SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Neil Young With Crazy Horse – Americana – Warner Bros./Reprise Records (double vinyl)

Neil Young takes an inspired, dark journey inside the soul of America.

Published on September 5, 2012

Neil Young With Crazy Horse – Americana – Warner Bros./Reprise Records (2012) double 180- gram stereo vinyl 531195-1, 56:36 *****: 

(Featuring Neil Young – guitar, vocals; and Crazy Horse (Billy Talbot – bass, vocals; Ralph Molina – drums; Poncho Sampredo – guitar) with Stephen Stills – vocals; Pegi Young – vocals; Dan Greco – percussion; and the Americana Choir under the direction of Darrell Brown/conducted by Tim Davis)

It has always been difficult to predict the next move by Neil Young. His career has meandered into unpredictability and inspired artistry. There are quintessential folk albums, on and off again reunions with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Buffalo Springfield, films and conceptual projects. He released a live collection of Country Swing (The International Harvesters) and a solo guitar/voice outing (Le Noise). His catalogue, at times, does not focus on mass appeal. He is an icon of rock, and has been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as a band member and individual artist.

Perhaps his most intriguing collaborations have been with Crazy Horse, a blistering electrified garage band. On albums like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Zuma and Ragged Glory, he developed a relentless synergy that has earned him the title, “Godfather of Grunge”. These sessions relied on intuitive verve and rock intensity, featuring extended jams. After a fifteen-year recording hiatus, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are back.

Americana (which represents the first of two 2012 releases) re-introduces familiar American songs to a darker context. Tunes that are sung in elementary school choirs, state fairs and political conventions have been arranged for garage band aesthetics. Looser, noisy and bellowing with guitar effects, these traditional ditties emerge altered from their original constructs. Side 1 opens with Stephen Foster’s beloved “Oh Susannah”. Rewritten by folk-rock pioneer Tim Rose (based on the 1964 version), this has a different melody and bridges the gap between folk and rock and roll. With a raw sentiment, the jagged fuzzy guitar licks are vintage Crazy Horse. Young’s pure tenor is solid as he belts out…”B-A-N-J-O on my knee”. Another stand by, “Clementine” (better known as “My Darling Clementine”), is somewhat traditional (musically), but includes the brooding, death-infused imagery. As with many of the cuts, there is studio chatter at the end that accentuates the “live” feel. Young’s guitar is piercing and his four- decade association with this band may be his best instrumental work. “Tom Dula” (a.k.a. “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley”) is no longer a finger-snapping pop song, but an homage to post-Civil War human tragedy.

There is a diverse collection of material. On “Jesus’ Chariot” (or “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”), this spiritual, or “labor union statement” is an amalgam of electric guitar hooks and thudding drums.  Neil Young and Crazy Horse have had a fair share of acoustic numbers. The traditional cover of “Wayfarin’ Stranger” is evidence of that. Well into his sixties, Young’s voice is evocative, and exudes a graceful eloquence. He channels Woody Guthrie’s defiant anger on “This Land Is Your Land”. A full chorus nearly renders a sing-a-long cadence. However, strict accessibility is not his long suit. Artists like Bruce Springsteen (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) have merged traditional music with modern high-concept interpretation. Here, the freewheeling spontaneous ambiance never fades. As the band launches into a rebellious “God Save The Queen” in march-time, it is clear that anything goes with the Canadian rocker.

Not all of the gambles pay off. The doo-wop “Get A Job” (first recorded by the Silhouettes in 1957), may be out of place. But, Young’s musical vision is unconventional, without regard to critics or his fan base. There are only three sides, which raises questions about what additional tracks could have been added to Side 4.

Americana is a perfect vehicle for analog technology. Recorded on Signal Path A-A-A-(Universal Audio tube console, Neve BCM10 junior console and transferred to Studer 2-inch eight-track, then mixed to Ampex ½-inch two-track tape), the overall tonal quality is excellent. The walled layers of fuzzy guitars have a palpable density. The lower end mix (especially on the drum) is prominent. When chorale accents merge, they are peripheral to the muddy garage dynamic. Liner notes provide concise explanations of the songs, not an abstract dissertation. The art direction captures the contextual imagery.

And for die-hard Neil Young and Crazy Horse fans and analog aficionados; there is also another album set for October release.

Side 1: Oh Susannah; Clementine; Tom Dula
Side 2: Gallows Pole; Get A Job; Travel On; High Flyin’ Bird
Side 3: Jesus’ Chariot; This Land Is Your Land; Wayfarin’ Stranger; God Save The Queen

—Robbie Gerson

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