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The Major Lift

By John Brodeur

Kicking off October with an album that feels autumnal (if not terminal), Neil Young has teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois for Le Noise. This is not No Line on the Horizon: Lanois simply outfitted the workaholic rocker with a special electric-acoustic guitar and some effects boxes and let him play, then mucked around with the whole thing on the back end. The result is far from what you might expect from a Neil Young solo album—it sounds like none of his other albums, a pretty major accomplishment considering this is his thirty-freaking-third studio album. (That, and he tried pretty much everything in the 1980s).

It’s the sound of two artists bringing their unique creative energy to the table and seeing what happens—the essences of both Young and Lanois in one package. Neither seems to have come to the project with any preconceptions about what they were going to do; indeed, it’s a warts-and-all performance, full of life and rough around the edges. The songs sound at times to be coming off-the-cuff, but the album is about life’s bad chords—that formative spark, those brief moments of uncertainty that all but tip toward error, are what make Le Noise an interesting and generally excellent record.

It’s short but sweet in Neil terms, with just eight songs, all strong (and none that break the 10-minute mark!), with at least a couple stone classics among them. This record seems to bear consequences—it’s heavy from the first chord to the last. There’s the noisy grunge-blues of “Walk With Me” that cedes to a Lanois-built wall of feedback; the beautifully craggy guitar riff of “Hitchhiker,” the noise squalls and vocal loops that make “Angry World” sound more paranoid than antagonistic. The acoustic “Peaceful Valley Boulevard,” the record’s most naked recording, is among the most haunting songs he’s ever put to tape.

This is all matched with some deeply reflective, and not exactly optimistic, lyrics. “I don’t know how I’m standing here,” he sings on “Hitchhiker,” a starkly autobiographical song that’s about a million miles from the alternative-energy anthems of last year’s Fork in the Road. It’s one of two songs where he references Toronto, the other being “Love and War,” a dark masterpiece that finds Young reflecting with uncharacteristic resignation on his years of singing about the titular topics. Here, he’s a protest singer who’s lost all but the will to protest: “I don’t really know what I’m saying” he opens. “I’ve been in love and I’ve seen a lot of war/Seen a lot of people praying.” He uses the slight refrain (“I still try to sing about love and war”) as a theme of determination, something to return to after hitting “another bad chord,” while Lanois’ soundscapes are reminiscent of his great work with Willie Nelson on 1998’s Teatro. Fifty years after he’s gone, this will be one of Young’s definitive songs.

Stepping away from a majorly successful pop act can never be easy, but on Page One, his first proper solo record, former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page makes the break seem effortless. To be fair, he’s toyed with the idea before—2005’s Vanity Project was a solo record in all but name—but Page One seems like a statement of purpose. Written (mostly) with his longtime co-conspirator, English songwriter Steven Duffy, and performed (mostly) by Page and producer John Fields, this is literate, quirky pop of the highest order. While those who kept tabs on his former band already know that Page was both the Lennon and McCartney of that project (the others were Beastie Boys, I guess?) it’s great to see what he gets up to when he doesn’t feel compelled to put a rap in the middle eight.

Page pulls out all the stops on opener “A New Shore,” which serves as both an introduction and a thematic break from the past. By the time the song’s rolling drums and chirping flutes give way to a lush, Pet Sounds-style vocal break, he’s more than made his point; when that explodes into a refrain of “Land ho!” you can’t help but be swept up in the (admittedly forced) majesty of it all. Elsewhere, he balances Costello-esque power-pop (“Indecision,” “Marry Me”) with cheeky stabs at Europop (“Entourage,” “Queen of America”), laying out some inspired production touches in the process (the big-band chorus on “Leave Her Alone” works, despite itself). “All the Young Monogamists” gets a little “Cups and Cakes,” and Page’s lyrics as always tread the fine line between clever and stupid, but in large part Page One comes down on the side of the former. Moreover, it sounds like it was a fun album to make, and it contains one of the best recordings of the year in “Clifton Springs,” a country waltz that sparkles with great ideas, featuring gorgeous pedal-steel work by the late Will Owsley.

Also packed with great ideas is Spark, the debut solo release from Alain Johannes. You may recognize him from his time with the band Eleven, or from his work as sideman with a number of acts (Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, the list goes on). Or you may not recognize Johannes at all, which would be your loss because he’s a major talent as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, all of which comes to the fore on Spark. This eight-song stunner is a moving tribute to his late partner in music and life, Natasha Shneider, who passed in 2008. “It’s killing me that I must go on living/Just to fill this cup of promise with meaning,” he sings in “Endless Eyes”; the album closes with “You were not afraid of letting go/So I am not afraid of letting go” (from “Unfinished Plan”). Johannes plays all of the instruments here, from fretless E-bow guitar to cello, but he never overclutters the mix, leaving plenty of room in the arrangements to accentuate the Eastern-inspired melodies—and lots of wicked guitar playing.

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