Yellow Moon represents a high point in the careers of both The Neville Brothers and producer Daniel Lanois. For their part The Neville Brothers had made three moderately successful albums since forming in 1976. Their previous albums, especially Fiyo On The Bayou had hinted at something bigger than their funky, New Orleans-centric style of good-time R&B, but anyone who saw them perform in the years leading up to Yellow Moon understood that there was something more to this band: something deep and spiritual. They had also built a powerful touring band with Willie Green on Drums and Brian Stoltz on guitar. Simultaneously, producer Daniel Lanois, riding incredibly high on the mega-successes of Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree, was developing a whole new sound at his home/studio in New Orleans. In the first part of 1989 he had overseen a major career resuscitation of Bob Dylan with Oh Mercy and created a minor-masterpiece with his own début Acadia. His year continued on a high as he smartly kept The Neville Brothers’ potent touring unit intact (with a few deft additions by the likes of Brian Eno and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and helped them choose a perfect selection of songs with which to finally realize their potential as recording artists.
Yellow Moon hits all the marks of greatness because it so brilliantly uses The Nevilles’ natural assets - the trance like drums, the Black consciousness, the snaky rhythms and, of course, Aaron’s gift to and from the universe, his voice, and then smothers them in Lanois’ unearthly, modern production style. The combination produces magical results, giving The Nevilles their greatest album and Lanois what might be his most creative year. The album is basically broken into three types of songs, those that deal with political/social issues, those that deal with spiritual matters and those connected in some way to the nebulous but potent spell that the Crescent City places on musicians who fall under its thrall. The political material is usually handled by youngest brother Cyril who offers up his Mardi Gras Indian-meets-Rastaman vision on songs like “Sister Rosa,” “Fire and Brimstone,” “Wake Up” and most effectively on album opener “My Blood,” which offers up a nice preview of the Neville/Lanois union - equal parts funk, jazz, rock, the second-line rhythms of New Orleans, and Lanois’ signature use of reverb, big drums and lots of guitar textures. He doesn’t let up throughout. The entire album throbs with saturated bass and drums that sound like a thousand New Orleans funeral marches. Love him or hate him, Lanois has a unique and recognizable sound. Personally, I love him, and think he has assisted many important artists make their greatest statements. He definitely provided the most sympathetic palette for Aaron’s voice. The core of Yellow Moon are five songs sung by Aaron. The title cut is a Neville classic, all spooky jungle drums and brother Charles’ seductive horn lines. Then Aaron’s voice rises, like some rare flower blooming in the Amazon, both invoking and warning us about the impending yellow moon. It is scary and uplifting at the same time. The first ballad is a complete stunner, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s hard to imagine Cooke’s version being bested, but Aaron’s version is literally hair-raising. Lanois manages to surround the voice with thick layers of sound, billowing clouds of echo, yet Aaron’s remarkable instrument shines through it all like a lighthouse cutting through a thick fog. He accomplishes the same on a pair of Dylan classics, “With God On Our Side” and “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” where he doesn’t so much best the originals as much as create an entirely new beast out of them. They are beautiful versions of already classic songs, essential additions to the Dylan catalog as well as the Neville’s.
The final three songs on Yellow Moon close the album on an uplifting note. First Aaron soothes with a completely appropriate “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” followed by Charles’ hypnotic instrumental “Healing Chant” and finally a return to earth and New Orleans specifically with the celebratory “Wild Injuns” which leaves the listener breathless and The Neville Brothers where they belong: at the top of the American music scene for the next twenty years.
- Paul Epstein