Tuesday, June 5, 2012


I imagine most people were pretty confused to hear that the new Young/Crazy Horse album would be covers of old folk tunes, really old folk tunes, such as Oh Susannah.  I mean, the first real Crazy Horse record in years, a chance for another Like A Hurricane or Cinnamon Girl, and instead we get This Land Is Your Land?  I mean, the man is always messin' with expectations, but this one came close to absurdity.

Of course, the bugger has pulled it off.  These aren't cut-and-dry remakes, nor gussied-up big band versions like Springsteen did on The Seeger Sessions.  Instead, they are radical reinterpretations, with the Crazy Horse sound, that take the songs back to their roots, and show us what they are really about.  Oh, and there are some that are just sloppy fun, which is the other part of playing with The Horse.

What's amazing is how well the lyrics work with the classic Crazy Horse plod.  In fact, if in some parallel universe, you didn't know any of these famous songs, but were familiar with Young, you could believe he wrote them.  Hearing him get into the vocal on Oh Susannah, head back and moaning "Don't you crrrryyy for me", and telling us "I come from Alabama with my B-A-N-J-O on my knee", you realize where he got his simple but potent lyric style, from classic writing.  Next up comes the well-known tale of Clementine, but with now with a dangerous, deep groove that puts the sorrow back in this song that's really about a drowned love or daughter (depending on your interpretation).  This take is not far removed from famous story-songs of Young's such as Powderfinger, where not everything is spelled out but you get the picture.

Young's extensive liner notes help us as well, as he explains the history of each song, and where he's borrowed or updated some arrangements.  It's worth noting he also gives full credit; Odetta gets the credit (and royalties) for the version of Gallows Pole, for instance.  We find out that the song Tom Dooley is actually a 19th century murder ballad, about a guy named Tom Dula (as Young names it), and it's slowed here to a mournful, menacing tempo, as befits the lyrics.  It certainly makes the chirpy Kingston Trio version seem ridiculous now.  It also shows why so many folk singers, such as Ian Tyson, were somewhat appalled by the commercialization of folk in the early 60's, what he likes to call the "Folk Scare".  This version makes you stop and realize why Dula (Dooley) should hang down his head.  He killed her!

As usual, Young goes for feel over polish.  The odd bum note is left in, in favour of a good groove.  Some tracks are too similar, basically the same chords and feel as others.  But as Young so famously explained about his whole career, "It's all one song".   And not everything works; This Land Is Your Land has a country hoe-down lick added, but sticks to the original pretty closely, with guest vocals from Pegi Young, Stephen Stills and a choir, but really it just sounds like every other singalong version, plus some Young guitar.  For the most part though, it's very listenable Horse, and a revelation.  It's a lot freakin' better than Greendale, too, the last Crazy Horse go-round.

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