Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Americana" (Reprise) -- After spending years plumbing his own career in projects ranging from the rarities and lost tracks of "Archives" (the first volume came out in 2009) to his highly anticipated memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, due in the fall, Neil Young can be forgiven for wanting to get out of his own head for a while. Instead of showcasing new material, "Americana" rounds up some favorite public-domain campfire classics, protest songs and murder ballads and feeds them to Crazy Horse. The result is typically grungy, sometimes gleefully sloppy and ultimately another mildly amusing detour.
Young, 66 (and last seen in Chicago this time last year), has taken so many of those left-turn reroutes in his career, he's spun around several times. Like his earnest rockabilly set in 1983 (Neil & the Shocking Pinks, "Everybody's Rockin'"), "Americana" is good-natured but often lightweight historic appreciation. What it accomplishes for the folk canon, however, is a reminder for adults that some of the songs they sang in grade school have real teeth. Had he approached a project like this by himself, those teeth might not have as much bite as they manage here with the full Crazy Horse lineup of Young, Billy Talbot, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro and Ralph Molina -- the first time this roster has been complete since 1996's "Broken Arrow." The female subjects of some songs, in particular, evoke a passion and yearning long since stripped from the versions I sang in Mrs. Blackberry's classroom. Young punches up his determination to get home by spelling out his conviction ("with my b-a-n-j-o on my knee") in "Oh, Susanna," then evokes the palpable yearning of the miner grieving for his "Clementine." By the time "she" comes 'round the mountain in "Jesus' Chariot," the band is stomping and wailing like an Appalachian prog-rock opera.
Little is ventured musically here, so not much is gained. The country stomp of "Travel On" is natural for these players and is the closest in sound to something they might have created themselves. Amid the centenary of his birth, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" (using only the most searing and often omitted verses) is played as a straight country shuffle. The much-ballyhooed closer, "God Save the Queen," is rocked pretty straight. Fans will be amused, folkies shouldn't hate it, and hey -- it's not bad for a Canadian.
Sun Kil Moon, "Among the Leaves" (Caldo Verde) -- People who write off Morrissey as merely "Morose-y" miss the wit that is his true hallmark. Similarly, America's rootsy contribution to moody-bastard music has been Mark Kozelek, who is one sad, dour dude -- but also, if given enough examination, a funny, sweet fella boasting an unbearable lightness of being. Recording as himself, as leader of the Red House Painters and under the nebulous moniker Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek's sound has rarely wavered from slow-and-steady, acoustic-based moans soggy with nostalgia and musty Americana. This set of reminiscences regrets several romances (the title track is a warm, string-laden bath despite the lost love) but also looks back over his career, opening with what sounds like the text of a fan letter ("I Know It's Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Life") and easing into the reverie of "Sunshine in Chicago," in which Kozelek recalls his stay at the infamous Lakeview Days Inn and getting a manicure on Lincoln Avenue. "Sunshine in Chicago really makes me sad," he sings, of course. "My band played here a lot in the '90s when we had / lots of female fans, and f--- they all were cute / Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes." Hey, dude: Reaped, sown.
Scott Lucas & the Married Men, "Blood Half Moon" (The End) -- Chicago's Scott Lucas is a hard-workin' cuss, swinging between his paycheck gigs as half of hard-hitting Local H and this ever-strengthening former side project, which is no longer a foal on wobbly legs. Take Lucas' unending knack for indelible melodies and shift it -- not even by much -- toward a more loping, thoughtful Americana sound, adding swelling organs and swollen violins, and you've got the mostly marvelous matrimony of the Married Men. "Blood Half Moon," this six-piece band's second outing, showcases songcraft that's often superb, ranging from the cheerful country-pop skip of "Steady Gaze" to the world-weariness of "Out of the Boat," concluding with eight minutes of cacophonous, droning defiance in "There Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down)." The husbandry here doesn't have a light touch, and Lucas is accurate when he describes the project as "country-ish, alt-rock for people who like metal." Nearly every song is an epic and, while Lucas' sinusy voice still hasn't quite broken in its saddle he keeps on his horse and blazes a few trails.
Crystal Bowersox, "Once Upon a Time" EP (Crystal Bowersox) -- Oh yeah, Crystal Bowersox. Given that she's slipped from memory, it's a good thing the occasional Chicago resident and 2010 "American Idol" runner-up dropped a few new tracks this week. Problem: She did so with zero notice or fanfare. Another problem: These aren't new tracks -- they're five pre-"Idol" demos freshened up for prime time. They're breathy, earnest, hopeful, lacking any hint of the soulful guts she later developed. This is a placeholder, filling the void until she shows up in a duet on a new Blues Traveler album this summer (with impromptu SXSW pal John Popper) and with a new set of her own, following up 2010's "Farmer's Daughter," possibly later this year.