I admit it - my first reaction to hearing about Neil Young & Crazy Horse putting out a collection of songs that I learned in grade school was “WTF?” After that, I wondered “why?” But being a longtime NY fan, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy of Americana at the same time I bought Psychedelic Pill. What the hell, why not? It’s NY & Crazy Horse – what could go wrong? Then I remembered these were the same guys who made Life and Re*ac*tor, neither of which are works for which they’d want to be remembered.
So I put the CD on in the car, and I heard the music to Oh Susannah and thought to myself “I’ve heard this before…” Then it occurred to me – they “borrowed” the tune from Venus [think the Shocking Blues, or even Bananarama] and sang Oh Susannah over it. Odd as that may sound it worked out pretty well. NY and Frank Sampedro sliced and diced with their guitars, while bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina were locked in like the nine years they spent apart hadn’t happened. Clementine and Jesus’ Chariot have the same kind of Indian beat as F*#kin’ Up [from Ragged Glory] and Goin’ Home [from Are You Passionate?]. Tom Dula is the same song as Tom Dooley, though the Crazy Horse arrangement isn’t quite what the Kingston Trio had in mind in the 1950s. Gallows Pole does not resemble what Led Zeppelin did in any way. Until I bought Americana, I never heard High Flyin’ Bird, so I have nothing to compare it to. Now that I have, I’m reminded of another cover done by NY & Crazy Horse – Farmer John. These songs are ok, but they just strike me as…odd. After having my mind completely blown by these songs, NY and company go acoustic with Wayfaring Stranger. They did an excellent job with this one.
The Silhouettes’ Get a Job is a very odd choice for the Horse treatment. Crazy Horse was a doo wop group long before they ever picked up any instruments, but never in my weirdest dreams did I think NY would give a doo wop song [or any of these other songs] the garage band. Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land does not fare well here, nor does God Save the Queen. I was a bit disappointed when I heard God Save the Queen and it wasn’t the Sex Pistols’ song. I thought it would be cool for NY to sing a Johnny Rotten song thirty-five years after singing about Johnny Rotten, but it was not to be.
Why Neil Young opted to release Americana I haven’t a clue, but I’ve long since given up trying to figure out what motivates him. He’s notorious for scrapping entire albums at the last minute [Chrome Dreams anyone?], and releasing some off-the-wall stuff [Everybody’s Rocking, Trans, etc]. If the purpose of Americana was for NY & Crazy Horse to get re-acquainted, that’s ok – I get that, but did the public have to be clued in? This could have stayed in Neil’s private collection and nobody would miss it. Americana did serve a purpose – it got the band warmed up to produce something good - I just didn’t have to hear it.
Best cuts – Oh Susannah, Wayfaring Stranger. The rest – meh... File Americana with Life – for completists only.
Forty-two years ago Neil Young appeared on an album called Déjà Vu with Crosby, Stills & Nash. Here it is in 2012, NY and Crazy Horse released Psychedelic Pill. There is definitely a feeling that the music contained therein is something I’ve heard before. I know that will read like a slam on NY, but Psychedelic Pill is the album some of us have been waiting for over twenty years for him to make. It’s a hell of a lot better than his last effort with Crazy Horse [the 2003 concept album Greendale]. To borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, this is a good thing. On Psychedelic Pill there are two kinds of songs – short, pleasant songs that might get played on the radio, and monster epic jams, of which there are three. As with all NY & Crazy Horse albums, the less NY sings and the more the band plays, the better the album.
Driftin’ Back – Musically this is a neat song – it lasts for almost 28 minutes (!). It starts with NY on acoustic guitar, but then as he’s “driftin’ back” into time, Crazy Horse comes out of the haze and lays down the groove NY will play over. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come roaring out of the fog – goody! While the Horse is laying down the groove, NY gets to improvise quite a bit. Lyrically he’s still the cranky “old man.” On 2009’s Fork in the Road he complained how downloaded music “sounds like shit.” On Driftin’ Back he’s still complaining [while plugging his memoir Waging Heavy Peace] about how crappy music sounds today – Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now/Write about them in my book/Worry that you can’t hear me now…When you hear my song now/ You only get five percent/ You used to get it all…He also bitches about the corporatization of art - I used to dig Picasso/ Then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper…He repeats I’m driftin’ back so much I thought it was like a mantra the first time I heard it – and guess what, it is! He even says as much.
Psychedelic Pill - I’ve heard the song Psychedelic Pill twice before – Sign of Love from 2010’s Le Noise, and Dirty Old Man from 2007’s Chrome Dreams II. All three songs have the same riff. On the new album it’s presented twice – with and without phasing so you can pick and choose which version you like. If he was John Fogerty instead of Neil Young, he would be sued by Saul Zaentz for sounding like himself. But if you can’t copy yourself, who can you copy? I like it anyway. For the record, I go for the phased version.
Ramada Inn – The second of three epic jams on Psychedelic Pill, this one looks at an old married couple who’ve been through it all [raising kids, alcoholism, the normal ups and downs of married life, etc].
Born in Ontario – Helpless gets an electrified sequel. Here he admits to writing songs "to make sense of my inner rage." He likes to write happy songs but sometimes things piss him off [Ohio, Living With War, etc].
Twisted Road – NY pays homage to three of his musical heroes – Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. After each time NY sings the chorus Walkin’ with devil on a twisted road/listen to the Dead on the radio/That old time music used to soothe my soul/If I ever get home I’m gonna let the good times roll…you hear the riff from the Dead’s Friend of the Devil. He dreams of singing in a place where he “first saw Roy,” and he remembers what a joy it was to hear Dylan sing “how does it feel” for the first time. Here’s a man who definitely yearns for radio the way things used to be, when DJs played what they wanted to play and not what their corporate masters want them to play.
She’s Always Dancing – At over eight minutes this would normally be considered a “long” song, but with NY everything is relative. Since three songs on Psychedelic Pill clock in over 16 minutes, this one is a short song in comparison. I’m not sure if NY is playing the same song as the rest of the band, but somehow it works. It has an interesting a capella beginning, then suddenly the band fades in with all guns blazing.
For the Love of Man – NY’s ode to his son Ben. Crazy Horse slows it down, turns down the volume and the whole thing still works. This is probably the most poignant song I’ve heard from NY in awhile.
Walk Like a Giant – Eureka! This takes me back to the time of Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust. This has Cortez the Killer, Like a Hurricane, Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black], and Tonight’s The Night all rolled into one. Barrages of feedback and distortion abound like they did on those recordings from that previous era. NY comments on his status in the rock world many years ago and compares that to what he feels it is today - I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf on the stream...He comments on the idealism from his youth and how the real world crushed that idealism - Me and some of my friends/We were gonna to save the world/We were trying to make it better/We were ready save the world/But the weather changed and white got stained and it fell apart/And it broke my heart...This echoes the same sentiment he expressed on Just Singing a Song from 2009’s Fork in the Road [Just singin’ a song won’t change the world...]. This from the same guy who dedicated an entire album to raging against the Iraq War – that’s quite a revelation to make. At the end, Ralph Molina pounds his drums as if to sound like a walking giant. After awhile the rest of the band joins in the “walking giant” noise.
Psychedelic Pill is NY & Crazy Horse’s best album since 1994’s Sleeps With Angels, and very good album in its own right. It is an album of the type I thought he would never make again. Even though there are lyrical themes and music passages that give one a sense of déjà vu, Psychedelic Pill is still worth every penny you spend. It belongs with other greats like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Zuma, Ragged Glory, the aforementioned Sleeps With Angels, and Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust – a must for any Neil Young collection.