to the B-A-N-J-O on my knee in Oh Susannah produced a hessian underwear reaction that had me firmly in the anti-Americana camp but repeated exposure has scaled that back to minor irritation and there are moments scattered throughout that are quite sublime in a revisiting our garage rock roots kind of way.

Fortunately, in these days of iTunes playlists and other filtering devices it’s easy to avoid the dross (God Save the Queen has already been relegated to the digital back blocks) and it’ll be interesting to see which other titles will have joined This Land is Your Land in the lofty heights of Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played. I’d nominate Get a Job as the most likely candidate.

Some links:

Initial announcement in Rolling Stone

Neil interviewed for Reuters, Morning Becomes Eclectic, Fresh Air and All Songs Considered

On Thrasher’s Wheat, A Neil Young Critic Drifts Into Self-parody and The Unbearable Lightness of Being Neil Young

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