Friday, May 30, 2008

Radiohead 101: Stepping inside an artist's mosaic that's outside the norm

I was there once, and I'm still there to a degree. I don't always know what to do with Radiohead.

They fall outside the comfort zone for many music fans I know, but at the same time the bizarre mosaic of their music is also what creates their appeal.

For those of you out there who are just simply "confused" or "confounded" by this band, you're not alone. They're DEFINITELY outside the box, there's no question; in terms of their recording approach and sound, in terms of their onstage presentation, and even in terms of even their album titles.

I mean, who in the hell names their album
Kid A? Huh? It sounds like a half-baked idea that never fully took form. A more logical name may have been something like A Kid's Dream. ...and now that we're on the subject, what about OK Computer? WTF? Does that mean that the computer's working okay? Did the factory inspector give it the "ok" before shipping? What the hell are they trying to say? That's right, it should have been called The Computer's OK, Go Ahead and Ship It. We don't want any unsatisfied Dell customers out there, heaven forbid.

Let me stab this one to death... what about the title I Might be Wrong: Live Recordings? What do they think they might be wrong about? Are they the wrong recordings? Did they goof and give us the wrong version of the songs? Hell, am I even listening to the right band?


So maybe you get the idea. Radiohead is sorta wierd...and we've only chatted about album titles here. ...but if they intended it, their trick has worked on me. They've got my attention. They've made themselves stand out. I want to know more.

You think that's wierd? Listen to the friggin' music, dude!
The music really defies description, but in a good way. There's the outside the box guitar elements to The Bends, the Chinese water torture "paper shuffling sounds" from Hail to the Thief, then the "cream pies hitting the speakers" drum sounds from their latest release, In Rainbows. Then there's the trippy Floyd-like feel to OK Computer, and the bizarre depressing feel to Kid A.

Then I don't even know where to begin with the short live recording of I Might Be's literally unlike anything I've EVER heard before. Holy trippin' daisies, Batman!

These are by no means complaints...but they can certainly involve some getting used to.

Radiohead is in my opinion a true art rock band, in its purest form. Everything they write and perform is with the intention of serving the song.

It's also evident that they are very talented musicians. Three of the five band members, from what I can gather, are multi-instrumentalists. Yet, despite this plethora of talent, they still insist on going minimalist with many of their songs. They often times avoid doing the obvious, which would be going for the big orchestral sound that they're capable of... listen to "The Gloaming" from Hail to the Thief. I mean, what the heck is that?

But I like it... because I've NEVER HEARD anything like it before. Anywhere. By anyone. Ever.

Radiohead's a bit of a throwback, but always moving forward with a very modern sound. They mix old technology with new.

The song structures are all over the place. Nearly every song has a feel to it like you can't tell where it's headed. They seem to scrap the typical predictable song structure, and go for arranged randomness over unique rhythms, but not in a chaotic sense. There isn't much in the way of guitar soloing either.

There's even odd stuff in the details... such as their insistence to place songs throughout various albums whose titles indicate a lean toward being in movies, but sound nothing like what you would ever put in a movie. "Huh?" you say? Take a look for yourself.

There's a tune called "Exit Music (For a Film)" on OK Computer (which might actually work in a film), and then a tune called "Motion Picture Soundtrack" on Kid A (a bit more bizarre). Just random songs thrown on the album. Totally baffling. Are they trying to advertise the songs so they may get picked up by some movie producer for use in a film?

Somebody help me here. Brainmelt imminent.

It's all probably a very delicate balancing act to get it all right, but somehow they do it. For a multitude of reasons, these guys are the cutting edge in rock these days. There's nobody out there like them.

It's all about the art. S

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Radiohead keep pushing rock in new directions

A good friend of mine has totally gotten into Radiohead in the last year. I have to say that I really like their material too.

Of all the rock bands out there right now, these guys are at the forefront pushing the envelope in terms of sound, song structures, and the overall "mosaic" of the rock album if you like. The article from the AP following this post does an excellent job of explaining how.

I first started listening to these guys off and on in the mid-90s, and recall Creep when it first came out. At the time, however, it was easy to dismiss them as just another new band from the grunge /post-grunge period of the early 90s.

