Well, there: here’s the album for all of those who complained that Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Americana was made up of covers when it was released back in June. (Of course, the songs were twisted and cranked by Young and company into shapes and forms of their own unique design, but you know how some folks are, eh?) The nine tracks on the new double-disc Psychedelic Pill (eight originals plus an alternate mix of the title track) are all original NY & CH tunes – as NY & CH as it gets. Young has had some brilliant collaborators over the years (the late Ben Keith being one of the best and most unique), but when it comes to simply rolling up the sleeves and getting down to it, drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Frank Sampedro are Young’s go-to team. Always have been; always will be.
The opener “Driftin’ Back” shares some of the same vibe as Young’s recently-released memoir Waging Heavy Peace – he even acknowledges his book in the opening verse. Just as WHP follows Young’s train of thought with memories and observations landing on the page as they appear in his head, “Driftin’ Back” is simply a magnificent jam interrupted by occasional bits of ol’ Neil reflecting on … whatever makes its way into the space between the rumble and the wail – from crap MP3s to Picasso’s work being turned into wallpaper.
For the first minute, it’s just Young and his acoustic guitar, offering a little of the classic picky/strummy sound that’s been pissing off guitar technique snobs for years. “Hey now now/Hey now now/I’m driftin’ back” sings Young – a nod to “Hey Hey My My”, perhaps? Maybe – maybe not. Molina, Talbot, and Sampedro add their voices to Young’s on the chorus; and then the now begins to slide out from under everything as a wall of Crazy Horse crunch approaches from somewhere else. There’s a slight shift in rhythm – or is there? What? Wait – we were here and now we’re … “I’m drifting back …”
What follows is 27-plus minutes of pure Horse jam – harmonics, drone notes, barely-contained feedback, and thick slabs of chords by Sampedro and Young, all lugged on the backs of Molina and Talbot – lumbering and lurching, but never losing the groove. Perhaps this is the album where Frank Sampedro is properly recognized for the gentleman grungemaster he is: it’s Sampedro’s ability to morph from simmering, shimmering arpeggios to massive power chords to Duane Eddy-like bass string fills to apeshit chaos – all in the course of a few bars, if need be – that allow Young to light the fuse on his battered old Les Paul and let it fly. Put this album on, get the channels figured out in your skull, and listen – really listen – to Frank Sampedro. The man is brilliant.
And what voyages there are: “Driftin’ Back”, “Ramada Inn” (a brutal and honest look at a fucked-up love), and the aptly-named “Walk Like A Giant” alone account for over an hour of roar and soar. And then there’s the title track, offered in two versions – the first so thickly phase-shifted that it leaves a vapor trail in the air; the second sheer grit and slam, the vocals panning from side to side in true 1967-vintage mind screw. “She’s Always Dancing” is a study in harnessing raw sonic power and turning it into something beautiful; “For The Love Of Man” is a sweet and gentle (for these lads) spread-winged glide.
“Born In Ontario” is a revisit to where it all began for Neil and the Horse – the sweet and crunchy country corn of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”. The guitars snap, bark, and wail while Talbot and Molina hold down a work-booted stomp that makes the hay bales jump on the 2 and the 4. (Of course, they tend to do that a lot , but that’s what makes Crazy Horse sound like Crazy Horse.) “This ol’ world has been good to me, so I try to give back and I try to be free,” declares Young. And then he reminds us, “I was born in Ontario” as the Horse lays down some of those multi-layered imperfect-but-perfect “ooohs” like the old days when Danny Whitten was still alive and they were known as the Rockets.
In “Twisted Road” Young tells us how hearing Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” nailed him right between the ears when he first heard it: “I felt that magic and took it home/Gave it a twist and made it mine/But nothing was as good as the very first time.” As we approach 50 years since the release of that particular Dylan classic, it’s interesting to compare where the two artists are these days. Dylan’s new Tempest album feels like the work of Uncle Bob the entertainer and his hot-shot band, strolling through a set of tunes that feel comfy and easy for him. Young, on the other hand, comes across as engaged, fierce, and intrigued by his own musical muse – playing the hell out of the songs on Psychedelic Pill and knowing just the right players to do it with.
“I want to walk like a giant on the land,” sings Young in the sixteen-and-a-half minute squall-and-roar-fest towards the album’s end.