Monday, September 27, 2010

Neil and Lanois Present Le Noise

Two years ago The Top 100 Canadian Albums book was reissued in soft cover, a year after the hard cover edition. As part of the promotion, I took to the road for a couple of events with ace producer and musician Daniel Lanois. His landmark album Acadie was in the book, at #20. Lanois was doing a series of shows in Atlantic Canada. For these, I served as a sort of opening act. A few hours before showtime, just after soundcheck, the public was invited to a free question and answer session, where I interviewed Lanois, and then opened the floor to inquiring minds.

At his Halifax show, well over a hundred people showed up to hear Lanois. After some banter between us, most of the hour was spent taking questions. One of the best ones from the floor had Lanois thinking: Who, he was asked, would he most like to produce? His answer was telling, and as it turns out, a prediction. Neil Young, he answered emphatically. Would it happen? Lanois said he had approached Young's manager, Elliot Roberts, and expressed his interest.

Now, two years on, it has happened. Lanois and Young met up earlier this year at Lanois' L.A. studio. It is perhaps the simplest album Young has ever made. Lanois has spoken often about his production technique, which he has built up over the years. He works in advance, and creates his famous magic, his atmospheric technique of soundscapes and effects. The idea is that the artist simply shows up, plugs in, and everything is set. Now, this has worked sometimes, but other times the artist balks. Dylan, who sees himself as his own producer, has butted heads with Lanois on the two discs they have created together, demanding his own vision. Lanois wants to be in charge. When it works, on albums such as Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball, the producer and the performer are perfectly agreed on the approach. It could have gone either way with someone as self-determined as Neil Young.

The results are now here with Le Noise. It seems the two were indeed agreed on the process. Young and Lanois came up with a unique recording style. There are no other musicians than Young, either on electric or acoustic. The other sounds come from the Lanois trickery, which is actually pretty subdued, especially on softer numbers. When Young plugs in, there are echoes, loops, atmospherics and layers, presenting him with an interesting new style: The solo electric troubadour.
It sounds like no other Young album; no Harvest country, no Crazy Horse caterwauling, no experiments in genres. It's Young raw and bare, nothing hidden.

The themes are typical, however, especially of his latter-day writing. There's quite a bit of looking back, and self-referencing. On "Love And War", Young takes us back to his Toronto days in the 60's, pre-Springfield, to tell us he was singing about those themes then, and still is. Incas are brought up again, for some reason. And there is the now-obligatory shout-out to Pegi on "Sign Of Love", another tender but cliched love song straight from the Harvest Moon tribute style. While he's not breaking too much new ground, these are at the very least good themes for him to explore, far better than an album of tributes to his Linc-Volt car, or impeaching Bush. It could mean this disc will be one people will return to more than once or twice.

I do hear echoes of the excellent On The Beach album, dark and serious songs which have remained strong decades later. Perhaps that's what Young was going for with this one. With new Neil Young albums, I've learned overtime to let it settle for awhile before passing complete judgement. Let's just say for now, on the first few listens, I'm pretty pleased with the Young-Lanois experiment. True, there's no big cut hear to grab ahold of your attention, no "Rockin' In The Free World" or "Hey Hey (My My)", but there's nothing to cringe about either. That's a good sign right there with a new Neil Young album.

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