Mistakenly, I tended to lump them in at the time with bands like Blind Mellon and the Smashing Pumpkins. I don't think I'm alone in making that mistake; there was simply no way of knowing how Radiohead was going to evolve.

...and evolve they have...

Obviously time proved me dead wrong. With their releases of The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, and my personal favorite -- a live recording called I Might Be Wrong (a total tripfest, unlike anything I've EVER heard!) -- they blew the lid off the top of the rock format.

If you're new to Radiohead, they can definitely make your head'll need to take them in doses. I've put on many a Radiohead record, and "confusion" has often times been the best word to describe a listening experience...confusion in that I'm trying to figure out where they're coming from with their sound and style, and what effect they're looking for among their audience.

After giving it some time, you'll be hooked. I also have a feeling you need to experience them live to "get it." More on this band again soon!

-- The breakthrough for Radiohead on "Reckoner" -- a song that underwent multiple incarnations on its way to "In Rainbows" -- came by way of what Jonny Greenwood calls a "big percussion fest."
The members of Radiohead say they're feeling much looser since ending their label ties.
Recording in an English country house, all five members of the group make a loud, cathartic racket -- a habit-busting trick the band has practiced since primary school, says bassist Colin Greenwood.
"And I'm happy to say that success hasn't changed us at all," joked Jonny Greenwood, who would rather leave the percussion to Phil Selway's drums and Thom Yorke's rhythm guitar.
Whether through the primal release of a "big percussion fest" or by severing ties with its record label, Radiohead is giving the distinct impression of a band that has exorcised something.
Since self-releasing "In Rainbows" as a pay-what-you-want digital download last fall, Radiohead has moved quickly with the tilt of innovation. They surprised fans with intimate webcasts; they offered one track, "Nude," in stripped down audio pieces for anyone to remix; they held a surprise concert so crowded that police insisted they move along.
On their seventh album, particularly on songs like the falsetto-rich R&B ballad "House of Cards" and the languorous "Nude," the music reflects the same sense of freedom. The prevailing tone of the new material is -- gasp! -- a melodic warmth.
And this is a drastic change for what many consider the gloomiest band on the planet.
Meet the born-again Radiohead.
In a recent two-part interview with the band -- first with the Greenwood brothers and Selway, second with Yorke and guitarist Ed O'Brien -- a lightness was unmistakable. Much funnier than you'd expect, the quintet bemusedly contemplate wearing Speedos while shuffling into a Washington, D.C., hotel room.
They had just performed in nearby Virginia, where torrential rain caused flooding and enormous traffic jams around the Nissan Pavilion. In the apocalyptic downpour, Radiohead functioned as a hearth, exuding their newfound glow.
Five shows into the first leg of their North America tour, they played confidently. At one point, Yorke urged the soaked crowd to "cuddle," an unthinkable prospect for a Radiohead concert.
Tuneful beauty has always been part of Radiohead songs (like the "rain down" climax in "Paranoid Android"), but such moments have seldom been allowed to linger. Asked the origins of the new mood, Yorke is as clueless as anyone.
"I don't know where it came from, to be honest," said the 39-year-old singer, laughing heartily. "I think ('In Rainbows') has its moments of fraught tension, like 'Bodysnatchers' obviously. But it ends up in a good space. It starts off pretty anxious, but the end of 'All I Need,' by that point, everything is like, 'Ahhh' -- getting it out of your system."
When the band completed 2003's "Hail to the Thief," they essentially got what O'Brien calls the "machinery" of the music industry out of their system. Their six-album deal with EMI Music Group expired and they declined all suitors for a new deal.
The band was at a crossroads and low on energy. They were disappointed by "Hail to the Thief," which they felt was unfinished.
"What was great about 'Kid A' was that it heralded a new period and it meant we went off in some cool new places," said O'Brien, 40. "But the downside was that in the whole period up until the end of 'Hail to the Thief,' we picked up some nasty habits."
The band, of whom all but O'Brien still live in their hometown of Oxford, had progressed steadily into more experimental territory after their 1993 debut "Pablo Honey" and the classic guitar rock follow-up, 1995's "The Bends." The unparalleled "OK Computer" (1997) elevated them to worldwide fame, but didn't tame them. 2000's "Kid A" and its companion piece "Amnesiac" followed.
The outwardly political "Hail to the Thief," something of a return to guitar-based rockers, was the first sign that Radiohead's path had become confused. Afterward, the band members occupied themselves with their families. Yorke released a solo album, "The Eraser" in 2006.
