By no means technically accomplished or perfect in the classical sense, Brian Eno and Colin Newman's singing have some things that are much more important when it comes to rock and roll: character and an endearing uniqueness. But you won't hear either of them crooning on their new solo albums, and it's not because they don't love the sounds of their own voices. They share the misguided notion that vocals are part of rock's dead past, while meandering electronic instrumentals are apparently the bright, bold future.
Too few rock innovators have resisted the lucrative lure of nostalgia in their careers, but Eno and Newman have always stood out by refusing to look back. After leaving Roxy Music in the early '70s, Eno broke new ground on four influential progressive rock albums complete with vocals: Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science. These were interspersed with instrumental discs that helped launch the ambient genre, and a long list of innovative productions for artists such as David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2.
Newman has been equally influential, recording three albums with Wire from 1977 to 1979 that can be heard as pointing the way from punk to new wave to the roots of what would become alternative. He nodded to Eno with his own ambient release (1981's provisionally entitled the singing fish) and recorded four strong, vocally oriented solo albums before joining a reactivated Wire in 1986. Alone among reunited peers such as Pere Ubu, Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols, Wire refused to play any of its old songs, recording and performing only new material until it once again disbanded in 1992.
At some point, Eno and Newman both started subscribing to the very '90s idea that everything that can be done with the conventional "rock" song -- i.e., one with vocals -- has been done. They came to view the sampling, sequencing and programming of electronic dance music as the new frontier, and interesting rhythms as much more important than involving vocal melodies. But there are problems with this view, and chief among them is the fact that neither artist is making new music as vital as his old stuff.
Eno told the BBC that The Drop is "what you might expect from sketchily describing modern jazz to a person who'd never heard it and who then forgot most of what you said and tried to play it anyway." He cited Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti (who died August 2 of complications from AIDS) and the '70s recordings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as his inspirations. Though he didn't mention it, it's also obvious he's been listening to a lot of drum and bass. But Eno's descriptions of his new sounds are much more interesting than the sounds themselves.
Despite fanciful titles such as "Boomcubist" and "Rayonism," the 13 tracks on The Drop are aimless, boring, synth-driven jams. They lack Fela's strong melodies and Mahavishnu's rhythmic drive, and they have neither the hypnotic qualities of Eno's best ambient music -- Thursday Afternoon and On Land -- nor the hookiness and emotional impact of Wrong Way Up, his 1990 collaboration with John Cale and the last album on which he sang.
Newman hasn't sung on a solo album since It Seems in 1988. That disc and its predecessor, 1986's Commercial Suicide, were ambitious efforts that mixed sequenced grooves, minimalist instrumental parts and distinctive vocal melodies paired with impressionistic lyrics. Newman knows that the last combination is what he's famous for, but, always eager to thwart expectations, he appears on the cover of Bastard giving us the finger, and the only voice we hear on any of the nine tracks is that of Malka Spigel, his wife and a former member of Minimal Compact, who sings on the closing "Turn."
Newman says he was inspired by the (his word) "postrock" bands on Chicago's Kranky and Thrill Jockey labels, in particular Tortoise. By this I assume he means he was prompted to include some heavily effected guitar -- an instrument he's mostly avoided in recent years -- in spacey ambient house instrumentals such as "Sticky" and "May." Overall, Bastard is a catchier and hence more engaging album than The Drop, but in both cases, listeners unfamiliar with Newman or Eno's old work will be able to name a dozen releases by newer artists that they prefer, while longtime fans are likely to say, "This stuff is okay, but I really wish he sang on this record."
I've interviewed Eno several times, and I maintain an e-mail friendship with Newman. I've thrown this criticism at both of them, and their response is that the people who expect them to sing are nostalgic for their old work and unjustly limiting where they might go in the future. But that's a cop-out: Both men are cult heroes precisely because they never accepted any limitations in the studio or in their music. They consistently stretched rock's boundaries by plowing through roadblocks with an open-minded attitude and tools such as Eno's famous "Oblique Strategies," a deck of cards offering wonderfully non-specific advice ("Honor thy error as a hidden intention" and "Ask people to work against their better judgment" are two of the most famous tips) that would be consulted whenever there was a creative dilemma.
