Visions of Arcadia | Daniel Lanois
Via engineering and production work with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and U2, Daniel Lanois has unmistakenly imprinted his personality on the sound of the Eighties. Recently he released his own solo album, ‘Acadie’; Mark J. Prendergast runs through the tracks.
The name Daniel Lanois has appeared in these pages many times over the last few years. Via engineering and production work with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and U2, Lanois has unmistakenly imprinted his personality on the sound of the Eighties. I've used words like 'magical' and 'alchemical' to describe his sorcerer's effect on the mixing desk, and thankfully his most recent work bears out those descriptions. "Pop open the boxes and get on with it," was what he said in 1987 - and so he has.
After the Robbie Robertson project he resettled in New Orleans to work with native sons The Neville Brothers on a fascinating mix of soul, rock, rhumba, ballad and ambience titled Yellow Moon (A&M). Of all the 'black' records I've heard in recent times, this does more to encapsulate heritage and style than any other. The merging of soul/gospel emotion with Lanois's treated guitar sounds and Eno's backdrops was truly inspirational, while two Bob Dylan songs - 'With God On Our Side' and 'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' - came out like newly discovered diamonds. The Neville Brothers had never had a producer so sympathetic nor an individual so involved musically with capturing their essence.
As Lanois worked on his own music, practicing acoustic guitar techniques while not losing sight of the abilities of treatments and the usefulness of such inventions as the Omnichord and 'infinite' guitars, Bob Dylan invited him to produce a new LP entitled Oh Mercy on the strength of the aforementioned Neville Brothers work. A case of sitting around in New York City and just playing; the desk work of adding cricket sounds here, sliding echoey swamp guitars there, did the trick and virtually saved Dylan's nose-diving latter-day reputation in one majestic swoop. The album's music is addictive, ever giving rise to filmic visions with Bob's meandering lyrics feeding it with just the right narrative.
It was hardly surprising that amidst all this flurry of creative activity Lanois should get into his own music. With the help of 15 other musicians, including Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jnr of U2, Brian and Roger Eno, the Neville Brothers, and principal cohort Malcolm Burn (keyboards, guitars, treatments, background vocals), Lanois has fashioned an album of musical and lyrical paintings entitled Acadie that stands alongside the very best work of previous years.
The title derives from a group of 18th century French settlers who were forced out of their native Canada by the British. Calling themselves the Arcadians after the Greek, with their rural tradings and strong pastoral culture reflected in dancing and song, they settled west of New Orleans in a place called Lafayette. The word 'cajun' comes from them, and their music has become an integral part of American folk identity. Being French Canadian and having experienced culture shock and isolation when moving from French-speaking Ottawa to English-oriented Hamilton when young, the word 'Acadie' has special significance to Lanois.
Recording in New Orleans, STS Studios Dublin, and Eno's Wilderness Studio in Suffolk, the LP is immaculately crafted, sparkling with variety and, as per normal with Lanois, sonically astonishing. Here are my personal impressions of the tracks.
(Opal/WEA 925-969-4, 1989)
The first thing I felt while listening to this track was how the twangy acoustic guitar intro reminded me of a riff Nick Drake wrote for a bluesy song called 'Black Eyed Dog' back in 1974. Very folky, according to Lanois' sleeve notes it was made up of "four mixes done on four different dates." A slow tempo, a subtle U2 rhythm section, background vocals courtesy of Eno, and a drifting soulful lyric relating to emigration past and torn relationships introduces a rustic reflective world.
"In Lanois' hands music has to be vibrant and living, not a cold, calculated concept carefully reproduced in a hi-tech studio."
There's a lovely soft groove to this song, due to Tony Hall's striking harmony basses. Anyone interested in bass playing should listen to this and try and work out the parts - a unique sound to my mind. Similar in vein to Neville Brothers' LP material, since it originated in those sessions and bears their involvement, yet quite different due to Lanois' gospel vocals and some nifty Edge styled electric guitar work. Lyrically quite a Christian spiritual with more than a nod in Bono's direction. Still heartfelt, and one of the record's great dance tracks.
