Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Brian Eno/David Byrne [extended]

  • Here Come the Warm Jets [Island, 1974] A
  • Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) [Island, 1975] A-
  • No Pussyfooting [Antilles, 1975] B+
  • Another Green World [Island, 1976] A+
  • Evening Star [Antilles, 1976] B+
  • Discreet Music [Antilles, 1977] A-
  • Before and After Science [Island, 1978] A-
  • Music for Films [Antilles, 1978] B+
  • Music for Airports [Ambient/PVC, 1979] B
  • Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics [Editions EG, 1980] A
  • My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [Sire, 1981] C+
  • Songs From the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" [Sire, 1981] A-
  • On Land [Editions EG, 1982] B+
  • Apollo: Atmospherics & Soundtracks [Editions EG, 1983] B
  • Music for The Knee Plays [ECM, 1985] A-
  • Songs From True Stories [Sire, 1986] C+
  • More Blank Than Frank [Editions EG, 1986] A-
  • Rei Momo [Luaka Bop/Sire, 1989] C+
  • Wrong Way Up [Opal/Warner Bros., 1990] A-
  • The Forest [Warner Bros./Sire/Luaka Bop, 1991] Dud
  • Uh-Oh [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud
  • Nerve Net [Opal/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud
  • Vocal [Virgin, 1993] ***
  • David Byrne [Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros., 1994] **
  • The Drop [Thirsty Ear, 1997] C
  • Feelings [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1997] Dud
  • Look into the Eyeball [Virgin, 2001] Dud
  • Grown Backwards [Nonesuch, 2004] C+
  • Another Day on Earth [Hannibal/Ryko, 2005] Dud
  • Everything That Happens Will Happen Today [Todomundo, 2008] Dud

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets [Island, 1974]
The idea of this record--top of the pops from quasi-dadaist British synth wizard--may put you off, but the actuality is quite engaging in a vaguely Velvet Underground kind of way. Minimally differentiated variations on the same melody recur and recur, but it's a great melody, and not the only one, and chances are he meant it that way, as a statement, which I agree with. What's more, words take over when the music falters, and on "Cindy Tells Me" they combine for the best song ever written about middle-class feminism, a rock and roll subject if ever there was one. My major complaint is that at times the artist uses a filter that puts dust on my needle. A

Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) [Island, 1975]
For all his synthesized, metronomic androidism, Eno is more humane than Bryan Ferry--his romanticism less strident, his oddness less devilish. It's nice, too, that in his arch, mellow way the man takes note of the real world from behind the overdubs. Every cut on this clear, consistent, elusive album affords distinct present pleasure. Admittedly, when they're over they're over--you don't flash on them the way you do on "Cindy Tells Me" and "Baby's on Fire." But that's just his way of being modest. A-

Fripp & Eno: No Pussyfooting [Antilles, 1975]
Although art-rockers praise Fripp's undulating phased guitar and Eno's mood-enhancing synthesizer drones, they also complain that it all gets a little, well, monotonous after a while. That's the problem with art-rockers--they don't know much about art. I think these two twenty-minute duets, recorded more than two years ago, are the most enjoyable pop electronics since Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air, achieving their goal with admirable formal concision. What do the bored ones want? Can't have meter shifts 'cause there's no beat, can't have bad poetry because there's no vocalist, can't have fancy chord changes 'cause there's no key center. What's left is tranquility amid the machines, more visionary and more romantic than James Taylor could dream of being. Highlight: the unrestrained snake guitar on the unfortunately titled "Swastika Girls." B+

Eno: Another Green World [Island, 1976]
Although I resisted at first, I've grown to love every minute of this arty little collection of static (i.e., non-swinging) synthesizer pieces (with vocals, percussion, and guitar). Think of it as the aural equivalent of a park on the moon--oneness with nature under conditions of artificial gravity. Played in the background, all thirteen pieces merge into a pattern that tends to calm any lurking Luddite impulses; perceived individually, each takes on an organic shape of its own. Industrialism yes. A+

Fripp & Eno: Evening Star [Antilles, 1976]
This time F&E take dead aim at the hit single they so manifestly deserve by breaking their magic music into four distinct pieces on side one, but as a result I find the total effect more static--the endings are disconcertingly arbitrary, while No Pussyfooting's full sides just keep on moving. Special award for the simulated scratch that decorates "An Index of Metals"--one of the most reassuringly fallible moments ever recorded. B+

