Daniel Lanois has been known chiefly in the past for his recording work with other artists. He was producer on career-reviving records by two mature, established artists: Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy in 1989 and a decade later Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. On the latter two, his production was moody and ruminative, full of layered guitars, keyboards and percussion effects not previously associated with the artists.
Lanois, a long-time denizen of New Orleans, also produced albums for the likes of Willie Nelson and U2, as well as influential avant-garde works with Brian Eno.
On Belladonna he has produced an album of instrumental works that mostly feature his unique style of pedal steel guitar playing. The album is similar in texture to his work with Harris and Dylan, often dark and moody. Some of it would stand very next to many of the instrumental pieces with which Calexico peppers its albums, dusty, wide-open desertscapes of sound with obvious Western influences. Among these are the opening track, “Two Worlds,” with its electronica and bass setting the rhythm; “Agave,” with mariachi-like trumpets and trombone, and plodding drums in a six-eight rhythm; “Desert Rose,” with lots of acoustic guitars; and the languid, wide-open soundscape of “Panorama.”
But don’t think of accusing Lanois of ripping off Calexico. This album ranges from lovely melodic tracks like the aforementioned “Desert Rose,” the sing-song “Carla,” with licks that sound inspired by O.J. “Red” Rhodes, and the reggae-rhythmed “Frozen.”
It’s hardly a solo album, either. Lanois receives help from some top-notch sidemen, including drummer Brian Blade, who contributes the dub-inspired percussion on “Frozen,” singer Darryl Johnson, whose adds a soaring falsetto non-verbal vocal performance to the haunting “Oaxaca” (which put me in mind of Morton Subotnik’s 1970s Moog tone poems) and Brad Mehldau, whose shimmering piano glissandos contribute to the ethereal, dreamy effect of “Sketches.”
The album approaches ambient at times, on the pensive “Deadly Nightshade” and the long final track, “Todos Santos,” and flirts with New Age with “Flaming Greentop” and “Telco.” But overall, Belladonna is a well-constructed and -paced instrumental exploration of mood and texture. Fans of pedal steel, if they’re not too dogmatic about how it’s supposed to sound, should check it out. You can listen to it here.