Lookin' for Eno in Some of the Wrong Places
I wanted to really love this record, and I’ve tried, but I only love two-thirds of it: specifically, the two-thirds that conform to two of the three significant periods of Brian Eno’s career. Sadly, they’ve left out the first phase of Eno, and that’s where the whole thing breaks down.
Let me explain. I’m no Eno groupie, by any means, and it’s not like a group has to pass Eno-muster with me to get by. It’s pretty clear that the man has carved out a wide swath, and much of modern music in one form or another owes a huge debt to Eno. From his early years as a mad pop scientist messing up Roxy Music’s faux-romantica with his tape loops and weirdo synths, through his solo work as the maker of twisted technopop music and the inventor of ambient music in a rock context, all the way to his role as randomist guru and über-producer for everyone from Devo and Talking Heads to U2, no one shaped the sound of the airwaves more, in more contexts, than Eno.
But there has been plenty of great stuff that hasn’t been all that influenced by Eno. So why am I getting all obsessed with him here? Well, because Tosca brings it on themselves. This two-man electronic music duo, which consists of Richard Dorfmeister (of Kruder and Dorfmeister, as well as many other remixing and side-projects) and Rupert Huber, seems all too aware of the influence of their idol, and this two-disc set seems pretty specifically to cast a “resurrection” spell for at least two of the significant periods of Eno’s music.
Let’s start with the second disc first, because then the review will flow much better. This strange thing is based on Huber’s solo work “12 Easy to Play Piano Pieces”, which have then been given a dub going-over by Dorfmeister. This 46-minute LP is furiously successful for many reasons. For one thing, it’s beautiful; Huber’s piano work is haunting and elegant and simplistic—it’s pretty clear that any of us could play these pieces—and modern and ancient-sounding at the same time.
But they reach a new level of genius with Dorfmeister’s production work, which takes elements of (the heretofore undiscussed) Disc One and layers them into and over and under Huber’s piano. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never heard dub neo-classical music before, or maybe it’s the skill with which this all is done, but it sure sounds innovative to me here in the kitchen on Sunday morning, a perfect chill-out ambient album.
This is where Tosca seizes the mantle of Brian Eno’s ambient theories and runs with them. The pieces themselves are not necessarily distinguishable from each other—the difference between “einschlaf” and “slow hell” don’t become apparent until the tenth or so listen—but that’s part of the point. Some of them are spacey/slight and kind of fade into the background—but that’s part of the point, too. Dorfmeister actually cheats a little by making sure that the pieces gain 1000% more texture when you listen on headphones (little screams and whispers here and there, echoes trading speakers), but it’s all good.
On to the first disc, which is where the problems (such as they are) lie. This record, which contains ten tracks of dance-pop, is very much in the hip pocket of Eno’s latest and most unfairly maligned period, that of internationally savvy techno-dance maven. I loved Nerve Net when it came out, and couldn’t believe how many people lined up to call that album and subsequent ones like The Drop boring. Personally, those grooves get to me on a deep level.
They must have gotten to Tosca, too, because at least three of the songs here are direct copies of that sound and aesthetic. “Mango di Bango”, with its funky bass and softly layered additions of keyboards and scratch guitars and strange sounds, is a Xerox of “Ali Click” (except without the EMF sample). Similarly, “Rolf Royce” manages to pull off the same sound, now with strange vocal performance by Stephan “Graf Hadik” Wildner that manages to copy all those weird vocal contributions by Eno, combined with a Tangerine Dream/Bob James electro-fusion bump to it.
The record opens with a great pair of linked tunes, both voiced by Anna Clementi. “Oscar”, a smooth down tempo loungefunk track, pits Clementi’s “da da” scat samples against chopped-up and dubby samples of her own voice, over ringing piano and sambaesque percussion and bounding basslines. The next track, “Me & Yoko Ono”, takes one vocal line by Clementi (“Standing on the corner / Just me and Yoko Ono / We were waiting for Jerry to land”) and sets it to a spare martial tattoo and slap bass, augmenting it only slightly with echoey electric piano and guitar tones. This song is so undeniably funky that my son (who’s four and a half years old) memorized the beat after hearing it once and remembered it for two weeks until I played it again: “Dad, this is Tosca! I love this song!”
But then we run into “Gute Laune”, and the major problem I have with Delhi9‘s first disc. It’s a great fun dance song built around Tweed’s mysterious vocals (“If I run / Then they run / They might chase me”) and a perfect finger-snap effect, but it doesn’t really go anywhere after the first minute or so. The same can be said of too many tracks here; “Wonderful” is ace for a couple three minutes, all conga and sexy groove and suggestive whispers and funny jaw-harp sample (and Earl Zinger’s vocal melody, stolen blatantly from ABC’s “If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely” off Beauty Stab), but that’s really it. “Sperl” goes the ambient-funk route, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done by any of the ambient-funk groups out there, of which there are many, many, many. Even the spooky noir closing track, “La Vendeuse des Chausseres des Flemmes Part 1”, fails to justify itself beyond a basic atmosphere.
And here’s where I have my big problem with Disc One: Dorfmeister and Huber act like the first Brian Eno, the pop prankster, the man who made songs in which anything could happen and often did, never existed. No one’s going to pop up playing typewriter percussion on any of these pieces; there’s never going to be any surprising Robert Fripp guitar solo or ridiculous lyrics about fat ladies who work as chemical tasters for MI-6; there’s no wow, there’s no wonder, there’s no “what the hell is that all about?” here at all. Which is just wrong.
Like I said so long ago, I wanted to love this record, and there’s plenty of reasons to do so. But for me, worship of ambient Eno and dance-pop Eno isn’t enough without worship of anarchist Eno. I’ll keep it around, though, mostly for Disc Two and for the sheer thrill of hearing my son rap about Yoko Ono. That stuff freaks the pre-school teachers out.