Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise)

Leave it to Neil Young to issue his take on classic American folk songs through a cranked-up amplifier.

While contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn have hewed close to the folk tradition on new recordings of old standards—Bruce Springsteen got rowdy, but stayed acoustic—Young chose to put songs like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine" in new contexts.

After more than 50 years, rock is every bit the American tradition that folk has been, but these songs have never been welded together in this way. Young's interpretation is pure Crazy Horse.

He digs out some of the forgotten verses—either too dark or too subversive to fit into elementary-school classes. Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," played in a loping country-rock style, gets its communist verses back, while "Clementine," played through brooding distortion, is far spookier than I remember.

Then there's "God Save the Queen"—the melody is more familiar as "My Country 'Tis of Thee"—a reminder that even the strongest pillars of our tradition have antecedents elsewhere.

Crazy Horse does an admirable job of rocking within the limitations of the songs. And while there's a subversive joy in hearing Young's sneering rock vocals twisting around some of these familiar melodies, it's the instrumental passages that are the album's greatest strengths.

Americana is an interesting experiment, showing how close rock and folk truly are, while striving for balance between continuity of tradition and reinvention in America. In doing so, Young provides a lesson in both history and artistic expression.

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