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Listening to: The Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon

Neville Brothers Yellow Moon

A review of The Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, I became interested in Daniel Lanois‘ music. Here was an enigmatic producer who had worked with Brian Eno, U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, Jon Hassell and Bob Dylan. For each, he had forged important, sometimes career-changing records, yet somehow he had put his own unmistakable stamp on each record. Regardless of genre differences, it’s quite possible to immediately identify a Daniel Lanois produced album when you hear it. It’s a very specific style: there’s a groundedness, a deep connection to all archetypal American music, a solid base in folk, funk and the blues, an earnest honesty, a certain electronic sheen– slightly industrial, but never jarring, a lo-fi hiss, a generous and well-balanced depth of field, a core musicality that shines through everything. Above all, Daniel Lanois has a deep repect for each performer’s musicianship.

The Neville Brothers – best known to most listeners because of brother Aaron’s unusual high tenor – had a patchy history of local New Orleans success prior to constituting themselves as an R&B outfit in 1975. Commercial success, however, remained elusive through subsequent studio and live albums. In 1988/89, they teamed up with Daniel Lanois and his then-engineer Malcolm Burn (now a renowned producer in his own right) to record what would become their career-high.

A deeply unique record in many ways, Yellow Moon is an atmospheric CD. Full of percussion, Lanois’ trademark dark synth pads and Charles Neville’s saxophone, the sound is a sort of lo-fi funk with a strong pan-African identity. There’s a definitive version of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ here, two out-of-left-field but excellent Dylan covers (‘With God On Our Side’ and ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’) and a number of brilliant self-penned tracks.

While the radio single ‘Sister Rosa’ sounds slightly dated today due to its ‘early rap’ vocals, the most outstanding piece of music here is of course the title track. ‘Yellow Moon’ is a brilliant piece of sophisticated, bluesy, swamp-reggae, carried by Hammond licks, a tireless, lively bass line and propelled by Aaron’s plaintive, longing vocal.

Is she hid out with another? | Or is she trying to get back home? | Is she wrapped up in another’s arms? | Or is the girl somewhere all alone?

Like all the best pop music, this is pure emotional pain wrapped in transcendent musical beauty. It’s the kind of song that you have to play again and again when you first hear it. The sort of song that you’ll have in your headphones, late at night, and suddenly you’re standing in the middle of your living room swaying, with your eyes closed. The rest of the record – which is truly excellent, fantastic even – does fade slightly against the bright shooting star of this song. It’s a traditional R&B track at heart, something Sam Cooke might have written, timeless and traditional despite its electronic touches. Lanois, as always, finds how to be the conduit for this music and elevates great R&B to become part of the canon of classic American music, transcending the genre.

The Dylan covers mentioned above are quite incredible, too. ‘With God on Our Side’ becomes a gospel meditation, all low synth pads – the music itself is self-effacing here, almost not there at all – as a frame for Aaron’s heartfelt vocal. It’s a genuine surprise to hear this song – part of the core folk repertoire – so significantly transformed here. The Nevilles make it their own. ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is a lo-fi blues track, a dark, driving story song with an excellent slide guitar. Both tracks are great examples of how Aaron Neville’s voice, so fraught with adult contemporary meaning post Linda Ronstadt and one too many Christmas albums, can sound organic and authentic in the right context.

The Nevilles also do a version of A.P. Carter’s ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ at first glance a hard-to-believe pick. But in the context of Lanois wall of amorphous synth sounds and a simple heartbeat thud as the backbeat, the brothers’ four-part harmonies affirm what you already know: American music really vanquishes racial boundaries and is rooted in a single sound. Johnny Cash and Elvis knew this, and so do the Neville Brothers and Daniel Lanois.

Hearing Yellow Moon 20 years after it was released continues to be a great joy. For those of you who don’t know it, this anniversary is a good time to get acquainted with a classic of the American repertoire.

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