When the lipstick came off, the evil came in.Introduction
Lieutenant Weirdass, first featured prominently on the first two Roxy Music albums looking like the blonde female Muppet from the Electric Mayhem band before later pioneering humming and sighing as a ticket to a three-decade solo career, is probably the most famous synthesizer innovator in the history of pop music. He was, for a short while, also one of the more interesting pop musicians, bridging the gap between progressive rock, pure pop, the avante garde, and punk rock like nobody else who comes to mind. Okay, well, maybe Bowie and the Talking Heads, except...you know what? Nahh...not that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's kid is gonna look like the guy who played Herman Munster, but this - Bowie and the Heads both reached their respective artistic pinnacles while collaborating with the Little Professor Himself. He was also behind one of the biggest albums of the late 80's, U2's Joshua Tree, all while spending his solo career cranking out aural wallpaper (literally), intended as soundtracks to imaginary movies in his head. Perhaps you're shocked by this revelation, and maybe not - all I care to say is that without Eno, the bridge from the Sixties to the Eighties begins to look quite a bit shakier. The fact that his most popular work came from producing some of rock's biggest acts rather than from his own material is not particularly shocking - at first he was spending all his time perverting the pop formula, then he was busily doing away with it (along with any other semblance of structure) entirely. Eno's albums no doubt largely appeal only to a select few who've already consumed enough random nonsense that an album as jarring and noisy as Here Come the Warm Jets is no big whoop. Most people encounter Eno's albums because of his professional associations and large number of disciples in the rock world (it's hard to get through a Radiohead review without at least one mention of the little guy), rather than from either the Roxy Music side (who is now as much or more obscure than he is, at least in the US) or the ambient one.
I can imagine stepping into 'Needles in the Camels Eye' or 'Blank Frank' straight off of Beatles' Number Ones is probably stressful enough to snap a hymen, but with the proper amount of curiosity and education, it becomes quite easy to see that Eno the pop musician really had something. As an instrumentalist, Eno was a rare bird in that he was not particularly enamored with playing stuff on his keyboards, not how it's usually interpreted as harmonies and melodies, anyway. But what he would do was feed every last guitar line, whirr, and pop through his array of copper spaghetti and come out with a sound often chaotic, almost always unexpected, and sometimes even beautiful. His pop songs, underneath the morass, are simple enough to be played on an acoustic guitar, but turn into a studio orchestra after he's done treating them. Still, though, for the duration of the Seventies, anyway, he rarely made noise for the sake of making noise (in fact, I contend he rarely made nose at all, but those are just my ears talking. They're also telling me to get some more fucking Q-tips already, what, you think we like this crap all over us?), and his pop albums are stunningly varied in their emotional content. One song can be violent and unhinged, and the next like a bunny has just crawled into your lap. But until you can stand the strain of all that Eno throws at you, you may risk cracking into a thousand little pieces with as many left turns as this boy is wont to take.
His lyrics are provocative without being sensationalist like Bowie's (anyone who passes out a line as unexpected as 'some of them lose and some of them lose...it's not what they want but that's what they choose' automatically gets a few gold stars from me) or pretentious like Peter Sinfield's work with King Crimson (to namecheck two of his more frequent collaborators) and often bely a sense of humanity and romanticism that seems out of step with his cold, deadpan, dialed-in delivery style. I get the feeling that, unlike a smarmy wisecrack like Zappa who hides under cynicism and sneering, Eno takes his own pop music deconstruction down to a very warm, honest place. I, for one, can't hear the lyrics of 'I'll Come Running' and not think that tying someone's show might just be the most caring thing you can do for them.
Unfortunately, Eno seemed to stop being very interested in lyrics (and melody, and structure, and rhythm) altogether after just four vocal albums. Since the late 70's, he's been primarily a 'soundscape artist', just as hoary and unwieldy as that might sound. It first started as a sort of moonlighting from his main career as a Prog Glam Punk Funker, doing some tape recorder experiments with the likes of Bob Fripp and teaching his keyboards to play themselves on Discreet Music. It was easily ignored if you wanted, and the only times the results of this sideline really surfaced in his pop realm, the results were pretty great (Another Green World, his Berlin collaborations with Bowie). But in 1978 it seemed to burst wide open. First there was an album of instrumental soundtracks to movies that weren't there. Then he made an album intended to calm people in airports. Then one about leisurely space travel. Then one about, presumably, nothing interesting whatsoever. Please, whatever you do, do NOT get excited when you hear these descriptions (his descriptions, not mine...I hear 'bong....bongggg. Hummmm. ... bonggg!') of his ambient work. He doesn't want you to be excited. If anything, he doesn't want to you react to this stuff explicitly in any way. Ambient music is meant to stay consciously unnoticed in the background, like house plants, goldfish, or Cuba Gooding Jr.'s acting career. The effect is only to come from the effect of the soundwaves on your mood over time, not in one big kickass rush like 'Fortunate Son' or something.
The problem is that, by definition, not only is ambient music passive (which is understandable...so is most jazz and classical music as far as I'm concerned. Please don't take that as a slight. I think jazz is fantastic, but my brain simply cannot focus on it, much like some people focus on a baseball game, a Monet, or the fact that the Republican majority feeds them a wheelbarrow of lies day in and day out), his intention is that it's also supposed to be only marginally emotional. That's why he names his albums On Land and Thursday Afternoon instead of The 40-Foot Spangled Dildo of Fire or The Rape of Nanking - A Scream Cycle in 48 Movements. And you can make all the claims to objectivity you want - I want my music to be emotional as hell.
Ambient music is one of the bigger put-ons in the modern world. Like Tom Clancy or the old Atari E.T. game. Reviewing it is like reviewing facial tissues. I find almost all of Eno's post-70's work to be as righteously offensive as the worst possible simpering pop marshmallow fluff that comes out of the record industry's lower colon. Even worse, as Eno has wrapped his own brand of ripoff in so much unarguable hyperbole that he sounds like some sort of psychoemotional genius even as he's selling you albums that have as much musical value (hell...sound content, even) as your average bowl of hominy grits. Sometime around when he was collaborating with Bowie, Eno decided that his solo albums should do nothing except sell to the unwitting. His energy would be spent on pop production, and anyone dumb enough to buy boxed nothings like Apollo or Thursday Afternoon could get fucked in the ass.
