Culturespill » Daniel Lanois

Best Albums of 2010 Series: “Le Noise,” Neil Young

19th December

 

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No matter how many “Best Albums of 2010″ lists you read on the web this month, somehow you just can’t shake the feeling that you’re reading the same one over and over again. There’s a pretty good reason for that: You are, and it’s sad. Most lists read like they were composed by a cadre of 20-something Vampire Weekend roadies who crowded the local wheat grass bar and nursed their flax and spirulina smoothies as they chattered in passing about music. In most cases the albums they discuss reflect only a narrow sliver of the year’s creative bounty. And almost invariably, they acknowledge only bands that are at least as young if not younger than they are, bands they overheard fellow pseudo hipsters praising over Venti Spelnda-sweetened extra dry skim-milk Americanos, or bands whose music sounds like somebody just blasted three pterodactyls out of the sky all at once with a thousand-pound nail gun.

That’s one of many reasons why Neil Young’s Le Noise is both right for the cultural moment in which it was released and why, pitted against so many of the year’s lesser but lauded records, it smacks of a creative desperation that in eight brief tracks obliterates the pervading cynicism and emotional catatonia of the “indie only” crowd that has ignored it. These songs were all recorded in one or two takes so as not to dilute the immediacy of the creative impulse from which they emerged, and that Young has managed at age 65 and after countless records to do something he has never done before–a solo electric album–is a testament to the restlessness of his muse and to his enduring standing as one of rock ‘n roll’s genuine mavericks.

Young has been crucified for that very “restlessness” over the past decade, as uneven and therefore characteristically fascinating releases like Are You Passionate, Greendale or Fork in the Road earned a reception which, like Le Noise, exposes even his most longstanding fans as crybabies who hold him personally responsible for the fact that it’s not 1972 anymore.  Even the most casual glance at customer reviews of Le Noise on Amazon.com reveals a host of whiners crying that it doesn’t sound enough like something they heard when they were 12 and their mothers still sported beehive hairdos.  It’s not enough like On the Beach, or it doesn’t sound like Harvest, or it isn’t the same as Rust Never Sleeps. They don’t hear a “Pocahontas” or a “Cortez the Killer.” Many of these complaints begin with “I’m the biggest Neil Young fan in the world, but . . .”

And that’s just it: How on earth any self-proclaimed “fan” of Neil Young cannot exalt in the rich and anthemic riffs that open “Sign of Love” or “Angry World” on this album is utterly mystifying (to say nothing of the fact that the two acoustic offerings on this record, “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” and “Love and War,” are among the most stirring acoustic songs the man has done since the days of “Pardon My Heart” or “Look out for My Love“). If anything, these “fans” are the sort who mistake art for an anodyne, who think music should always palliate and never challenge, who bristle at authenticity because it doesn’t croon the lullaby that plays in the background of their nostalgic fantasies of long-gone days.

Dylan put together a documentary called Don’t Look Back in 1965 as he fumed across the world on a tour that saw fans shout “Judas!” because he wouldn’t play the monkey to their organ grinder, pounding them with “Leopardskin Pillbox Hat” when they paid to hear him sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” all night long. Le Noise is the latest evidence that Neil Young took the man’s advice. Fans endowed with the courage to look forward with him will hear in Le Noise the work of a creative spirit as much at war with itself today as it was when he was just the kid who played guitar for Buffalo Springfield.

Daniel Lanois’s presence on the project could have been an unadulterated disaster because Neil Young’ s music is a dish best served raw, and Lanois’s brand of voodoo atmospherics is anything but undercooked. But it turns out that it was Lanois’s idea to amp up the acoustic album Neil intended to record and turn it into a solo electric set instead. There are times when Lanois just can’t help himself, as he drags out the opening stunner “Walk With Me” with what seems like an eternity of aimless reverb and distortion that serves no purpose other than to lengthen an album that otherwise might have lasted no longer than a drink of water. But elsewhere he is pleased to step back from the songs and let the rage of “Old Black” have the floor.

The first six tracks here–from the primal, Rust-era grunge of “Walk With Me” and “Angry World” to the lonely reverbarations of Neil’s acoustic guitar on the desolate “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”–blaze with a creative fury that is at once disquieting and restorative. “Hitchhiker” and “Rumblin'” add nothing to what is achieved in the songs that precede them but it is at least nice to finally hear an official version of “Hitchhiker,” even if it falls well short of the majesty of the live acoustic version fans have come to know and love.

You won’t find Le Noise on the “Best of 2010″ list over at (enter favorite smarmy indie music blog here), but you will find it on the minds of music lovers a generation from now while so many fly-by-night bands currently enjoying a loving spotlight dwindle into the dusk of their momentary celebrity.The material on Le Noise boasts the strength, urgency and variety of Young’s finest records, and when the smoke of its mixed reception clears, it may well be ranked in that company.

Click here for Neil Young’s FB page

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

The Grammies Get it Right! (Wait, say WHAT??!)

