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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.

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