Pitchfork NOVEMBER 8, 2011 - by Brian Howe


A sixteen-minute EP of leftovers, released in conjunction with a little mountain town's music festival - doesn't sound very exciting, does it? But you could put Brian Eno's name on the cover of just about anything and generate intense anticipation and scrutiny. Our prime architect of interdisciplinary electronic art has so much authority that when I don't love one of his records, I feel disappointed in myself. That was the case with Drums Between The Bells, a worthy but uneven collaboration with the poet Rick Holland, where sonic miracles sat cheek-by-jowl with dated electronic styles perhaps better left in mothballs. Now, from the same sessions, comes Panic Of Looking. It's very slight, and its clearest purpose is to augment Eno's recent residency at Asheville, N.C.'s Moogfest (which honours electronic music pioneer Robert Moog), where the EP received an early release. But even Eno's spare parts give us something of substance to chew over.

Panic Of Looking is distinguished from its father LP by placing more emphasis on the words. This is a happy development, because poetry is delicate. It can sound strained, or even fake, when it tries to scale the visceral heights of music. Instead, music must lay back. If the glitchy sonics of Drums Between The Bells sometimes ran roughshod over the words, Panic Of Looking verges on overcorrection. Eno has engineered it to feel like Holland's show - spoken-word with accompaniment, sometimes engaged and sometimes desultory. It can be difficult to discuss the musical quotient because there's so little of it. The most developed tracks are In The Future and the title piece. The former draws out the tonality of speech via placid melodic counterpoint and euphoric backing vocals, recalling the joyous world-pop of Eno/Byrne collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The latter may be the best-balanced effort the collaboration has produced, with Eno's taut textural background sensitively augmenting Holland's staccato verse. Beyond those, we get a minute-long lite-industrial curio, a pro forma instrumental, and a couple less memorable fusions of orotund speech and crepuscular atmosphere.

Poetry writing and poetry recitation are two very different talents that don't always - or even often - coexist. Inverting classical music's emphasis on the concert hall over the recording, modern Western poetry favours the written word over the oral performance, which has become something you do mainly in order to sell books, regardless of whether or not you're any good at it. It's a weird cultural construct: Imagine if musicians were expected to promote their work by juggling. As a result, even poetry lovers may emit a long-suffering groan at the prospect of attending yet another reading. But there are things oratory can do that text simply can't, and Holland exploits them to his advantage, especially on the title track. One of them is homophonic ambiguity: Is he saying "speed and weight" or "speed and wait?" Both concepts are compelling, especially in flickering juxtaposition. Biting off words one by one, Holland creates hard enjambments ("Men... shake... hands") that deliver doses of meaning, each altering the last, as if from a time-release capsule. If all of this sounds more geared toward Eno completists and poetry fans than the general listener, that's about right.