North and South

  • Artist: Daniel Lanois
  • Title: Acadie
  • Released: 1989; re-issued 2005
  • Format: CD + Digital Download (FLAC)
  • Genre: Singer-songwriter, ambient, folk, rock
  • Beverage of Choice: J.P. Wiser’s 18

I must admit that I came to this post with some anxiety about ‘getting it right’; simply put, Daniel Lanois is a genius at the soundboard and his production credentials are unassailable. With that said, he is an artist too, with excellent songwriting skills, instrumental chops (especially steel guitar and keyboards) and is a halfway decent vocalist. He has been gifted with a singular and focused musical talent and his fingerprints are unmistakable on albums such as ‘The Joshua Tree’ (U2), Robbie Robertson’s eponymous solo album, ‘Stumble into Grace’ (Emmylou Harris), ‘So’ and ‘Us’ (Peter Gabriel), ‘Time Out Of Mind’ (Bob Dylan) and ‘Mercy’ (Rocco Deluca and the Burden). Every one of these albums (and several others that Lanois either produced or played on as guest artist) are constant companions of mine, grooves worn smooth on vinyl and CDs thinned by time and play.

His collaborations with another genius, Brian Eno, effectively took U2 from a niche 80’s music audience to multi-platinum stardom with a string of critically acclaimed (as well as wildly popular) work starting with ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ through ‘The Joshua Tree’, ‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’. On a final biographical note, Lanois also founded a wonderful and almost obscure band Black Dub , producing one eponymous album that boosted the career of one Trixie Whitley who you should definitely check out. I saw Black Dub at the Anaheim Hard Rock (for $10) and was right up front on the rail, blissed out at Lanois’ effortless groove, humble and generous highlighting of his band members and skilled performance on keyboard.

Now, to the album under the spotlight this week, Lanois’ solo debut, “Acadie“. I purchased this CD in Cape Town in 1989 at a music chain (Musica) on the foreshore shopping area, listened to it immediately on getting home and must have played it a thousand times since then. There is something magical about the music on the record; I experience it in a different way each time, as familiar as the rhythms, lyrics and melodies are to me, hearing additional nuance, feeling a new emotion or being startled anew by the perfect mix on some of the songs. If you think I’m overselling this work, maybe I am, but listen to it a few times and see if you don’t fall under its spell!

The music is varied but lends itself overall to a mood; pensive, introspective, examining life and spirit with ambiance, depth and poetic storytelling. It’s as relaxing but mindful and focused as I imagine Lanois to be in life (having never met the man but seen a few interviews with him on TV). There are also a fair number of guests on the album with long ties to Lanois; Canadian countryman Malcolm Burn , Brian Eno, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. from U2 and most of the Neville brothers. You’ll encounter Lanois’ signature drum patterns, echoing jangly guitars, subtle harmonies and synth backing, along with a directness and accessibility that belies the complexity and attention to detail that went into making this album. There is a mix of English and French lyrics (sometimes in the same song) that gives the work an authenticity and originality based on Lanois’ early life in Quebec although the album was recorded and produced in New Orleans – the Cajun underpinnings on songs like “O Marie” and ” Jolie Louis” lend folk/zydeco attributes to the music.

Listen to the bass line on “The Maker” (another Lanois’ signature in pattern and phrasing) and contrast the groove with the smooth and beautiful harmonization and line trade-offs between Lanois and Aaron Neville. Lanois introduced a spiritual element to U2’s works and brings that aesthetic to this album; lyrics reference Biblical imagery and allude to dark times, guilt and salvation.

The simple but effective mix on “O Marie” is underpinned by an expert miking of the acoustic guitar so that every string rings clear with characteristic steel string ‘buzz’ clearly heard throughout the song. Just a great pleasure for any aspiring musician/producer and inspiration for young songwriters. Followed up by the accordion-accentuated “Jolie Louis“, Lanois’ Cajun roots are exposed and paid homage. The telling of the tale in French/English is satisfying in a way I can’t really explain, you’ll have to judge for yourself if I’m full of it!

Two moody, atmospheric and soundscape-rich tracks follow (“Fisherman’s Daughter” and “White Mustang II“) that deserve good headphones; the trumpet solo on “White Mustang II” was played by a street musician that Lanois heard playing under his hotel window and invited to capture the moment on-demand. Absolutely beautiful and uplifting.

Another Cajun (and very dance-able) tune, “Under a Stormy Sky“, momentarily breaks the mood but not for long as the next five tracks continue to lay down an immersive and rich ambiance. “Where the Hawkwind Kills” will sound familiar to U2 aficionados with every sound and note arranged to form a sonic picture. “Silium’s Hill” is gentle and romantic poetry set to simple guitar melody and intimate vocal. “Ice” is aptly named as the synthesizer and distant voice make for a ‘colder’ sound than the rest of the album which is ‘warm’ and close. By the time you hear the penultimate song, “St. Anns’ Gold“, you’re going to recognize the signature sound and patterns of Lanois’ music. You’ll also now ‘feel’ his amazing skill at mixing with a perfect stereoscopic sound-stage – wide, luxurious and dense without sounding cluttered. It’s so difficult to pull this off and even more difficult for me to explain, you’ll have to hear it.

The final track is an eccentric but effective rendering of “Amazing Grace” with Aaron Neville’s amazing vocal arpeggios set against a sparse and somewhat jagged instrumentation. The track starts to heat up with jangly guitars and rising drum pattern after a couple of minutes and Neville’s voice floats closer and closer to the listener, evoking a sense of conclusion and euphoria. It’s a fitting end to a fine example of the creative and expert use of sound and technology to induce an emotional response in the audience. One of my ‘Desert Island Discs‘, maybe it’ll become one of yours.

Published by Rick Adams

Husband, father, music lover

5 thoughts on “North and South

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