Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams
Small Craft on a Milk Sea
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Thirty-seven years have passed since Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry were bandmates in the glammed-up, progressive pop enterprise Roxy Music.
Since then, Eno has gained international accolades for his production work with, among many others, U2, while redefining boundaries for contemporary instrumental music with so-called "ambient" atmospherics and abstractions. Ferry, on the other hand, has stuck mostly to what he knew best: densely woven pop with dark, dance-savvy rhythms.
On their fine new albums, each artist reclaims stylistic turf staked out in the post-Roxy age.
On Eno's outstanding Small Craft on a Milk Sea, the music initially approximates the serene chill of such past ambient adventures as Music for Airports — glacially paced keyboard orchestrations that seduce from a distance to function very much the way a film soundtrack would. But Small Craft also playfully deviates from its own ambient norm with the help of British electronica stylist Jon Hopkins and guitarist Leo Abrahams.
As a result, the gorgeous, chiming chill of Emerald and Lime, and its mustier sequel Emerald and Stone, is balanced by the percussive tension of Flint March (which recalls the more ominous dance fracture of David Byrne's The Catherine Wheel) and the cavernous, nocturnal echoing that gives Calcium Needles such a stark beauty.
Small Craft is a soundtrack in every sense. Its music is calming, contemplative, yet queasy and unsettling, moving deftly from the pastoral to sound sculptures that seem to shatter before your ears.
Ferry's Olympia opens with a splintered synthesizer melody lifted pretty much intact from Roxy Music's epic swan-song album, Avalon. A chunky guitar pattern, a tapestry of percussion and a wonderfully jittery bass riff from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers suggest a few stylistic off ramps. Then Ferry enters to underscore the tune, the album-opening You Can Dance, with that breathy, world-weary vocal tone. Suddenly, we're back in Roxy land.
And so we have the cosmopolitan Ferry dance-pop makeup that continues to endure, although its popularity remains far stronger in Europe than on these shores. As usual, Ferry stacks the deck with primo guitarists, including Pink Floyd's David Gilmour (who wildly howls against Ferry's piano work on Me Oh My) and Roxy mate Phil Manzanera (on the dance funk groove-a-thon BF Bass: Ode to Olympia). And, yes, even Eno adds a few cameos (including sleek keyboard help on the anthemic Song to the Siren, in which the entire guest list happily converges).
Although hardly as astounding as Eno's new adventures on Small Craft, Olympia is the sound of a Brit-pop forefather corralling the usual suspects for another mighty swing at the dance floor.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Writer