Only Neil Young could take the campfire chestnut “Oh, Susannah” and turn it into something that demands The Frug. But Young opens Americana, his folk’n’protest album conjured with Crazy Horse, with a herky jerky take on the classic that suggests gogo boots, kohl eyes and girls in body paint in cages. Don’t let the “b-a-n-j-o on my knee” fool ya.
Given Ben Keith’s death last year, it’s the perfect merge: Young’s rough-hewn organics and the raucous Crazy Horse. Two worlds collide, then songs long forgotten get a shocking jolt of groove, jab, undulation and—yes—reverb.
Cascading urgency in the electric guitar and toms adds a frantic romantic edge to “My Darling Clementine.” In Young’s crow-on-a-fence bray, the song morphs from chaste tale of love and death into something on the edge of reason.
Hard-charging, insistently keeping the beats, this is traditional American music set on stun. “Jesus’ Chariot”—known to many as “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain”—boasts a high-plains pounding of hooves beat, a grinding intensity that squalls. Think rootstallica, and you’re gaining on it.
Flipping the intent is key here. “Tom Dula” gets a jaunty swagger, half-threatening, half there-but-for-the-grace-of-God, while the topsy-turvy burlequery of “Gallows Pole” gives the death sentence an even more bodacious feel. Both laments of death, they’re become the caniest part of the circus.
The doo-woppery of “Get A Job” recalls the Shocking Pinks, Young’s voice a pinched punk whine against a ‘50s wall of harmonies. Guitars wrangle and tangle, the sweetness isn’t extinguished, but it’s Young’s protest that rises.
Protest is marked by celebration on a country-tinged “This Land Is Your Land.” With Woody Guthrie’s chorus played straight, the verses are given a jubiliant subversive edge. This is victory for the common people over those who’d oppress them, merely by rejecting the rules.
Given that, you’d almost expect Crazy Horse to out-Rotten the Sex Pistols, but Young and company play it straight. With rump-a-pum-pum drummer boy beats, soaring chords and a Hendrix-evoking lead guitar, Young is ironic in his delivery, skewering and yet, somehow what the Queen Mum would want if she were a Clash fan.
There is pensiveness: a quiet track to ponder life and salvation. “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” a bluegrass jewel and folk/gospel standard, suggests a burlier Townes Van Zandt. Easily the sweetest vocal Young provides, it’s a calming song of life after death and reuniting with beloved family members. Brooding, but hopeful, this is the moment for Harvest fans seduced by the title—but who missed the name of the band.