Welcome to my blog. There's no particular theme I'm just posting random thoughts and things that interest me

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Come on Feel Le Noise

In an interview to promote Neil Young’s 34th and latest studio album Le Noise, producer Daniel Lanois said he was “awestruck” when Young asked him to produce an album for him. “I’ve been wanting to make a Neil Young record all my life”. Young, also in the interview, chipped in: “Me too. I was dying to do a Neil Young record”.

Young was once sued by his own record label, Geffen Records, for making music “unrepresentative of himself”. After being courted by David Geffen for years, Young’s first album for his new label was the electronic Trans. It was panned by critics and fans alike. As a follow up, Young offered up a pure country album, Old Ways. Geffen rejected it, demanding a “rock and roll album” instead. Taking Geffen literally, Young started recording a rockabilly album. An incensed Geffen cancelled the final recording sessions and the 25 minute Everybody’s Rockin’ album was released unfinished. The law suit that followed was finally settled with Young returning to Reprise Records, and total artistic freedom.

So, have Young and Lanois managed to make a “Neil Young” record? Whatever that may be.

Le Noise opens with a signature fuzzy electric guitar riff on Walk With Me. This is somewhat ironic seeing as the initial idea was to make an acoustic album. Prior to going into the studio, Lanois - best known for producing Grammy winning albums for U2 and Bob Dylan - spent four weeks preparing an acoustic guitar sound which he felt had “taken the acoustic guitar to a new level”.

In fact, only two of the eight tracks feature acoustic guitar. Young plays his ‘50s Gretsch White Falcon electric guitar on most of the tracks. Somewhere along the way the concept changed from an acoustic album to a “solo guitar” album. That’s all there is; guitar, Young’s inimitable voice and Lanois production skills which he pretentiously refers to in interviews as his “sonics”. He’s keen to emphasise that there are no overdubs, just “extractions and manipulations” of Young’s playing and singing.

The best tracks are Hitchhiker and Love and War. They are better even than “Angry World” for which Young this year earned a long overdue first music Grammy. Hitchhiker is the reworking and completion of an unfinished 1992 song and is the only song on the album to feature Young’s legendary Les Paul Guitar “Old Black”.

Lanois says this is an album of riffs rather than instrumentals which is a shame because I felt Hitchhiker was crying out for some drums and a trademark guitar solo. 

Hitchhiker, is a potted history of Young’s drug abuse, and is a typically personal lyric. Young admits in interviews that it is “totally autobiographical”. He also describes it as a metaphor for change which makes no judgement on his drug use, good or bad. Other lyrics just come to him like something remembered, he says. He doesn’t come up with an idea he just writes and “suddenly, there it is”.

The haunting acoustic guitar on Love and War, accompanies poignant lyrics:

“I've seen a lot of young men go to war
And leave a lot of young brides waiting
I've watched them try to explain it to their kids

And seen a lot of them failing”.

The name of the album comes from Young’s nickname for Lanois which is a play on the producer’s surname. Presumably this reflects the collaborative nature of the project. Young has said that he wants now to focus on singer/songwriting and that producing is not a thing he is interested in at this stage.

Le Noise is certainly an excellent album. I think though this is due to Young’s brilliant songwriting, unique voice and great guitar playing rather than Lanois’ production. Except for the stark acoustic songs, Lanois’ production is just a bit too clever with its loops and repeated phrases. Instead of enhancing Young’s guitar sound it actually detracts from it.

Clearly this is a “Neil Young” album. But it’s also a bit too much of a Daniel Lanois album for my liking. I’d love to hear these songs live with an electric guitar in Neil Young’s hands and the freedom to meander off into an endless solo. And on that note, here’s Young’s manic rendition of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, recorded at Glastonbury in June 2009. It climaxes with Young contemptuously bashing a broken stringed “Old Black” with a mike stand.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

In The Beginning....

“Call me Ishmael” is regarded as one of the great opening lines in literature. But why? On its own, it’s hardly a humdinger and its reputation surely has more to do with the book that follows than the line itself.

In contrast, the start of Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, about September 11, is stunning:

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.”

The phrase “sharking low” is typical Amis brilliance and the sentence sets up the whole piece. Powerful as Amis’s essay is though, it’s unlikely anyone will remember its opening line in 150 years for the simple reason that it’s doubtful it will stand the test of time in the same way as Moby Dick.

Below are six of my favourite openings which I believe do justice to the superb pieces of work they start. I’ve limited myself to books I’ve read which sadly means leaving out The Go-Between’s "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” which has always intrigued me but never quite enough to make me read the book. In no particular order:

The Fight – Norman Mailer

“There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then The World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

Mailer, the literary heavyweight, proves more than a match for his subject, the world most famous man, Muhammad Ali. I also love the opening of Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance: “At dawn, if it was low tide on the flats, I would awaken to the chatter of gulls. On a bad morning, I used to feel as if I had died and the birds were feeding on my heart.”

But I never really got on with Mailer the novelist. Give me Mailer the reporter. In fact, just give me The Fight. Quite possibly the best sports book ever written.

Farewell to the Ultimate Football Man - Hugh McIlvanney

“In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful. The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, shows that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few, and Matt Busby was one of them.

If Busby had stood dressed for the pit, and somebody alongside him in the room had worn ermine, there would be no difficulty about deciding who was special. Granting him a knighthood did not elevate him. It raised, however briefly, the whole dubious phenomenon of the honours system”.

McIlvanney is the doyen of British sportswriters and these words could just as easily be used to describe him. He’s that good.

All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”

That’s quite a few more than a couple of opening lines but how could I leave out “That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”? You enter straight into the old west and after 300 pages of mesmerising prose you don’t want to leave. Luckily you don’t have to as this is only book one of the Border Trilogy. The Crossing and Cities of the Plain are superb, but this is the best of the three.

Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book

“An old pro told me originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before; it consists of saying what you have to say that you know to be the truth.”

The bestselling sports book of all time is on the face of it just a short book about how to play golf. But it’s also a book about life, written by a great teacher. My other favourite golf book is Davis Love III’s “Every Shot I Take” written in memory of his father, who died in an airplane crash. This isn’t really a book about golf either. It’s a letter of love to a dead parent and it made me cry. There’s more to these golf books than meets the eye.

Pafko at the Wall– Don Delillo

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”.

Delillo’s much quoted line opens his breathless description of a famous 1951 baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This novella is so vivid it makes me nostalgic for an era I’m too young to remember, a game I’ve never heard of and a sport I don’t even follow. For some reason it was added as the prologue to the interminable 800 page novel Underworld. Luckily it was at the beginning or I would never have found it.

American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn't seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, "Be My Baby" on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”

Compelling and horrifying in equal measure, and beautifully written, this is the defining book of the 1980s. If you haven’t read it don’t be put off by the film, which misses Ellis’s point entirely.