'A Google search for "Small Craft on a Milk Sea", the title of Brian Eno's new album, turns up several sites focused on the record's next-level packaging. As phrases like "signed and numbered," "copper plate," and "lithographic" gave way to descriptors like "birch paper-covered slipcase," "crimson stock," and "foil blocked credit sheet," my first thought was whether the relentless fetishization of the physical product does the content within any favors.
My second thought was, of course it's going to be lavish. This is, after all, Brian Eno and Warp, two institutions of electronic music, braininess, and design, coming together for their first-ever co-release. The union is so forehead-slappingly perfect that one wonders how the two have managed to co-exist independently for so long. But if lavish is the language here, it's for more than celebratory reasons. Constructed partly out of rejects from Eno's soundtrack work for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones and partly from original studio sessions held in 2009 and 2010, Small Craft on a Milk Sea is being pitched as a loose homage to the very concept of soundtrack music.
This concept is not a new one, not even for Eno, whose 1978 album Music for Films and its 1983 sequel were borne from identical insight. If not for the sheer amount of time that's passed, or his new collaborators-- electronic music composer Jon Hopkins and guitarist Leo Abrahams-- he might easily have christened this Music for Films 4. And the truth is that, although much has been made of the trio's working process and how it relied equally on improvization and computer editing, Small Craft on a Milk Sea sits surprisingly comfortably alongside the records from Eno's ambient and experimental golden era. Others might argue that fit is a little too comfortable.
With few exceptions, Small Craft on a Milk Sea's 15 songs fall roughly into one of two categories: 'ambient' and 'active.' The former contains some predictably transcendent moments, such as the gently climbing opener "Emerald and Lime" and its later-appearing sister "Emerald and Stone", both of which conjure up the sort of meandering, piano-led beauty that Angelo Badalamenti specializes in. Elsewhere, another twin set, "Complex Heaven" and "Lesser Heaven", offer barely moving soundscapes that are respectively foreboding and serene, and "Calcium Needles" invokes an ambient frost that's as chilly as Biosphere's most glacial work.
The 'active' category yields mixed results, occasionally sounding overindulged or dated. "Horse" is a hyperactive mix of mewling guitars and shuddering snares, while "Paleosonic" and "Dust Shuffle" go down as aimless proto-industrial electronica. "2 Forms of Anger" fares far better, sounding like a fractured triangulation of Skinny Puppy, Joy Division, and Tin Machine (that's a good thing, right?), while "Bone Jump"'s dorky arpeggios and haunted house synths mostly just manage to charm.
As Small Craft on a Milk Sea oscillates between these familiar poles of serenity and disarray, it becomes evident that the Warp connection isn't indicative of any drastic modernization of Eno's sound. And yet, in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this week, Eno spoke about how some of these tracks began with conceptual briefs in which he instructed his collaborators to replicate popular music from the near future. If that's the case, perhaps Eno's version of the future isn't forged by sonic innovation but rather by recombinence and fashion's unpredictable finger. Given enough time, the fresh will be re-born as stale, the wonky will become cool, the cliché will become transcendent, and the freak will become a salaryman. When taken as little slivers of a larger poem, Small Craft on a Milk Sea's song titles present the listener with a notion of the past, present, and future existing as one holistic entity. With Brian Eno, you have a man who sounds uncompromisingly like all three.'
Written byMark Pytlik @ www.pitchfork.com
Brian Eno - Small Craft on a Milk Sea (2010) [Limited Edition Box Set]