In certain circles, it remains sacreligious to criticise Brian Eno. No matter how many awful records he’s involved with, his reputation seems undiminished; never mind the music, we’re advised, feel the ideas.
The problem is, of course, that unless you’re a musician of exalted stature, to some degree bored with the process of making records, it’s hard to be privy to those ideas. Oblique strategies might be stimulating for Coldplay or U2 in the studio, but when the end product is so meticulously tailored to the mainstream, the quirks of its genesis are more or less undetectable. Even on Eno’s recent solo albums, it all seems blandly elitist; rather disdainful of the idea of finished music, and of the listeners who are meant to be impressed by it.
A few things this month, though, reminded me of Eno’s original genius. First, there were Adam Granduciel’s selections for My Life In Music (page 8 of the new Uncut), in which the War On Drugs’ canonical rock influences sat alongside Fripp & Eno’s “Evening Star” and a 2007 self-titled album by Blues Control, the low-key New York duo of Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho.
“I’d put Blues Control on late at night, maybe after Evening Star,” said Granduciel, an admirer and, perhaps, friend of Blues Control, since his sparring partner Kurt Vile contributed a few diffident bursts of trumpet to their “Local Flavor” (2009).
Both of these Blues Control albums are great, as it happens, but “Local Flavor” has, I think, the edge, with its pianos and squitting drum machines floating through fairly lo-fi synthscapes, and some disruptive guitar buried deep in the mix. One track, “Rest On Water”, is like “a needling reimagining of, maybe, an old Budd/Eno jam,” I wrote on my blog at the time. The blues, incidentally, are conspicuous by their absence.
Eno no longer appears to have much active interest in this sort of music, allowing the likes of Blues Control to follow through trajectories that he at least seems to have neglected for three decades. With no little serendipity, a new Blues Control album turned up this month, a collaborative jam with a spiritual maverick that Eno discovered busking, on his zither, in New York’s Washington Square.
“Frkwys Vol. 8: Blues Control & Laraaji” is the product of a day long session at the end of 2010, and acts as a neat sequel to both “Local Flavor” and “Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance”, Laraaji’s 1980 set with Eno. That latter record focused on the playing, at once contemplative and joyous, of Laraaji (born Edward Larry Gordon in 1943), who had dabbled in acting and stand-up comedy before various spiritual revelations led him to the sparkling consolations of the zither, and providing soundtracks for a generation of yogis, meditators and transcendence-seekers.
“Day Of Radiance” established a template for the emerging New Age scene, but Blues Control have instinctively grasped that Laraaji’s music is much more vibrant and exploratory than stereotypes of New Age might suggest. Over the 35 weightless minutes of “Somebody Screams”, with (I presume) Laraaji incanting in a voice pitched somewhere between Pandit Pran Nath and Richie Havens, the psychedelic grace and euphoria of the Blues Control/Laraaji album really hits home: a late personal favourite of 2011.
And, just plausibly, one that could still resonate with Eno. Today, I remembered the last time I’d heard a sound like Laraaji’s zither, albeit polished to nefarious ends. It was dancing serenely over tablas, in the intro to Coldplay’s “Life In Technicolor II”.