At least for four or five albums, though, Eno was as worthwhile a rock artist as anybody from the 1970's, so start there today and leave the 'ambient music' to your patio bug zapper.
Here Come the
- EG 1973
Apparently Brian Eno was seen, at least commercially, as part of the Glam movement around the release of this album, best evidenced by his use of eye makeup and the fact that two or three of these songs were included in the soundtrack to the gay-ass period flick Velvet Goldmine. That's all a bit of a hard pill to swallow, sticking Eno in with T. Rex and Slade and all that, but I guess you jump onto the zeitgeist whenever you get your chance. Maybe if he'd come out three years earlier, Eno would've been more of a Keith Emerson sort. As it was, Eno was lucky enough to catch on with some of the more interesting musicians of the time, and produce two great albums of driving, chaotic hard rock stew that, somehow, became popular in Europe. I mean, how can you all but canonize a globby, no-talent sweathog like Gary Glitter and still find room to put 'The Strand' on the charts? God knows.
Anyhow, Eno split from Roxy when it became clear that there were two Brians in the band and that there was no possible outcome in which one would not consume the other's corpse raw onstage in front of a stunned Glam-era audience wondering if hot, spurting arterial blood is the hot new makeup color of the season. As it was, things turned out peachy for both of our heroes. Roxy would go on to become a far more 'normal' Euro-rock outfit that would pretty much take fractured romantic yearning over noisy guitars to a pre-Buzzcocks peak, while Eno would hang out with Bob Fripp and devise new ways of driving recording engineers assbonkers.
Though there is an identifiable Roxy bent to much of Warm Jets (due to the fact that the guitars are by the highly identifiable Paul Manzanera, and Eno uses all the other Roxys except for Ferry in his backing band), this is very much the product of Eno's own universe. Roxy was never able to be quite as flippant, fizzy, or giddily out-of-control as Eno gets them to be here, besides the fact that there's not a romanticized sentiment within 10 miles of this record. That's not to say Eno's not friendly or humanistic (though his mechanistic vocal style may lead you to believe otherwise), but the closest he comes to laying out a come on is the line 'you're gonna have to choose between the Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and me!' (no, I don't know what that might have been used for, and I certainly don't know from where one might be ordered. Sickos.) He's just not the hornball frat boy that Brian Ferry is to his very fibre. Warm Jets seems more comfortable in the realms of unease, paranoia, and exhilaration with an odd, childlike perspective. This album feels more arranged yet more chaotic than Roxy Music, and has giddier highs and more doomladen lows than For Your Pleasure. Most of all, it carries with it a certain sense of wide-focus experimentation that was always Eno's major contribution to his old band, and was something Roxy lost forever when Eno left. Where else can you hear an album with such wackiness as intentionally sloppy drums, doubled up so it makes the walls sound like you're stuck in some SimCity enthusiast's disaster nightmare. Or layer upon layer of wang-tango, stinging guitars so deconstructed and pounding it makes the Velvet Underground sound like the New Rascals ('Needles in the Camel's Eye'). Or naming a song 'Baby's On Fire' and give it the second line 'better drop her in the water'? When Eno describes the actions of the women in 'Cindy Tells Me' as doing things for 'insane reasons', you wonder what, exactly qualifies as insane to someone like Brian Eno. The Wendy's Triple Bacon Cheeseburger, perhaps. Christian Science, most probably. A little message-to-Satan-drawn-in-your-own-personal-language-on-the-bedroom-wall-with-someone-else's-pooplog? No sweat. Eno does more before the CIA steal his hoards of saved urine than most people do all day.
Okay, so maybe I've overstated this 'wacky Eno' thing, but that's most definitely the idea he's trying to put across here. Soon Eno would become far more focused on expressing certain emotions in a more straightforward manner, but here he's really trying to out-weird anyone else in the art rock/glam/urban cowboy/Electric Slide scene, and he does a damn fine job, lemme tell you. This is Eno's loudest and hardest-rocking album, with Manzanera's choked-within-an-inch-of-its-life axe or some random synth blurp always screeching away in a teeth-gritting manner as long as the music demands it. And it does demand it, a lot. Some may call this a confused and noisy record, but I say that's simply because they haven't listened to it enough. 'Cindy Tells Me' might have one annoying-as-fuck superfuzz guitar bumblebee flittering lazily around in front of the microphone nearly the entire time, but the actual song is a rather sweet mid-tempo doowop that cuts out somewhere in the grey matter between the Velvets and the Ink Spots. And after the unbelievable tension created by all the manic howling on 'Driving Me Backwards', the gorgeously warm 'On Some Faraway Beach' provides a sense of lush solace, until you realize Eno is singing about killing himself. By the way, I think I hear Bowie singing background on this one...can anyone confirm that for me? For some reason Bowie always sticks out of a background chorus like Louis Farrakhan at a Charlie Daniels concert for me, and it bugs me to no end. Well, maybe so some end. I haven't attempted to stab the guy or anything.
The mood then changes about as far as you can imagine between the fade-out of two flamtastic double tracked pianos on 'Faraway Beach' to probably one of the most claustrophobic, unsettling rockers I have ever come across. Eno calls 'Blank Frank' 'your doom and your destruction', and that's about what it sounds like, goddammit. If one song has ever made me think for a second or two that some slobbering Ninja hitman is really, truly gunning for me right this very moment, it's this little poison-tipped gem. In case the sense of foreboding isn't enough from the vampire Bo Diddleyism 'Frank', you get the cold, deadpan whisper of 'Dead Finks Don't Talk', which chills with understated threat every bit as much as 'Frank' does with lightning tempos and noise. Think of the dentist in Marathon Man rather than the Satan Biker in Raising Arizona, if you 'bounce my cat cracker unit', and I think you do.
So Warm Jets (which is a reference to peeing, by the way, as you might gather from a careful study of said album cover) is, at once, both the furthest-out and most conventional of Brian Eno's albums. Furthest out because it's loud and often obnoxious, a buzzsaw of unfettered playtime noisemaking with little care to how it will play in the Grain States. Most conventional because, hell, they're still songs (which was pretty far from what he'd be doing in 10 years) and though sometimes I don't have a Hubie Brown what he's frigging talking about, I still can discern exactly what emotion he's trying to impart on me, beit frazzled whimsy or homicidal tension or whatever the fuck 'Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch' is supposed to do. And he gets in one or two really good digs at Ferry while he's at it (check out his hilarious vocal impression on 'Dead Finks'), so that's cool. I always put at least two or three dead rodents where my ex-coworkers can find them.
