Dear Readers: About one year ago, the two pals engaged in their first debate — about whether rockers over 40 should continue to record music or not. It was an epic discussion. They had fun having it. So they’ve decided to do it again. Today’s topic: the pros and cons of “over-produced” music. Wondering what that even means? Let the debaters explain…
Well, Pal, I’m very excited, musically-speaking. In April, Nonesuch Records will reissue Emmylou Harris’ 1995 album Wrecking Ball as a 3-disc set. The album includes songs written by Steve Earle, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and was produced by the incomparable Daniel Lanois. It is one of my all-time favourite albums. So beautiful. So lush. It sweeps me up in its majestic arms and carries me to far off places. I know you feel differently about this album. I know you think…well, rather than say what you think, perhaps I should clam up and let you tell our readers why this particular reissue is a non-event for you.
I am only aware of Wrecking Ball through you Pal. This album was not on my radar. When I heard it, my first reaction was, why is there all this sheen reverberating over all the songs? It was like looking at a greenhouse from the outside. I could see blurred forms of beauty, but I just couldn’t see a clear picture of what was inside. Conversely, this was also the time you tuned me into Emmylou Harris’ Live at the Ryman. This time I was inside. I could actually see the flowers. I love that album deeply. It is pure country. Stripped to its essence. Everything else is a pale country copy. That album is one of my favourites of all time. So, why was this one so great and Wrecking Ball wasn’t, for me? I have an answer to that. You already named it, but I diagnosed it. “The Lanois Effect”. Wrecking Ball was produced by Daniel Lanois. A very nice man I am sure, with a prolific and acclaimed career. But I wanted to hear Emmylou Harris. Wrecking Ball suffers from over-production.
Over-production or different production? I did a Google search about “over-produced music” and found some interesting debates. One guy said over-production is the difference between Metallica’s Kill Em All and Black Album. I remember when the Black Album came out — die hard Metallica fans were up in arms that their beloved metal heads had sold out. If you ask me, the band just grew up — put a little more depth and polish into their songwriting and, now that they had more money, invested in better production. The Black Album just sounds better. Cleaner. More aesthetic. I’d rather listen to an “over-produced” album for the same reason I prefer my lawn lush, thick and weed-free.
That beautiful lawn has no interest to me. Some landscape company came and made it nice but it doesn’t reflect who the owners are. It’s not unique. It just looks like every other house on the block. I ain’t into no gated community music, man. The Black Album is a great album, but it will likely never be the highest rated Metallica effort among die hard fans. It just doesn’t fully reveal the band’s true essence. Production should show the artist. Not what someone else thinks the artist should be. When Rush became heavy into synthesizers (a weaker time for them musically, in my opinion) and less about hard progressive rock, a big influence on them was the producer. I remember from watching the Rush documentary “Beyond the Lighted Stage” (a must see, even if you don’t like Rush), the producer had never actually even heard Rush’s music. He was into 80’s synth pop. Couple that with a highly creative and always changing band. . . voila. You have albums like Power Windows and Grace Under Pressure. All Rush albums are highly produced, but these ones were over produced.
Yes, but often a heavy-handed producer moulds the artist into something better, something more. Consider T Bone Burnett’s work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in crafting the recent classic Raising Sand. He’s all over that thing. He took two disparate artists, drew something new out of each of them, and made something utterly unique and different – something that neither would have come up with on their own. They needed him. That album may feature the voices of Robert and Alison, but it is T Bone’s vision and artistry. There are so many tools available in a studio to bring new depth and craft to a performer’s music. Why not use them?
That is a well produced album. There is no disputing that. I’m not arguing for less production, I just want good production. Let’s continue to increase our sample size, shall we? I did a little digging on the internet myself, and you know what album came up the most for over-production? Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion (I assume both I and II). I couldn’t agree more. Hey, I bought both albums when they came out and I tried to love them. No dice. Something wasn’t right, for me. How could something so filled with stuff, lack substance? The songs were good, but everything about those records oozed over-production to the point where the songs became meaningless. Compare that to Appetite For Destruction and you tell me which record rocks more.
Appetite rocks more. But the long and messy Illusions package, at its best, is more ambitious, interesting and exciting. You speak of a band’s “true essence”, Pal. Who are you to say “Paradise City” is closer to Axl Rose’s essence than “Estranged”? He, Slash and the boys were just trying some different tricks, further exploring what was possible in the studio. You want a band’s essence, that’s what the live shows are for — and I know you love that experience as much as I do. Let’s enjoy raw essence at the Horseshoe and Massey Hall, but at the same time embrace the sculpted, manufactured beauty that emerges when those same creative folks get playful in the studio.
I love sculpted beauty. I am all for pushing production to its outer most limits in an effort to achieve greatness. How about this? Maybe we shouldn’t call it over-production. Maybe we call it ego-production. Example? How about Phil Spector slapping up his wall of sound all over the Ramones album End of the Century. Listen to the first track. I defy you to suggest to me that those horns are necessary. Nope. There’s Ol’ Phil, at it again. Putting his over-used signature all over a Ramones album. Not needed. How about the warbly voice effect Lanois gives Bob Dylan on the first track of Time Out of Mind. Not needed. It makes the song sound like it belongs in a perfume commercial (which it actually was). Push that production, but not to the point of self-congratulatory access. T Bone Burnett is probably a really humble man (this is not sarcasm).
Ego-production. I like that. Another definition of ego-production is “when the producer thinks he’s part of the band.” I like that definition. I also happen to think the outcome can be a very good thing (we have cited a bunch already). Let’s talk about my favourite ego-producer again — Daniel Lanois. Artists who choose to work with him know what they’re getting into; they’re making a Lanois album as much as they’re making their own album. Bob knew it when he made Time Out of Mind, Emmylou knew it when she made Wrecking Ball. When Neil Young worked with Lanois a few years ago – on Le Noise – he knew it so much he punnily named the album after the producer. Respect. (BTW, I’m listening to Le Noise as I write — it’s much better than I remembered!) Same goes for anyone who ever worked with Phil Spector — a producer so distinctive his sound has a name: Wall of Sound. I love these collaborations. Everyone goes into the studio knowing the drill, and they come out with something sonic, layered, sculpted and alive. Three cheers for ego-production!
The Beatles thought that Phil Spector F-d up Let it Be. Would you argue with the Beatles? That album could have benefitted from a little more Id-production, I think. Maybe we can find some common ground here. Ego-production applies when you have a producer with a lot of self interest working with talented musicians. You love it, I don’t. Okay. You may be more open minded about all that stuff than I am. I think we can both agree that we are eager to support musician’s music in whatever form it is. A good producer knows this, even Mr. Lanois, I am sure. So maybe it is just a matter of taste. I can live with that. BTW Pal, I re-listened to Wrecking Ball while we were having this back and forth. It’s pretty good.
Well there you go, Dear Readers — two music lovers, two different views on what sounds good. What do you think? Does “ego-production” get in the way, or take an artist’s sound to a new level? Let us know your thoughts.