Brian Eno: Discreet Music [Antilles, 1977]
That's discreet, not discrete--the title side comprises one quite minimal synthesizer piece more than thirty minutes long and the other three permutations of a schmaltzed-up Renaissance canon. Anybody who thought Another Green World sounded too much like radar blips or musical furniture should definitely avoid this. Me, I consider Another Green World miraculously lyrical and find that this encourages a meditative but secular mood (good for hard bits of writing) more effectively than any of the other rock-identified avant-garde music that's come our way. A-

Brian Eno: Before and After Science [Island, 1978]
To call this album disappointing is to complain that it isn't transcendent. In fact, my objections begin only when he makes transcendence his goal: I don't like the murkiness of the quiet, largely instrumental reflections that take over side two. Dirty sound is functional in loud music, but no matter how much of a "water album" this is, the airy specificity of the Another Green World mix might save music like "Through Hollow Lands" from the appearance of aimlessness. None of which diminishes side one's oblique, charming tour of the popular rhythms of the day, from Phil Collins's discoid-fusion drumming on "No One Receiving" to the dense, deadpan raveup of (find the anagram) "King's Lead Hat." A-

Brian Eno: Music for Films [Antilles, 1978]
Many of these eighteen cuts seem more like fragments than pieces, and although most of them provide subtle melodic or (especially) textural dynamics, the overall effect is a touch too willful in its impressionism for my tastes. Another Green World decelerating, which is a funny thing for movie music to do. Or maybe ECM with hindsight, a/k/a a tape splicer. B+

Brian Eno: Music for Airports [Ambient/PVC, 1979]
Although I'm no frequenter of airports, I've found that these four swatches of modestly "ambient" minimalism have real charms as general-purpose calmatives. But I must also report that they've fared unevenly against specific backgrounds: sex (neutral to arid), baseball (pleasant, otiose), dinner at my parents' (conversation piece), abstract writing (useful but less analgesic than Discreet Music or my David Behrman record). Also, I'm still waiting for "1/1" to resolve the "Three Blind Mice" theme. B

Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics [Editions EG, 1980]
For anybody but an expert (in what, though--anthropological minimalism?), preferences regarding, shall we say, ambient esoteric kitsch are pretty, shall we say, subjective. But I find this piece of cheese the most seductive (and best) thing Eno's put his name on since Another Green World. In addition to trumpeter, auteur, and ethnomusicological gadabout Hassell, the crucial voices belong to Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng, but the overall effect is Arab--heard casually at medium distance in Dakar, maybe. You could also call it head music. A

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [Sire, 1981]
Something fishy's going on when unassuming swell-heads like these dabblers start releasing their worktapes. As cluttered and undistinguished as the MOR fusion and prog-rock it brings to the mind's ear, this album has none of the songful sweep of Remain in Light or the austere weirdness of Jon Hassell, and the vocal overlays only intensify its feckless aura. C+

David Byrne: Songs From the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel" [Sire, 1981]
Byrne's take on the rhythms of Africa is even more perilous for imitators than Coltrane's on the mysteries of the Orient, but this surprisingly apt translation-to-disc of his Twyla Tharp score proves his patent is worth the plastic it's imprinted on. The magic's all in Byrne's synthesis of the way drums talk and the way Americans talk--middle Americans, not Afro-Americans. Beset by contingencies they can't make sense of, his protagonists twist from one side to the other, yet somehow emerge from the end of the tunnel with their wills intact. Must have to do with that unnatural rhythm. A-

Brian Eno: On Land [Editions EG, 1982]
In pulse, movement, and textural detail, this falls somewhere between the static Music for Airports (a bore) and the exotic Jon Hassell collaboration (a trip). Whenever I play it (usually late at night) I experience an undeniable pleasure so mild I'm not sure anyone would want to pay for it. Caveat emptor. B+

Brian Eno: Apollo: Atmospherics & Soundtracks [Editions EG, 1983]
Designed to help a moonshot documentary "present a set of moods," this is ambient Eno at its most accessible--often very pretty, and not without guitar. Still, I expect mood music to sustain a mood, and while as you might expect none of this is unlistenable, some of it is very nearly inaudible, which can be almost as annoying. Left to itself, "Drift" does just that, and "Stars" and "Under Stars" sound like sleep sequences. B

David Byrne: Music for The Knee Plays [ECM, 1985]
I didn't trust my instant attraction to these obviously derivative occasional pieces until I looked at the label and realized that five of the twelve originated with "Trad./Arr. by." There's no tune like an old tune, and if this music really was "inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band," then I think Byrne's fusion of New Orleans horn voicings with Soho-avant calm is more satisfying than theirs with bebop and funk. I also think his words do Robert Wilson proud and then some. A-

