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I hope I don't regret this later, but I'm pretty sure it's a safe bet to say Moby's Play wouldn't make a very interesting album to read about. Play won the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics Poll in 1999, earned universal acclaim and sold over 10 million copies worldwide, and was made entirely in the artist's Manhattan loft, by himself, in a closet space filled with keyboards and sequencers. It's difficult but not impossible to imagine the author squeezing out an interesting 120 pages about that album. Maybe a good 60 or so about the rise of electronic music in the late 90s and Play's impact on the world for techno, the social stuff. Maybe another 20 on its licensing blitzkrieg (every song was licensed for commercial use, including several more than once). And maybe another ten pages devoted to Moby's café venture TeaNY.
The implicit promise of Continuum's 33 1/3 series is that each book focuses on an album that is not only great or significant, but also one worth reading about. And as Play exemplifies, one does not always beget the other. Brian Eno's Another Green World is one of the true originals, a work in a class of its own: it introduced synthesizers, drum machines and all sorts of unconventionally treated instruments to the medium, carving out the space between pop music and experimental texture that Radiohead, TV on the Radio and countless other much-beloved contemporaries currently occupy. It balanced eight instrumental pieces with five sung ones, a few with verses and choruses and many without. It featured members of the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and King Crimson on the same record as Phil Collins. It looks incredibly pretentious on paper. And it didn't suck-in fact, it's one of this art-rock skeptic's favorite albums of all time.
But despite Geeta Dayal's frustrated-sounding efforts to wring an interesting story from Another Green World (a long introduction explains how she learns the album backwards and forwards, artificially slowed down and sped up to catch every detail), her book strains to justify its own existence. It's incredibly padded (the album itself isn't even discussed until chapter six) and Eno's 1975 follow-up Discreet Music shares almost as much billing. As inventive as Eno's attempt to fuse his fascination with cybernetics with improvised session jams first seems, the book quickly grows repetitive.
Was it bold to book a studio at the time without any material written beforehand, or to take inspiration from Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music," in which he swung microphones suspended from the ceiling to create phasing feedback? Conceivably, but with the chance to interview Robert Fripp and other musicians who were there at the time, no one talks about these experiments' direct effect on the end result. Did any of the songs from Another Green World include phasing feedback? They don't remember. At one point Dayal notes that Eno barely recalls how he made his first two solo records. But he's only slightly more enlightening about World: he remembers putting the band through its paces and the "what if" experiments and feeding them cake. Occasionally there's a social insight, like Eno's request that Fripp's guitar solo on "St. Elmo's Fire" resemble a Winhurst electrostatic generator. But more often we get the sense that we're reading about Eno's descent into visionary trial and error--great attitude, lousy read. Where is the insight into how he filters one experiment from another? Or songwriting for that matter? (He does make clear that lyrics didn't mean much to him at the time). And worse yet, this approach may explain why he hasn't graced the heights of Another Green World or his 1970s output since: 1980's excellent and incredibly difficult Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics is generally understood to be co-billed trumpeter Jon Hassell's brainchild, and John Cale reigned him in for 1990's squelchy Wrong Way Up.
On his own, Eno has always relied on his open-minded, easily-fascinated, alternately detail-obsessed and detail-avoiding nature. But then he's also always relied on his Oblique Strategies card deck, instructions from which title each chapter here (and Dayal utilized the deck herself to help conceive the book). And Oblique Strategies are indeed what the book consists of: unknown connectors from point A to B that ultimately, by some incredible act of focus, resulted in an amazing and otherworldly record. That Dayal admirably tries to make something of the unknown unfortunately has little effect on the story of this album being like rummaging through a box of unmarked tapes, only to be returned to the attic after forming few conclusions. SEE ALSO: www.brianeno.com
SEE ALSO: www.theoriginalsoundtrack.com
SEE ALSO: www.33third.blogspot.com
SEE ALSO: www.continuumbooks.com
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.
See other articles by Dan Weiss.
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