Podcast Pick: Brian Eno

Here’s another in the occasional series of podcasts I’d like to remember having listened to: Brian Eno as guest DJ at NPR’s All Songs Considered. These guest DJ podcasts can be a bit hit-or-miss for me, in that they can often function as proof positive that some musicians are far better at making interesting music than interesting conversation. Brian Eno, however, has that rare quality of being able to give a thoughtful and distinctive answer to a question without rambling, trying to impress, or being boring.

You have to listen to the podcast to fully appreciate the following Interesting Things Said By Brian Eno in the context of the conversation, but I’m just writing them down here for my own recollection of the bits I enjoyed:

  • He grew up in Suffolk listening to the doo-wop, southern gospel and R&B which was popular in local coffee bars serving the two large American airbases nearby, and didn’t realize until years later that everyone who’d made his favourite music was black.

  • In response to host Bob Boilen’s observation (probably articulating what every podcast listener was also thinking) that doo-wop, southern gospel and R&B more or less sound like polar opposites of Brian Eno’s own work: “What you choose to do isn’t necessarily the same as what energizes you in the first place – you do what you can.”

  • He is a member of an amateur a capella group formed on the firm promise that they will never record and they will never perform.

  • Describing his voice as sounding like “a pencil” as opposed to a “brush full of wonderful colour”.

  • His daughter introduced Portishead’s The Rip to him, first playing it while they were in her car. He insisted they just keep driving around so he could listen to it again and again.[1. Michelle’s Made-Up Rule For Life: any time The Rip is brought up, the Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood cover must be linked to.]

Odd Musical Pairings (Podcast and Picks)

A while back I highlighted some podcasts I’d quite enjoyed, and I’d like to continue that because it helps me keep track of them too. So here’s NPR All Songs Considered’s Odd Musical Pairings podcast, which I liked because I’ve always had an interest in musical collaborations, and why some work while others don’t.

Most of what they featured was already known to me, but The Face Of Love (Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan!) was a much-welcome discovery. They followed this up with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash doing Girl From The North Country, making for a one-two punch of awesomeness which made me hate myself for not having listened to Nashville Skyline in about nine years.

As for the collaborations that didn’t work, it’s a pity the podcast page already tells you the full playlist, because knowing what’s coming somewhat spoils the unfolding tragedy of Bono’s verses in his I’ve Got You Under My Skin duet with Sinatra. Still, if you’re the sort that enjoys watching horror movies with unlikable characters in them just so that you can savour watching them die, check that massacre out.

I tried to come up with picks of my own to make this post less parasitic, but found it harder than expected. I have one clunker which everyone else seems to love, and some favourites which aren’t really that “odd” once you go a little past the initial incongruity of the pairing. But what the hell, I’ll list them anyway.

Let’s get the clunker out of the way first. I know the Alison Krauss and Robert Plant album got shitloads of acclaim but I found it very lacklustre. There are a few pretty songs (I like Your Long Journey), and kudos to Robert Plant for not being all Led Zeppy, but when you pair a leading light of bluegrass with an icon of blues-rock, you do expect to hear a bit of both in the end result. Instead, Alison Krauss sounds beautiful as usual but the songs she’s singing lack the verve and personality of her work with Union Station, and Robert Plant just sounds like a good backup singer. I could play the particular examples I’m thinking of, I suppose, but life is too short to listen to boring music. So here’s one of the better results of the collaboration: Gone Gone Gone.

And now for some favourites:

Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield: What Have I Done To Deserve This – Dusting off (sorry!) retro divas for modern collaborations has been done before (cf. Take That featuring Lulu on Relight My Fire, KLF featuring Tammy Wynette on Justified And Ancient) but I like this one best, for the inimitable elegance of the song and how Dusty blends in so perfectly without any of the vocal scenery-chewing that tends to result in these situations.

Loretta Lynn and Jack White: Portland, Oregon – Only odd if you don’t already know about Jack White’s passion for American roots music. He’d been persona non grata in my iPod for a while because of how violently I dislike Seven Nation Army, but his contributions to the Cold Mountain soundtrack and the amazing production he did for Loretta Lynn’s majestic Van Lear Rose album soon got him back in there again. This ode to the joys of a sloe gin fizz-fuelled hookup is an inspired match – both are in fine voice, his ebullient guitar work underlines the chutzpah of her singing, and I adore the chemistry they have in the video.