David Byrne: Songs From True Stories [Sire, 1986]
It isn't all as archly mawkish as the rearranged dreamsongs from his group's worst album. Pretentiously dinky is more the prevailing mood--a soundtrack only, like so many arty soundtracks before it. One where Byrne, Meredith Monk, the Kronos Quartet, and some locals who couldn't have known what they were getting into do for Texas what Byrne & Eno did for Africa. C+

Brian Eno: More Blank Than Frank [Editions EG, 1986]
With this forcebeat pioneer now ensconced as new age paterfamilias, his selection ("biased toward my taste") of "songs from the period 1973-1977" is rather more quiet than a rock-and-roller would hope. And the three Another Green World tracks stick out like paradoxes if you happen to be intimate with that complete work. But never think the man doesn't know how to put a record together. Except for the forebodingly atmospheric "Taking Tiger Mountain," these very individual songs stand up as units and unit--certainly a stronger unit than Before and After Science, former home of the forcebeat classic "King's Lead Hat." Young people who consider him a mood-music maestro might as well learn their lesson here. A-

David Byrne: Rei Momo [Luaka Bop/Sire, 1989]
Byrne respects and understands distance, an essential faculty in world-beat projects, and his increasingly sinuous singing should make this Latin synthesis a natural. The lyrics are explicitly social without sacrificing the nervous literacy of his established voice. He picks good musicians and provides proper arrangements. And the result is a respectful, highly intelligent dud. Irritating though the muscular masculinity of sonero tradition may be, any doubts as to why it's there are dispelled by Byrne's inability to wrap his weedy chops around salsa that's too tasteful by half. And I'm beginning to suspect he writes rock lyrics--words that can only impact loud, grating, and straight-ahead. C+

Eno/Cale: Wrong Way Up [Opal/Warner Bros., 1990]
After years of big-money production jobs and new age environments, we know Eno for a middlebrow dabbler--no longer can he dazzle us with unpretentious impassivity. And if his return to song form seems too easy, well, maybe it was. Nevertheless, this sea of permutation is the followup Another Green World deserved. He's been synthesizing rhythms so long he makes them sound organic--we get not only world-beat echoes but the soul shuffle his singing is now up to. As for the other guy, he hasn't sounded so sure of his ground since he played second fiddle to Lou Reed. A-

David Byrne: The Forest [Warner Bros./Sire/Luaka Bop, 1991] Dud

David Byrne: Uh-Oh [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud

Brian Eno: Nerve Net [Opal/Warner Bros., 1992] Dud

Brian Eno: Vocal [Virgin, 1993]
two discs of digitalizations to die for, one of songs on life support ("Seven Deadly Finns," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)") ***

David Byrne: David Byrne [Luaka Bop/Sire/Warner Bros., 1994]
over a gawky world-groove, basic singer-songwriter stuff--the biological mystery at the core of technological life ("Lillies of the Valley", "Buck Naked") **

Brian Eno: The Drop [Thirsty Ear, 1997]
Ever the bullshitter, the St. Petersburg (Russia) muso cites as influences Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Fela, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and as an admirer of all three I only wish I could hear the way musos hear. To me it sounds like he got stuck between Music for Airports and Wrong Way Up and spun his hard drive for 74 minutes. He hears melodies whose vagueness he extols, I hear vaguenesses whose attenuation I rue. He hears basslines, I hear tinkle. He hears "sourness," I hear more tinkle. C

David Byrne: Feelings [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1997] Dud

David Byrne: Look into the Eyeball [Virgin, 2001] Dud

David Byrne: Grown Backwards [Nonesuch, 2004]
The two opera selections signify one thing, and it's not that those voice lessons have finally paid off. It's that more even than Randy Newman or Tom Waits (or Sting), this likable Manhattan progressive conceives himself as a performer of artsongs. As a writer of same he has his moments. Somebody somewhere could do justice to the absurdly abject "Glad" or the smarmily rationalized "Empire" or "She Only Sleeps," the love tribute of a sex worker's boyfriend. Byrne cannot. His voice devoid of Newman-Waits grit, his eclecticism even and controlled where theirs bristles with jokes, oddity, and gusto, how does he expect to connect with anyone but other likable progressives, and rather detached and inscrutable ones at that? The guy's been championing the ordinary since More Songs About Buildings and Food. But he makes such a point of approaching it from the outside you have to wonder whether as far as he's concerned that isn't just more exoticism, which for him is the only thing that comes naturally. C+

Brian Eno: Another Day on Earth [Hannibal/Ryko, 2005] Dud

David Byrne & Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today [Todomundo, 2008] Dud