Monday, September 27, 2010

Making Beautiful ‘Le Noise’ Together

The New York Times
September 26, 2010

Neil Young’s fans have long known he’s a stickler about sound. There’s nothing unpremeditated when he summons thick lava surges of electric-guitar distortion or when he plucks acoustic-guitar chords to ring in pristine solitude. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would end up collaborating with another careful shaper of reverberation and depth, Daniel Lanois, the producer who has opened up somber spaces on albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan.

Their collaboration, “Le Noise” (Reprise), is due for release on Tuesday. The latest songs by Mr. Young, 64, ponder mortality, love, history, memory and faith. “Somewhere in a ray of sunshine you find the dark/ Somehow when you see the spark, it burns your heart,” he sings in “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You.” Nearly all the tunes here reach for the kind of primal, indelible riffs Mr. Young brought to songs like “Cinnamon Girl” or “Cortez the Killer.” The music roars and reflects, seethes and mourns.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

“Le Noise” is a new album by Neil Young, left, and Daniel Lanois.

The album’s parameters are strict. Mr. Young performs alone, on electric or acoustic guitar, in eight tracks that total 39 minutes. “I wanted to do the solo record because I didn’t want to teach anybody the songs,” he said by telephone from the Mountain House restaurant in Woodside, Calif., where he and Mr. Lanois were spending the afternoon doing interviews. “These songs are pretty complex, actually. It’s simple, the amount of chords they have, but the way they’re laid out, they’re more complex than they sound like they are. I’ve found that a lot of musicians that play with me all thought that my songs are really simple, until they actually tried to play them with me.”

“Le Noise” was made in Mr. Lanois’s home studio, a mansion in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles that has arched windows, high ceilings and a prized collection of vintage tube amplifiers. While he sang and played, Mr. Young was videotaped, mostly in black and white, for a companion DVD; he has released clips on YouTube.

“It’s kind of like a horror movie,” Mr. Young said. “Le Noise, this monster, lives in this house.”

The real-time performances became raw material for Mr. Lanois. He tweaked and toyed with the guitar sounds, processing multiple signals from each instrument. He also looped, echoed and multiplied fragments of the performances, time-warping the stark realism of vocals and guitar.

“Everything that happened actually happened, but he’ll take pieces of the performance and put them in again and put them in different places,” Mr. Young said. “He does a performance in the mix, and I do a performance in the performance and it comes together to be what you see and hear.”

When Mr. Young claws at one of his venerable electric guitars — the much-altered Gibson Les Paul he calls Old Black or his Gretsch White Falcon, which has separate pickups for upper and lower strings, awaiting manipulation by Mr. Lanois — the tracks blare like his band Crazy Horse. But Mr. Young’s guitar and voice are unmoored from a rhythm section, and they ricochet in stereo through Mr. Lanois’s transformations, meeting their own shadows and ghosts. “Rumblin,’ ” a song about portents of change, merges a hymn and a burgeoning earthquake.

“I don’t want to be a record maker that just puts a lot of sweetening on a man’s work,” Mr. Lanois said. “I’ve never gone this far on any other record, ever. As pure a record as this might seem, on my part of it I think I’ve really stepped way ahead of anything else I’ve ever done with these sonic delights.”

Mr. Young said: “He had all of the room in the world to do it because there was nothing else there in the way. There was no band in the way, no backing singers, no arrangement of instruments — nothing in the way of him doing it. The only thing there other than me was him, and he was using pieces of me on top of me. It worked out real good.”

One song, “Hitchhiker,” took 35 years to complete, Mr. Young said. “If it was a TV show, it would be called ‘The Drug Chronicles, T.M.I.,’ ” Mr. Young said, abbreviating “too much information.” It is a compressed autobiography, mostly written in 1975, of his early years of fame and excess, mentioning hashish, amphetamines and cocaine. This year he reworked the chords and added concluding verses, among them, “I tried to leave my past behind, but it’s catching up with me.”

The other songs are recent, and were written fast. “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” which “probably took an hour,” Mr. Young said, is a sweeping environmental history of the American West, from bison hunting to electric cars. Mr. Young hadn’t planned the song with such a long view. “I walked into it hearing a gunshot across a valley, back in the day, and then everything else just unfolded,” he said. “It did go from past to present to semifuture, but sometimes that happens. Not that often, but it does happen, and when it does I always feel fortunate, because it seems to always get somewhere that I don’t usually get.”

Mr. Young introduced songs from “Le Noise” in a solo theater tour earlier this year, and he is going on the road again, performing alone with electronic effects. The concerts are scheduled along the Gulf Coast, as benefits for people affected by the BP oil disaster. It’s an unusual choice of itinerary for a rocker with a brand-new album to promote. “It’s hurricane season,” Mr. Young said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

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