From the playful opening notes of "Oh Susannah" and the sloppy (but sure) progression of the song, it's clear that the goal of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's first recording since "Greendale" - and first full album with guitarist Frank "Sancho" Sampedro since "Broken Arrow" in 1996 - is fun. The band is jamming, giving its spin on some traditional tunes and we're privy to the drunken revelry.
The project is impossible and shouldn't work, but it does. When I heard that Young was covering traditional favorites, I rolled my eyes and was ready for the worst. How could he take songs that are deeply embedded in our collective memory and turn them into anything but embarrassing acts of vandalism? The shocking thing is how seamlessly tunes like "Clementine" and "Tom Dula" become Young's own. He turns up the distortion, breaks down the melody and wails and whines away to great effect. His efforts are lifted by Billy Talbot's atonal background vocals, which give the songs an everyman's majestic atmosphere.
There are a few throwaways and they are, surprisingly, the songs that stay truer to the originals. "This Land is Your Land" might as well be a church sing-a-long and "Get a Job" sounds like it was enjoyable to record but it's not as fun to listen to.
But there are moments in "High Flyin' Bird" and, especially, "Jesus' Chariot" when Young's arrangements are simultaneously intimate and expansive and they are reminiscent of his brilliant 1994 memorial for Kurt Cobain, "Sleeps with Angels." Like R.E.M.'s "Monster," "Angels" was influenced by grunge, but didn't sound like anything else at that time. What makes the style so effective is that Young's voice is vulnerable. It doesn't try to match the attitude of the loud guitars; it shakes sincerely while they posture.
I will understand if some think that "Americana" is an unforgiveable crime. One could make the argument that Young is doing even more damage to these songs by being successful. Do we really want his modern rock renditions piggybacking timeless classics that belong to everyone? That's up to the individual listener. For me, I'm just happy that these guys are still rocking. Because when Young does hard rock right, no one does it better.
DOWNLOAD NOW: "Clementine," "Jesus' Chariot."
Top 10 Neil Young songs of the 2000s
(Not including "Americana," released Tuesday, Young's 34th album.)
Neil Young has released a lot of albums - 33, to be exact - and along with a library of classics, there's a good amount of mediocre material out there. His 2000s output could've used a lot of editing, but there are captivating tunes scattered throughout that are worth saving:
1. "Just Singing a Song" - "Fork in the Road," 2009.
A bona fide classic hard rock song that wouldn't sound out of place on Young's much-loved "Rust Never Sleeps." It does, however, stick out on an otherwise disposable album written about Young's garage-built electric car, the LincVolt.
2. "No Wonder" - "Prairie Wind," 2005.
A "Harvest"-like theatrical ballad that features one of Young's best lines: "That song from 9/11 keeps ringing in my head/ I'll always remember something Chris Rock said/ Don't send no more candles/ No matter what you do/ Then Willie stopped singing/ And the prairie wind blew."
3. "Shock and Awe" - "Living with War," 2006.
In the style of "Rocking in the Free World," "Shock and Awe" is an epic sing-along with a catchy melody. It's also a spirited indictment of George W. Bush that highlights the irony of the "Mission Accomplished" fiasco.
4. "Dirty Old Man" - "Chrome Dreams II," 2007.
A punkish rocker with a muscular riff reminiscent of "Piece of Crap" from "Sleeps with Angels."
5. "Silver and Gold" - "Silver and Gold," 2000.
Sounds like it could've been written by James Taylor in the '70s. It's a pure moment of inspiration and a nice tune, even if it's a little cheesy.
6. "Walk with Me" - "Le Noise," 2010.
7. "Going Home," - "Are You Passionate?" 2002.
8. "It's a Dream" - "Prairie Wind," 2005.
9. "Hitchiker" - "Le Noise," 2010.
10. "Sun Green" - "Greendale," 2003.