First Listen: Impressions of Neil Young’s ‘Le Noise’ (upon hearing it at Daniel Lanois’ house)
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Nearly every decade since Neil Young launched a solo career in 1968, the Canadian rocker has put out a watershed album with which he’s upped the ante for himself. In 1969, it was his sophomore effort, which first paired him with Crazy Horse, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” In 1979, punk rock was powerfully on his mind in “Rust Never Sleeps,” while 1989 brought “Freedom,” in which he fully assumed his latter-day role as a state-of-the-union messenger about what’s right, and wrong, in America.
“Silver & Gold,” which was recorded in 1999 but didn’t surface until four months into the following year, didn’t quite hit the same level of accomplishment, but with “Le Noise,” which will be released Sept. 28, Young’s peaking in yet another decade, and just a few months behind schedule for keeping his streak going for years ending in 9.
The title is a wink to his collaborator, musician-songwriter-producer Daniel Lanois, who premiered the album Tuesday night for a few dozen friends, music journalists, bloggers and L.A. music world denizens at his home overlooking Silver Lake.
The assembled group packed into the living room of the early 20th century mansion on the hillside, a voluntarily captive audience for Young’s subtly subversive method of forcing listeners to hear it for the first time the way he intended: on a first-class sound system, in the dark, no distractions.
What’s striking about “Le Noise” is the way it both summarizes and distills Young’s singular approach to music, predominantly just Neil and a guitar: his big, white hollow-body Gretsch electric slashing and burning for most of the tracks, a couple built around picked and strummed acoustic instruments. Both are recorded and amplified -- literally and metaphorically -- by Lanois’ signature soundscapes that loop vocals, and enhance the guitars’ bass notes through distortion boxes, synthesizers and other electronics.
The eight songs travel a path from the electrified reverie of “Walk With Me,” through the nakedly autobiographical “Love and War,” to the combative “Angry World” and into the epic journey through the American frontier that’s always fascinated Young with the acoustic guitar-driven “Peaceful Valley.”
The losses of two close friends from his longtime circle of intimates in the last year -- filmmaker Larry “L.A.” Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith -- certainly had to figure into the power he’s invested in the new material, which Lanois said they crafted together “over four full moons.”
In “Love and War,” with a Spanish-guitar accompaniment, Young once again tries to make sense of the high cost of armed conflict:
I see a lot of young men go to war
And leave a lot of young brides behind
I see em try and explain it to their kids
I see a lot of them failing
He manages to inject a note of levity when he adds:
I sang for justice, but I hit a bad chord
But I still try to sing about love and war “Angry World” examines the different paths Young sees people on in this world: “Some see life as hope eternal/Some see life as a business plan.” Yet despite what mere mortals try to ascribe in the way of meaning, Young concludes, “No doubt everything will go as planned,” returning to the song’s central theme about the angry world, words he spits out in that unmistakable high, light tenor of his.
The songs bristle with energy -- anger, passion, love, self-doubt, regret, hope -- emotions that seem all the more pure expressed without percussion, keyboards, strings or other instruments, just by Young’s voice and guitars.
Lanois said the project started out as an all acoustic album, but that idea didn’t last long once the producer began prodding Young to really get at what was on his mind and in his heart. “He has the ability to really reach down deep inside,” Lanois said during a break before the album was played a second time, this time accompanied by gritty film footage of Young singing the vocals.
“The idea may seem obvious,” he said, “but we decided to just film Neil singing each vocal live.” Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, said “Le Noise” will be released in a variety of formats, in keeping with Young’s ongoing exploration and exploitation of new technology. The film will first be available via video on demand services and on Netflix, and in some form for mobile phones. The music will appear on CD and vinyl, and accompanying the film on Blu-ray disc, the audiophile system Young has been championing in recent years.
As busy as Young and his record label have been digging through the vaults for material for his massive “Archives” multiyear box set project -- Vol. 2 is due in 2012, Roberts said Tuesday -- along with individual reissues in recent years, it’s all the more rewarding to discover he’s delivered yet another craggy rock classic to keep them company.
-- Randy Lewis
Top photo: Daniel Lanois introducing Neil Young’s “Le Noise” in Silver Lake. Bottom photo: The “Le Noise” film projected at Lanois’ home on Tuesday night. Credits: Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times
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