When not otherwise occupied making exquisitely detailed and supremely tasteful records with the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and U2, Quebec-born producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois has put two dozen of his own compositions on a scintillating pair of albums. With studio contributions from the Nevilles, U2, Brian Eno (his U2 production partner) and primary collaborator Malcolm Burn on keyboards and guitar, Acadie is the kind of album the Band might have made if their studio had been an urban art gallery rather a rustic Woodstock homestead. Rhythms shush with eloquent restraint as Lanois sings (partly in French) his spiritually informed romantic perceptions of nature (“Fisherman’s Daughter,” “Under a Stormy Sky,” “Ice,” “Still Water”) in an engaging, comfortable voice. Through the intricate delicacy of their varied arrangements, Lanois’ songs allude to R&B, pop and folk without actually committing themselves; if that sometimes holds Acadie at a distance, it’s a testament to Lanois’ mature artistry (or perhaps fussy technique) that his cerebrally emotional music defies easy categorization. Capped off by a quiet but overly meddlesome production of Aaron Neville singing “Amazing Grace” (ohh, that Eno!), the translucent Acadie is a lovely and thoughtful tapestry.
The hearty passions that fire up For the Beauty of Wynona engorge it with the visceral presence completely lacking in the first. Backed by a stable quartet led by Burn rather than a collection of marquee guests, Lanois takes a less punctilious approach, trading increased accessibility for diminished depth. He drops the coy guise and cozies up to acoustic folk music (“The Collection of Marie Claire”), unleashes New Orleans swamp gas (“The Messenger,” “Brother L.A.”), lays on energized atmospherics (“Waiting” and the title track, both which can be traced back to U2 and make a clunky fit with the rest of Lanois’ designs here), tries an echo-chambered interpolation of doo-wop (“Death of a Train”), bizarrely ethnic dance funk (“Indian Red”) and husky singer/songwriter pop (“The Unbreakable Chain,” the Dylanesque “Lotta Love to Give” and “Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed”).
The lesson of these two albums is that Lanois’ true gift is for arcane studio manipulation, not unadorned music-making. The fine, wan watercolors of Acadie will continue to prick the imagination long after the thicker primaries of For the Beauty of Wynona have worn away.