Neither artist ever felt particularly constrained by the need for lyrics in his vocal music: Eno often sang nonsense syllables or turned to the word-generating techniques of Dadaist poets Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, while Newman took cues from Wire's main lyricist Graham Lewis and the Beats, free-associating or choosing words as much for the way they sound as for what they mean. Nor can you say that any instrument, including the human voice, is inherently retro; the only limitations are in the imagination of the user. The bigger challenge for Eno and Newman would have been to incorporate the instruments that made them famous in their attempt to craft nonlinear, open-ended dance music. Instead, they shut their mouths and took the easy way out. The Drop (**); Bastard (** 1/2)
-- Jim DeRogatis
It Had to Happen
In 1995, two songs came out that were sharp expressions of the burden that the freewheeling '60s left its children: the Charlie Sexton Sextet's "Plain Bad Luck and Innocent Mistakes" and James McMurtry's "Fuller Brush Man." And on It Had to Happen, a superb slice of American roots/bar-band storytelling, McMurtry continues to wrestle with the voice he found on "Fuller Brush Man" -- that of the first post-Woodstock (and post-Altamont) generation who grew up knowing just a little too much to believe in the lies of old poetry.
McMurtry is a songwriter's songwriter, unobtrusively literate yet still posessed of common experience, insightful without being pedantic and subtle without becoming precious. Rootless, uninspired, but still enduring, McMurtry's characters cycle between ennui and effort, nostalgia and nihilism. Who else could inhabit a song such as "Peter Pan," with a chorus of "I can't grow up / 'Cause I'm too old"? Throughout It Had to Happen, McMurtry explores his favorite themes -- people on the fringes ("Paris"), hauntings from the past ("12 O'Clock Whistle") and how they've affected the present and future ("60 Acres"). The existentialism of distance -- another favorite McMurtry theme -- comes around again on Happen's "For All I Know," when McMurtry meets an old object of desire. "Last time I saw you / It could've been Christmas Eve / It could've been someone's birthday / It could've been make believe," he sings to a friend who now exists completely out of context.
His matter-of-fact singing perfectly matches his wryly cynical lyrics, but McMurtry is more than a wrung-out hipster pissing on everybody else's parade. He presents his observations like Mark Twain, without sanctimony or judgment and with a thread of humor -- thin, perhaps, but never absent. It's a dry wit that lends itself to brilliantly succinct descriptions, such as when in "Peter Pan" he sets the stage for the eternal man/boy with "Beer cans to the ceiling / Ashtray on the floor / Laundry on the sofa / Need I say more?" Even though Pan seems mired in an eternal Never Never Land, he still dreams: "Let's go chase tornadoes / Just me and you / Don't often catch 'em / But man, when you do." He's like a kid who can't remember anything about his dad except the old man telling him to get back up on that horse. Despite a sometimes bleak and jaded eye, McMurtry finds such dreaming as inevitable as the title of his CD implies. (*** 1/2)
-- Matt Weitz
James McMurtry performs at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge Thursday, August 21.
Yeah, yeah, the singer, not the song, and all that -- I couldn't agree more. And there's no question that Lang has a set of pipes for the ages. Stand her on a street corner during a tornado warning and her lungs alone could save every trailer-court resident within ten miles. But since the folks at the Grammys validated her overtly "mature" work with a couple of statuettes a few years back, she simply hasn't been all that much fun to be around.
Not even this disc's playful concept -- a collection of tunes casually linked by a cigarette/smoking motif -- can shake the seriousness out of her. I'm all for radical revisions of familiar tunes, but I can't pretend that I've been waiting breathlessly for a sophisticated reading of Steve Miller's "The Joker," and I'm betting that not many others have been, either. And while the idea of Lang warbling "Theme from the Valley of the Dolls" is a delicious one, the execution reminded me of Maureen McGovern, a performer I was hoping would not cross my mind again until I was in the grave.
All in all, drag is a pleasant listen. There's nothing on it that will cause you to use your index fingers for earplugs, and Lang's cover of the David Wilcox ditty "My Old Addiction" is quite lovely. But the CD as a whole left me pining for the days when k.d. was still channeling Patsy Cline. (**)
-- Michael Roberts
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.