Two variations on the cajun worksong. '0 Marie' refers to French Canadians tobacco picking in Ontario every summer and "talks about the expectations and realities that go with the job." Lovely, lightweight, acoustic shuffle music, this track was recorded in New York and is sung by Lanois entirely in French. 'Jolie Louise' is intriguing for its half French/half English lyric, its use of accordion (recorded in Grant Avenue studios) and the unusually lightweight casting of Larry and Adam of U2.
One of the album's finest moments. A mesmeric background atmosphere is heard, over which two acoustic guitars liquidly sound. Lanois and Malcolm Burn provide these while Lanois vocalises a poem and a snatch of lyric about a seafaring tragedy. You can almost smell the salt and feel the sea breeze on your face. Eno's contribution derives from the early Eighties, and one can trace its origins on the 1983 Apollo: Atmospheres LP.
A far superior version than the original last year. Some simple electric guitar picking, characteristic Eno keyboard drones (here quite glassy), a wonderful trumpet solo by New Orleans man James May, and finally some startling wildlife sounds. An example of Lanois' ability to turn something typically Eno into something soulful and rooted.
"If this was a third or fourth album by any other artist, it would be heralded as a classic."
A down-home little rocker with Lanois, Malcolm Burn (guitar), Tony Hall (bass) and Willie Green (drums) recorded in the control room in New Orleans. Mason Ruffner contributes a country and western styled guitar solo. A bit of fun with lyrics in the now customary French/English.
There's great talk in the sleeve notes about Bolero-type drums, heavy guitars, Eno's wild synthesizer part, and Malcolm Burn's Akai string additions, but this track is pure Joshua Tree U2 - it could even be an out-take. Lanois' voice inflects into Bono's while Death Valley images swarm around. Pass.
Back on form, 'Silium's Hill' is pure poetry. Very black, very gospel, with words derived from hymnals. Sparse but pretty acoustic guitar and atmospheric keyboards surround a song about a poor but proud woman called Shoe Shine Mamma. Lanois' words are so visual and emotive that it comes across as a whole life or human interest film compressed into three or four minutes.
A fabulous track with heavily treated Omnichord guitar and electric guitar (played by Bill Dillon). Loads of compression was used to get the widescreen sound here. A waltz-like tempo is maintained throughout and Lanois' voice feels comfortably at home among the electronic electricity.
"Via engineering and production work with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and U2, Lanois has unmistakenly imprinted his personality on the sound of the Eighties."
Very much a song with an instrumental basis, it contains contributions from both Eno brothers and was originally a guitar sketch that Lanois had lying around. As one gets lost inside this, it is palpably clear that Lanois has spent much time taming the myriad array of musical ideas that fly through his head.
No one has ever heard this done so imaginatively. Aaron Neville delivers a Stirling vocal performance as bright Eno atmospheres and an irregular drum pattern are heard in the background. Somehow a ratchety guitar and the drum pattern grow louder and overtake the vocal. From there the piece shifts from melancholic to celebratory and Lanois, through some sort of magic, has yet again transformed the predictable into the extraordinary.
So there we are. If this was a third or fourth album by any other artist, it would be heralded as a classic; but to be your first and so packed full of variety, then what an achievement. The sculpting and refining experiences learned at the hands of Brian Eno and brother Bob Lanois have served him well. In Lanois' hands music has to be vibrant and living, not a cold, calculated concept carefully reproduced in a hi-tech studio. Hence why Eno's music took off the minute Lanois appeared on the scene. With Acadie, one can identify why Gabriel's So and Robbie Robertson's debut album were winners before they started.
So, even if an organically acoustic route is chosen, there is no shying away from applying the resources of high technology - and for the better! Malcolm Burn's assistance is crucial to mixing and re-mixing processes that are so finely tuned that sometimes years separate the recording of a guitar part and the final vocal stage. In taking his time, Lanois has allowed his spirit to dominate a music that sidesteps fashion completely. And if here and there one recognises a tinge of his old friends U2, just reflect on how much he has given them.
In the final analysis, this is as grand a record as one will hear all year. And given Lanois' age (38), it's a lesson in great music-making to those young enough to be pin-ups but not old enough to know. Bravo! Daniel.
Feature by Mark Prendergast
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