Capn's Final Word: Wildly unpredictable, but in easily identifiable chunks, Eno warps his own past collaborations into his own brand-new thang.
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Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) - EG 1974
A dank, slow followup that many people, for reasons inexplicable to me, call Eno's masterpiece. I call it overmannered and way too repetitive, with way too many mid-tempo middle-of-the-road tracks and a bit too much obscurism for someone who likes his beer cold, his TV loud, and his Brian Eno albums as easy to read as the front page of the New York Post. This is a concept album, something about Communist China or something like that (Taking Tiger Mountain - By Strategy! being the title of a Red Chinese opera about the Maoist Revolution), but outside of a couple of songtitles, some distinctly koto-esque sounds, a few too many march tempos, and some passing references to international espionage, this album might as well be about the fryer station at the Beaumont, Texas Whataburger. As on Warm Jets, Eno keeps his lyrical inspirations close enough to his vest to allow the listener to make just about whatever he pleases out of this thing. Is 'Burning Airlines Gives You So Much More' a wispy breakup song, or a prelude to an adventure, or a come on for hot, squishy man-woman lovin' in the back row of Disney on Ice? I doubt even Brian himself knows, as at this time he made frequent use of the Dadaist technique of typing out random, unconnected lines of lyrics, then taking the results, cutting them all up into little strips, and arranging a bunch of them in random order. Ta-da! A hit song (or not!) The same technique has been used with some success by David Bowie (who no doubt learned it from Eno, from whom he stole most of his cool ideas), was used to compile the assembly instructions for any Playschool lawn toy you care to name, and was unwittingly used by Ethan Coen on the screenplay of the crap-ass movie Intolerable Cruelty that I somehow sat through last night while playing online poker (the liter or so of cheap chardonnay may have helped out on that front, but I could be wrong. I might just like steaming heaps of dogshit. I like Journey, don't I?). Again, it's hard to tell what Brian means, in case meaning is important to you, but unlike Warm Jets or Another Green World, it's also hard for me to tell how he intends for you to feel about these songs. The sense of chaos and sinister rage from Warm Jets is gone, replaced by a sort of super-arranged busy-ensemble style that somewhat recalls James Brown, except with synths replacing horns and about as much funkiness as a packet of Chicklets. Eno seems to have become so overwhelmed in arranging each and every little layer of blip and blurp that he often forgets to give each song some sort of a hook.
Sheeit, now don't go charging off on me or anything. Eno's not Brian Wilson, and he's not that dude from ABBA with the receding hairline (no, no, the other one), and he's not producing radio-ready pop gems fit for mass consumption by fat housewives and 10-year-olds worried about who's gonna do the Snowball with them at the next Skating Party. That's all understood. Eno makes pop music, but it's pop music for eclecticists who don't mind a few left-turns, dead ends, and flat-out drunken donuts in their songs. But Eno does have the ability to go as far out as he pleases and still sock you in the breadbasket with a hook that makes you hunger for more. I think Warm Jets showed this perfectly. Tiger Mountain discounts this strategy in favor of a grey flavor that just doesn't appeal to me particularly much. Take 'The Fat Lady of Limbourg', for instance. Eno clearly intends this song to be unsettling and full of paranoid sci-fi spy-novel enigmas ('we have options on your time and we'll dip you in the harbor if we must'), and he certainly delivers it in a very...erm...businesslike manner. Except this whole thing was done much more effectively on 'Dead Finks Don't Talk', not to mention that track was surrounded by two pounding rockers. 'Limbourg' is sandwiched by a stupid Kinksy carnival dancehall track ('Back In Judy's Jungle') and a positively endless 'dark glam' mid-tempo rocker ('Mother Whale Eyeless'). Where's the contrast? Where's the variety? Why are so goddamn many of these songs over five minutes in length and feature very repetitive instrumental sections followed by vocal codas that sound ripped off from bad musicals?
Hell, fine. It's still Eno, and the newly precise arrangements are fascinating. He's learned to mix guitars, keyboards, and random noise like nobody else. Moreover, several tracks sound decades ahead of their time. 'The Great Pretender' (not the Platters song featured in American Graffiti, by the way. But wouldn't it be high-larious if it had been? And vice versa!) predates showy early 80's synth-rock by at least 10 years, f'r instance, and are those syndrums I hear on there? Two entire minutes of fake cicadas at the end might be a bit excessive, though. 'Third Uncle' is Talking Heads '77, except in '74, and is the best rocker here. 'The True Wheel', though, screams out for a full-blast Roxy Music treatment ala 'Needles in the Camel's Eye', but instead its muted into near-inconsequentiality. I guess Eno didn't want to drown out the kids chanting 'We are the 801!', and thus providing free advertisement for the Eno/Manzanera sideproject. Least favorite moment - the complete Velvet Underground ripoff of the title track, which may as well be called 'Ocean II'. Favorite moment on this album, when Eno explains that the purpose of your fingers is to provide 'cushion over solos', upon which the entire sound shifts into a cool-ass guitar solo over percussion provided by typewriters.
Tiger Mountain absolutely does not suck. Let's get that right out on the hard-tack right now. It's just that many of the songs get very boring before they're done due to a strange over reliance on repetition of phrases that aren't that interesting to begin with (do you have to say each and every last every line at least twice in 'True Wheel'? Isn't once enough?) , in a way that even the bite-sized half-ambient scapes on Green World never sink to and the tracks on Warm Jets never get a chance to do. It's clear to me that Eno's primary purpose with this album was to really learn how to use the studio and the ensemble to express his rapidly coalescing set of worldviews. It's just that I don't really give a crap about what he's trying to express on this album, even as stylishly as he sometimes is able to pull it off.
Perhaps he's trying too hard to be obscure lyrically while being 'impressive' musically, but this one doesn't quite cut to the quick.
Capn's Final Word: The Allmans advance beyond the shore, taking new rootsy territories under their sway.
