Bang on a Can All-Stars
Music for Airports
When Brian Eno stuck the "ambient" tag on Music for Airports back in 1978, he unwittingly helped create new sonic ventures that would morph into new-age music, along with the chill-out/ambient/electronica extension that followed. The four untitled instrumental pieces that made up the record had an almost holographic quality: Listening for a minute or two revealed the essence of the whole. And the music lived up to its decidedly utilitarian approach. Several airports, including New York's LaGuardia, replaced the Muzak wafting through their terminals with Eno's functional atmospheres, which, he theorized, took travelers' minds off the inherent dangers of flight.
On the surface, Bang on a Can's revisit seems unnecessary. But as the liner notes to the latest Music for Airports points out, "Eno hadn't anticipated that a new generation of musicians would take his music out of the studio and perform it with live musicians." Indeed, the original Airports was an extension of Eno's fascination with systems music and cybernetics, and he built the record on overlapping tape loops that created harmonic and melodic relationships on an unplanned level. In this way, the music virtually composed itself with only minimal input from its creator, making for interactions between instruments and voices that occurred totally at random. Some of the groping descriptions that arose to characterize these early ambient efforts--like "the vertical color of sound"--seem particularly apt when listening to the pieces today.
Because of the stillness and simplicity of the music, which are often juxtaposed with moments of complete quiet, the album struck some observers as an exercise in boredom--an effect that Eno didn't intend. He said at the time that the music "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular." The ambiguity of the tracks, as well as their emotional aloofness, resulted from their lack of a specific key. The voids that pooled between each spare voice or synthesizer note became part of the substance of the music itself, like the use of eye-pleasing white space on a canvas. Though in later years Eno would extrapolate on his original intentions, thereby broadening the definitions of ambient music, Music for Airports remains a seminal achievement--and his best-selling instrumental work.
The members of Bang on a Can, a New York City classical ensemble with a taste for the avant-garde, tackle Eno's groundbreaking work with reverence and respect. "1/2" takes a disembodied, distantly female choir and overlays wordless vocals, creating grand sweeps of sound. Likewise, the group makes the most of Eno's coincidental cycles of time to create moments that are astonishingly rich and layered even when they're all but inaudible. The arrangers and musicians adhere very closely to Eno's original blueprints until "2/2," the album's final theme, where they engage in extended improvisation. The players deviate from the text by adding instruments (strings replace synth drones, for instance) and taking liberties with the song's length and structure. Even so, the sense of floating calm and what Eno termed "luscious silence" is left fully intact. If the revised effort manages to introduce new listeners from the classical realm to Eno's green world, it may help speed the inevitable elevation of his reputation. After all, he's not an eccentric non-musician but one of the century's most pioneering, most important serious composers.
The Murder City Devils
Empty Bottles Broken Hearts
The Murder City Crybabies is more like it. When this Seattle-based sextet released its self-titled debut on the Sub Pop subsidiary Die Young Stay Pretty a couple of years back, tastemakers up north couldn't contain themselves. "Here's the band that's going to save rock and roll!" they proudly proclaimed--and in their defense, at least part of the (ahem) hype was justified. The act did kick out some pretty good punk riffs, and its live shows were quite energetic; they were even known to torch a Farfisa from time to time. So, knowing a good thing when they saw it, the honchos at Sub Pop moved the Devils to the mother label, sent them out on the road with Pearl Jam for a spell, and subsequently locked them in the studio with producer/grunge icon Jack Endino. And what did they get for their trouble? An album that's arguably the most boring, self-involved chronicle about life on the road since Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." But whereas ol' Bobby knew to quit blubbering after one tune, these fragile little butterflies pile on the heartache, loneliness, exhaustion and remorse for forty agonizing minutes. "Drinking when I should be sleeping/Sleeping when I should be waking up," moans Devils vocalist Spencer Moody midway through "18 Wheels," one of Bottles' whinier tracks. The singer then lets fly this little jewel: "Everything is going good/The show was bad/But the drinks were free." By disc's end, we're left to wonder if our Sunday-school teachers weren't right when they told us that rock and roll was bad for us. Unfortunately, Sub Pop had to shell out half a million dollars or so to find out. Me? I'm going back to my old Monkees records.
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Ever wanted to hear Bennett duet with Kermit the Frog, Elmo and Rosie O'Donnell? Or sing along with the Kids America children's choir? Me either, but the consummate crooner does just that on his baffling new album, a collection of mostly upbeat kids' songs (e.g., "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "My Mom" and, yes, "Bein' Green," Kermit's Sesame Street hit from the Seventies). Deciding, I suppose, that the hipster bohos he added to his fan base after his 1995 MTV Unplugged appearance weren't quite young enough, Bennett is now aiming for the K-6 demographic. How else to explain the collaboration with Elmo on "Little Things"? Or the appearance of the nauseating O'Donnell on "Put on a Happy Face"? Or that damned children's choir?
The amazing thing (O'Donnell, Elmo and the choir notwithstanding) is that Bennett pulls off the album wonderfully--proving, if nothing else, that the man can sing anything and make it work. The warmth, intimacy and sincerity he's brought to the American songbook of romance for the last four decades comes through on songs both likely ("When You Wish Upon a Star," "[It's Only] a Paper Moon") and unlikely ("Because We're Kids," "The Inch Worm"). Of course, it helps that Ralph Sharon, Bennett's longtime pianist, is here, as is Gray Sargent, whose gentle solos wrap like smoke around the smoldering rhythm section of bassist Paul Langosch and drummer Clayton Cameron. And the way Bennett and Kermit tear into "Firefly," the band racing alongside them, makes it a glorious, hilarious gem, the highlight of what has to be the first children's album since Woody Guthrie's Songs to Grow On that parents will actually want to play.