Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Brian Eno-Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)

One of popular music's most endearing oddballs, Brian Eno's divergent output can nevertheless be tied together by his fascination with creating and manipulating sound textures. A self-described "non-musician" and renowned producer for some of the biggest and most respected names in the business (Talking Heads, David Bowie, U2), Eno has had a massively influential career. His own work has perhaps become most identified with his minimalistic ambient experiments, but Eno did release four albums of quirky pop music in the middle of the 1970s. He rarely returned to the format after 1977's Before and After Science, but these four fascinating albums reveal a major talent for the style are quite a legacy in their own right. Over the years, I have gone back and forth with each of these albums in terms of which I think is the best. I've settled on Another Green World as the pick of the bunch, but I think that the other three aren't far behind and have few qualitative differences between them. Eno's songs are often incredibly simple, yet his talent for arrangment and great gift for melodic deployment ensures that they're never simplistic. His flair for the unorthodox keeps the songs from being predictable. These are albums that I have played over and over for many years and still enjoy hearing.

Fresh from his split with Roxy Music, Eno recorded Here Come The Warm Jets in the fall of 1973. It is the first of Eno's many solo albums and it is the only one of his records that has much in common with the music by his former band — due in no small part, I'm sure, to participation by Eno's former bandmates (minus Bryan Ferry) on several of the album's cuts. Among the other musicians are King Crimson's Robert Fripp and John Wetton, who appear on two of the album's weirder tracks. Eno isn't credited with playing much on this album; apparently, he functioned mostly as a writer, producer and singer. A word on Eno's voice — it's one of the most distinct in popular music and I think it is a shame that he didn't make more albums that featured his vocals. Flat and somewhat robotic, yet capable of projecting warmth; dry and distanced but nevertheless expressive, Eno's voice is the perfect complement to music that itself is a negotiation between the artificial and the organic. As for the actual songwriting, Eno's lyrics tend toward the bizarre and daft, although the straightforward, socially relevant "Cindy Tells Me" indicates that this is more of a creative decision than an artistic limitation.

Warm Jets is eclectic and unlike much else that existed in popular music at the time, but you can hear its roots in some of the early Roxy Music songs. "Needles In The Camera's Eye" and "The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch" have a propulsive, glam-like veneer that I would surmise germinated in Roxy's "Remake/Remodel" and "Virginia Plain." More sinister and strange, "Baby's On Fire" (which features one of Robert Fripp's best guitar solos), "Driving Me Backwards" and "Blank Frank" contain elements that Eno first exhibited on his creepfest "The Bogus Man," from the 1972 Roxy album For Your Pleasure, though these are all much more visceral.

The other songs can be seen as genre experiments, but nothing is that simple when you're dealing with Eno. "Cindy Tells Me" is kind of a doo-wop pastiche but it's also an irreverant swipe at feminism and has what I think is the album's most memorable melody — which is saying something, because this record is full of them. "On Some Faraway Beach" starts with a simple piano melody and then gradually swells up to a glorious wall-of-sound climax — complete with amplified, echoey drums — worthy of the most dramatic Phil Spector productions. "Dead Finks Don't Talk" and "Some Of Them Are Old" come close to being too self-consciously arch for my tastes and they probably would be if they were by any other artist (though I honestly can't think of any other artist who would have written them) but "Finks" is redeemed by the crazy chorus and warped second verse, and "Some of Then Are Old" has a totally unexpected slide guitar solo inserted into the middle which almost sounds like a ukelele. It's impossible for me to dislike something so effectively audacious on the basis of principle.

I guess this album had a tough time finding an audience back in 1974. A flummoxed Rolling Stone reviewer declared Warm Jets to be "annoying, because it doesn't do anything," and hoped Eno would "attempt to structure his work rather than throw together the first ten things that come to mind" the next time he made an album. It must be that the many years of exposure to whimsy, irony and postmodernity in popular music have conditioned those of us who grew up in the '80s, because all I hear when I play Warm Jets is a creative batch of really good songs."

This is a pop record ( a weird one) and though it's before Eno got super weird, it's still hinting at what was to come. "Blank Frank" is fucking scary for a poppy song. Just insane. "Needle in the Camel's Eye" is straight fun. Try to not bop your head to it. I think his vocals are so out there and so damn good across the board. I love this record. Indulge.



Lou said...

Nice one!

...Any more high bitrate Eno would be much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Pretty good audience recording of Eno's Apollo show, live at London Science Museum, July 20 2009 — performed by Icebreaker with BJ Cole, with intro by Brian Eno.

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