Monday, September 05, 2005

Daniel Lanois Belladonna review

as published in the September issue of the Ann Arbor Paper

Daniel Lanois is jack-of-all-trades in the music business. He made a name for himself by composing and playing music on Brian Eno’s groundbreaking ambient albums On Land and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Rolling Stone magazine hailed Lanois as “the most important record producer to emerge in the ‘80s,” most notably for his work on U2’s legendary The Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriel’s So. Upon my first listen to Belladonna, the latest in a series of releases on the Anti label, the album struck me as unremarkable. I liked it enough for the echoes of his collaborations with Eno, and I found it pleasant enough as background listening.

But an underhanded brilliance slowly burns throughout Belladonna. It wasn’t until a late night drive through the streets of downtown Detroit that I finally crossed the invisible line from listening to hearing. Focused on nothing but the road, I let the dulcet tones of Lanois’ pedal steel guitar envelope me. This is the soundtrack to one of those dreams in which you’re in a place that you recognize but somehow everything is different. The lurid light from street lamps shining through the steam billowing from sewer grates combined with the music to transform my short drive home to an ethereal interplanetary voyage.

Once home I went straight to my room and started Belladonna from the beginning, fully immersing myself in this parallel sonic dimension via my headphones. It’s almost a shame that Lanois even bothered separating this album into 13 individual tracks; it’d be better enjoyed from start to finish with no interruptions. Each track builds on the one preceding it like chapters in a book. Let “Sketches” take you to the bright side of the moon, where the keyboard notes fall like silvery raindrops, the whisper-like drums just barely audible. Listen closely to the eerie approximation of vocals on “Oaxaca” and try to figure out if they were generated by man or machine. Drop in on the mariachi fiesta of “Agave,” a bit of a nod to Morricone with its horn arrangements and militaristic marching drums, evoking images of spaghetti westerns with cowboys in space suits, finding out who has the fastest gun on Mars. Linger on the impressive finale of “Todos Santos” where the washes of sound are not unlike the colors of a Rothko painting. The landscape of this album flows so seamlessly from lush, densely layered compositions to spacious, airy sections that it never becomes tedious. It’s the perfect antidote to the short-attention-span sickness that infects our society.