Composer/pianist/etc. Roger Eno has aided his brother Brian on many of the latter’s ambient projects, collaborating most substantially on the space-shooting Apollo Atmospheres & Soundtracks, for which he and Daniel Lanois both received cover credit. In turn, Brian helped out with Voices and released its successor on his label.
Having devoted himself to instrumental music, Roger might be seen as following his sibling’s creative path too closely, but he seems far more like flesh and blood; his work is warm and earthly, not remote or vague, and rooted in classical composition, not avant-garde experimentation. Finally, the acoustic instrumentation of Between Tides marks the point at which their designs clearly diverge. With a more traditional bent (and presumably more formal training as a musician) than Brian, Roger makes no effort to sound especially modern or preciously arty; his music for films (and television) actually gets used in things people see. Performed on piano, strings, clarinet, flute and percussion, the sonorous pieces on Between Tides shift between favoring venerable English idioms (“Ringinglow,” “Prelude for Saint Joan”) and invoking American styles (“Dust at Dawn [The Last Cowboy in the West]”). Either way, the patient music moves with the delicate refinement of characters in a Jane Austen story.
Shifting his creative orientation a little, Eno made The Familiar in cahoots with Kate St. John — once of the Dream Academy, now a high-profile soundtrack composer and sessioneer (for Van Morrison, Tears for Fears, Julian Cope, the Coal Porters and many others) and low-profile solo artist — on oboe and cor anglais, with ex-Be-Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson serving as co-producer and guest instrumentalist on several tracks. Thanks to the predominance of strings and piano, the album is more chamber than pop, but it does lean in the latter direction with firmly stated themes, accessibly defined structures and, thanks to St. John’s lyrics and voice, five actual songs. Her nature-loving poetry and wispy soprano provide an appealing if mild contrast to Eno’s solemn, placid compositions, some of which (understandably, since the album was partly recorded in St. Petersburg) have a distinct Eastern European flavor. For all its finely wrought virtues, however, The Familiar never unifies into a coherent whole and sounds more like a sampler of separate undertakings.
Eno, St. John and Nelson subsequently formalized their assembly as Channel Light Vessel (crediting percussionist Laraaji and cellist Mayumi Tachibana as adjunct members), setting sail with 1994’s Automatic, a crafty cakewalk between new age’s worship of the mellifluous waft, the trendy impulse toward dance rhythms and world music and whatever residual vocal pop sensibilities might be cobbled together from St. John’s background and Nelson’s rock campaigns. Despite the horn solos, Nelson’s e-bow peregrinations and the percolating beats, the album circumvents both ambient pallor and Kenny G noxiousness, but doesn’t substitute anything much more compelling than loveliness. A few of the tracks reach their evocative plateaus, but Automatic could have used a tad more manual labor.
Back on a more academic plane, Eno’s Lost in Translation is an obscurely inspired but accessibly ambitious work, a handsome set of chamber-music pieces (several with vocals) based on the writings of arcane medieval heretic Walthius Van Vlaanderen. (Oh yeah, him.) Working only with guitarist Michael Brook and percussionist David Coulter, Eno demonstrates his interdisciplinary designs. Following rock’s self-reliant ethos, he does something few modern composers of music this intricate would bother to do: perform it.
“Pastoral” would be too harsh a description for St. John’s alluring solo album, a set of abundantly Romantic originals rendered as chamber pop, olde-school folk, suave boulevardier ballads and cocktail jazz. Both her voice and her primary instruments (oboe, piano, cor anglais) immediately convey gentleness and grace; her ability to mold such soft clay into firm, curvaceous shapes — abetted by various collaborators, including (minorly) Roger Eno and former Ravishing Beauties bandmate Virginia Astley — is impressive. The only sour note in this entire lovely enterprise is “Green Park Blues,” a duet with English jazz-pop great Georgie Fame (Van Morrison’s longtime bandleader), who doesn’t sing it at all well.