Archive for October, 2007

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Radiohead – In Rainbows

October 11, 2007

The new Radiohead album is here. I think that me explaining the circumstances behind the album are redundant and unnecessary, because it has been such a big deal lately, but I’ll do it anyway for those who haven’t heard. Radiohead have been working on their new album on and off for several years. With few announcements. Information has trickled through their blog, Dead Air Space, in fragments. Ten days ago, Radiohead announced that their new album, In Rainbows, would be released in ten days. Not in stores, not on iTunes (as if), and not on Amazon. The two ways that you can acquire Radiohead’s new album as of yet are through download and a diskbox to be released in December. Both are ordered directly from Radiohead via their W.A.S.T.E. shop on their website. You can pay as much as you want for that download. One hundred pounds. Ten pounds. Nothing. You can download this album for free. How much do you want to support Radiohead? The diskbox costs the equivalent of $80, and contains two CDs, art books, and two records. There is some speculation of an in-stores release early next year, but there is no solid evidence yet. Radiohead are a free agent. There is no record label.

This is by far the most bizarre album release I have ever heard of. It’s inconvenient to say the least. Not everyone can afford to drop that much money on the box set for the full In Rainbows experience, deal with currency exchange, or even use a credit card. Hell, not everybody has a record player. This release is somewhat difficult to receive, but on the other hand fans are hailing this as one of the most important album releases ever. Radiohead are not the first band to release something free of a record label like that, but no band this popular has released an album this anticipated in such a way. Within days of the announcement, Nine Inch Nails, Jamiroquai, and Oasis expressed their interest in independence of any record labels as well. Whether Radiohead have the power to put todays messed up record industry back in it’s place is not certain.

This is only so much of a concern, for now. The download has been released. Ten new Radiohead songs are streaming incessantly through the ears of, literally, millions of Radiohead fans. This is an exciting day. For having waited so many years, to have silently churned about a lack of new material for so long… And then they announce their album a week before release.

I am listening to the new Radiohead album.

Liberating.

Radiohead test drove most of their new songs on the tour last year. I had the official Mortigi Tempo bootleg of what users thought the album should sound like, MTLP7. Nothing could have prepared me for this album. Having the studio recordings is like making these songs new again. The concern for a lot of people was that the album would not have a distinct flavor, or theme, like all of the other Radiohead albums have had. This was likely a concern for the bands last album, Hail To The Thief, released in about the same with, with all the songs being toured and then released. Even when Radiohead’s albums are big puzzles or messes, they still fit together perfectly. Every one of these ten songs are wonderful. Radiohead have become so consistent that I am starting to get afraid. No one is without fault, but I have to search pretty hard to find fault in Radiohead’s music.

I’m finding it very hard to actually start reviewing the album here.

The album starts with the bands most rhythmic song to date, 15 Step, which starts as a mellow groove over a danceable backbeat. This was one hell of a selection for a first song, being one of the bands most popular new songs, but it also has a lot of work to do to let the listener know that the band have not lost their touch. On one hand, Thom Yorke’s voice is still in prime condition and has not deteriorated in the slightest since Hail To The Thief. The songs breakdown reaffirms how good the band is at developing their songs and going places with them. Never a dull moment. Especially surprising is the brief vocal sample of a group of school children that details the song twice. Mysterious, dark, energetic, even sexy.

What was impressive about Kid A and Hail To The Thief, how an album of completely unique and different sounding songs fit together well, also holds true about In Rainbows. The album can be dark, sad, or happy. But one of the finest, most recognizable new kicks that catches my ear throughout is the use of strings in many of the songs. In that way, Radiohead really hit my weak spot, because I am very much a sucker for those stringed instruments. Nude, All I Need, the completely new Faust Arp, and Reckoner among others contain these strings and use them to their fullest. It’s a lush, important sounding album. Also, in general, the album is much more beat driven.

Which brings up the first issue I have with the album. Sometimes the drums just don’t have enough power. 15 Step, House of Cards, and a few others could have used some live drums, or at least a touchup. Part of what made 15 Step so unbelievable when we first heard it was how ungodly heavy that bass was. It’s not really here anymore. Those 2006 tour bootlegs are still assets, because the earlier forms of these songs are, at times, very telling as well. The same goes for the closer, Videotape, which is a great song but lost a little bit of it’s urgency in production. This seems to be the biggest complaint about the album from fans. The original version built to a wrenching climax with guitars, but the final version has taken those away and left the ending more subtle. It’s another reason to get interested in those bootlegs. But the final product is what really matters.

In Rainbows can really rock out. Bodysnatchers and Jigsaw Falling Into Place both have a lot of muscle. I love that bassline on Jigsaw Falling Into Place. It complements the distorted vocals really well. The band still have that attention to detail that has made them so successful before. But the album is probably most impressive when it hits it’s softer, more emotional spots.

