aniel Lanois is known for imbuing the records he has a hand in with a sense of atmosphere, from his most famous work with U2 and collaborations with Brian Eno, to his swampy-bayou productions for the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan (notably on Oh Mercy). More than any other thing, atmosphere is what he does. Lanois’s first instrument, and apparently still his favorite, is the pedal steel guitar. It’s the star attraction on his fourth solo album and first instrumental one, Belladonna, a song cycle about the American southwest. American southwest + pedal steel = as atmospheric as you can stand. But are there songs here, or just Windham Hill-esque noodlings set to “evoke” a place/time/whatever? Does the quest for atmosphere, as it is, overwhelm the quest for song craft?
Dictionary.com offers as two definitions of “atmosphere”:
5. The dominant tone or mood of a work of art.There’s a definite atmosphere here, one of coolness, not warmth, oddly. This isn’t the parched hundred-degree-plus deserts of the southwest, but the high deserts, the mountains, the crispness in the air, the aridness of the landscape. “Sketches” feels like line drawings done in pencil on a mountaintop, a slowly plucked guitar, a cymbal barely brushed, and then the bubbling-stream trills of descending notes on a piano. Utterly lovely, like what “new age” was supposed to be.
6. An aesthetic quality or effect, especially a distinctive and pleasing one, associated with a particular place: a restaurant with an Old World atmosphere.
I love the way that “Telco” includes patches of static phoned in from another state, as if Lanois sampled the sound of a modem attempting to access the internet with dial-up, out in that high desert. It accents a very spare piano melody played by avant-jazzer Brad Melhau in tandem with a barely-there guitar part. “Desert Rose” follows, a quiet, economical guitar number clocking in at 1:51, simple as that. “Carla”’s another, pairing pedal steel with electric, nearly muted but not quite.
“Oaxaca” is a song of eerie beauty, a siren’s song, were there sirens in the barren southwestern terrain. A simple melody is played out on piano, on xylophone (I think it’s xylophone, at least) and echoed by a devil’s angel, a wisp-of-smoke soul. These songs feel like more, like set pieces, a score of some sort, not just—“just”—an album to be consumed on a home stereo system from the comforts of a leather easy chair. The guitar-and-piano duet of “Flametop Green” is evocative, of an aerial view of gnarled Joshua trees, of the way the landscape changes as it climbs further and further skyward. “Todos Santos” follows it and closes the album, reminiscent of Eno’s excursions into ambience. It’s a quiet, thoughtful song befitting a quiet, thoughtful, but never uninteresting album.