Neil Young – Americana (Reprise)


(The review originally appeared at www.spectrumculture.com)

 

Neil Young is a historically restless artist. For over four decades now, he’s been steadily shuffling band members in and out of his orbit, and trying out different musical concepts to see if anything fits. It’s an approach that’s responsible for some of rock’s greatest music, but in the two decades since Harvest Moon (arguably his last masterpiece) it’s resulted in albums that are based on interesting concepts, but are ultimately lesser entries in his catalog. The ideas of Neil cutting a soul record with Booker T. and The MGs (Are You Passionate?), revisiting his acoustic roots (Silver & Gold and Prairie Wind) or bashing out an off-the-cuff record in protest of the Iraq War (Living with War) were all easy ones to get excited about on paper, but the records themselves weren’t very good.

Americana is an unfortunate double-whammy in that both the concept and execution are uniformly bad. First, let’s examine the concept – Neil giving the Crazy Horse treatment to a batch of American folk songs from before the 20th century. Several of his contemporaries (Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop and Rod Stewart, for example) have put out recent covers albums derived from non-rock sources, so he‘s hardly coming out of left field on this one. However, while those covers albums were intended to pay tribute to songwriting heroes, Young’s intent with Americana was to restore the original, much darker, meanings of these American-as-apple-pie songs. Neil is successful on that front in that he plays the full unabridged songs as they were meant to be heard. Unfortunately, whatever meaning songs like “Oh Susannah” or “This Land Is Your Land” once had was killed off long ago through years of grade-school sing-a-longs and general Disney-fication. Nobody, not even your favorite band at their height, can breathe enough life into these songs to make you want to hear a whole album‘s worth. Even Young himself appears to get bored by Americana’s concept, stepping outside of its constraints to cover The Silhouettes’ doo-wop classic “Get a Job”, and crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the British national anthem “God Save the Queen”. No, not the Sex Pistols song – although that might have worked pretty well, come to think of it.

We all know that whenever Neil gets together with Crazy Horse there’s going to be a lot of sludgy guitar playing and a general disregard for cleanliness or perfection – an approach perhaps best described by the title of their 1990 album, Ragged Glory. Well, it’s been eight years since Neil and Crazy Horse combined forces, and from the sound of it, the “glory” is gone and what’s left is just plain ol’ ragged. Everybody sounds a little too loose and under-rehearsed (or, as it‘s more commonly known, “sloppy“), and Young’s strained vocals are a constant reminder that the man is now a senior citizen. Yet he sounds like Pavarotti compared to bassist Billy Talbot’s painfully off-key (and sometimes poorly mic’d) backing vocals. Of all the voices you hear on Americana, only Neil’s wife, Pegi Young, hits enough notes to put her above the Mendoza Line of singing.

While I take some comfort in knowing that, at age 66, Neil is stubbornly following his own creative muse and showing no regard to what’s hip and fashionable, Americana is a dud, plain and simple.

Tracklisting:

  • “Oh Susannah”– 5:03
  • “Clementine” – 5:42
  • “Tom Dula” – 8:13
  • “Gallows Pole” – 4:15
  • “Get a Job” – 3:01
  • “Travel On” – 6:47
  • “High Flyin’ Bird” – 5:30
  • “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain)” – 5:38
  • “This Land Is Your Land” – 5:26
  • “Wayfarin’ Stranger” – 3:07
  • “God Save the Queen” – 4:08

Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (Reprise Records)


Who other than Neil Young could record one of his best albums, shelve it before release, and then release its’ sequel 30 years later? Who else would make that sequel’s centerpiece an 18-minute song recorded almost 20 years ago – essentially a studio out-take from one of his least rewarding periods? You have to give it to Neil – the man is 62 years old, and he still finds new ways to challenge and confuse his audience. Although his best days are probably behind him, Chrome Dreams II proves yet again that he’s still capable of putting out good music, which is something none of his contemporaries can claim.

Opening numbers “Beautiful Bluebird” and “Boxcar” may resort to cheap country-sentimentalism, with lyrics about “old pickup trucks” and “old freight trains”, but when sung in Neil’s tender voice, and accompanied by his guitar, it works. The aforementioned 18-minute “Ordinary People” is easily the worst song on the album; its bad keyboards, saxophone solos, and references to Lee Iaccoca should have been left in the 1980s where they belong. It’s followed by a pair of gospel-tinged numbers, “Shining Light” and “The Believer” which are a mixed bag, and a couple of rockers, “Spirit Road” and “Dirty Old Man”, which finally gives Neil’s guitar a chance to shine in all of its noisy glory. The remainder of the album is split between cheesy country (“Ever After” starts with the cloying line “When I hear that rooster crowing”), guitar rock (“No Hidden Path” clocks in at 14 minutes and is actually very good), and a gospel-ballad (“The Way”, which features a choir). It’s a confusing mish-mosh of an album that ranks neither with his best nor worst, but it’s still great to hear a guy at 62 years old putting out music that isn’t an embarrassment to his legacy. Now let’s just hope the original Chrome Dreams shows up on his long-promised Archives box set, scheduled for 2008.

Neil Young – Live At Massey Hall (Reprise Records)


The second release from The Archive Series is almost the exact opposite of the first. Whereas last year’s Live At The Fillmore East was Neil Young backed by Crazy Horse in all their electric “ragged glory”, the Massey Hall show (from 1971) is Neil by himself on an acoustic guitar or piano. The songs performed that night were a cross-section of Young’s work to date (including songs Young originally did with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY), ones that would show up on future albums – many from the soon to be released Harvest, and a few rarities: The country-ish ballad “Bad Fog Of Lonliness” gets its first official release here, and the crowd-pleasing “Dance Dance Dance” was only released on a Crazy Horse album without Young’s participation. Even some of the songs you already know well are presented here in stripped down versions which completely recasts guitar epics like “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Down By The River” in a different, but equally exquisite, light. All in all, Live at Massey Hall is a fantastic look at an important artist at the height of his career and is completely recommended (though fans may want to wait for the 8 CD, 2 DVD archival box-set promised for later this year which will include both the Massey Hall and Fillmore East shows).