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Another Green World - EG 1975
Let it not be said that Brian Eno albums (at least his vocal ones) all sound alike. Three albums, three absolutely distinct flavors, three absolutely distinct approaches, three absolutely distinct effects. While Warm Jets was Eno the technowizard punk glam rocker, and Tiger Mountain was the ruminative master arranger, Another Green World is Eno as emotive folkie of the silicon world. This is Eno's formal introduction of his second self, that of the instrumentalist, the sound painter, that would quickly morph into the monochromatic crayon-in-fist 'ambient' 'musician' that would conclusively destroy Eno the pop artist. I'll admit right now in front of everybody here I don't like Eno's ambient music much, especially the three-flavors of vanilla kind he began making after he stopped attaching wacky concepts like 'music for airports' to it in the early 80's. But here, and pretty much only here, the pop and experimental sides of Eno's personality work together in very understandable, and I believe highly moving ways.
Most of the tracks on this album are instrumentals based around a theme defined by the title, upon which Brian builds a soundscape using, essentially, a bank of synth layers augmented by Robert Fripp's guitar. Except don't jump to conclusions - we're not talking about two-note 'ding-dong' synth lines best fit for telling you your Hot Pocket is finished in the microwave and ready to remove a few layers of the roof of your mouth. Eno is savvy enough to keep his arrangements tight and full of activity and his instrumentals short, with evolutions that take place in 'pop time' rather than 'paint drying time' like he'd later be doing. This is not musical wallpaper - it's meant to be listened to, preferably with the ability to visualize along with the unfolding architecture as it goes along.
Right now I'd like to lay some well-deserved praise on one of my favorite pieces of music (or art, actually) that I've ever experienced in my life. 'The Big Ship', coming somewhat inconspicuously after the moody, slightly ominous rain-dripping instrumental 'In Dark Trees' and the beautifully uncynical pop tune 'I'll Come Running' (more on that one later). At first listen, it sounds like a slowly crescendoing set of whooshy synths playing a deliberate chord sequence over and over, until Fripp's feedbacking guitar lifts off from underneath it, and, essentially, that's all it ever is. Except, quite clearly, I can visualize either a massive insterstellar craft unfolding its unimaginably huge body under the camera lens as it passes, ala the Imperial Star Destroyer in the opening sequence of Star Wars, or with a little more thought, perhaps a Spanish galleon, flags waving and sunset gleaming through its sails, approaching a native shoreline, witnessed only by an awestruck native wondering what Gods are visiting him. Most likely, this is what Eno intended with a title like this one, and he certainly does score.
But the visualization I get, with no outside influences, and one that scares me to my very core, is one of a parent learning their young child has died. I nearly always break down when I let this idea take hold while listening to this, and it's such an overwhelming illusion to me it almost always does. It's nearly inescapable to me, and it's something I hold very dear to my soul. 'The Big Ship' might very well be the most peculiarly evocative piece of music I've ever heard.
Of course, some of these work better than others. There isn't really much in the way of interpretation of 'Becalmed', which is, well...pretty fucking calm I guess. But gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous...slow pianos unfolding themselves into melody lines in delightfully unhurried ways while a synth pad plays shepherd to them all. 'Zawinul/Lava' (Joe Zawinul being one of the jazz keyboardists on Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as in longrunning jazz-funk-lounge act Weather Report) resembles Eno's later ambient work, except with twice as many interesting developments crammed into one tenth the running time. 'Sombre Reptiles' plays like a rock track, 'Spirits Drifting' could've fit in on Warm Jets, and the title track blossoms beautifully, a perfect mesh between distorted guitar, synth bass, and piano. Let me say that brevity is key here...any of these tracks, if stretched out to 5+ minute lengths, would easily become boring, but Eno has the good sense to leave them at very manageable running times here. I mean, how long do you look at a painting for? Two minutes, maybe, right? No one but a catatonic or a Zen Buddhist stares at the same sight for 30 minutes. Unfortunately, Eno would soon forget this, but to me 'ambient for complete fucking idiots' is the only way this form has ever been performed entertainingly.
Okay, so let's not forget the four brilliant vocal tracks, which easily constitute the four best the man has ever produced, not to mention featuring the best pure guitar work Robert Fripp has ever put on an album outside of Red. 'St. Elmo's Fire' is a bleary, late summer-night vision, full of childlike, humid wonder best summed up in the blazing Fripp guitar solo which bursts from the line 'And we saw St. Elmo's fire, splitting ions in the ether'. The solo, which would be Fripp's best if it weren't amongst two other killers on this album, bursts out in his inimitable muffled fuzztone, rendering the tone into a choked near-saxophone flurry of legato scale runs and wacked intervals. It's violent and chaotic (much like 'splitting ions in the ether' should sound), but appears that it's being viewed from a safe distance. The light show is electric (and electrifying), but you need not worry about being shocked.
'I'll Come Running' is another example of why I love this album above everything else Eno's ever put out. Coming after the avalanche of 'The Big Ship', the gentle near-doo wop roll piano is soothing and down-to-earth, as Eno intones about 'finding some place in the corner' where he'll 'watch patiently from the window' for the seasons to change and his love to return. His expression of love is his very unhurried patience, that his love will be 'pulled through his door' by his quiet devotion. And when she finally comes to him, he's not going to 'make it all night long' or suck her face off her skull or rock her world or any of that macho bullshit...he'll come 'running to tie her shoe'. Believe me, this one little line, perhaps repeated a time or two too many, expresses a sentiment that is a lot closer to a true expression of real-life, human love than a dumptruck load of Bad Company 'Ima leave you tomorrow, bay-bay' albums. This is then followed by another stunner of a Fripp solo, still highly distinctive but very, very different in tone and intent from the one on 'St. Elmo's Fire'. Forget those idiotic Fripp and Eno wankarama albums - Another Green World shows the very best of each of these oft-mistaken experimental warriors. The classic sense of understatement - that not everything is being expressed outright, but that everything you need to know is given to you, is the mortar that keeps this album alive. From someone as blunt and unforgiving as Bob Fripp often is, and as frequently lazily ethereal as Eno is, the golden middle ground achieved by this album is doubly remarkable.
