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September 28, 2012 / Erik Ritland

Neil Young, Americana

Grade: B+

I was originally going to give this album an A or A+ as I am completely in love with it and can find nothing I dislike about it. But then what would I give the Beatles’ The White Album, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, or Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited? An A+++? I had to draw the line somewhere. Believe me though, if we’re talking albums that have come out since 1980, this gets an A.

On Americana Neil Young and Crazy Horse cover fairly well-known traditional folk songs (“Oh Susannah,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain)”) in their typical loose, electric guitar-heavy way. To prove that not even a concept he creates can tie him down, Young also covers England’s “God Save the Queen” and the ‘50s doo-wop classic “Get a Job,” which only loosely fit the concept. He sets limits to facilitate creativity and then breaks them when it fits his spirit.

The songs Young chose are classic for good reason. They’re a part of our soil, a part of our blood, a part of our soul as Americans. Those who aren’t acquainted with them are detached from their own history and are missing significant knowledge of what has made them who they are. A generation that doesn’t know where they’ve been will find it difficult to figure out where they are or where they are going. This album is the most important type of education.

The songs vary in sound and feel and are well-executed. The opening track, “Oh Susannah,” sets the tone of the album with its loose arrangement that always threatens to devolve into a train wreck but never does. This tension, found on most of the songs, gives the album a unique feel. Each performance comes from the band’s spirit. They are personal and real.

Young today in a sweater I would wear.

This attitude brings freshness and character. Hard-hitting drum riffs combined with Young’s classic, chunky distorted guitar tones are the foundation for “Clementine” and “Jesus’ Chariot.” The formers haunting, minor-key ambiance cuts to the soul of the song. Of the riff-led songs – “Tom Dula,” “High Flying Bird,” and “Travel On” – the first is the standout, even at a sprawling 8:13. Young’s vocal, the guitar work, and the shouting backing vocals have an energy that brings new life to the old folk song.

While many of the tracks – “Susannah,” “Clementine,” and “Dula” among them – have a dark, heavy, weighty edge to them, there are some brighter spots that even things out. “This Land is Your Land,” “Gallows Pole,” “Get a Job,” “Travel On,” and “God Save the Queen” are each loose and jaunty. The guitar recklessness that Crazy Horse is known for gives life to their traditional arrangement of “This Land.” The snarky original lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie that were left out of the original recording are a nice touch.

In these times, when so much of what makes music wonderful is dying, it is essential to continue to support real musicians like Young and real albums like Americana. Don’t just download it – buy it. Support real music from real musicians while you still can.

Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His writings on culture, music (including his own projects), sports, religion, and many other topics are cataloged regularly at Ramblin’ On. You can reach him via email here.

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