Saturday, October 2, 2010

Channeling Le Noise

Neil Young’s latest record, Le Noise, has been playing in my ears a lot over the past few days. It was released on September 28.

Neil, of course, is brilliant. I’m not sure this particular CD is going to impress the listening market any more than Fork in the Road did. You just don’t hear that many tunes on Pandora or whatever that consist of only unaccompanied amped-up electric guitar and solo vocals. This is Neil on his own terms, experimental, not giving a damn if anyone listens.

Which, of course, is exactly what rusties love and worship.

This album is a true collaboration. Neil ruled the roost, as usual, but his creativity was aggressively handled by renown producer Daniel Lanois. Though the sound and feel is definitely Neil, there is plenty of soundboard mixing and effects by Lanois. The CD is definitely a mutual effort.

Having seen Neil live in this format back in May (see May 30 post) I am familiar with the material he was considering for Le Noise. I also watched Lanois on youtube before the CD’s release. He mentions listening to Neil and suggesting that he stay away from the new material that didn’t seem to Lanois to be what was truly inside Neil at the time of the recording.

As a result, two new songs he performed live in May are not recorded on Le Noise. They are replaced by songs he apparently wrote between May and whenever he recorded (and videoed) Le Noise at Lanois’ Californian home during four nights around a full moon this past summer.

Neil prefers to record on full moons. It’s just a thing he has.

It is fitting that Neil is solo here. These are all intimate songs with a hard edge, a touch of anger, crowned with love, as strange as that probably sounds. The record is a listening sensation. Neil solo. Heavily electric and powerful.

Walk with Me was the encore of his live performance in May. It begins this CD and definitely sets the bar pretty high for whatever follows. It is one of the album’s more approachable songs, perhaps, for the non-rustie. Not that Neil plays it safe by any means. But, it is basic (as in fundamental, recognized) classic rock.

Hitchhiker, later on, at least reaches the same height in Neil’s musical exploration. After many years, this tune is finally recorded in an angry, desperate voice depicting the autobiographical, evolutionary drug habit that the song is about. This song’s title is the sub-theme of the still on-going Twisted Road Tour. The program book I bought has a “hitchhiker” rendering on the cover and there were hitchhiker t-shirts for sale. On the CD it is raw power.

The other electric songs on the album are new for me, perhaps written (or at least preferred) under Lanois’ guidance. It is rare for Neil to surrender so much control. Perhaps only with CSNY has he ever been this open to following the muse of another artist.

Sign of Love is a heavy, slow rocker. The sound on this one just builds upon itself, creating a wall of loudness that engulfs you. Someone’s Gonna Rescue You is one of those Neil tunes that I didn’t notice so much at first. But, having listened to the record now a dozen times or more (it is only 38 minutes in length), I now find it to be one of the album’s best tunes. It bounces along with a constant, strong rhythm. Neil’s voice makes me think of him back on is very first solo album in 1969. Angry World is, for me, the weak link on the album. Lanois improves it with his mix of it, which is not bad, just not particularly noteworthy compared with the other efforts presented here. Rumblin’ is an exact description of how Neil plays the White Falcon, the instrument of choice (Old Black makes onlt a limited appearance on this release) on this song and the album as a whole. A very nice grooving tune.

There are two acoustic songs on the CD. Both are sonic wonders. Both were performed at the Fox in May. Peaceful Valley Boulevard was my favorite of the new material presented live at the concert. It isn’t my favorite song on Le Noise, but it is nevertheless a powerful one, and by far the longest song on the record. The sound of Neil playing a Guild guitar introduced to him and specially modfied by Lanois is very sophisticated and satisfying. Almost a folksy jazz. Appropriately, Lanois says this record "takes the acoustic guitar to a new level." It was this guitar Neil played at the Fox in May and I recall at the time thinking I'd never seen it before. It is a Lanois influence and it gives a truly distinctive, marvelous sound.

Love and War is a remarkable song, almost a Spanish ballad. The lyrics are Neil’s best on the album. There is so much contrasting, conflicted imagery and poetry here. Neil opens up here showing us a profound depth to his intimate self. Lanois appropriately does almost nothing sonically to this song. He leaves this one alone, allowing the space of the house in which it was recorded to cradle it. (Lanois’ house features a huge, designed cavity up the middle of its three stories that was originally meant as a huge “pipe” for an organ that no longer functions. The amps and Neil are facing the cavity and the sound is recorded out of it.) This one needs nothing but its own longing and compassion.

I have to say some favorable things about Lanois. I usually don’t mention producers on albums I write about. Recently, Neil’s long-time producer died. It is interesting to me that Neil immediately turned to a famous, kind of maverick producer. It shows a lot of strength on Neil’s part, and some ability to accept qualified guidance.

Lanois permeates this album, track by track. He directed what material to include. He features a certain wizardry with many interesting and actually very entertaining additions and effects (multi-layered, surgically removed, modfied and replaced sound fragments played or sung by Neil) from the studio. Lanois makes his art well-known in a way probably no other producer ever has with Neil. I think his success in getting Neil to agree to change the title of the CD from “Twisted Road” (the name of his current tour) to Le Noise might be a bit of arrogance but it also merely matches Neil’s own infamous quest for artistic control. Lanois is a worthy collaborator and has caused this Neil record to be distinctively satisfying.

Although some have complained about Le Noise, most critics seem to appreciate it. Like I said, I’m not sure how popular the record will be in the long-run but, as of this post, it is #2 on amazon’s sales chart in the rock and pop categories. Strong initial sales. For me, Le Noise is surprisingly worthy. Not as good as Chrome Dreams II overall, but different, bolder, and rewards repeated enjoyment.

Neil, always dabbling in film, has release a "movie" of the new material. You can see it on youtube here.

Living beyond 50 with new Neil. Life is good. I am appreciative of what he has done for Jennifer and me. Another spot of mutual intensity.

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