CD Review: Neil Young “Le Noise”

You would think that a legendary artist like Neil Young, who has been making music since the ’60s, would have done it all by now. By the same token, you would think that Daniel Lanois, best known for producing landmark albums for U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, has also done it all by now. But one thing that these esteemed musicians have not done is work together on a record.

Young, soon to be 66, could have churned out another rocking classic like “Freedom” or solidified his label as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ with another “Ragged Glory.” Or, he could have gone the tender folk route and delivered another “Harvest” or “Harvest Moon,” but collaboration between two pillars in the music world called for something truly remarkable, something that hadn’t been done before – something that most people wouldn’t even dream of doing. But with countless solo records, not to mention his timeless work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash, what else was there for Young to do?

Lanois must have said it, “How about we record you and your guitar? Nothing else.” Then Neil interjected, “But I’ve done an unplugged record.” Lanois retorted, “No, no – we do one with you plugged in.” “No band?” “No band.” Neil slowly nodded and out came “Le Noise.” The collaboration is so intimate that Young got credit as the artist and Lanois (pronounced “Le Noise”) got credit in the title.

Few artists have the courage to be so exposed, so let’s at least give the team high marks for audacious, out-of-the-box thinking. For six of the eight new songs on “Le Noise,” all we hear is Neil’s electric guitar cranked to 11 and his signature vocals shouting and soaring above the distortion. Sound maestro Lanois does a remarkable job creating different sonic textures from these limited options and strategically places two acoustic numbers into the collection to cleanse the palate now and again. Despite their creative efforts, “Le Noise” is obviously not an album for everyone. Even the most ardent fan is probably left wondering how amazing some of these songs would have sounded if performed with an entire band.

But I don’t think that is what “Le Noise” is all about. It is meant to amaze through minimalism and I found the record to be mesmerizing. While it is not an album I see myself playing from start to finish very often, “Le Noise” is astonishing in concept and execution. To listen to it straight through just once was an experience I will not soon forget and that is what I imagine Young and Lanois wanted. Highlights include an old live favorite finally put to tape in “Hitchhiker” and the reflective closer, “Rumblin’.” While a bit redundant, “Walk With Me” has an urgency about it that I find difficult to ignore and the driving “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” features vocal dynamics that make the track a compelling listen as well. For those of you hoping for a softer side, Young delivers two incredible acoustic ballads you’ll want to cherry-pick, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.” Easily the most accessible tracks among the eight, but also two of the best ballads Young has written in years.

Missing the sound of a full band, some will call “Le Noise” dull, perhaps even lazy. Others will insist that the sparse arrangements place focus on the guitar, lyrics and sonic fireworks. Some will call it madness, others will call it genius. Some will say FTW, others WTF? What do you say?

iPod-worthy Tracks: 1, 3, 4, 7, 8

Neil Young on MySpace and Official site.

Check out the trailer describing the making of “Le Noise”: Le Noise Trailer

1 Comment

  1. I say Bill Sullivan has written the first decent review I’ve read from any music critic in years. I also say “Le Noise” is a work of near genious if you’re either a Neil fan, or a guitar player.

    I’m both so I luv it. Non musicians need to understand that Neil Young’s distorted guitar tones have long been admired as a holy grail of tonal nirvana for millions of electric guitar players. His heavy Crazy Horse backed CD’s have some of the best distortion tones ever heard imo and there’s millions of guitar players the world over who’ve been unsuccessfully trying to copy his sound for decades.

    So a whole CD dedicated to the tonal nirvana of Neils “Old Black” Les Paul and his literally broken old Fender amp cranked to melt down….. well…. that’s just heaven for anyone who’s a student of the best guitar players in the history of rock. And Neil’s in my top 10.
    Long may he rein 🙂

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