Cruising on sonic waters: New works from Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois
Musician-producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have guided, sometimes together, some of rock’s most sustaining albums, in addition to their own groundbreaking ambient projects. For a quick refresher, Lanois oversaw U2’s “The Joshua Tree” (with Eno), Peter Gabriel’s ’80s blockbuster “So” and Bob Dylan’s 1997 comeback, “Time Out of Mind.” Sonic landscaper Eno collaborated on the African grooves for the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” as well as piloting his own landmark solo works, including “Here Come the Warm Jets” and “Another Green World.”
On their latest projects, both artists explore the boundaries of composition and atmosphere in highly textural and rewarding ways. Eno’s “Small Craft on a Milk Sea,” an enigmatic collection of 15 soundscapes created with musician-composers Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, is deeply inspired by film scores — but as if transposed by alien hands.
Working with a collection of alchemically bonded musicians, meanwhile, Lanois’ Black Dub finds new bridges between jazz, rock and the most gossamer strain of blues, hooking it all together with dub-inflected rhythms, tonally inventive guitar and Trixie Whitley’s expressive, oft-desperate vocals.
For Eno, the thrill of music at this stage in his pioneering career seems to be what it can stir in the mind’s eye, the imaginative place beyond any particular construct of notes. In that sense, Eno has little need for traditional composition and has instead built “Small Craft” from edited improvisations with his collaborators. None of the songs really have lead parts — several electronic elements thrum, often twisting around each other.
That isn’t to say that the album feels loose; in fact, the mood is tightly controlled, all the better for summoning Eno’s world. His titles are inspired by the seemingly lost details of a submerged planet, a scientist’s wonder — “Calcium Needles,” “Late Anthropocene,” “Emerald and Stone.” For all the spatial drift, several songs, such as “Flint March,” have a sense of urgency. And though it might sound like a cold place, Eno’s primordial milk sea is often choppy and warm, the kind of rough and imperfect environment where ideas ignite.
On “Black Dub,” the more conventional work of the two, Lanois also forgoes a strict adherence to composition. With nearly all of the songs written by Lanois alone, the band takes those frameworks and shoots off into the unknown, frequently touching down but just as often it blows open any assumptions about where the song might venture.
It’s in the details, particularly Lanois’ languid guitar. For all its conversational timbre, Lanois’ playing manages an otherworldly quality as well, the rewards of coaxing rarely heard sounds from the most standard rock instrument. It’s a pleasure to hear something we think we know so well reveal more shades. On what could be mistaken for an ordinary blues-rooted rocker, “Last Time,” with its multiple layers of space, hits on both the guttural and cerebral level, with Whitley’s simple lyrics and Lanois’ tarnished-brass guitar.
At times, Whitley’s vocals can feel a bit overly performed but it serves as an important fixed point for songs that might otherwise slip around too much. The extraordinarily resourceful rhythm section, percussionist Brian Blade and bassist Daryl Johnson, also serve as anchors. Those moments of slippage, though, are some of the most beautiful of the album, offering a kind of wanderlust that confirms traveling to be not about the destination but about the romance of getting forever lost.
— Margaret Wappler
Brian Eno, with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams
“Small Craft on a Milk Sea”
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Images: "Small Craft on a Milk Sea," top left, and "Black Dub," top right.