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Desert Disc

Desert Island Disc: Belladonna (Daniel Lanois)

Beautiful instrumentals with depth and emotion

After posting a number of “desert island disks” a few years back, it was inevitable that the island would have to get larger. Or at the very least, supply lines would need to be extended. In the past few years a number of artists and albums have come through my speakers, making my previous list incomplete without them.

Belladona – Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois seems to get praised one moment, and slammed the next. His talents are not always appreciated, but some of us (who are male) would give our left testicle to spend an hour with him.

I was first made aware of Lanois’ genius via friend/bassist Matt Homiak. Sure, Lanois produced U2, but that is secondary to his solo work which is where his talent really shines (and Shine is another album!).

There are high points on his 1993 album For the Beauty of Wynona, a close contender for the island. But the one I keep coming back to is his 2005 release Belladona. As an instrumental work, it stands out from my other desert island disks (except for Bach), and like Raising Sand, it is production that stands out.
As my iPod listening history attests, I have listened to Belladona some 200+ nights in a row before bed. Track #10, “Frozen” is the one that still amazes me every time I hear it. The expressiveness of the pedal steel, the use of volume swells, to say nothing of the use of delay on the cymbals. This all seems academic, but it is really amazing from a sonic and emotional perspective. Without this texture, the piece would be something less. It’s as if every stroke, every grace note, has meaning.

“Frozen” was later used as the backing for a vocal piece on Black Dub with Trixie Whitley (daughter of another desert island disk artist, the late Chris Whitley). This totally blew my mind when I first heard it because I had listened to the original instrumental so many times. I immediately recognized the underlying percussion, but was then transported to another world.

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Desert Disc

Desert Island Disc: Raising Sand (Plant/Krauss)

It's all about the tremolo baby!

After posting a number of “desert island disks” a few years back, it was inevitable that the island would have to get larger. Or at the very least, supply lines would need to be extended. In the past few years a number of artists and albums have come through my speakers, making my previous list incomplete without them.

Raising Sand must now go on my list. It’s the anticipated 2007 collaboration between rock god Robert Plant and bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss, produced by studio divinity T-Bone Burnett. Forgive me for being the audio geek here, but this is the ultimate tremolo album. Is the songwriting great? Yes. Is this singing great? Yes. Do they cover a Tom Waits song? Yes, awesome. Arranging, musicianship…. yes, yes, give me more…

But the thing that stands out here for me is the production, so velvety sweet… a dumpling of goodness, all driven by the judicious and doctoral use of tremolo on the guitars, and maybe other stuff too.

Let’s put it this way, when I got new studio monitors and wanted to break them in and get a reference, this is one of the albums I had to listen to from start to finish. It also forced me to understand my tremolo pedals more, and showed me how they (and their digital counterparts) could be used to add character to tracks.

When I was working on Catch the Squirrel, I tried to incorporate a fraction of that tremolo flavor on some tracks. In subsequent years I spoke to producers who said no one cares about such psycho-acoustic textures. Nonsense. Such textures matter more than ever in a landscape of $200 sound card rock and Garageband slapstick that is nothing more than regurgitated loops.