Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Brian Eno/David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts:8.5

Tape loops are funkier than laptops, and the modern ear is so aware of the digital "noodging" of a sample to a beat that the refreshingly knocked-together arrangements of Bush of Ghosts are a vast improvement.

I suppose that it's not easy to review a classic — especially an album that's already been listed as one of the top 100 of its decade.. Chris Dahlen, one of PFM's better eggs, does a decent job. The instrumental parts of the album are the strongest. The samples aren't particularly diverse - three of them come from the same album of world music. The songs only feature one or two sources per track. Compared to records by artists like The Avalanches, Four Tet or Dead Science the sampling is pretty elementary. Any music listener should be a little cautious when someone tells them a record is a classic and Dahlen approaches the record with appropriate skepticism.

However, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is an album of samples before digital samplers had been invented. Fairlight had a very expensive digital synthesizer as these sessions were being recorded, but it wasn't used by Eno and Byrne at that point. Synclavier wouldn't release their digital audio workstation for another year (though you can now buy a PCI emulation card of this classic synth for a couple of hundred bucks). That year, the first IBM PC only shipped a few weeks before recording started - its standard memory of 16 kilobytes wouldn't have been enough to store this web page. Even DJing was a young science. Grandmaster Flash was still the preeminent rap artist. De La Soul, Eric B and Terminator X wouldn't revolutionize sampling and DJing for another half decade. The highest technology instrument on the record was a set of Linn drums loaned to Eno to try out. All of the other sounds on the record are analog instruments - treated, edited and mixed to create the music on the record. In short, Eno and Byrne were making a unique type of music before most of the instruments for that music even existed.

So, is My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts an essential record? Well, for Eno and Talking Heads fans, it certainly is. If you wanted to make a list of 100 of the best records of the 1980s, this Cd would have its place. Musically, this record isn't an eighties record as much as it's a culmination of various seventies influences; progressive rock, punk, funk, new wave and no wave all leave a mark on Bush Of Ghosts. The first track with Bill Laswell and David Van Teigham is heavily influenced by Material. The other tracks mark a kind of transition between the two decades.

For electronic music afficianados, it's as essential as most of Kraftwerk's records. It's also different from many of its predecessors in its musicality. Earlier electronic music was very much about deliberately sounding inorganic. The tracks on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts were created to be organic, to sound like a full band with vocals. The samples aren't just interjections, they're parts of the music, dressed with instrumental flourishes and changing alongside the music. In short, Eno and Byrne figured how to take a relatively inorganic process and create highly organic sounding music. It's a feat that's been repeated many times since My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; however, the record provides a benchmark of how an artist can take sounds and blend them into something new. Frankly, if you can't do as good or better with the technology around today, then software development isn't a bad line of work instead.

Now, if you already have My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, I can't recommend the bonus tracks, unless you're a fanatic. The one track with a vocal sample (Defiant) is relatively interesting. The last strummed guitar track gives you an idea of how Eno and Byrne came up with their sounds. However, there is nothing essential in any of the tracks. Sadly, this appending of bonus tracks has become a very common practice. I would like the tracks to be on a separate disc, to at least partially preserve the continuity of the LP. However, I found myself stopping once I got to Mountain Of Needles.

Now, if you don't already have a copy of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, I recommend it. The rating from PFM is okay - maybe I'd bump this up to a 9.0 given the record's place in history, and shave back a half point for the bonus tracks. If you live near a good used CD seller, old versions of the CD would give you a better deal. In fact, if you want to travel back a quarter of a century to hear what experimental rock was like, this record and the reissue of Sonic Youth's first EP would give you a good listen.