Saturday, January 31, 2015

Brian Eno - 1974 - Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Brian Eno
Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

01. Burning Airlines Give You So Much More (3:15)
02. Back In Judy's Jungle (5:14)
03. The Fat Lady of Limbourg (5:05)
04. Mother Whale Eyeless (6:00)
05. The Great Pretender (5:10)
06. Third Uncle (5:01)
07. Put A Straw Under Baby (3:28)
08. The True Wheel (5:20)
09. China My China (5:45)
10. Taking Tiger Mountain (6:00)

- Brian Eno / vocals, electronics, guitar, keyboards
- Phil Manzanera / guitar
- Freddie Smith & Phil Collins / drums
- Brian Turrington / bass
- Robert Wyatt / percussion, backing vocals
- Polly Eltes / vocals (4)

Eno changed. This is a much slower album than Warm Jets, and it has a far greater emphasis on the kind of repetition that was shown in "On Some Faraway Beach" and would largely dominate (in a much more potent form) Eno's later work. However, this is a slowing down, not a full-blown foray into statics like what one would later find on Another Green World, and it doesn't always really work. Eno's melody-writing talent regularly shows itself, as does his unequalled mastery of the studio and the ability to make guitars, keyboards and other assorted tools come together perfectly (which helps explain why lots of people consider this his peak, and also explains why, despite the fact that I'll seemingly be complaining about this album a lot, I'm giving it a high rating), but the album also seriously drags in more than a couple of places; simply put, I can't really see how this album can justifiably run for more than 48 minutes.
The strongest example of what I mean by saying the album drags comes from the three track stretch of "The Fat Lady of Limbourg," "Mother Whale Eyeless" and "The Great Pretender." I consider all three of these to be good songs overall, yes, but that doesn't mean I like any of them in their entirety. "The Fat Lady of Limbourg" comes the closest to completely satisfying me, as a creepy, quasi-mournful number driven by a memorable repeated "that's what we're paid for" line, but five minutes of it just seems like overkill to me. The relatively upbeat portions of "Mother Whale Eyeless" are standard high quality Eno, but the upwards bit that he sings in other parts just sounds incredibly awkward to my ears; I can tell he's trying to be hypnotic with it, but I'm just not as impressed with this as I am with the efforts he'd start showing within a year. And as for "The Great Pretender," well, I'd more or less be fine with the whole track were it not for the last fifty seconds consisting of a single noise set on endless loop. Too bad, seeing as I like the vocals and atmosphere, even if the melody continues to elude my memory.

In any case, the biggest problem I have with these tracks comes not from their individual characteristics, but from the way that, collectively, they just seemingly slooooow the album to a craaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwl. For whatever reason, these tracks feed off each other in a way that makes them each sound way more sluggish than they do individually; for an artist like Eno, who showed such a knack in his prime for making albums greater than the sum of their tracks, it's disappointing to hear the opposite effect at work.

I'm not an enormous fan of the last two tracks either, though I do think they're both quite good. "China my China" is a song that I enjoy plenty while it's on, but even after a ton of listens, I still can't remember how it goes once it's done ... on the other hand, it deserves major, MAJOR props for probably being the only song in the world to feature a typewriter solo (!!!). The closing title track, then, is rather pretty and calming, making effective use of what's basically a two-note guitar melody. In other words, it's good; it's just not mindblowingly cathartic, which (justly or not) is the standard I've set for mellow Eno ballads. It would be a near-masterpiece by the standards of most bands, though

The other five tracks are pretty much great, and (as mentioned earlier) largely different from what one would have expected in the wake of Warm Jets. "Third Uncle" is a fantastic up-tempo paranoid rocker, with Manzanera strumming at a lightning-fast rate (and throwing in some awfully intense yet almost psychedelic overdubs) and Eno delivering his lines in a way that could almost be considered rapping (there's not really any pitch changes, after all). It comes closer than anything else here to the style of Warm Jets, but even then there's a stripped-down aggression that not even "Needles in the Camel's Eye" (which is much poppier than "Third Uncle") or "Baby's on Fire" could match.

The opening "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" is a fabulous opener, with a playful theme that's instantly identifiable as a tweak on traditional Chinese note sequences and with a delightful vocal melody and lyrics about goodness knows what (not in a pretentious way, though). The following "Back in Judy's Jungle" ostensibly matches with the concept suggested by the album title, with lyrics that in places read like military orders and reports and a part that almost breaks into a war march (though this is simultaneously a waltz, strangely enough), but it too is tweaked through Dadaist rearrangments of lines into something that is completely unpredictable from start to finish.

Finally, on side two, we get a couple of other major highlights. "Put a Straw Under Baby" is a hilarious lullaby with infamous lines like, "There's a brain in the table, there's a heart in the chair, and they all live in Jesus; it's a family affair" and with great imitations of recorders from Eno's synths. It's also notable because, after "Back in Judy's Jungle," it's the first track to resurrect even a feel of China in the music, even if the lyrics have nothing to do with it. And finally, "The True Wheel" is a high-quality stomping Bowie-esque piano-rocker with big anthemic, "We Are The 801!" chants by a mini children's choir interspersed between Eno's warblings and spiced up by yet some more great minimalistic Manzanera guitar work (I swear, this man is getting dangerously close to cracking my Top 5 Guitarists list). And man, do I ever dig Eno's "We are the ..." vocal lines in what essentially works as an extended coda to the piece.

So in total, this is one heck of an inconsistent album, but the high points are so neat that I can't help but give this a very high grade. Eno would do better things, yes, but it's a significant step forward (after all, as great as Warm Jets was, it still largely tied in with Eno's Roxy Music past) and thus a near necessity for all decent musical historians. Just make sure that you get his other "big" albums first.



  2. Hi! This one is busted. Server Error = 252
    kind regards, Dr. Studebaker
    ps: I've already got this one, but others might not. GREAT album, by the way....