Mariah Carey with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: Breakdown – Such collaborations are routine in the late 2000s pop landscape, but were nowhere as common when this came out in 1998. I recall Mariah being one of the first big stars to start the trend, and this is one of the best of those pioneering efforts. Bone Thugs’ distinctive sound makes this more memorable to me than many of the other pop/R&B tracks that have been done since, and I especially like how Mariah’s own phrasing seems to echo theirs.

Hercules and Love Affair with Antony Hegarty: Blind – This wasn’t a pairing I expected to like, since I’m not a great appreciator of disco revivalism or Antony Hegarty’s singing style. But once taken out of the dreary atmosphere of I Am A Bird Now (sorry, it’s the only Antony and the Johnsons album I’ve listened to and I was bored stiff) and recontextualised in the upbeat, infectious melody lines of Blind, Antony sounds robust and vital rather than precious. I still remember the first time I heard this – one of the other girl DJs played it at Hacienda the same night I popped my DJ cherry, and I immediately realized that every single song I’d lovingly picked out and sequenced for my set had just been effortlessly eclipsed.

Podcast Picks

Due to being old and busy and spending more of my home computer time processing photos these days than reading music reviews, I listen to things like NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast on my commute as a way of keeping up with new releases. A lot of the music they feature isn’t really to my taste, probably because I’m just not keen on the music taking the indie masses by storm these days – case in point: Bon Iver, plus my appetite for Animal Collective got satisfied several years ago and I’ve realized I just don’t like them enough to want to listen to each new album and nauseatingly named side project – and there’s nowhere enough hip-hop, dance or electronica either. Still, every now and then there’s an episode I really enjoy and keep on my iPod for repeat listens. I thought I’d share two of my favourites here for anyone who’s getting sick of looking at photos of Phuket.

Thom Yorke’s guest DJ spot was a cool peek inside the music brain of a guy who, apart from making some of the best music of the last fifteen years, also has great taste. You can see his list of picks at the link, but it’s more fun to hear him ramble about them, including having to scan through albums on air while trying to pick the tracks he wants to feature, because he can’t remember tracks based on their names or numbers. I’m just like Thom Yorke! Who knew? I didn’t discover any music from this podcast that I didn’t already love, but his choices totally affirmed the impeccability of my own taste, which is even better. [1. Sorry, I just realized I forgot to mention the Madvillain track as the exception. But since I am still probably the only person in the world who doesn’t like Madvillain, chances are he still has impeccable taste and I am just wrong.]

More recently, they did a round table discussion on the topic “Do Record Labels Matter?” It’s basically some music nerds chatting about this and picking songs to play which give a good flavour, as far as that’s possible, of some of the more celebrated indie labels around. I enjoyed it because I’m now squarely in that group of people who are old enough to remember a time when BigO magazine and Chua Joo Huat music store were the only way for me to discover and obtain access to the music I was interested in. And without the great breadth of music guides and reviews that are now available on the Internet, I would often pluck an album out of the badly lit Chua Joo Huat shelves and listen to it entirely on the basis that the artist was from the same label – usually Sub Pop or Matador, since albums from the smaller indie labels probably didn’t even get distributed in Singapore back then – as another artist I already liked.

Apart from the topic being right up my alley, I particularly enjoyed the music selections. Again, they’re listed at the link up there and you can dip into to them individually if you want to skip the podcast. I liked all of them except for Don’t You Worry (Jim Noir on Barsuk, not surprising because I’m really not into most stuff on that label) and Tournament Of Hearts (The Weakerthans on Anti – well, that label’s roster of artists are simply too diverse to be lumped together in any meaningful way, but personally I would have gone with something by The Field to give a change in sound from the rest of the songs played in the podcast). They don’t manage to get through every significant label in the space of the show, obviously. They mention Dischord themselves as a big omission, and Warp and Rough Trade occur to me immediately as other pretty important labels that weren’t featured, but all in all it was a nice nerdy walk down lanes I haven’t spent enough time in lately.