Wotta fucking record. 'Golden Hours' (inspirational line: 'per-haps my brains are old-and-scram-bled'- then: blazing, totally unique Fripp solo number three) and 'Everything Merges With the Night' are every bit as perfect as the first two vocal tunes I mentioned, believe me. You simply must hear this one. Brian Eno, so often a freakshow or a silent automaton, comes across as so perfectly human and with a much firmer grasp on real human feeling than most of the court jesters and histrionics that populate music, and he makes music to match. The man lets his artifice fall for a second, and for that I will always be gratified.
Capn's Final Word: Brian Eno as human being, even if not as rock n roll artist. I can take the trade off.
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- EG 1976
I've got this, his first purely ambient one-man-band record, made allegedly by touching his keyboards as little as possible and just seeing what the algorithms dream up, just not with me as I write these reviews. I'll pull it off the shelf soon enough, gents and gentlewomen.
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After Science - EG 1977
Okay, so you want Enormal, or at least as close to it as the man was willing to go in 1977? I give you Before and After Science, the man's last pure pop record and his last vocal album of any importance, because after this the man would slide off the cue with a complete and undeniable lack of regret. Hell, he'd get to be so anti-word there for awhile he wouldn't even go to the trouble of titling the different tracks - he'd give them bar-code worthy monikers (like the gut-busting '1-2', or the you'll-buy-the-whole-seat-but-you'll-only-need-the-edge '2-1') better describing their physical position on the record grooves than any insight into their inspiration or intent. Hell - all you needed to know about that was in the album title - Music For Airports. On Land. Brian Eno Changes His Socks. But at least for a short while, Brian had been reenergized by the punk movement (especially, it seems, the highly Eno-indebted Talking Heads) and was ready to put out an album of minimal bullshit content and, at least for him, maximum commerciality. Before and After Science is a very commendable summarization of Eno's development from 1973 to 1975, and while it, for me, fails to chart out it's own ground quite the way his first three albums did, it says 'THIS is a Brian Eno Album!' very clearly, and very entertainingly.
But I can't say this is his best, again like many others can. The number of chances he takes here, especially when set next to the first three and in the rapidly advancing musical context of 1977, is notably limited. He seems more interested in ensuring his place amongst the new musical generation than continuing to lead them in radically different directions. It's as if Eno became self aware of the extent of his own influence, and his two sides reacted very differently from one another. His pop side decided he could best express himself through producing others, like, say, Bowie (with whom he was, admittedly, still quite 'out there') and a much more grounded collaboration with the Talking Heads beginning with More Songs About Buildings And Food in 1978. His truly experimental side, Brian Eno: Solo Musician, no longer even came into contact with the pop world. He, in essence, sequestered his more juvenile tendencies away from the public eye - no wonder it was around this time he cut his hair and began to resemble a middle class tax accountant far more than a Joan Rivers obsessed drag queen.
But, hey! This albums really, really good for what it is. Eno's developed a much better sense of polyrhythm and groove, as he shows off on 'Kurt's Rejoinder' and several other places throughout the record, and he lets his sidemen (especially the bass - this album features ace bass work) enjoy enough freedom that this one sounds like a band production rather than something where every note has been charted out on a chalkboard beforehand. Still, making grooves ain't exactly landing on Saturn (unless you're George Clinton or Bootsy, that is), since every beat on here has probably been used a thousand times in African music anyway, and the sense that BAAS is simply a very tastefully selected grab bag of older ideas is inescapable for me. The phased-to-fuck punk stomp of 'Kings Lead Hat' (rearrange the letters to spell 'Heal Dat Nig,SK!') sounds like a dumber, watered-down version of the far more convincing (and harder-rocking) 'Needles in the Camel's Eye'. Brian Eno doing Talking Heads doing Brian Eno, is what it amounts to, and the fact that so many people insist it's a career highlight simply makes me want to yak in my Kangol, y'know? Okay, all the flittering synths crawling over each other like a bucket of beetles is kinda fascinating there at the end, but again...really not as impressive as people make it out to be. Eno's been doing that crap since 1972, man! The rocker vocal tunes here just really don't click with me the way he historically has - he's so positioned his image as the quirky neo-Syd Barrett weirdo here that there's little air left for expressing himself with the lyrical fearlessness he showed on the last album. The ballads that dominate side 2, though, are pieces of true beauty, though even here I find fewer great ideas than in some of his earlier work. The sighing synths on the instrumentals are more floral, more static, and less gripping than on Green World, and those of you familiar with the second sides of David Bowie's Low and Heroes may find many of the synthtones to be quite familiar. I dunno, man, maybe I'm off base here, but from what I've heard about Eno's propensity around this time for using only certain favorite chords, his deck of 'strategy cards' and now this undeniable similarity with the work on other albums, it seems like around this time he had begun to pigeonhole himself into certain methods of creating music, contrary to his stated goal of freeing himself from convention. He was spinning off way more new, original ideas when poking at his Moog behind Bryan Ferry in 1972 than he did in the late 70's, simply by being young, strange, and not particularly self-analytical. The haircut didn't just represent his alliance with the narrow-ties, folks - Eno was trying to become boring and academic.
Still, I can't really poke any more holes than I already have - self-derivative, too-normal, too-commercial...blah blah blah. I'm happy that beautiful songs like 'Here He Comes', 'Julie With...' and the awesomely widescreen 'Spider and I' are in the world, and I'm happy that the second side is given primarily to more of Eno's versions of love songs to the universe that bely no desire to show off or fit in. In the end, I agree with Brian. We dream of the ship that sails away, we don't dream of weirdos stuck in the black water. Though the rockers here are far from being bad, I still sense a disappointing lack of inspiration. If this was indeed how he felt at the time, I applaud his decision to throw in the pop star towel before he put out something he would have reason to regret. This isn't it - believe me this is a very good record - but it points to the fact that the sands were maybe on the way to running out of his skull.
Capn's Final Word: A deli-delicious second half, but the first part makes it seem like Eno's checking over his shoulder to see if he's still cool with the punks or not.
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*giggle* Fourth sentence of third paragraph--funniest
sentence in the history of the universe ever. You're FUNNY.
I believe this to be Eno's best work mainly because of its sense of drama as a whole. Yeah, a lot of the tunes on side one are seriously lightweight, but that makes side two stand out all the more in its grandiosity. Plus tracks 1-3 and 5, despite their lightweightness, are fairly perfect pop tunes, particularly "Backwater."
