Tuesday, May 11, 2010

May 11: America, "A Horse With No Name"

Artist: America
Song: "A Horse With No Name"
Album: A Horse With No Name (single)
Year: 1972

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There are so many artists throughout music history that have made their sound so distinctive, that they simply cannot be mistaken for anyone else.  With their unique musical approach or by having such a unique voice, these artists can be recognized within seconds of a song featuring of them beginning.  Then again, there are a handful of instances where such assumptions are completely wrong, and though a song may seem to "clearly" be a certain artist, further investigation reveals that it is simply not so.  There is perhaps no more commonly mistaken voice than that of the members of the UK-based folk band, America.  Coming to note during the latter end of the "high point" for folk music, as the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's, America fit in perfectly with the musical trends of the time, and their light, distinctive melodies, combined with their beautiful harmonies made them destined for international success.  Yet it is due to this combination that America bears a very strong resemblance to acts such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and America's songs were (and continue to be) often mistaken for the work of other groups.  Responsible for a handful of hit singles, it was perhaps the groups' debut single for which they are best known; yet in this same single, many people continue to mistake exactly "who" the artist is that is performing.  Scoring a number one hit on their first single, there are few songs as memorable as America's 1972 song, "A Horse With No Name."

First and foremost, though it is a very common mistake, Neil Young did not write, nor perform ANY aspect of "A Horse With No Name."  Though in both musical content, as well as in the sound of the singing, one can almost swear it is Young, the fact of the matter is, though perhaps as an inspiration, he had absolutely nothing to do with the song in any way.  However, the song itself perfectly captures the music that Young was making at the time, as "A Horse With No Name" is centered around a fantastic progression of acoustic chords.  As the song progresses, the three members of America combine different guitar lines to create one of the most sonically pleasing orchestrations in the overall history of the folk genre.  Supported by a rolling bassline, Gerry Buckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek perfectly capture the feeling of standing out in a vast prairie or desert, and the fact that such a mood could be set by artists who did not come from such a land serves as a testament to their amazing abilities as musicians.  The light soloing and smooth musical progressions allowed for the song to crossover easily into a number of different radio formats, and "A Horse With No Name" is a bit louder than most folk songs.  It is largely this aspect that pushes the song into the pop realm, and what keeps it in regular radio rotation to this day.

Along with the fantastic, yet simple musical arrangement, the trio quickly puts themselves into the most elite company when it comes to their vocal harmonies.  The three musicians, when combining their vocals, truly exemplify the idea of "the whole being greater than their parts," as the harmonies are both perfectly placed and perfectly executed.  Their voices play in an amazing combination with the music and truly become another instrument on the song, a feat that is rarely accomplished to this level anywhere else in recorded history.  Though Buckley handles a majority of the lead vocals, when he slides into the harmonies, his voice becomes indistinguishable, and this leaves one to assume that any of the three could have easily have handled the lead vocals with similarly superb results.  It is within the lyrics of the song that "A Horse With No Name" becomes more impressive, as it ranks with Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" in the fact that it is one of the most brilliant "pictures of Americana" written by "non-Americans."  In truth, there are few United States-based musicians who so perfectly captured the essence of "the great wide open" as brilliantly as America does on "A Horse With No Name," and the lyrics bring to life the feelings of this lonely traveler, trapped in a seemingly unending wasteland.  Though the words to the song dictate that "he" is lost in the desert, one can easily transfer the lyrics to any sort of wide expanse, and the singing helps to "push" the song open, giving "A Horse With No Name" as wide and high-reaching a feeling as the lyrics dictate.

The line between tribute and mimicry is a very fine one, and the fact that a majority of people wrongly believe that Neil Young had a hand in America's "A Horse With No Name" is an ideal example of when incorrect assumptions can somewhat overshadow an amazing musical accomplishment.  Once one understands that while Young's work may have inspired the song, though it is not him, the talents within America become unquestionable, and the fact that "A Horse With No Name" remains such a radio staple more than forty years later drives this point home.  The simple guitar arrangements, spun into a layered, full sound is wonderfully unique, and one can see America as one of the pivotal groups in the "progression" of the folk genre.  Their ability to find a crossover audience, as the song fit in with so many different genres, can be seen as paving the way for groups as far ranging as Alabama and Ween.  Truly a beautiful musical work, the manner in which the group weaves their powerful harmonies into the guitar work is folk perfection, and a feat that has rarely been accomplished to this level.  There is not a sub-par aspect anywhere to be found in the song, as every element is executed with extraordinary precision, and the combination of all of these elements, whilst keeping an overall "simple" musical approach is the true genius behind America's fantastic 1972 single, "A Horse With No Name."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although this review was much better written than the last one I read (for Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover"), a pattern of repetition is still apparant. One of your favorite phrases seems to be "the fact that" which was utilized four times here and several times in "Dream Lover" also.