Production the key to unearthing diamonds
GRANTED, a new album can provoke any number of reactions, but it’s still pretty unusual to listen and feel a creeping sense of betrayal. There’s something about the Rick Rubin-produced Neil Diamond album 12 Songs that makes me come over all green-eyed- monsterish.
When Rubin first approached Johnny Cash, on the basis that he would help him record the songs he’d always wanted to sing, plus maybe a few well-chosen covers, we thought the resulting American Recordings series was a beautiful one-off, a once-in-a- lifetime, written-in- the-stars pairing between two people who were destined to be together, not unlike that of June Carter and Johnny himself.
That Rubin’s new protagonist is Neil Diamond – wearer of large lapels, seller-out of Las Vegas and the man we can, er, thank for such, um, great songs as Song Sung Blue, Love On The Rocks and America – doesn’t make it any less surreal. It’s somehow the musical equivalent of a recently bereaved friend of yours, whose late wife was a wise, warm, God-fearing woman, showing up to a dinner party on the arm of an ex-showgirl. What’s more, that gorgeously sombre, dark-brown piano, one of the dominant colours of the Cash albums and the instrument that clanged like a death-bell through Johnny’s cover of Trent Reznor’s Hurt, is now in the service of Diamond’s luxuriant croon; it’s rather like the showgirl shrugging on one of the dead wife’s fur coats.
That said, 12 Songs is fantastic. It’s not only because of the album’s sound, which is warm and quirky and irresistibly familiar. It’s because once again Rubin has managed to strip the artist down while helping him keep some of his baggage, the bits that make him truly himself. While he approached Johnny with the idea of capturing his gifts as an interpreter, Rubin approached Diamond as a songwriter, and Rubin’s low-key, imaginative arrangements, each thoughtfully tailored for each of Diamond’s songs, let the peacockish, kooky grace of the man shine through.
Where’s our Rick Rubin? Ireland is positively coming down with people who can record capably, if not very well indeed, most of whom are musicians making their own records – no bad thing, especially in this era of commitment- phobic, zeitgeist-chasing record companies. But there’s a definite lack of people you could ring if you wanted the kind of help Johnny and Neil got: if you wanted someone to help you be yourself, only better.
Strong production is one of the differences between making albums, as in collections of songs, and making great albums, as in bodies of work which hang together in a certain way, and which – whether they’re filled with six-minute strangenik art-pieces or straight pop hits or anything in between – are greater than their parts. Irish artists are currently incredibly good at making the former and less so at the latter. More great producers – good heads who are able to offer outside perspective, encyclopaedic musical knowledge, the guts to suggest the unusual and the skill to implement it – would definitely change that.
But are there any? The man at the top of a very short list, we’d reckon, is Dave Odlum, the ex-Frames guitarist now based between Dublin and France, working full-time as a producer. Like Rubin, he’s adept at making artists sound most like themselves while bringing his own very distinctive, but non-intrusive, vision to a piece of music. He’s been instrumental in the recording history of both Gemma Hayes and The Frames – two very strong album artists, as distinct from makers of records – and he’s currently working on The Frames’ next album as well as other Irish projects which should surface over the next year or so.
Meanwhile, we can report that, as we write this, Mr Neil Diamond has 23,704 friends on Myspace. (His page was set up late last year, about a week before the US release of the album.) This doesn’t make him cool, Myspace being the ultimate indie club with no door policy. But, like 12 Songs, it does prove that he’s more loveable than we thought. It should be remembered, too, that Rubin suggested Cash cover Diamond’s 1966 single Solitary Man for the third of the American albums – and it ended up being one of their collaboration’s finest moments. A good producer knows more than you, in every sense. Here’s hoping Ireland gets a few more.