The song that caught me as most impressive on the first listen was Reckoner. Seeing where this song has come from the beginning is baffling. When it was first played in concert, Reckoner was a short rocker. It was an eastern sounding solo acoustic outing. Powerful, but simple. Just Thom on vocals and Jonny on guitar. Featured a minor second to make it sound a little eastern. Tough. It was one of my favorites. But on In Rainbows, Reckoner sounds completely different. It is easily my favorite song on the album. The song has been changed from energetic and almost angry to sad and momentous. Thom’s falsetto is chilling yet warm, haunting yet angelic. This song represents exactly what Radiohead does right with guitars, using them sparsely to detail songs even when it might take really close listening to notice them. Those strings are just downright disarming. It’s been a long time, since OK Computer really, that Radiohead have sounded this tragic and yet not helpless, or have been this detailed in their sadness. Complete triumph.

House of Cards is probably my second favorite, also a complete win. Never before have Radiohead made a song this relaxing or comforting. That isn’t to say that it is unrealistic though. While you could close your eyes and travel to some sunny beach easily within the care of this simple guitar riff, it also contains a little bit of stressed distortion and odd sound effects. In any case, this is one of the most gorgeous, strong, and happy songs the band has ever made.

What needs to be kept in mind is that this is not the full picture. This is In Rainbows, the album, but not the music in it’s entirety. Until we get the diskbox in December, we will have to wait to see the artwork and hear the bonus disk of other new material. But this is the strongest stuff, I trust. When we get the rest I can imagine things will only get better.

In Rainbows is perfect. Just as good as OK Computer and Kid A, which both also achieved perfection. I think what really amazes me is how completely forward Radiohead fans have been with this album even on this first day. It will take time for a nostalgic bond to be created, and that is what has made OK Computer and Kid A so loved. This bond is inevitable for In Rainbows. Even after recognizing my minor production gripes, they have dissolved after less than a day. This really is one of the best albums in years. I might even say the best album since Kid A. There are no bad songs. The album hits the whole emotional spectrum. What this album does, through it’s music as well as it’s circumstances, is completely cement the trust between artist and listener. What it also proves is that Radiohead are not comparable to anything but themselves at any given time, thus making what was already perfect shine even more. This is the new Radiohead album. This is Radiohead. This is perfection.

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Harold Budd and Brian Eno – The Pearl

October 7, 2007

My favorite member of Brian Eno’s ambient series has always been Ambient 2. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is an utterly beautiful record that showcases the brilliant talent of two already seminal artists. Released in 1980, the record came at a time when both Budd and Eno were pioneering ambient methodology. Harold Budd is one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable pianists, not through technical skill but his distinctive minimalist style. Brian Eno always innovates at every step of his career, and he excels in producing just as much as music making. In Ambient 2, the dream team was assembled and an album of airy, minimalistic beauty was crafted. Ambient 2 is an album that carries a shocking amount of emotion with very little sound. Only simple, delicate piano chords are in the music, permeated by Eno’s excellent production. Ambient 2 really is the best ambient album of it’s kind. It’s the kind of album that is engaging when you want it to be, and discreet when you want it to be in the background. You can have just as much fun listening carefully as falling asleep on your couch when it is playing.

Four years later, Budd and Eno decided to collaborate again and release an album in the vein of it’s predecessor. The Pearl is very similar to Plateaux. Enough so that it could be considered a direct sequel. While Budd has a very distinctive style, Eno has always been about changing and developing his own style, making The Pearl a rare case, something familiar. So if you are not into minimalistic piano music, or ambient music, then this is not for you. But if you liked Ambient 2, then this record is completely triumphant. Ambient 2 left listeners begging for more, and The Pearl delivered the goods, and then some. The Pearl is more delicate, relaxing, better produced, and memorable.

Budd has opted for a more varied approach here. Ambient 2 was essentially full of happy, momentous ambient music that did not challenge the listener much. The Pearl has some vaguely dark moments. In songs such as Dark Eyed-Sister and Foreshadowed, the mood is slightly melancholy and mysterious. This is good because, these moments seem to make the album more realistic and engaging. There are also some songs where Budd makes some of his chords dissonant and even accidental, namely The Silver Ball and The Pearl. When he does this, those chords mixed with the subtlety of the music makes for a kind of mystery that is biting, and yet somehow searches for no resolution in the ears. Even when he hits an odd chord, the music is soft, and there is no shock here. It’s that production, though, that cements the bond between the listener and the artists.

The album is better produced than Ambient 2, which already had fantastic production. While Harold Budd’s piano sounds very bare and natural on Ambient 2, it sounds more softer, more produced here. His playing is just as strong, but easier on the ears. Eno and accompanying producer David Lanois are just as important as Harold Budd, who is obviously center stage. While Budd is the backbone and the real draw of the music, Eno and Lanois create the atmosphere with a backdrop of ambient sound that makes even the melancholy numbers feel warm and enveloping. This record is truly a safe place to let your mind wander. Always relaxing, even when it is stimulating.

The first time I listened to this album, I was blown away. I can think of very few other albums that I felt the same love for on the first listen, mostly unanimously great records such as Loveless, OK Computer, and maybe Siamese Dream. That’s all obvious stuff. I was skeptical about The Pearl and I was completely enthralled from the beginning. Upon turning on the album, it seemed to end far faster than it should have despite it’s regular length. And I could not deny that everything I just heard was amazing. Great ambient record.