Young’s reuniting with Crazy Horse has yielded disappointingly damp results.
Paul Whitelaw 2012-05-31
Great though he undoubtedly is, Neil Young has released some terrible albums in his time. And although Americana, his 34th studio recording, doesn't quite plumb the depths of, say, Everybody's Rockin' or Re-ac-tor, it's almost certainly destined to be regarded as a footnote in his canon.
It reunites him with venerable backing band Crazy Horse for the first time since their multimedia concept piece, Greendale, in 2003. It finds them churning through a collection of ancient American folk standards, some of which were once performed by one of Young's first bands, The Squires.
It's the latest chapter in his endless journey through the past – has there ever been a more inveterately backwards-looking rocker? – and appears to be an attempt to rake through the deepest soil of American roots music. Young’s intention is, presumably, to explore the continuing relevance of such hand-me-down themes, and cement his own personal connection to it.
But his intentions are scuppered by monotonous arrangements – Crazy Horse's ability to make every song sound identical, like a rustic Ramones at quarter-speed, is inadvertently funny – and a refusal to self-edit. The off-mic banter scattered throughout shows that all concerned are having fun, but none of that enjoyment translates through the speakers.
Young's raw, one-take ethos often serves him well. But without strong material to ignite them, he and his Horse revert to atavistic-codgers-jamming-endlessly-inside-a-corrugated-shed mode.
The reconfigured melodies of the likes of Clementine, She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain (Jesus’ Chariot) and Oh Susannah (in a version inspired by Tim Rose's 1964 arrangement) aren't half as memorable as the originals – the latter resembles, of all things, a sloppy distortion of Venus by Shocking Blue. Elsewhere, the band’s ragged assault on doo-wop chestnut Get a Job works neither as goofy respite nor as satire. The sole highlight is an understated acoustic take on Wayfarin' Stranger. Americana would've doubtless benefited from a few more tracks in a similar vein.
The addition of a female backing choir – a leftover from Young's thrilling, Bush-baiting Living With War (2006) – feels like a hasty afterthought, and they do nothing to alleviate the overriding fug of garage torpor. It's the dampest campfire hoedown you ever did hear.