Say. I just had an idea. Is that Byrne HIMSELF going uncredited on the guest vocals in "Clever Anagram Song"? No way Eno could ape him that well. But overall, it's the sock-punch of the last four songs that make this album
the best. Close behind is Taking Tiger Mountain, and roughly tied for third are the other two of his golden quartet.
Films - EG 1978
One of Eno's better pure ambient records, mostly because it still has a few guitars in it and the songs last less time than it takes to run the dishwasher. Plus, at least in most instances, Music for Films is, shockingly enough, more interesting than listening to the dishwasher. Brian being the classic Jonathan Winters-esque wit that he is, these 'films' he's talking about don't exist. Brian just dreamt some up scenes on his lonesome, and put down some music that, as far as we know, match the action allegedly on the screen. But wouldn't ya know it...Brian didn't think up any car chases, or sex scenes, or parts where guys sitting in a room next to each other strain and grunt and shake until one of their heads blows up in a big cloud of atomized, pinky brain guts. Nope, Eno's a Yurrupian, and his movies are about fucking glaciers and leaves turning brown and other highly action-deprived shit like that. Fuck, man...four years before and he's singing about murderous rampages, and now he's making tone poems about tapioca pudding. You think I'm kidding? Well, prove me wrong, dammit! You try to interpret song titles like 'From the Hame Hill' and 'Sparrowfall (2)' into something concrete in 60 seconds or less. Ya can't fucking do it. The days of 'Little Fishes' and 'Sombre Lizards' are over, lads and lassies, and the days of Brian Eno fucking about on his ever-less-interesting palate of synthtones has come. Forget rhythm, forget interesting, time-efficient developments in tone or mood. Forget mood altogether! The only mood this music makes me feel is 'calm'. Music for Airports was supposed to be about 'calm' - it was the audial equivalent of taking a deep breath and thinking about pillowy white fluffy clouds, and that's exactly what it was designed to be. This is Music for Films - films that sit in the dusty, dank archive stacks of some snooty film school in northern Finland or some other godforsaken place.
Okay - a few exceptions, all entirely on the second side. 'Alternative 3' is foreboding and off-putting enough to match quite effectively with a sinister pan-scene of an enemy world, 'There is Nobody' is the sound of a broken robotic hitman defragmenting its memory, 'A Measured Room' is Shaft crossed with (Tarkovsky's) Solaris, I think 'Task Force' may have actually been used in Escape from New York (hey! Another Isaac Hayes connection!), and 'M386' just fucking rocks - it sounds like a Can concert recorded from the third stall of the men's bathroom. But for every second of coldly detatched science-fiction headfuck, there's at least two or three corresponding seconds of slow-mo piano tinkling or 'waterdrop' effects so corny they were already cliches by the time Brian Eno invented them. Guh...go in a fucking New Age store next to the upscale gay neighborhood downtown and you'll know what I'm talking about within three minutes, I guarantee you. And that's about as long as you'll be able to stand the $6 incense sticks and the smell of stale Hippie, anyway. Then get the fuck out and go stomp a flower to bits somewhere.
Capn's Final Word: Is there any coincidence that my attention span is about as long as some of the notes Eno tinkles on the 'romantic' Side 1? Side 2 may save it from the trash heap, but it's still too much audial cauliflower for me.
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The second of Eno's 'big idea' albums, this one was purportedly intended to have absolutely serious, no-snickering commercial application as Muzak for airports, to soothe worried travelers before strapping themselves into thousand-ton steel Plymouths of the sky, laden with thousands of gallons of white-hot burning jet fuel and flown by glorified bus-drivers having just finished a marathon sex orgy with the bimbo ex-pole dancers slinging half-gram packets of formerly organic protein and $6 watered-down scotches to those hapless enough not to have sedated themselves before the flight. One can only imagine the mirth and levity had this actually been taken on seriously by the airlines and airports, once they realized these three-tone Montes were recorded by a man who once named a song 'Burning Airlines Gives You So Much More'. And who wore a feather peacock outfit that looked like it fell off the back of Liberace's dry cleaning delivery truck and got whacked about in traffic for an hour or two.
The main difference between Muzak for Airports and regular Muzak is that you might find yourself embarrassedly whistling along to the latter, especially if it's a particularly hot version of 'Because the Night' featuring a sonambulent alto sax rather than Patti Smith's vomitessent croak of the dead. There's not a chance on God's green earth that yer gonna be doing that along with Eno's particular set of dots and whistles, because it sounds like a union stagehand tuning a marimba backwards. Backwards because the sounds tend to become a bit weirder the longer the song goes on. Union because it takes fucking forever, with lots of unexplained breaks and setbacks, and when he finally decides he's finished you're still unsatisfied and feel you got ripped off.
Listen - while making soothing tones for subconscious public consumption may or may not be a defensible use of precious time and resources, let's admit this right now - if Music For Airports had been made by Joe Schmo from Environmental Sounds, Incorporated before his coffee break, right before doing the incidental sound effects for an episode of Monster Garage, this thing would've sold in the dozens, not the thousands. But because Mr. Former Cool Musician Guy made up this great big, honking idea and passed it off on an album to be released by the same folks who brought you King Crimson's Red album, every idiot has to think it's something more than it is. Well, kids, it ain't. You can hear Music For Airports in every goddamn last supermarket produce aisle, every fucking podiatrist waiting room, hell...every time you get in your car you hear at least three or four different 'bong' noises to tell everyone you haven't put on your seatbelt, your door isn't yet closed, you fucking Maroon...and, Holy Fuck! Your motherfucking key's in the ignition and the engine isn't turning so what the fuck you gonna do, you simp, lock that shit in the car and have to wait three hours for a fat fucking locksmith to come out and assrape you for $75 for licensed use of a goddamn $15 Slim Jim? all at the same time. And that's got, sheeit, at least two tones more interesting than '1-1''s got on it.
Other than that, it does what it's supposed to, I guess. Not once did I think my living room was going to crash in an orgy of pain and brimstone into a highly-populated urban area while I had this album playing. Neat trick.
Capn's Final Word: Fight the urge to turn your boombox into a long, soulless concrete passageway and turn yourself into a self-delusional Eno-apologist willing to pay for anything.