4th December

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Just when you think the Grammies are so full of crap that you can barely stand the stink any longer, they toss some nods in the direction of folks like Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Bela FleckBroken Bells, Florence & The Machine and other groups that can never be mistaken for anything other than actual, you know, recording artists. Even ol’ Willie has something to distract him from his 78th pot bust last week, scoring a nod for his rootsy album Country Music, a stripped-bare dose of country music the way it sounded before Nashville strapped it to a post and paddled it until it agreed to become the foul and unlistenable bastardization of the genre that it is today.

Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”).

Top40-charts.com reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.

The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:

Record of the Year:
images.jpgWith a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).

Album of the Year:
index.jpgIt is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
paul.jpgSurely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals:
arcade.jpgIt should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”

Best Rock Album:
muse.jpgFunny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.

Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.

Meet Joe Henry (It’s About Damned Time)

29th May

Henry live

There’s a reason why nearly every artist worth the price of the boots they stand in has courted Joe Henry to produce their records over the past five years–Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Allen Troussaint, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Mary Gauthier–earning Henry the Grammy recognition that his own brilliant music sadly fails to garner. I guess until Joe Henry agrees to tongue Madonna on live TV, he won’t have a spot at the Grammies, a show that’s become a profoundly embarrassing pageant of T & A that, at this point, is as much a celebration of music as it is a tutorial in soft porn (You’d think the Grammy people might get a clue after posting such shitty ratings in the past several years. Yes, you might think so, but only after forgetting that this is the same Grammies that totally ignored both The Strokes’s debut album as well as The White Stripes’s White Blood Cells. Fuck them.) Then again, Henry has good reason not to tongue Madonna–on live TV or elsewhere–he is, after all, married to her sister. Yes, Joe Henry is the Material Girl’s bro-in-law, but no one’s holding that against him, now. We’re all friends here.

An artist’s authenticity is easily gauged by the company he keeps, one of many measurements that confirms Joe Henry’s position as an underground badass. Take Mary Guathier, for instance, a woman who was abandoned at birth by a mother she never met, stole her parents’ car at 15 and ran away from home, spent her 18th birthday in jail and more time than that in halfway houses and rehab clinics. Writing her first song at 35 and cashing in her stake in a Cajun restaurant in Boston to pursue a music career (Gauthier hails from New Orleans), she now enjoys such accolades as an “Indie CD of the Year” nod from the NY Times for her third album, Filth and Fire. Her latest, Between Daylight and Dark, flickers with a ghostly darkness only Joe Henry could summon.

Others, like Mann or Costello, need no introduction, while soul luminaries like Lavette and Burke have Henry to thank for tossing them a life raft amid their flagging careers the way only great producers can (Burke’s Henry-produced Don’t Give Up On Me earned a Grammy, and Henry turned Lavette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise into the musical resurrection of the decade. The lion-voiced Lavette had spent a long-overlooked career floundering in the shadows of giants whose terrain she roamed, i.e., Aretha Franklin. It’s about time Lavette got some of that R-E-S-P-E-C-T the Queen herself loves to wail about.


Solomon Burke: “None of Us Are Free,” Don’t Give Up on Me (2002)

But the true tragedy amid this tale of unsung talent is the neglect of Henry’s own solo material. While Henry himself seems perfectly satisfied making music on the margins, it’s no less pathetic that his catalog is found only on a succession of indie labels while pretenders like Pete Yorn cut records for Columbia. Even so, Henry has more recently found his home on the now-legendary Anti Records, a subsidiary of Epitaph and home to other brilliant victims of an increasingly conglomeratized industry, such as Tom Waits and Merle Haggard.

Admittedly, most of Henry’s records range from unfocused (Murder of Crows) to uneven (Tiny Voices, Civilians); but nearly every one of them still packs its precious punch of genius (like “Time is A Lion” from 2007’s Civilians). There are exceptions, of course. 2001’s frequently devastating Scar–for which Henry solicited the services of fiery jazz great Ornette Coleman–produced, among a handful of other essential tracks, a funky, Waits-ish song called “Stop” that brought in plenty of dough when his uber-in-law turned it into a ginormous hit in the new clothes of a different title (“Don’t Tell Me”) and typically overblown production of her 2000 album, Music (Madonna’s version of the song came out before Henry’s because her version was based off an unfinished demo Henry sent her before he released it on his own album later on.) Coleman took “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful nation” to heights no Henry album has explored before, and Joe’s smooth hand begged no assistance on spare piano pieces like “Lock and Key” or “Cold Enough to Cross,” whispery jazz-lounge gems in which Henry’s smoky voice snows softly over the oblivion of the heart.

