Morning, Popdose faithful! Who’s in the mood for a new series? You? Good!
Starting today, we’d like you to meet the Popdose Flashback series, in which we’ll focus on a different 20-year-old album every week — meaning that from now through the end of the year, your devoted Popdose staff will be reliving at least 51 of the most noteworthy releases of 1989. First up: the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon.
The Nevilles have been making albums since the mid ’70s, but by the late ’80s, it looked like they were destined for commercial oblivion; even 1987’s Uptown — which featured guest appearances from Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, Keith Richards, Ronnie Montrose, and Branford Marsalis — failed to light a spark on the charts. They were always a critically respected band, and their live performances were a consistent draw, but like a lot of acts, they’d had problems replicating that magic in the studio. There were obviously a number of reasons for this, but in my opinion, the biggest flaws in most Neville Brothers records — both before and after Yellow Moon — are a lack of consistently compelling material and an unwillingness to either lock Aaron out of the sessions or relegate him to tambourine duty. Aaron Neville is a talented singer with a very distinctive voice, but the weakest tracks or any given Neville Brothers album often feature his melisma-riddled vocals; I know mothers-in-law go nuts for his sensitive crooning, but when it’s sandwiched between steaming slices of Big Easy funk, it tends to drag things down a bit.
Yellow Moon doesn’t solve either problem — in terms of song-to-song quality, it’s probably one of the weakest albums we’ll cover in the series this year, and it includes a number of typically over-the-top performances from Aaron — but thanks to the involvement of a certain Mr. Daniel Lanois, it’s probably the Nevilles’ best-produced release, and it’s certainly their most successful, so it merits inclusion here.
It’s become somewhat fashionable to rip on Lanois’ mid-to-late ’80s work as being poorly recorded flimflam in the guise of serious music, and although I understand that point of view, I don’t always agree with it — and Yellow Moon is a case in point. The Nevilles tend to sound flat on their studio recordings — or, worse, they tend to muck around with needlessly modern production techniques — and although Lanois’ methods can be ponderous, on this album, they helped the band relax enough to give off a little heat. The Nevilles sound unrestrained here, and even if Lanois often makes things busier than they need to be, he’s smart enough to keep all the hard edges sanded down. The results aren’t always funky, but they do hold a mood, and they combine the authentic and the bizarre like only Lanois can.
My personal favorite is the leadoff track, “My Blood” (download) — even though the verses can be about as subtle as late ’80s Jackson Browne, the chorus is beautiful, and Aaron is in the background where he belongs. (All right, all right — I love to bust on him, but I have to say, his work on the title track [download] is quite nice.)
I never get tired of listening to “My Blood,” and if every song on the album was as great as that one, Yellow Moon might be a desert island disc for me. Unfortunately, however, the album also makes plenty of room for less compelling fare, such as “Sister Rosa,” a dreadful rap about Rosa Parks that rhymes “Sister Rosa Parks” with “you are the spark,” and a dull cover of “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Still, the album cracked Billboard’s Top 75 albums (and won a Grammy, albeit one for Best Pop Instrumental Performance) for good reason; it’s a flawed gem, to be sure, but it’s one of the year’s brighter ones, and one well worth seeking out if you haven’t already heard it. Check out this live performance of “My Blood,” and meet us back here next Monday for another flashback!
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Yellow Moon peaked at #66 on the Billboard 200; “Sister Rosa” peaked at #75 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.