Tag Archives: Shania Twain

The American Canon is Here

Just been looking at Rolling Stone‘s new Top 500 list properly for the first time. I’ve not had the time or patience until now to scroll through it all, instead just quickly skimming the top 100 and noting the howls of apoplexy on Twitter and in the comments. Apparently Antifa are responsible for Marvin Gaye’s rise to the top of the list. Yes, some people actually say that out loud.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case it does, the list is not the product of heavily armed wokerati seizing control of the Rolling Stone offices and locking Jann Wenner in a stationery cupboard. It’s much simpler than that. Rolling Stone is no longer run by Wenner and it’s no longer aimed at his generation. It’s pivoted to pop because if it doesn’t it soon won’t exist. The Penske Media Corporation that now owns it needs to make Rolling Stone credible again, and this list is a step towards making that happen. It’s a statement about what Rolling Stone stands for in 2020 (or at least, what it wants to be seen as standing for) – an outlet where you can read about Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift all in one place. Of course, that doesn’t make it radical; it just catches it up to where the majority of critics (at least British ones, who from my vantage point embraced poptimism more fervently more quickly than American critics) got to in around 2004 or so.

To the list itself, then. For all that fans of classic rock gasped at it, only three records surprised me at their inclusion: Shania Twain’s Come On Over, Eric Church’s Chief and 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Shania because I’d thought her pop/country hybrids were too cynical in their ear-worminess to have won lasting favour; 50 Cent because I thought he was a complete joke when In Da Club came out and assumed everyone else did too; and Eric Church because, really? I mean, OK, if that’s your thing, but really? I didn’t realise.

I was more taken aback by records that I’d assumed would be higher. Neutral Milk Hotel’s beloved-by-everyone-but-me In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all the way down at 375? I thought it’d be top 100. Joy Division’s Closer at 309 and Unknown Pleasures at 211? They’ve never been a band I care for, but again, I imagined their records would be way higher. Maybe I’ve just spent spent too much time listening to KEXP.

Of course, the list has flaws. It doesn’t have, sitting resplendent at the top, Judee Sill’s first album. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is not second. No Fred Neil, no John Martyn (not much British folk generally, actually). Jazz is treated as an afterthought, and reggae even more so: the highest-ranked reggae album, unless I missed one, is Bob Marley’s Legend.

I suspect that generational turnover will mean that when the list is next revised, it will look very different again, probably with a lot of boomer warhorses still there but fewer choices from the 2010s and 2000s. Time will tell. In the meantime, it seems pretty representative to me of the pop consensus in 2020, and why would it be anything else?

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

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.

Image

Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)