There is absolutely no disputing, however, that 1999’s Fuse is the one record which transcends anything else the man has done–either as a producer or a performer–a TKO of stinging songwriting and trip-hop atmospherics that earned the album Top Ten CDs of the Year honors with the NY Times. Songs like “Skin And teeth,” “Want Too Much” (produced by Daniel Lanois) or “Fat” sound as if Joe Henry stuffed the night sky into a silk bag–moon, stars and all–and ran off into the studio with it (you might also recognize “Angels” from the Felicity soundtrack.) The lonely trumpets, thumping bass and funky, echoing guitar licks sound like they were played by street-musicians who just happened to pass Henry by as he sang in a dark alley at night under a winter rain. A desperate solitude pervades every layer of Fuse, particularly on the stand-out “Like She Was A Hammer.” No one grabs the throat with a line and a good beat the way this man does; just take a look at this writing:

And like she was the railroad
Like she was the lost world
Like she was the big hand turning back the scene.
Like she was the raging flower in the brick-yard
Like she was the only thing holding on to me.

There is no revolution
without boots and song.
Her foot falls like a banner day
and I will song along.

Like she was the anvil
Like she was the fire bell
Like she was the fever I wear like a crown.
Like she was the bomb scare
threatening with heaven,
Like she was the only thing hold me to the ground.

Joe Henry is an instant private treasure to all who do the man the worthy favor of coughing up some dough and picking up an album of his. I strongly recommend beginning with Fuse, sampling 1997’s Trampoline, and then diving into the jazzy shipwreck of Scar. If you’re disappointed by anything on those three albums, you just aren’t listening. Period.

Additional samples:

Civilians

Scare Me to Death

Parker’s Mood

 

David Ford: “Go To Hell”

24th May

Ford
David Ford

If there’s one thing about which we can all agree, surely it’s this: There is something mightily cathartic about a guy screaming “GO TO HEEEELLLL!!” over a sprawling jungle of percussion, piano, guitar, bass, and, uh, kitchen knives and sugar shakers. In yet another of David Ford’s “one camera, one take” videos, this time for the debut single from his new album Songs For the Road, Ford begins the way he always does: as quietly unassuming as possible. Stirring his morning coffee with a spoon as he leans against a counter behind him, it seems to dawn on Ford that this, too, is an occasion for song, as he soon slaps together some steel utensils to initiate another endlessly textured soundscape that progresses to achieve the roar of the wronged and heartbroken.

Like an intolerably suspenseful moment in some pyschological thriller that leaves your girlfriend shivering under the seat and you clutching the gallon of coke you shoved in the armrest, the phenomenally talented Ford builds an increasingly roiling ocean of sound, playing every instrument himself. You never know what flourish may strike his muse next–perhaps the flicker of a banjo, perhaps a sugar shaker, maybe a guitar and a few sly strokes of a drum.

The sum of all these parts equates to a revival of the now-stale talent of David Gray, who so sadly abandoned the spare and genuine joys of earlier works like Sell, Sell, Sell for the disastrously overproduced catastrophe of Life in Slow Motion, his once-gritty tales of loss and self-discovery grown syrupy with a decadent serving of schmaltz. Sure, there’s a hell of a lot going on in any given David Ford song–enough to floor you with the anxious feeling of crossing some cab-strangled intersection in NYC with a kid tucked in your arm–but never does any of it smack of the kind of desperation Gray’s more recent work wreaks of.


David Ford: “Go To Hell,” Songs For the Road

Aside from that esteemed but fallen predecessor, much of Ford’s work settles into the hypnotic and atmospheric folk of, say, Daniel Lanois, thick with the layered percussion and nuance Lanois’s staked his claim in. Come to think of it, Ford’s rockin’ his garish caps and five o’clock shadow too–but his sound isn’t nearly so claustrophobic as to produce Lanois’s boringly characteristic Here Is What Is (I love ya, Daniel, but you’re one dude who’s in desperate need of a musical makeover.)

Few artists convey such a jubilant pursuit of creative discovery as Ford. While his one-take videos are certainly more calculated than he lets on, they nonetheless come off as products of a brave and curious imagination. Tracks like “State of the Union” and “Go To Hell” showcase a willingness to abandon himself to any flight of melody and wander wherever it may lead; each new note enters the song like a match struck against the surface of his vision. After a few of these one-take videos, though, the device of layering sound upon sound as he roams a cluttered studio and dubs one instrument over another to create a gradual crescendo can become a tired shtick. Ironically, the very spontaneity he seems to be aiming for can also be the very thing that threatens his sound with utter predictability.

But there’s something about seeing him pull all this off live, a ballsy nod to the one-man band in which a guitar case factors into the mix as much as the guitar inside it, that makes the ticket you bought to see it worth every last dime. If you happen to be close enough to any of the tour dates below, I wouldn’t miss it if I were you–especially the first four, where he will appear on the same bill as Aimee Mann:

13th June
MILWAUKEE, WI – PABST THEATER

16th June
TULSA, OK – CAIN’S BALLROOM

17th June
AUSTIN, TX – LA ZONA ROSA

18th June
DALLAS, TX – HOUSE OF BLUES

23rd June
BIRMINGHAM, AL – WORKPLAY

24th June
AUGUSTA, SC – DOWNSTAIRS LIVE

26th June
PHILADELPHIA – WORLD LIVE CAFE