A Neil Young Critic Drifts Into Self-parody
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A rather brutal review of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's new album Americana on The Herald-Review by Tim Cain.
The review is entitled "Neil Young drifts to self-parody" and begins by citing a litany of other works of self parody such as "Family Guy", “MAD TV,” National Lampoon & even Randy Newman.
We absolutely have no idea where to begin on all of this other than we start off by pointing out the standard detractor approach of trotting out false equivalencies which compares a TV program or magazine to a music album. The mind boggles with the amount of strawman non sequiturs in a single review.
And it all continues to go rapidly downhill from there.
Before we even attempt to delve into all of this, a few things. Once again, a new Neil Young album comes out and suddenly everyone's a Neil expert and begins to lecture him on the validity of his artistic vision.
We saw the pattern establish itself with the Greendale backlash, the Living With War vitriol, the Fork in the Road outrage, and so on.
Looking back at all of this, there seems to be a template approach to Neil critique which often fails to simply grasp the not so simple fact of what is being attempted.
Unfortunately we have yet to complete our review of Americana. We've been listening to the album for weeks now and have played it through several dozen times since - thanks to the bonus discs with the concert tickets -- we now have about 8 copies between home, car, office, etc.
We'll get back to our thoughts on Americana shortly, but back to the The Herald-Review by Tim Cain:
Which brings me to Neil Young’s new album.
Young has been hyping “Americana” for months. It’s a decidedly different step for the rock legend. For the first time, Young has released an album with nothing but other peoples’ songs. And these are songs many people already know in different forms. (In that way, it’s dissimilar to Bruce Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” album, which relied on one songwriter.)
Young’s stated purpose was to do what’s been done for centuries with folk music, take the material, give it a slant, and make it palatable for modern audiences. For Young and the Crazy Horse band, longtime collaborators with Young, this album was not going to be a collection of carefully polished museum pieces, but rather a wakeup call, an effort to shake the dust off the songs and our ears and make us hear them for the first time.
At least that’s what Young indicated.
But any illusion of that is dashed by the first song, “Oh Susannah,” the Stephen Foster song from 1848 that remains one of the best-known American compositions ever.
Anyone familiar with Young’s previous work with Crazy Horse, particularly the late 1970s “Rust Never Sleeps” version, is greeted by a familiar sound. A wash of messy-sounding guitars, a thump of percussion, a plodding beat (not always a negative), Young braying vocals while Crazy Horse provides weak, under-amplified backup vocals, three chords, an ongoing danger that the song may stop at any moment because the players dropped something, or forgot how to play, or just lost interest for a moment.
(If you happen to give it a listen, see if the melody from Shocking Blue’s “Venus” fits in perfectly. Which may be Young’s subtle joke. Young’s version closely echoes The Big Three’s 1963 take on “Oh Susannah,” and some listeners believe “Venus” was lifted at least in part from The Big Three.)
They push their way through a number of folk standards: “Tom Dooley” (here called “Tom Dula,” as it was originally known, based on the name of the person the song is about); “Gallows Pole” (also recorded by Judy Collins, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin); Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” They also run through “God Save the Queen” (tacking “My Country ’Tis of Thee” on the end) and, bizarrely, The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job.”
If you didn’t know, you might listen to this album and chuckle after a bit, thinking the flourishes on “Oh Susannah” were too rich, too perfect, too comical to be anything but a parody of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
But it’s not. And it stays that way throughout its running time.
If these guys rehearsed this for more than a few days, it barely shows. If there’s a song here that isn’t a first or second take, they’re trying to fool someone.
Sometimes, an artist does his own best parody.
As we said, it's hard to know where to start here. We could simply shrug and say, critic Tim Cain just doesn't "get" Neil Young. Much like many don't "get" Lady Gaga unless they're a "Little Monster". But that would be too easy.
Fundamentally, we'll just begin with our opinion that the reviewer is missing the entire purpose of the project. The history that is re-interpreted in an unvarnished manner, i.e., a different truth.
The reviewer has not listened to the music in the context of the videos to gain insight into a song like “Oh Susannah” where music is a family focal point to provide relief from the grim times of the Great Depression. And failing to draw the line between yesterday and today's global meltdown. The "Even Greater Depression" of the early 21st century is the story of our lifetime. To miss this point is to fail incredibly.
Or the artwork of Shepard Fairey and Day at the Gallery where the images project populist ideals of the common man against the brutality of the state sponsored repression and economic bondage.
As for some of Cain's musical criticism, arguments could be made about any number of "sloppy" Crazy Horse records from Reactor to Ragged Glory. The raw, ragged Crazy Horse is not for everyone, no doubt. The "a jet plane in a thunderstorm" sound is an acquired taste and those who have witnessed and directly felt in their chest the aural assault that is known as "Crazy Horse-style" know that which we speak.
Lastly, we'll say 2 things. One can never truly evaluate any Neil Young after a single listen or after a single month of listening continuously. Only after a period of considerable time does a Neil Young album's worth become apparent. We'll only mention critical and/or commercial flops like Tonight's The Night or Greendale as examples of albums that were once scorned and deprecated are now considered to be top tier releases.
The second thing to point out is that -- for us -- virtually every studio album,in retrospect, never matches the live concert experience. We maintain that only the the live concert experience captures the true musical power and genius of Neil Young. Neil had transcended being simply just a musician and how he had evolved into a performance artist. About how he creates new art forms by combining music, painting, film, writing and more into something wonderfully new and fun and exciting, i.e., the unbearable lightness of being Neil Young.
The sheer beauty of the freedom to hear The Muse and see The Vista.
So we say, walk on and see you down on the rail this fall.
ps - this blog is my blog, this blog is your blog, this blog was made for you & me.
Neil Young - Austin, TX, June 5, 2010
Photo by Alberto Martinez / AMERICAN-STATESMAN