To the great listening public, the producer is a meaningless appendage, a name listed in the small-type credits, easily ignored. They're behind-the-scenes anonymous, no more or less important than the art director or caterer. Yet sometimes, on that rare grand occasion when producer and artist form a two-hearts-beating-as-one bond, there is a legacy that lives beyond the paycheck; there does indeed exist a small number of producers who have shaped popular music and sculpted popular culture.
Among their ranks are such men as Joel Dorn, behind the boards for so many of the classic jazz albums recorded in the 1950s; Phil Spector, who built the Wall of Sound brick by opulent brick; George Martin, the fifth Beatle; Brian Wilson, who used layer upon layer of beautiful madness to drown out the voices in his head; or Dr. Dre, whose mellow gangsta Jeep beats turned a lifestyle into a sound. There's Lindsey Buckingham, whose egotism translated into aural perfection; Daniel Lanois and Flood, who make ambience tangible; Butch Vig (Nevermind) or Fred Maher (Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend), who transform today's rumbles into future reverberations; and the Bomb Squad, whose siren-screams signified Public Enemy's sonic-boom revolution.
But for every hero, there are a dozen villains, producers whose vision is all tunnel, who turn every performer they work with into cardboard cutouts that look the same from a distance or close up. The Dust Brothers were heroes-of-the-moment with the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay!, but they've become greedy whores, selling out for empty Howard Stern and Hanson bucks. Don Was and Jeff Lynne are among those most guilty of hanging offenses, turning each album they work on into egocentric re-creations of their own bands' behind-the-board failures; their footprints are evident on everything they do, whether it's Was' work with Bonnie Raitt or the Rolling Stones, or Lynne's with the Traveling Wilburys or Randy Newman, and they crush everything they step on, burying the artist beneath so much sheen and tinsel. Who needs to hear Lynne's whining guitar one more time, or Was' faux-roots twang? No one.
So where does Mitchell Froom, a man whose sound is more recognizable than your own face in your own mirror, stand? At the front of the line, actually, one of the last of the good guys -- the man who turned Suzanne Vega into a techno-folkie, who twisted Los Lobos' roots rock into a tangled knot of chaos and beauty, who gave Richard Thompson's music the same dry deadpan humor as his lyrics. Froom has worked with a list of artists who make rock critics wet and record companies balk, from Maria McKee to Jimmy Scott to American Music Club to Elvis Costello.
He has worked with Young Turks on their way up (Cibo Matto, Ron Sexsmith, Tracy Bonham) and tried to rescue veterans as they stumbled toward their bland demise (Paul McCartney, Raitt). Froom has worked with Pop Stars (Sheryl Crow) and cult heroes (Peter Case). He says he has never taken a gig "for the money," which is why his resume reads like one of those Rolling Stone decade-end Top 100 lists: Among those records he has produced in the past 10 years are Los Lobos' Kiko, the Latin Playboys' self-titled debut, Cibo Matto's Viva! La Woman, Crowded House's Woodface, Jimmy Scott's Dream, American Music Club's Mercury, Thompson's Rumor and Sigh and Daring Adventures (among others), and Vega's 99.9Fi.
His sound is immediately recognizable but never intrusive: the trash-can percussion and distorted guitars that drive Los Lobos' recent work, the looped drums and industrial keyboards that augment Vega's reverbed vocals, the chamberlain and echo harp behind Thompson's wide-open electric-acoustic folk rock. He's the ultimate hybrid artist, a former porn-film composer who still thinks of albums as soundtracks that invite the listener to fill in the blanks and ride the wave till the very end. The Latin Playboys' album alone -- featuring Lobos David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, Froom cohort Tchad Blake, and Froom -- is a brilliant amalgam of Middle Eastern and East L.A. influences, a pastiche of tape loops and fucking-around sounds (spoons on slide guitars, for instance) that adds up to one of the decade's most unrecognized masterpieces. It doesn't make a lick of sense when taken apart, but as a whole, it's an acid trip without the baggage.
"Latin Playboys has a very strong atmosphere," Froom says from a Los Angeles recording studio, where he's currently finishing the forthcoming Lobos record. "It certainly doesn't play the game in any way. At the bottom of whatever you try to do usually is to make a record that sounds like it doesn't acknowledge anything -- it just wants to have a good time with itself. It's not of any time or place, there's nobody coming in saying anything about anything, there's no nod to modern tastes or whatever. But that one I thought was particularly great. David is one of the people I hold in highest regards; it's really his music. And Louie is a great lyricist, and between the two of them, it's very potent. I get a lot of credit for stuff I didn't do."