Listening to the opening of Americana, Neil Young's brutish electric update of mostly folk keepsakes, is like climbing into an automobile that has spent the past few years stashed in a barn.
The engine, somewhat unwillingly, turns over. Then come groans, sparks and wheezing hesitancy as things click into gear. Finally, once awakened, the jalopy runs in a manner that is as trustworthy as it is gloriously unfashionable.
That's pretty much what happens when Young and his penultimate garage band Crazy Horse, which has been on blocks for close to eight years, get Americana's album-opening version of Oh, Susannah rolling. Forget the sunny strides and Southern imagery. Here, guitars crank and flop about before coalescing around a rumbling bass line. The title is chanted like a zombie mantra, the fuzzy guitar breaks fade in and out like a far-off radio station and the lyrics' suggestion of doomed love takes on an almost Gothic accent.
Voilà! A folk tune we used to sing in grade school has become a post-grunge guitar rock anthem.
The reinvention continues on Clementine, the Western staple that, in Young's hands, opens like a war chant before transforming the vision of lost love introduced on Oh Susannah into one of long dead love. With a melancholy air that recalls I've Been Waiting for You, from Young's self-titled 1968 debut solo album, this Clementine sheds its innocence quickly, reeling from a country yarn into a full blown ghost story ("Now she's dead. I draw the line").
A one-two punch of the murder ballads Tom Dula and Gallows Pole follow. Then Americana lightens up to where one senses more than just the dark narratives continually present in these songs, though seldom so vividly, are fueling the music. Much of the drive comes from Crazy Horse, the no-frills trio that has always pushed Young to some of his most immediate and arresting work.
Among the diversions: the doo-wop pop of Get a Job, hardly what one would call Americana, although this version is good, cranky fun; Travel On, which surges with gospel-esque fervor; and This Land Is Your Land, (Americana's only disappointment as its massive vocal chorus sounds too clean for an album so blissfully grimy.
But by the time Jesus' Chariot (She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain) rolls around, the skies turn stormy again for an electric arrangement that makes the song seem less like a spiritual and more than an apocalyptic omen ("We will kill the old red rooster when she comes").
Wayfarin' Stranger is the lone acoustic reflection, but its tone is no less severe. Again, the ruminations come from a spirit drifting far from home. But Young's brittle and contained version, like all of Americana, isn't folky nostalgia. It is a of blast clear and present urgency.