Tag Archives: Willie Nelson

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.

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

Amarillo Highway – Terry Allen

Terry Allen is a conceptual artist and country singer. This isn’t an unheard-of combination of pursuits. One thinks of Dolly Parton.
Allen has flown under the mainstream radar for pretty much all his musical career and remains little known to this day, but he is beloved of many rock critics and Lubbock (On Everything) is frequently cited by those few who have heard it as one of the finest country albums ever made, and a forerunner of the last two decades’ alt.country. He is patently not a tough guy, like Waylon Jennings. He’s no mystic hippie like Willie Nelson. There is a kinship with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely (who played harmonica on Lubbock) – they all come from Lubbock and have all tapped into the strange vibes of a seemingly singular place. But still, Allen’s hard to pin down.
If Glen Campbell’s reading of Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights found country music coming to a kind of rhythmic accommodation with disco, Amarillo Highway’s ramshackle swagger puts a hi-hat figure straight out of New York, played with a woozy looseness you would never get in Lower Manhattan, to work on a hard-ass down-home road song that skewers the genre of hard-ass down-home road songs. It’s the album’s signature groove, recurring on several songs. It’s topped by the wonderful pedal-steel playing of Lloyd Maines, another local legend (and father of Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks) and benefits from the engineering of Don Caldwell, at whose studio Lubbock (On Everything) was recorded. The album’s production is credited to ‘Everyone on this record’, and that’s the way Don Caldwell tells it in Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air (‘everybody on the album put in their two cents, a very co-operative effort), but he’s probably being a little generous: he knew more about making a record than anyone else in the room (Maines was his protégé) and that the sessions held together at all must have been in large part because of his steadying influence.
But the great playing, arrangements and engineering wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t backed up by quality songs from Allen. And yes, the shufflin’ drums and sun-baked pedal steel are just adornments to the lyric and Allen’s canny performance: the singer’s inability to quite hit the low notes at the end of the verses undercuts his protestations of unreconstructed Texan masculinity, which in any case veer between banality and near-nonsensicality. In its affectionate parody of a certain kind of southern manhood, it’s reminiscent of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (The Great Joe Bob – fallen high-school football icon – is a character Newman is still probably kicking himself for not coming up with first), and Amarillo Highway, in common with so many of Newman’s songs, contains a lyric and a vocal that only the author could deliver properly.
Yeah, that’s a better comparison than any other country singer: Terry Allen, a Panhandling, manhandling Randy Newman.

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Terry Allen (seated right). Jo Harvey Allen (actress and artist) is seated to his left. Al Ruppersberg is standing back row, left.