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My Life in the Bush of Ghosts(with David Byrne) - EG 1981
Mix one part Fear of Music with one part 'Revolution #9' and you've got My Ass in the Highly Paid Producer's Chair by the jerky dork from Talking Heads and the creepy chick from Roxy Music. Apparently the rest of the Heads weren't quite as on-board for the weirder tangents of Messrs. Byrne and Eno during the formation of the Fear of Music album, so the blue chips went off and made this little world-beat-plus-sound-clip tossoff to satisfy their urges. In fact, it ain't bad at all - the worldbeat stuff no longer sounds very exotic now that we've had the National Geographic channel on TV for a few years, and more often than not the synth backings appear ripped off from Tangerine Dream (Eno's never used this much sequencer before, for sure, and no matter how genius you are with a synth - you use a sequencer and a saw wave and you're gonna sound like Tangerine Dream). The ripping off doesn't just come from obscure Africans and obscure Brit art-rockers, either. The entire groove to 'Regiment' is nothing more than a recreation of the first few seconds of 'I Wanna Know If It's Good To You' by Funkadelic, minus Hendrixoid guitar riff, down to the peculiar self-perpetuating delay on the snare drum. Considering the Heads would, within a year or so, actually feature former P-Funk members (thus proving beyond a doubt that Byrne was in all likelihood a big fan), the similarity simply cannot be attributed to coincidence or a strange alignment of the planets. The man stole, and just because he later let his patsies play a few sessions with him doesn't excuse nothin'.
As an overall listening experience, though, this is a pretty passable record. The sound bites (mostly from radio sermons and political talk shows, apparently) are all pretty interesting and well-utilizred, even down to where, at certain points on 'Help Me Somebody' it sounds like the speaker is actually singing along with the music. Still, after a few spins, the unrelenting repetition of the grooves and the sinking suspicion that no one is, in fact, home begins to wear down the replay value of this record quite badly.
If all of this sounds a bit familiar, let me clue you in on a little home truth for a second - MOBY. That bald loudmouth sissy has conducted his entire career as a sort of endless regurgitation of the same small set of ideas that made this album. Be a dorky, pasty white guy with dorky, pasty white guy interpretations of black funk grooves. Find royalty-free public-domain recordings of a black preacher with far more soul and energy than you could ever hope to possess. Mix on 'puree' for three minutes. Make video with similarly pasty, similarly indie-wannabe rodentoid actress. Espound verbosely about objectionability of pasty white rap artist with setoff operational testicles. Make millions, spend on Yoga lessons and soy milk colonics.
Okay, so Bern and Ener didn't quite make it through the entire course. I suppose if you need to hear this kind of music, at least hear it from these guys and count yourself lucky you were never suckered into buying that goddamn album with Moby in the space suit for $15 when you first came back to the US after a whole year. Oh, by the way...this also marks the last time Eno made an album that could even come close to being considered 'pop' with his name on it until almost 1990. Funsies, friends!
Capn's Final Word: What? Moby isn't an innovator? When the Christfart did this happen?
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Ambient 4: On Land - EG 1982
I actually reviewed and listed to this one thinking it was released before Apollo, and decided to just leave the fucking reviews as they were. Have I fucked up my entire Brian Eno page by not paying precise attention to the exact order in which our boy decided to bore his fucking audience to death? Do I care? Well, I still got money in my bank account, they still make plenty of cheap beer and Diet Coke for me to live off of, and Naomi Watts is still sexy enough to burn the hair off my top lip, so no...I don't much care that I've forgotten the release order of these records. On Land is either the very best or the very worst of Brian Eno's ambient records, depending on how you define 'goodness' in these terms. If you mean goodness as in 'Brian totally throws off all shackles of making music with any bourgeois need for input from the listener', then score this album a 10 and realphabatize your thousand-plus volume Hentai novel collection. If you define goodness as 'something human beings might give half a shit about', then pop open a beer and tell your bitch to stop fucking wasting all that time buying $14.99 zinc-oxide bling bling on QVC and come over here and give you a blowjob, already. This is by far the least eventful so far of Eno's albums outside of Airport '80, meaning it gives you less chances to get really fucking mad at it. Talk about 'ambient', this stuff is about as insignificant as a dust particle floating around halfway across the room. It's not atmospheric, it's microscopic. It's just so goddamn quiet all the time, it may as well not be there at all.
So all I'm saying is...cut out the middle man! Buy the most ambient album ever made...one that doesn't even exist! Listen as you put the weightless disc into your player, close the tray, and press the play button...nothing happens! It's so subliminal not even your CD player can tell it's there! Then, notice all the sounds you've never paid attention to because you've been too busy putting fucking Brian Eno and Some Eurofag Who Was In The Synth Store At The Same Time He Was albums on all the time. Hear the humming of your fridge compressor! Listen to your cat scratching his petrified pooplogs around in his litter box! Listen to yourself, man! All those miniscule gurgles and farts you never thought you even had the capability to make....and as long as you eat enough fibre, you're making them all the time. Each and every one of us has a 1980's Brian Eno living right there inside of him, and if we'd all shit the fuck up every once in awhile, we can hear the music he's making. At least until we crap him out and flush him down the toilet. But have a bowl of Cheerios or a couple of stalks of broccoli, wait about an hour, and sho nuff...there's our little ambient hero again. Or have a bean burrito...it's a live album!!
Capn's Final Word: The sound of sandbox.
Atmospheres and Soundtracks
- EG 1983
I suppose you might call this development over Music for Films. At least Eno provides his audience with a more concrete, hold-it-in-your-hand set of imagery for this ambient excursion. Yup, space travel. Not the cool, Battlestar Galactica kind of rip-roarin' shoot-em up motherfucking-Camaros-in-space sort of space travel, but real-life Senate subcommittee watch-the-mildew-grow kind of space travel. This, in case you haven't figured it out, gives Eno a rather obvious out when critics once again begin to shake their heads at how goddamn boring this shit really is. All Brian has to do is sit back and say 'What the fuck you want me to do about it? Floating around in weightlessness is supposed to be as interesting as Javanese stereo instructions!' He no longer has to try to come up with some exciting movie concept to write a score for, like he did on Music for Films. All you have to do is say 'Apollo', and everyone knows they're in for a bunch of whooshes, moans, and barely audible buzzy noises. We've all seen PBS. We know the fucking score on this kinda pointy-headed shit. And the man learned his lesson well. Last time, Brian tackled the similarly cheetah-paced, take no prisoners, Public Televisionized subject of Plate Tectonics. But not the ass-on-fire million-years-in-a-second Pangaea-to-North America cool kind of plate tectonics. We're talking real time, baby!! Geology. Astral physics. Who needs groupies and blow if you've got this smorgasboard of synapse-charring pleasure soda, may I ask?
