“If Radiohead is still a rock band, then no one has told them.” This is how Neil McCormick ends his review first impression review of The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s first album since 2007’s beautiful and catchy In Rainbows. No, indeed, this is something else entirely.

This album brought with it the future and past simultaneously. We’ve now experienced the future of music distribution and the artist-fan relationship twice with Radiohead in the way in which they announce and rapidly release an album. This time, Radiohead decided they didn’t want to wait an extra day to release the album, so they just dropped it on Friday. This kind of control over when and how listeners experience music is the future. Sufjan Stevens has experimented with it by placing all his albums on Bandcamp.com. The Flaming Lips have talked about a similar record-and-release strategy (even, perhaps, on a song-by-song basis) for this year. Similarly, Sleeping at Last has embarked on a yearlong project called Yearbook where they record and release (by subscription or individual issue) a monthly three-song EP. There’s no middle-man or long wait period between when the music is done being recorded and when the people can hear it. This is the future and it is going to be great. (How terrible is it that we have to wait until May to hear the new Fleet Foxes album which has presumably been done for a while?)

Radiohead has also brought the past with this album in that once again we all have a collective listening experience. This hasn’t really happened on this large of a scale since In Rainbows, and before that who knows. The late 90’s? How awesome would it have been to all be listening to Kanye’s Fantasy all at the same time, all marveling at the artistry and killer composition of the thing? We have that chance with Radiohead. I’ve listened to it twice already and I know all around the world, millions like me are throwing on headphones, cranking up stereos, listening by iPod on the train, or stuck in traffic. But we’re all listening to The King of Limbs. We’ll talk about it at work, on Facebook, over Twitter, out with friends this weekend, at church, etc. That’s awesome.

Now to the album. Dubstep, sure. Chill and not very rock and roll? See the linked quote above. My impression of this album is that it is a rendition of Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac period done analog instead of digital. It is more fixated with soundscape than it is with song structure (this is not to say that there aren’t some beautiful songs here) and they are up to some of their old tricks (instrumentals, distorted vocals, horns for the first time since “The National Anthem” and “Life in a Glass House”). But what I find to be the most indicative of what they are up to is the shift from the harsher, colder digital synth to the much softer, warmer analog sound. I think this can be directly attributable not to Burial, but to Portishead. Portishead released the masterpiece Third six months after In Rainbows. Third was a revelation to Portishead fans in that it dropped the oft-mimicked “Trip-Hop” for a dark, imposing, analog-y and textured sound. Radiohead went nuts for it. Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood did their best 13-year-olds-with-guitars impression on Youtube, covering “The Rip.”

You can hear a lot of Third in The King of Limbs (especially in “Little by Little” and “Separator”), and even quite a bit of (Portishead’s) Geoff Barrow’s side band Beak> (listen to “Bloom” and “Good Morning, Mr. Magpie”) which tends more toward krautrock and early 70’s analog synth. With Third, Portishead retreated from the pretenders and imitators and created the sound only they can produce. That move obviously spurred Radiohead to do the same, as The King of Limbs finds them returning to the singular sound that no one has figured out how to rip off (Kid A and Amnesiac) and infusing it with a texture and quality that very few others are attending to currently. While everyone else has figured out the cold bleep-bloop of digital (Sufjan, Caribou, Kanye West, Gorillaz’ iPad album, heck, even Bon Iver) Radiohead has made an analog album for the digital age.

Better Late Than Never

March 12, 2009

Before I get too buried in the wonderful music of 2009 (Hello Animal Collective, Neko Case, Grizzly Bear, and Elvis Perkins!) I figured I should put my year end lists up here.  Yes, they are ridiculously late, but maybe they will actually get read now that they don’t have to compete with Pitchfork and SPIN.  2008 was a gem for music, here are my fave albums and tracks; check em out, you will not regret it.

