Brian Eno
Small Craft on a Milk Sea

As probably cannot be overstated, Brian Eno has long been a musical pioneer, pushing pop music into new realms as a performing artist and as producer. While his work as a member of Roxy Music and, with Talking Heads, David Bowie and U2, as a producer has been remarkable, it has always been the albums done under his own name that have been the most revolutionary. He pretty much coined the term and invented the idea of ambient music with albums like Music for Films and Music for Airports, while his collaborations with David Byrne, Robert Fripp and John Cale have combined the avant garde with world music and rock in constantly innovative ways.

It’s been five years since Eno’s last solo record, 2005’s Another Day on Earth, a conventional album by Eno standards, if such a term can be used to describe the man. His new release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, on the other hand, ventures further into the sonic abyss of his ambient work. Working again with guitarist Leo Abrahams, with whom he has been playing since 2001’s Drawn from Life, and Jon Hopkins, Abrahams’ longtime collaborator, Eno relied on improvisation to create the record, albeit editing heavily after the fact. The approach is far more structured than what one might expect and less, well, ambient. Indeed, compared to the Music for Films volumes and Airports, Small Craft has a more forceful thrust. Instead of those records’ soft-hued permutations, heavy mechanized drums permeate “Flint March” and a loud rush of electric guitar runs through “2 Forms of Anger.” The record is more abstract elsewhere, but even when the sounds blur, they are pronounced due to sheer volume and texture.

It seems too easy to call Small Craft the culmination of all that Eno has done before. And while that is perhaps the truth (one can hear elements of everything from Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy to the aforementioned ambient works to his music with Harmonia), it’s probably more accurate to think of this as another milestone in his long lineage of forward-thinking music.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Elvis Costello
National Ransom

With a career like Elvis Costello has had (33 years and counting), another new album is usually saddled with the, “it’s his best since...” tag, and this one’s no different. But unlike uneven old heroes like Bob Dylan and Paul Westerberg, Costello rarely lays a clunker or disappears for long stretches. In fact, he’s been on a bit of a roll since 2008’s Momofuku, especially considering that in between he’s concocted a couple of seasons of his fine talk show too.

National Ransom starts with, well, “National Ransom,” a melange of new wave fuzztone, a garage riff, splashes of slide, wicked little solos—all manner of rock guitar rollicking, like the first five Elvis guitar sounds leapfrogging over each other during one tune. It’s probably this song in particular that’s given the record a little buzz from old fans, though it’s not as catchy as it might seem at first. That’s the kind of trickery that can happen in a Costello tune. It’s also a bit of a tease.

The next few songs soon simmer down to Costello’s classic neo-torch stylings, with “Slow Drag with Josephine” being a highlight for the restrained instrumentation (whistling even!). The echoey guitar tones of “Five Small Words” lilt out like the pinkest hues in the sunset sky right after that last bit of the sun drops. Really, it’s got that kind of effect, especially for one of the more uptempo tunes on the record. Talk of cowards and deception and those guitar lines have nearly as much melancholy as pep. “I Lost You” and “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving” are the now standard, twangy, dance hall country sliders.

Meanwhile, Costello’s vox is still impressively bendable. “You Hung the Moon” is like late-50s Sinatra, the bespectacled one going low timbre for most of it to almost tribute effect. The rote ’80s Costello pop of “The Spell That You Cast” is a little filler, and “All These Strangers” could’ve been left to a B-side. But contrast those with “One Bell Ringing,” an amazing, moody, atmospheric acoustic number, featuring faint horn flecks and full of dark, after-hours, empty-stage imagery.

So all-in-all, another fine example (when we keep expecting retirement) of Elvis Costello’s ability to effortlessly arrange songs of myriad genre-root into tasteful tunesmithery like you and I boil pasta.
Eric Davidson

Various Artists
Blow Your Head Volume 1: Diplo Presents Dubstep
Mad Decent

This is the first time in recent memory that Diplo (and Mad Decent, for that matter) released a record, which, in the hyper-connected blogosphere, did not appear to be a prescient mix of future sounds. Coming from the guy who introduced the world to MIA, Baile Funk and Major Lazer, a primer of Dubstep seems a reiteration of ideas we already know about. Dubstep, a de-evolution of British garage, funky and hard house into stylized sub-bass caverns, is currently Top 40 in the UK, and the genre’s presence in the underworld that birthed it has split into more grotesque and innovative strains. It’s a scene that spread so fast and in so many directions that an adequate primer is impossible to wrangle. So if anything, despite the misleading title, Diplo’s representation, essentially a mix of his favorites, is as “now” as these mixes come in a post–Mary Ann Hobbes universe.