Anyway. Forget song structure. Forget rhythm, harmony, or melody (okay, except for when the corny marimba sounds and steel guitars show up on the second side, which sounds like something that would be used to calm mid-western Jews before being herded into the immolation furnaces in the upgraded US-based Nazi deathcamps of the alternate-world 1970's) . Hell...forget tone, because most of this stuff sounds like someone put a microphone up a Gurnsey cow's ass for forty minutes. I feel nothing but isolation and general discomfort when I hear this music, something I could do just as easily and for a lot less money by simply turning on daytime talkshows on network television. Good luck with it if you insist on paying the time and money to explore this wankarama rectumscape for yourself. Oh, this marks the point at which Brian Eno meets fellow reverb fetishist Daniel Lanois, who plays the murderous steel guitars here. (Listen, pedal steel is one of my favorite sounds in the entire universe, but the pussified way Lanois plays it makes me want to jam each and every one of those long lever arms up his nostrils with a rubber mallet until his skull caves in.) They'd later collaborate on fucking up U2's brilliant self-concocted War-era rock band sound forever, as well on other duet albums, no doubt just as masturbatory as this one.
Capn's Final Word: Eno once said that one of his favorite timbres of sound is passing traffic. I can dig that, but I also don't need to pay $14.99 for it...
Tuesday Afternoon - EG 1985
Now, not only is he not playing anything, he's also not going to the trouble of banding his records and having to sweat out ten or twelve album titles every few years. One track, one title, both not nearly as interesting as staring at a blank piece of paper for forty minutes must be. Why it's so fucking popular to sit there and tear Lou Reed, a man with about six times the longevity of creativity that his worshipper Brian Eno ended up having, for putting out Metal Machine Music in 1975. Sure, it was nothing but 117 minutes of tuneless, grating guitar feedback, but so is half the fucking Melvins catalog, and that never stopped them from being perennial Number One chart successes! But you know what? Lou 'd' Reed actually went into the studio and played all that stuff...in real time! Or, you know...stood somewhere nearby while the amplifiers and pickups did their respective things! Someone had to induce those guitars to sound like that, because they really don't tend to do that on their own. Plus, and this is key there's actual sound on the tape! For all of those 117 minutes! Talk about value for money, kids. Just look at your graphic readout when you play it...it dances all over the place like Brazilians with their asses on fire. Put on Thursday Afternoon and...nothing. 61 minutes of four repeated tones flatter than Claire Danes in a Hanes sports bra. Maybe, just maybe some incidental pops and whistles that might as well be coming from your stomach when you realize Brian Eno, with the magic of modern synthesizer technology as it is, didn't even need to be in the same time zone as his synthesizer bank as this piecashit was being recorded! Hell, he didn't even need to program a sequencer or anything...just leave the studio window open and let pigeons shit on the keys. Opa...instant ambient masterpiece. He was off somewhere trading in antique golden shower porn and waiting for Thom Yorke to be born so he could have someone new to kiss his ass, and we're stuck here with this shrinkwrapped, whispered 'fuck you' to all of us chumps who continue to subject ourselves to this unfettered bullshit. Just because Reed had the minerals to scream out his expletive in front of everyone, he still gets crucified. Plus, and this is absolutely key - Lou Reed did his cursing once and then went back to making hit-or-miss albums that at least appealed to somebody, more or less. Lou Reed did not insist on making Metal Machine Music, Plastic Machine Music, Mineral Machine Music, and Vinyl Siding Machine Music in an effort to, through sheer stubborn refusal to believe that he might be wrong, convince people that albums full of fucking guitar feedback are really, truly worthy of being released on a regular basis. Okay, Eno invented this kind of product. At one time you could even say he did it well, making it interesting in short doses. But when your entire thought process revolves around making this stuff as uninteresting as possible, then what's the point? Did you really come up with a whole lot more things to say between On Land and Apollo? Did Music for Airports really leave the audience thirsting for more, or do they just follow you around because asshole critics who are afraid of ever admitting they don't understand something can't gather the balls to say the emperor is as bare-assed as a fucking newborn baby? Yes, Brian, you were great once. Really great. Perhaps you still have something to say. But this ambient bullshit of yours is as sinister and cynical a way to deceive the public as has been seen in the music industry in a loooonnnggg time. Eno gets stroked like a fat old neutered tabby because he once made Another Green World. Where's the justice in that, exactly?
Still, I'm just a little ol' seething Internet web reviewer with zero journalistic cool, little-to-no-fashion sense, and way too many stupid records I stole off of file-sharing services. I'm also aware, in the grand scheme of things, that there are people who get off on this kind of music, and probably, vice-versa, cannot possibly see how I tolerate listening to endless hours of Grateful Dead concerts, each just slightly different from the ones around it. There's also people who track train boxcar registration numbers from city to city for years at a time, people who pay good money for 'celebrity air', and people who collect and catalogue their scabs. To each their own. There's a market, so someone has to fill it, I guess. Isn't that the capitalistic way? My problem is that no one seems to have the guts to really put it to Eno the artist, and tell him to his face that he hasn't put out a single new idea on one of his albums since 1977. How the fuck do you get to be as critically Teflon-coated as this guy? Now, if he were to bottle that, he'd have me first in line.
Capn's Final Word: Tell the bald pretentious fuck where to put his Thursday Afternoon.
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Capn's Note: Yeah, I know I've passed over various collaboration records and other arcana, and also realise Eno's got, like, a dozen more albums that sound just like his other 80's works, but no matter how much booze you pour down my throat, how much free pussy you wave in front of me, or even give me free Rolling Stones tickets (hint hint) will I ever review them. Give 'em all D minuses from me, sight unheard.
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