Acclaimed producer — of just about everybody, from U2 and Peter Gabriel to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan — and artist in his own right, Daniel Lanois continues farther down the DIY path of music creation with his latest collection, the Omni Series. A 3-CD set, the Omni Series is an all-instrumental trove of new compositions, works in progress, reinterpretations and band experiments. Although that may sound awfully "demo," the result is more polished than either mine or his description might indicate.
Released on his own Red Floor Records, the set is currently available only on CD, and only on his website. Housed in a sturdy cardboard box, the three CDs come in heavy paper-stock sleeves, and are accompanied by twelve postcard art prints containing some of Lanois' artwork (heavily treated photo manipulations, which are also the basis for the artwork used on the three sleeves). Although each of the CDs seeks a different theme or focus, they all live in a fairly laid back and down-tempo world.
Steel is the first in the set, and highlights Lanois' passion for pedal steel guitar. Most of the compositions are solo outings for him, although he receives some subtle support from other musicians on a few tracks. Starting off with "JJ Returns to L.A." there is a nod towards some of his previous steel guitar tracks, here referencing "JJ Leaves L.A." from the album Shine (also included on this disc in a slightly altered version). That reference point is a good indication of style for the material on this disc: Gentle, haunting, simple melodies. "Love Come Back To Me" makes expert use of bass and drum kit, while "Carolina" mixes in acoustic guitar for added texture. But the driving force for all the tracks here is this instrument of steel; sometimes twangy and spiritual, and at others processed and longing.
Purple Vista follows suit in style, simply replacing the pedal steel guitar for more traditional instrumentation. However, of all the discs in the set, this one has the most breadth. The addition of ancillary players in more tracks, as well as a more experimental edge in spots (the almost-psychedelic "Kay Fuzz 30 '3'" being the most obvious example) expand the musical palette for this one. Part of this expansion comes in the form of mixing, where Lanois adds additional effects and sweetening to the instruments to make the sonic space as important as the notes themselves, such as in the windswept "Conveyor." There are alternate versions of previous songs on all the discs, and most notable here is the title track, which is a solo piano rendition of "Flametop Green" from Belladonna (also exhumed on the following disc).
Santiago deviates slightly from the other discs, in that it focuses on music Lanois featured in a documentary about the band The Pixies. However, the versions here are delivered in a style similar to the previous material, although following the progression of adding more instrumentation. Piano comes to the fore a bit ("For Chris", "Trembling Leaves") while light drums and bass find their way into most of the tracks. Although upping the amount of alternate versions of prior songs, there are also some new gems on display, most notably the Spanish-tinged title track and the gentle "Me and Jim."
The good news is that the collection, while perhaps not adventurous, delivers its singular mood consistently and enjoyably. It's a wonderful collection of music for winding down, introspection, inspiration or retreat. It's also much more focused, musically, than his previous instrumental outing, Belladonna. The less good news is that it's frustratingly short, relative to the space used. The first two discs clock in at under thirty minutes each, while the third disc is just over that. In fact, if you cut out a couple of tracks that are re-versions of previously available cuts, the whole collection could fit on a single disc. Surely that space could have been better utilized with more content from the vaults.
But the package as a whole will be of definite interest to fans of Lanois. The music, while brief, is entirely pleasant, the production is top-notch (of course), and the artist's hands-on approach to the collection from music to artwork gives this extra value for fans, which makes up for any other minor shortcomings.
You can find more information on the Omni Series collection here.