For a guy channeling as much intense energy as Daniel Lanois can onstage, the music he’s been making of late is surprisingly subdued. In contrast to the grand atmospherics he’s crafted as producer and guitarist for the likes of U2, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Peter Gabriel, his most recent solo album, the instrumental "Belladonna," released last summer by Anti, sets forth minor-key soundscapes on a smaller sonic canvas.
The new music represents a kind of return to roots for the Canadian-born Lanois, as his early career was built on collaborations with ambient heroes Brian Eno and Harold Budd – although he resists applying the "ambient" label to the provocative compositions on "Belladonna." It’s earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album, and one of its noir-ish tracks, the horn-colored "Agave," is up for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. It marks the first time Lanois, who already has several producing Grammys to dust off, has been acknowledged by the Recording Academy as a solo artist.
"Belladonna" is also noteworthy for its relatively prominent use of pedal steel. Lanois’ pedal steel is all over Eno’s 1983 beauty "Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks" (remastered and reissued last year by Astralwerks), but on his solo albums he’s generally favored slide guitar and pedalboards over pedal steel. And for good reason: As a pedal steel player, he’s a terrific bassist.
Count this writer as someone who’s always curious to hear whatever the dauntingly accomplished Lanois is doing; he’s creatively restless, never less than interesting, and it’s refreshing to hear an artist place the pedal steel – a fascinating and woefully under-utilized piece of musical machinery – in new, non-twangy contexts. But the praise that’s been lavished on him as some kind of pedal-steel virtuoso is stupefying. Not once on "Belladonna" does he exhibit a natural steel player’s instinctive feel. The pensive spell he casts with keyboard-textured compositions such as "Sketches" and the ethereal "Oaxaca" is shattered mid-album by his earnest, flat-thumbed approach to the pedal steel on "Carla"; it’s like hearing someone play "Chopsticks" for the first time.
You get the basic melodic idea, but it doesn’t ring with the poetry of, say, the cinematic "Deadly Nightshade" or "Telco," which shimmers like some ghostly, neon-lit mirage – and also relies more heavily on guitar.
Kudos to him for recognizing the pedal steel’s contemplative properties and expanding its usage beyond Western swing dances. It possesses an ideal voice for ambient music (for lack of a better term), and it’s about time someone revisited it for such. But let’s hope Lanois doesn’t leave all his guitars and effects boxes at home when he returns to Spaceland. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long night.