"We were going along in a certain trajectory and then suddenly with 'Hail to the Thief,' it was: we can't carry along in that way anymore," said Yorke. "To me the hardest thing was finding a reason to carry on."
As unified as "In Rainbows" sounds, it took years to complete. The band began recording it with producer Mark Stent, the first time in years they didn't work with Nigel Godrich.
The attempt was futile and Radiohead set out on tour to help bring the new songs into shape. When they returned to the studio, they went back to Godrich, considered the unofficial sixth member because of his importance in helping refine the group's sound. (Colin calls his wealth of gear "like Aladdin's cave.")
"The key thing in actually propelling it forward was Nigel coming back into the process," said Selway, 41. "The reality when we got in there was it still wasn't good enough. We really had to raise our standards quite a lot."
Typically, songs begin with Yorke writing something on piano or guitar with vocals and fleshing it out with the multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. Then the band works together to find the right arrangement, a process that can be tortuous. "Videotape" underwent, Yorke jokes, hundreds of versions before finding the right minimalist sound.
"We still sometimes get overawed by the songs," said Greenwood. "We'll get very attached to a song as an idea in its very basic form, but we also know we can't really leave it like that. So that's what we spend our time talking about and planning and thinking about. Thom will sit and play 'Pyramid Song' on piano, for example, and it's obviously not finished. It needs a rhythm to propel it along. But what do you do with it and yet not mess it up? So that's the sort of enjoyable pressure we like to be under."
Though the method of release overshadowed the music of "In Rainbows" somewhat, it's been almost universally hailed as a masterpiece. Yorke has been quoted as calling it "our classic album, our 'Transformer,' our 'Revolver,' our 'Hunky Dory' " -- a statement he said is a misquote: "I do talk some ... but I didn't say that."
His point, he said, is that they strove to make a similarly concise work as those albums.
"In Rainbows" may be a departure, but it's unmistakably Radiohead. Yorke is still singing about disconnection between people, which he cheerfully acknowledges: "It's part of my repertoire. It's what I do. Some people go and work at something they don't like, others talk about disconnection a lot."
But the album still feels apart from the old Radiohead story line. For the first time, they don't sound self-conscious. The band says it all starts with being free of a record contract. (The album was also released traditionally on January 1 by ATO imprint TBD Records, topping the sales charts that week. The band has declined to release sales figures for the download.)
"When we weren't signed to EMI and didn't have a contract, that threw up all this mad(ness)," said Yorke. "In a way, your possibilities are endless and limitless and meaningless. You actually suddenly have -- I don't know why, it doesn't make sense -- but there was a complete lack of connection with our past."
The band has called the digital giveaway a "one-off" experiment, but they've also re-examined other ways they conduct business. They last year commissioned a report from the company Best Foot Forward to judge the carbon and ecological footprint of their touring.
Any adjustments are in the early stages, but the band has posted messages on their Web site urging fans to car pool to concerts. They caution that music is at the heart of any new endeavors.
And as might be expected for the ever forward-looking Radiohead, new songs are already in the works, though they are still just "on guitars," says Jonny Greenwood. He only hints that the songs explore "absurd musical ideas."
"When you hear Thom and Jonny in the soundcheck and they've come up with something and start playing it, it's good to hear," said O'Brien.
The process of finding the right instruments for the songs will soon begin. Greenwood would like to even throw a banjo into the mix, but said he gets "level looks" from his bandmates whenever he brings it out. "There's a ban on banjos," said his 38-year-old brother.
"What's interesting to me is very old technologies like orchestras and pianos and things and how they meet modern recording and treatment techniques," said Greenwood, 36, who also does classical work on the side, including the buzzing, unforgettable score to "There Will Be Blood."
Radiohead will tour Europe in June and July before returning for the second leg of their North America tour, which will kick off August 1 at the Lollapalooza Festival.
In the meantime, Yorke -- who said he still considers the album "the most satisfying format" -- has already envisioned the next innovation to deploy when they have new music to release.
"Let's leave it on the street corner with a little sign," Yorke jokes as excitement sweeps over his face. "Now that's a good idea! I like that idea. With a little photo on the Web: 'It's here.' A couple of clues. A little doggie bag."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

THE STAGE HECKLER: R.E.M. & Friends at the 2008 Sasquatch Festival

I didn't get to bed after the show until 3AM, but I didn't care...the experience was well worth it.

