Happy Easter, one and all!
In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.
Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.
Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.
If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).
Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.
Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.
O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.
The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.
Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)