Diplo can sniff out both the hits—London’s Rusko contributes a Berlin-esque “Hold On” with Dirty Projectors Amber Coffmanm, while Jessica Mauboy’s “Burn” is straight off a roller rink in Blade Runner—and can identify the incredibly abstract bastards of dubstep, like Israel’s Borgore or the minimal melodic wash of Brackle’s low-key “Glazed.” As a mix, it doesn’t try to be all encompassing as much as it simply attempts to keep a flow, absorbing everything from the purple funk of Joker & Ginz to the sterilized Europa static of James Blake into it. Many bases are covered on the record, and the only misstep is when Lil’ Jon joins forces with Diplo on “You Don’t Like Me.” While the fireworks of Diplo’s gravity-altering beat matches the genetics of dubstep, Jon’s growl is irritating in his attempt to top it. He’s not the star here. It’s obviously the ratty bunch of heads across the sea just waiting to invade a Rihanna track.
Kevin J. Elliott

You Need This Music
Raw Koncept

Hip-hop has a unique take on the idea of the producer. It’s one of the few genres where the person twisting the knobs is as important as the performer. That has resulted in constant self-promotion and the rise of the superstar producer. It’s hard to think of a producer who hasn’t indulged in at least some antics. Yet that hasn’t been the case with Nottz. In the game since 1998 he’s managed some big radio hits (the biggest being Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier”) and worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. But unless you’re a person who reads liner notes, his name isn’t ringing any bells. He hopes to change that with You Need This Music, his solo debut as an artist.

Nottz has bounced between underground rappers and major label favorites, and that diversity is reflected in the guests on the album. While having cameos on a hip-hop album is as surprising as kids with sugar hangovers the day after Halloween, the variety of guests on You Need This Music does raise an eyebrow. Like Nottz’s career, it’s a mix of the established (Blink-182’s Travis Barker and Snoop Dogg, for example) and the below the radar (Joel Ortiz and Bilal). What’s surprising is that the guests don’t dominate the tracks. The main course is Nottz with the guests as sides.

Sonically You Need This Music has a split personality. There are songs that are so throwback—complete with scratched choruses and random samples—that they seem like lost tunes from the mid-90s. Elsewhere, others sound 2011 radio-ready, but the one constant is that the production shifts seamlessly to reflect the song. There’s a musicality, as opposed to a collection of loops. Nottz also seems split between bragging and storytelling. While he’s more animated when declaring his greatness behind the boards, his songs are better when he’s spinning yarns.

There are a few missteps. There’s really no call for the outro of “A Dream Come True” to be three minutes and 33 seconds of a dead-star role call, especially because the other three additional minutes are essentially the same thing. And Nottz wastes some great beats as transitions. Overall, you may not actually need this music, but you’ll be more than satisfied that you got it.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Blast That”

Pop. 1280
The Grid ep
Sacred Bones

New York’s Pop. 1280 comes off like a band that could have only sprung from the bowels of the big city. On their new EP, The Grid, the four-piece mixes all manner of noise machines into their steely din, effectually translating the barrage of sound pollution that is unavoidable in the five boroughs to tape. Lead-off track, “Step Into the Grid,” which starts with some lines about a guy jerking it on a bridge, juxtaposes Star Wars synths against a fuzzy guitar backdrop. In this way, the group splits the difference between Wax Trax and AmRep. That’s most apparent on “Data Dump,” where alien screeches and metronomic drums do battle amidst lines comparing the city to a cockroach. The approach might be ineffectual if there wasn’t some real dirt amongst these grooves. As it is, there’s something heathen about songs like “Anonymous Blonde” and “Trash Cop,” a Spillane-like voice in the lyrical content. The Grid is hardboiled and sinuous, the kind of record that takes a little adjustment to dig. But there’s plenty to like, just as there’s plenty to be found appealing amongst the oily streets of the city that bore it.
Stephen Slaybaugh