Daniel Lanois's songs don't sound composed so much as hewn: roughly carved out of some sturdy primordial material like hardwood or, perhaps, rock.
They're not fancy; they still have unpolished spots. They let laconic melodies arise out of a few standard chords, to be repeated with modest variations for the length of a piece. They don't rush, and when they settle into a rhythm it's usually as basic as a march, a waltz or a reggae beat. For Mr. Lanois, musical simplicity leaves open spaces to be filled by wordless emotion.
Skip to next paragraph Enlarge This Image
Billy Tompkins for The New York Times Daniel Lanois playing guitar at the Hiro Ballroom.
Forum: Popular Music At Hiro Ballroom on Tuesday night, he performed material from his new album of instrumentals, "Belladonna" (Anti), which was released Tuesday in Canada and is due July 12 in the United States. Playing guitar, pedal steel guitar or a hand-held keyboard, he led what he called an orchestra: drums, guitar, bass or keyboard, and, for a few songs, a trumpeter and a female singer. It was orchestral enough; the songs welled up to fill the room for a spellbound audience. Behind him, video screens showed angels, open roads, kaleidoscopic patterns and, for one song, live images of the drummer, Brian Blade.
Mr. Lanois has a thriving career as a producer for, among others, U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel. His own music reflects the contemplative side of what he does with them. There's Celtic music in his open chords and picked patterns; there's spiky blues syncopation and the choppy primitivist rock of his fellow Canadian Neil Young. When Mr. Lanois switches to pedal steel guitar, the songs take on a just a hint of country, but he also makes each hovering chord appear and vanish like an ectoplasm. And when Mr. Lanois set the beat aside now and then, to toy with sustained chords and shards of tunes, there was a trace of Indian music in the ways a melody gradually emerged from a mode.
The pieces developed through texture: the way Mr. Lanois teased out a note or gave it a distorted edge, the way Mr. Blade's cymbals filled out a sustained phrase like wind in a sail, the way a bass line became a counterpoint or an almost unnoticed pulse. One piece, "Oaxaca," was just a melody repeated in unison, each time starting out almost tentative and then turning richly inevitable. The music was pensive but never glum: more awestruck by its own imaginary landscapes. And when Mr. Lanois finally sang - on past albums he has written songs with words - it was to announce, "I feel joy." It's the joy of making music that seems selfless but is unmistakably handmade by a very distinctive hand.
By JON PARELES Published: June 7, 2005