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Neil Young and Crazy Horse still have it

Published 11:09am Thursday, June 7, 2012

I owe Neil Young and Crazy Horse an apology.

From the first distorted notes of “Americana,” it was clear I needed to swallow my pride and admit they still have it.

Months before its release, I’d mentally written off the new album from the 66-year-old Young and his Crazy Horse bandmates, expecting their covers of classic folk tunes to fall punchless or — to be blunt — old.

In my defense, Young and the Crazy Horse lineup of Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro that dates back to 1975’s “Zuma” hadn’t released an album in 16 years. (The band minus Sampedro, released “Greendale” in 2003.)

In my defense, legendary musicians have stock-piled a growing track record of aging. Art Garfunkel canceled a much-anticipated Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour because of throat problems. Johnny Cash’s late work showed his booming bass-baritone weathered to a whisper. Lou Reed’s easy swagger crossed over to creeping mumbles with Metallica on “Lulu.” Bob Dylan has put a whole new ironic twist on “Forever Young.” And, the Beach Boys looked and sounded exhausted when they performed on the Grammys.

It was easy to expect a band formed in the 1960s of musicians age 63 to 68 to sound old while covering classic folk songs.

But to my surprise, Young and company sound ageless on “Americana.” From note one, each song is filled with Crazy Horse’s trademark distortion that’s sizzled out of stereos since 1969’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”

“Americana” may not have the expansive, never-ending guitar solos of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” but that’s not what this album is about.

Really, it’s an album that recasts the old as new: Aged musicians turn back the clock; decade and century-old songs are revived with new zest.

Young and the gang best describe the sound as the dirty guitars of “Oh Susannah” hum the song to a close. “It’s funky,” one of the group can be heard saying. Young agrees, but adds “It gets into a good groove.”

The tunes are funky and vaguely recognizable as their originals. The melodies and tune of “Clementine” rarely resemble the traditional “Oh My Darling Clementine.”

The occassional chatting between songs, the faint mistake of a backup singer coming in a measure early to the first chorus of “Oh Susannah,” and the plethora of guitar distortion add a punkish, raw quality to the album.

Songs like “Travel On” sound like the band is content only to jam like a cover band playing a small town festival, at times appearing oblivious to who’s listening.

Despite playing all well-known covers, the group avoids regurgitating, and instead, as Young has said in interviews, “Now they belong to us.”

These aren’t folk tunes; they’re unmistakably Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs.

In a way, that’s a fault. The album likely won’t woo hordes of new listeners. Regardless, it’s just fun to listen to a classic act jam as if it were still in their heyday between recording “Tonight’s the Night” and “Zuma.”

The album closes with “God Save the Queen,” a traditional British anthem later recast and Amercanized as “My Country, Tis of Thee.” Molina’s Pattering drums and Young’s defiant singing style provide a rebellious tinge that climaxes with the lyrics shifting to the American take of the melody.

The turn is fitting for an album of American classics led by a Canadian-born American music legend.

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