Daniel Lanois | Belladonna (Anti-)

Hearkening back to Lanois’ seminal works with fellow ambient guru Brian Eno, Belladonna recalls a time when avant-garde works like Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror or Aka/Darbari/Java were pointing the way toward an eerily off-kilter future.

 

“Two Worlds,” the opening track from influential and critically lauded producer/musician Daniel Lanois’ latest release Belladonna, explodes like a heat-stricken peyote bender on a lonesome desert highway—an utterly fitting introduction to this evocative collection of ambient-inflected instrumentals. Although Lanois is a highly respected producer (he’s currently holed up in the studio with the lads in Dashboard Confessional), his solo output is frustratingly sparse but inalienably gorgeous.

The 2003 long-player Shine begat last year’s throwaway EP Rockets (available only on Lanois’ Web site and at his concerts), which featured Lanois retooling some of the cuts from Shine as well as deeper into his catalog; Lanois never seems comfortable with his recordings, endlessly tinkering and fine-tuning—his is a fluid discography, with songs reappearing entirely or partially metamorphosed, depending upon his mood and collaborators.

As befits a musician who promotes an aqueous catalog as well as atmosphere before almost all else, Belladonna hypnotizes with its precise swaths of liberally applied pedal steel, gently brushed percussion, and otherworldly effects that blend into one another seamlessly. “Sketches,” “Oaxaca,” “Agave,” and “Telco” unfurl like some luxuriant fever dream, punctuated by the shredded screams of “Telco” and its mangled electric guitar.

Inspired by an extended sojourn south of the border, Belladonna is redolent of lazy tropical splendor, like an aural postcard mailed from some wayward border town; forget Toby Keith or Kenny Chesney’s meathead attempts at evoking Margaritaville—this is what Playa del Mar sounds like in my dreams. Indeed, the album was recorded on the Baja peninsula, with drummer Brian Blade, vocalist Darryl Johnson, and an 18-wheeler loaded with recording equipment—acclaimed jazz pianist Brad Mehldau even adds haunting touches to “Sketches.”

Lanois, a student of vivid musical cinema, allows Belladonna to ebb and flow at its own pace; the album runs less than 40 minutes but feels far more expansive. “Instrumental music can speak louder than singing,” Lanois said in press materials accompanying Belladonna. “It leaves a window of opportunity for someone to use their imagination and build their own scenario. You can make your own movie.”

Hearkening back to Lanois’ seminal works with fellow ambient guru Brian Eno, Belladonna recalls a time when avant-garde works like Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror or Aka/Darbari/Java were pointing the way toward an eerily off-kilter future. Ever restless, Eno and Lanois were soon applying the science of sonic painting to the early works of U2, invigorating Bono and Co.’s stadium anthems with an outer space flair.

Not content to relax upon his laurels, Lanois is currently gearing up for a brief tour with modern noise-rockers Tortoise, who will both serve as opening act and backing band for Lanois’ adventurous musical off-roading. With wisps of the past filtering through to the future, Lanois pushes onward, offering up this summertime treat and eagerly pursuing what’s next.

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