When we arrived in the afternoon at the Sasquatch Music Festival at the Columbia Gorge in the middle of Washington state, a band called The New Pornographers were onstage (despite the imagery of the name, no such activities were taking place). They were followed by M.I.A., and Mighty Mouse... sorry, I think I meant to say Modest Mouse...whose singer sounded like a shouting middle-schooler having a temper tantrum. Yikes!

Let's just say that R.E.M.'s attendance at this musical event was a good thing and upped the notch in quality a bit, to put it politely...but of course not until the weather decided that it wanted to monsoon on everyone and challenge the band for the night.

...but these guys are veterans and have played through it all! What's a little rain?

Scheduled for 10PM, at one point it was questionable on whether or not R.E.M. could even go onstage, as the lights were swaying in the wind and all the equipment was getting completely soaked. There's very little in the way of protection from the elements onstage at the Gorge Amphitheatre. Staff were out there until showtime wiping off the performer's areas.

The band came onstage at about 10:05 --- not very late when you consider what the elements were doing.

It was obvious that safety was on the minds of the performers. On several occasions lead singer Michael Stipe checked in with his bandmates, and mused with the audience about the possibility of slipping and falling onstage --- he directed the audience to heckle him if he slipped.

"If I slip and fall," said Stipe, "You have to yell to me 'I told you so!'" were his instructions. As the night went on he took off his shoes and sang onstage in his socks.

"If I go barefoot, does that make me a hippie?" asked Stipe later on in the set. In which I responded with a yell from the uphill peanut gallery: "But you're already a hippie!"

To my surprise and satisfaction, the choice of tunes was about 75% different from the set list the night before in Vancouver. Very nice.

Here's the R.E.M. set list for May 24 performance at the Sasquatch Festival
  1. Living Well is the Best Revenge
  2. What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
  3. These Days
  4. Drive
  5. Accelerate
  6. Auctioneer (Another Engine)
  7. Man-sized Wreath
  8. Ignoreland
  9. Hollow Man
  10. Life and How to Live It
  11. Houston
  12. Losing My Religion
  13. Harborcoat
  14. The One I Love
  15. The Final Straw
  16. Let Me In
  17. Horse to Water
  18. Bad Day
  19. Walk Unafraid
  20. I'm Gonna DJ
  21. Supernatural Superserious
  22. Orange Crush
  23. Man on the Moon
When compared to the set list from the night before in Vancouver, BC, it's clear that the band is going for a little variety on the tour.

So this was the third R.E.M. concert for myself. I caught them at the ASU Activity Center in Tempe, Arizona touring off the Green album in 1989, then again 10 years later off the Up tour at Bumpershoot in Seattle.

They're now touring off the newly released Accelerate, which has an edgier sound and an attitude akin to punk, like much of their material from the 1980s.

As a live act R.E.M. is a well-oiled machine, seasoned and polished. Unlike many bands out there who deteriorate with age and find themselves turning into novelty acts, this band ages like a fine wine.

For those of you who made it and braved the rain and wind, kudos to ya! S

Monday, May 5, 2008

1,000 albums to hear before you die

While taking a break from reading, I stumbled across this list and thought it might be of interest to share. Here's the link: 1000 album list.

I don't necessarily agree with everything on this list, but it's a compelling case study... and I noticed that they're listed in chronologically, which isn't obvious at all... I only picked up on that due to my late night soirées involving reading liner notes, and probably because I index my albums under artist in chronological order by recording date, NOT RELEASE DATE... done like a true music nerd.

While I might actually be enough of a schmuck to eventually go out and pick up 90% of the albums on this list, I plan on checking out the more exotic ones from the local library. S