What would you consider to be Neil Young's last truly great studio album with his long-time electric backing band Crazy Horse? For some hardcore loyalists, it surely is his 1994 post-Cobain comedown Sleeps With Angels, a record that attempted to recapture the atmospheric nuances of Tonight's The Night and On The Beach with arguably mixed results. For most, however, its a no-brainer to cite the quartet's 1990 garage born masterpiece Ragged Glory, which established Young as the godfather of guitar crunch for a new generation of rock fans discovering the art of feedback through the din of such acts as Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Mudhoney and unofficially helped usher in the grunge era a good year before Nirvana's Nevermind.
Truth be told, with the exception of Sleeps, Harvest Moon and Le Noise, Prairie Wind, maybe even Silver + Gold, the last 20 years have been some of the rockiest of Young's career, especially in the context of his output with Crazy Horse. 1996's Broken Arrow just felt completely tossed off, while 2003's environmental epic Greendale was noble in its concept but extremely flawed in its execution, undoubtedly due to the absence of guitarist Frank Sampedro, who sat out of these sessions for "aesthetic" reasons.
And then there's Toast, the unreleased album recorded with Crazy Horse in 2000 but then scrapped and re-imagined as Are You Passionate?, which featured the backing of Booker T. and the MGs, long rumored to finally see the light of day as a part of Young's ambitious Archives series and said to be one of the group's most killer records since coming together in 1969. But as the surprise appearance of a 37-minute brainstorming jam streaming on Neil Young's official site earlier this year indicated, Young, Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina were working together again and are bringing back the Glory days.
And for Americana, Young's 13th studio LP with Crazy Horse, the team rekindles the spirited looseness that embodies them at the peak of their powers as they crank the Fender stacks to the max and ravage through some of the most well-known folk standards we learned from elementary school music class, claiming them as their own. They transform such day camp singalong fare as "Oh Susannah", "Clementine" and "Jesus' Chariot" (perhaps better known as "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain") into full-throttle blasts of classic Crazy Horse, giving more gravity to the history behind the lyrics through their electrified execution.
They crank it to 11 for "Tom Dula", the legendary lament for the Confederate soldier who was hanged for the murder of his fiancée Laura Foster, while acknowledging the sociopolitical ramifications of The Silhouettes' doo-wop anthem "Get A Job" by kicking a little dust onto the polished chrome dreams of Young's Shocking Pinks days. The band plays it straight, however, for a powerful version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land", which sees Neil reinstate the long deleted verse from the song that goes, "As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said 'No Trespassing'./But on the other side it didn't say nothing,/That side was made for you and me." Meanwhile, Americana ends on a rather intriguing note with a performance of "God Save The Queen", which is given a coincidental poignancy considering this album drops in the middle of the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth's 60 years on the throne. That is, of course, until the children's choir comes in with the nationalized variation on the melody, "My Country Tis Of Thee".
The wildest thing about hearing these Neil'd out renditions of chestnuts from the blue collar end of the Great American Songbook is how much they make sense in these most uncertain and nervous times in our history as they did back when they were originally penned. And who better than Canada's greatest Yankee to keep the colors of these essential threads to our collective fabric so vibrant after all this time on his hottest work with Crazy Horse in over two decades.