Drums Between the Bells
To casual music fans, Brian Eno is the go-to producer for rock bands looking to shake things up with a little ambience. He helped define U2's sweeping, anthemic sound in the 1980s. He added new dimensions to Coldplay's sonic sweep two decades later. When David Bowie discovered German electronic music in the late 1970s, he called upon Mr. Eno to shape those interests into something concrete, resulting in three of the Thin White Duke's best albums.
Left to his own devices, though, Mr. Eno is far more "out there" than those collaborations suggest. "Drums Between the Bells" finds him working with poet Rick Holland, who wrote the lyrics for this collection of left-field electronica, New Age soundscapes and oblique pop songs. A handful of vocalists are along for the ride, but they weren't chosen for their pipes - at least not in the usual way.
"Drums Between the Bells" is a musical vehicle for Mr. Holland's work, after all, and those picked to deliver his terse, clipped poetry do so by speaking the words, not singing them. These are vocalists who favor recitation over melody, who are just as likely to attend a poetry slam as a traditional concert. If the music weren't so contemporary, "Drums Between the Bells" would sound like something from the counterculture era, when Beat poetry was just as visceral as rock 'n' roll.
The album opens with jazzy percussion and looped synthesizer riffs, almost all of which is played (or programmed) by Mr. Eno himself. He delivers the words like a solemn benediction, though, articulating each syllable with a deep, booming monotone. It's this contrast - the push and pull between adventurous music and guarded, often downbeat delivery - that makes the album interesting.
Grazyna Goworek's voice is processed into a robotic drone for "Glitch," and Aylie Cooke's accented narration is strung across a ghostly landscape of drum machines, electronic hiccups and keyboards on "The Airman."
Not every track hits the mark, though. "Silence" is everything its title suggests - a minute's worth of soundlessness - and "The Real" lapses into the sort of background music that gets played in a massage studio, its gauzy washes of sound intended to sooth the mind to the point of numb relaxation.
If anyone deserves a chance to stretch his artistic legs, it's Mr. Eno. Without a rock band to pull him closer toward the mainstream, though, he wanders close to the edge of total eccentricity, lost in his own orbit as he flies loose patterns around pop, dance and electronica. Why dedicate an entire track to silence? That's nothing more than forced weirdness.
"Drums Between the Bells" has one foot in the coffeehouse and the other in the avant-garde. Its head is in the clouds, though, making this album a mixed bag of hits and duds.
Ryan Adams is the hot-headed stepchild of alt-country, as infamous for his erratic behavior as for his torrential output - the guy released 12 albums in the past decade, including three in 2005 alone. He's the sort of polarizing musician who inspires devotion in his followers and unmitigated hate in his critics. Even being his Facebook friend is an ordeal; he'll update his page with military regularity for a week, only to wipe his profile clean the next, offering no explanation for the sudden barrenness.
Unless you count "Orion" (a bizarre "sci-fi metal concept album") or "III/IV" (a collection of discarded songs from 2006), Mr. Adams hasn't released a new album since 2008. Luckily, that may be about to change.
Those who catch one of Mr. Adams' summer tour dates can pick up a 7-inch record featuring an acoustic cover of "Nutshell," previously recorded by Alice in Chains, as well as a new song. Both tunes are appetizers for what's to come.
Mr. Adams, who has been recording with legendary rock producer Glyn Johns since the early spring, is rumored to be releasing a full-length record later this year. Forget the Facebook updates, Ryan. We just want to hear more songs!
Old 97's return
With Ryan Adams still toiling away in the studio, alt-country fans can tide themselves over with "Grand Theater, Vol. 2," the new Old 97's release. The sequel to last year's "Grand Theater, Vol. 1," it continues the band's marriage of country-rock and jangly Brit pop, dreaming up a mythical place where Desolation Row runs straight into Carnaby Street.