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Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins & Leo Abrahams - Small Craft on a Milk Sea

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Artist: Brian Eno with Jon Hopkins & Leo Abrahams

Album: Small Craft on a Milk Sea

Label: Warp

Review date: Oct. 28, 2010

Click here to hear "Horse" from Small Craft on a Milk Sea

On his last few releases, Brian Eno had finally seemed to be playing to his strengths again. He wasn’t taking the “non-musician” thing so seriously and, in return, he got encouraging, if lukewarm reviews. Another Day on Earth showed him reinvesting his energy in pop music, while the release of the Bloom iPhone app made his interest in generative software accessible. The announcement that his next release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, would be appearing on Warp seemed promising: if not a return to form, Warp’s backing seemed like a guarantee of baseline quality.

It’s not. There are no babies on fire and no other green worlds. But even without referring to past glories, this album is a drag. The evocative title and slick design are distractions from the music, which presents the listener with a dry, blank landscape that is less “Lizard Point” and more Easter Island. At least Easter Island has a sense of mystery; nothing on Small Craft puzzles or rewards contemplation. Only a few tracks have personality. Most of the album is pro-forma post-classical or ambient, nothing that could hint at the electronic mind-meld Eno has achieved in the past, nothing the casual electronic music fan can’t find 10 better versions of. The music’s emotional cues are hasty and extraneous, like bad Max Richter, but this is a depressing listen for many reasons besides.

Small Craft‘s most honest moments are the totally clueless ones, where Eno and his collaborators appear to be working on a concept of electronic music that’s at least 15 years old. The result of living in the Coldplay/U2/lecture circuit bubble for so long? “Bone Jump,” for one, sounds at first like Sega Genesis bad-guy music. As it progresses, the cornily sinister melodic line and utterly funkless beat conspire to be, like, what a Nickelodeon executive thinks hip hop sounds like: disjointed, no flow, inexplicably threatening to turn into 12-tone serialism. Wilford Brimley should rap over it. Oh, and then there’s “Paleosonic,” an indistinct churn of exotic percussion and clean-cut synths topped with fragrant guitar playing that goes from tepid no-wave atonalisms to sloppy Mick Barr shredder scales. Grim.

The most interesting tracks on this album sound like music for the great Pier 1 Imports in the sky, suggesting an infinity of pure, terrifying stasis. I should note here that Small Craft is actually a collaboration between Eno, Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams (middlebrow “electronica” producers; they’re the vanguard of, for example, Imogen Heap). This spreads the blame around, but it also reinforces the notion that Eno is no longer master of his domain: some of Eno’s best records featured contributions from wonky prog likes of Robert Fripp and Phil Collins. Eno is an idea man who squeezed remarkable performances from his collaborators by taking them out of their comfort zone; here it seems that he’s chosen collaborators based on comfort, jettisoned the ideas, and gone down the Coil route of milking credulous fans with limited-edition tchotchkes. Or just had the bad judgment to choose to work with clean-scrubbed sound designers rather than actual musicians.

I appreciate “Bone Jump” and “Paleosonic” for their unmitigated crappiness. “Bone Jump” is track No. 7 on the album, and without it, the six that precede it would squeak by on their slight charms and Eno’s backlog of goodwill. The obvious failures here reveal not only the album’s overall mediocrity but the extent to which listeners and critics are willing to suspend disbelief when faced with something that merely meets the minimum requirements of music. This is music tailor-made for the target demographic of Wired or BoingBoing — people who were talking about Kathy Acker in the mid-’90s and are now terrible vampires with tech jobs. Stay away.

By Brandon Bussolini

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