It is understandable that fans might anticipate a stripped-down, acoustic guitar-driven affair with plenty of harmonica when they learn that Neil Young's new album is largely a collection of traditional American folk songs. But then you throw in the fact that Young is backed by the powerhouse rock trio Crazy Horse for the first time in nine years, and those expectations go straight out the window.
Young generally recruits the talents of Crazy Horse's three members - Ralph Molina, Poncho Sampedro and Billy Talbot - when he wants to flex his rock muscles, and "Americana" doesn't buck that trend. With the lone exception of a subdued rendition of the traditional spiritual Wayfarin' Stranger, the 11 songs showcase the thick and weighted sound that helped Young earn the unofficial title of the "Godfather of Grunge." And that sound is a real key to the album's ultimate success.
"Americana" works because Young and Crazy Horse manage to breathe new life into these well-known songs by giving them a sonic facelift. Some of the most effective transformations are the ones in which recognizable traditional melodies are largely ignored and reimagined.
The familiar sing-song of Stephen Foster's Oh Susannah, one of the most enduring songs from the minstrel show era, is altered to the point that it more closely resembles Santana's Latin-flavored, classic rock guitar jams than anything played on banjo. Tom Dula, the famous historical ballad popularized in the late '50s by The Kingston Trio under the moniker Tom Dooley, is another familiar tune that is birthed anew as a stomper with phonetic "Tom-Du-Lay" group chants throughout. Jesus' Chariot, a spiritual better known to most children as She'll Be Coming 'Round The Mountain, also thrives in its heavy new skin.
Although most tracks are traditional folk treasures, Young also picked a few songs from outside of that genre to round out the collection. The inclusion of the Silhouettes' doo-wop hit single, Get A Job, is a not-so-sly nod to the lack of jobs in our current economy, while the bombastic march-rock rendition of God Save The Queen that closes the album is a reminder of America's colonial heritage.