Albums (In order):

  1. Portishead – Third
  2. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
  3. Fleet Foxes – S/T
  4. Born Ruffians – Red, Yellow and Blue
  5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science,
  6. Lambchop – OH (Ohio)
  7. Pale Young Gentlemen – Black Forest (tra la la)
  8. Department of Eagles – In Ear Park
  9. Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
  10. Kanye West – 808’s & Heartbreak

Tracks (Not necessarily in Order)

  • Walkmen – In the New Year
  • Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – You Want that Picture
  • Portishead – The Rip
  • Beck – Walls
  • Coldplay – Viva La Vida
  • Bon Iver – Blindsided
  • Damien Jurado – Last Rites
  • Dear and the Headlights – I’m Not Crying, You’re Not Crying
  • Deerhunter – Microcastle
  • Department of Eagles – No One Does it Like You
  • Fleet Foxes – Ragged Wood, White Winter Hymnal (2 songs)
  • Lambchop – Slipped Loosed and Delivered
  • Land of Talk – Some are Lakes
  • No Age – Eraser
  • The Music Tapes – Cumulonimbus
  • Okkervil River – Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979
  • Pale Young Gentlemen – Our History
  • The Roots – Rising Up
  • Ruby Suns – Remember, Adventure Tour (2 songs)
  • Shearwater – Rooks
  • TV on the Radio – Dancing Choose
  • Wolf Parade – Language City, Call it a Ritual (2 songs)
  • Silver Jews – Candy Jail
  • The Mae Shi – I Get Almost Everything I Want

Ash Wednesday

February 28, 2009

If it is true what Soren Kierkegaard says of the poet, that he or she is one “whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music” then Elvis Perkins may be the poet par excellence.  Just a quick glance into the backstory of Perkins’ debut album Ash Wednesday (XL, 2007) shows that he is one well acquainted with sorrow.  Perkins, the son of the actor who played Norman Bates in Psycho, recorded the album over a period of roughly six years.  The recording sessions (like many events in many Americans’ lives) were interrupted by the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But for Elvis these attacks hit closer to home than just his own piece of the damaged American psyche.  His mother was on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.  And as if that wasn’t enough, this happened a day before the 9th anniversary of his father’s death, a death due to complications with AIDS.

One can then understand the canvas upon which Elvis paints the maladies and madness of modern society.  In “All the Night Without Love” he imagines loneliness as someone who would actually visit gotmilk.com and portrays our existence as waiting in line to place drive-thru orders and seeking connection in athletic insole displays inviting the consumer to “touch me.”  In “Moon Woman II” he puns on the community forged by the necessity of asking someone else for a lighter and the need for human connection: “Does anybody have a light/I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone.”  The album suggests that the root problem is isolation, the horror of being trapped within ourselves, and it voices the longing of human community and contact.  In Elvis’ world we constantly reach out for that touch but we’re always ultimately thwarted.

And so it seems Perkins finally yields to a kind of hopeless nihilism.  On the title track he warbles “no one will survive ash wednesday alive/no soldier no lover, no father no mother/not a lonely child.”  Thus Elvis voices the truth that Christians hold concerning Ash Wednesday.  As the beginning of Lent, the journey with Jesus to the cross, we recognize our utter mortality.  Everyone is equal before the power of death and despair.  And so we mark ourselves with ashes “dust you are and to dust you will return…”  In this we recognize our fleeting attempts and characteristic impotence to build any kind of lasting community.

But that’s not where the Christian confession ends.  For after being reminded that we are dust and ash, we are instructed to “…repent and believe the gospel.”  The gospel, the good news that God, in Jesus, put skin on and reaches out and touches, connects, holds, and ultimately bleeds.  And so it seems that the good news is precisely that no one will survive ash wednesday alive, for in that dying, we are opened to the new life which God brings on Easter, a time according to the Bible when Jesus will again reach out, embrace, touch, and be touched (John 20.19-31).

Elvis ultimately comes to this conclusion as well, as he ends the album with a song called “Good Friday.”  He realizes that the connection longed for on tracks 1-10 of his album, and the connection longed for in our daily lives, are found in the giving of “the body and blood.”  He finishes with the hope that “Though this life is Ash Wednesday…It forever approaches Good Friday.”  And we can travel that far with Perkins, and on to Easter morning.

I’ll be your alligator

February 29, 2008

I have always favored multi-instrumentalists in bands (e.g. Jonny Greenwood in Radiohead). This is probably why I am also drawn to multi-instrumental artists like Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens. But what happens when you have a whole band of multi-instrumentalists? Grizzly Bear is what happens: drums, guitars, keyboards, clarinet, autoharp..they can do it all, and they all sing on top of it. If you haven’t heard Yellow House or the nearly as brilliant Friend EP you should check them out. This video is very much worth the half hour, and I am excited about the ways I already hear them reworking “Deep Blue Sea” (possibly towards an appearance on their next LP?).