Monthly Archives: February 2011
Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
Compared to Jonny Greenwood’s legendary “It will be out in 10 days” post for In Rainbows in 2007, the announcement for The King Of Limbs was even more startling and mysterious. There were at least cryptic messages and artwork posted on Radiohead’s website leading up to the release of In Rainbows. For this, there was nothing. Plus, Limbs was only announced four days before it was actually released to the public via download, albeit without their last album’s name-your-price gimmick. So with virtually no time to build up hype for The King Of Limbs, it was hard to know what to expect, even if the press had been feverishly analyzing Thom Yorke’s playlists of what he’d been listening to lately.
As it turns out, The King Of Limbs continues the Radiohead tradition of being wholly unlike the album that preceded it, offering some new paths even as it recalls their previous work. Inspired by the electronic artists like Flying Lotus and Four Tet that Yorke has championed in recent years, the album is atmospheric and formless, with nearly every track built upon short, repeated loops and interlocking rhythms. In short, The King Of Limbs is their least structured and song-oriented since Kid A. But unlike that album, this isn’t a difficult listen; The King Of Limbs has a gentle, almost unassuming sound, buoyed by the band’s decision to use more organic instrumentation than electronics. It still requires multiple spins to get a handle on the shifting melodies and spacious arrangements, but it isn’t self-consciously alienating like their work was a decade ago.
“Bloom” sets the tone for the rest of the record. Beginning with a hovering keyboard loop and Phil Selway’s shuffling drumming, Thom Yorke jets the whole thing into outer space as soon as he wails, “Open your mouth wide, the universal sigh.” The driving funk “Morning Mr Magpie” and the great, shambling groove of “Little By Little” follow suit, albeit with more discernible structures. The interlude “Feral” hints at dubstep and introduces the stronger, more evocative second half where Limbs really starts to take shape. Lead single “Lotus Flower” is the best thing on here, featuring one of Yorke’s most riveting vocals, transcending the fleeting percussion and electronic manipulations that surround him. Elsewhere, the orchestral piano-driven ballad “Codex” bleeds into the pretty space folk of “Give Up The Ghost,” both of them vying for the most gorgeous moment on the record. And if there was any lingering sadness following those tracks, closer “Separator” seems to end optimistically, with its sprightly guitar riffs and a promise that “if you think this is over, then you’re wrong.”
The emphasis on the vocals makes this feel like a spiritual successor to Yorke’s solo effort, The Eraser, and at 8 tracks and 37 minutes, The King Of Limbs almost seems like an EP preceding a longer, more varied effort. It’s far from a masterpiece—it lacks the depth and emotion of the band’s best works and is a bit too monochromatic—yet as they near their 20th year of record-making, this brisk eighth record makes one thing clear: Radiohead are still very much at the vanguard of pop music, even if this collection doesn’t necessarily innovate. It’s a holding pattern, to be sure, but a very enjoyable one nonetheless.
M.I.A. – Vicki Leekx [Mixtape]
After polarizing many critics and fans with an abrasive and self-serious third album, where do you head next? If you are M.I.A., you continue to challenge your audience by releasing a free downloadable mixtape on New Year’s Eve. Composed of both reworked tracks from /\/\/\Y/\ as well as new, unreleased material, Vicki Leekx is actually less of a mixtape and more of a 36-minute DJ set. Though the download came with artwork that lists track names for these short segments, it was distributed as one relentless track, and it is no doubt meant to be listened to as such. Once the beat sets in a few seconds in, it never lets up for over a half hour with flurries of clattering noise and sound effects barraging the listener. If this sounds similar to /\/\/\Y/\, it should be noted that this loose collection of songs bring back something sorely missing from her last album: fun. Despite the title’s obvious reference to the WikiLeaks scandal, Vicki Leekx is rarely political, instead opting for dance floor chants like “You can have my money, but you can’t have me” and “Live fast, die young. Bad girls do it well.” There is still sinister and socially conscious rumblings in the music and lyrics, but they don’t draw attention to themselves, similar to that of he first two albums, where the politics gave weight to the songs instead of weighing them down. It may be just a mixtape, but as mixtapes go, Vicki Leekx is quite enjoyable, ending 2010 on a good note for this fiery and provocative artist.
James Blake – James Blake
British wunderkind James Blake made giant, blog-provoking waves with his first few singles and EPs, revealing an interesting talent to the world: a dubstep producer who also sang like a cross between D’Angelo and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, giving the dark, tense genre some warm humanity. Up until now, it had mostly only been heard in sampled snippets, but his eponymous debut album emphasizes his vocal prowess, which helps to broaden his sound considerably. And when turning on James Blake, the sound is the most immediately engaging thing about the album. To his immense credit, Blake recognizes that silence is an instrument itself, and the vast spaces between notes (along with the reverberating drum machines and piano chords) create a sparse, isolated atmosphere, one that heightens Blake’s introspection and loneliness. “The Wilhelm Scream” is easily the best thing here, bringing all the best aspects of his music together: an evocative, slow-building production and a moving vocal from the man himself. “I Never Learnt To Share” and his previously released Feist cover “Limit To Your Love” aren’t far behind though, the former sounding like a dubstep remix of a Play-era Moby track and the latter all spare piano and skittering soul.
Yet, as brilliant as these moments are, James Blake also reveals its namesake to be somewhat of a one-trick pony. Nearly the entire album works within the same formula, and while the sound of the album is arresting at first, repeated listens dissipate the mystique and reveal a number of mediocre tracks. The album is less an electronica album and more of an electronic singer/songwriter record, and Blake simply doesn’t have the songwriting chops to sustain a whole album, especially because the sound and approach changes so little from song to song. With the exception of “To Care (Like You),” the whole second half of James Blake sounds like one song: clipped, sampled vocals and spacious production repeated ad nauseum with each spin not adding any more depth to the music. Make no mistake: James Blake is onto something here, and the handful of songs on this album worth returning to are quite remarkable. He has a honed a sound both familiar and distinct, a sound that will pay great dividends for him in the future. All of this makes him an artist to watch, but first he needs to write a set of songs that carry the emotion he so desperately wants to convey.
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
After crafting a career making British sea shanties salable to the public and then dipping into prog rock on The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, who knew that all the Decemberists ever wanted to be was R.E.M.? Released in early 2011, The King Is Dead indeed often bears an uncanny likeness to the legendary Athens band, mixing up the jangly folk of that group’s early work and the emotional directness of Automatic For The People at will. The band even goes so far as to have R.E.M.’s guitarist Peter Buck play on three songs, mimicking his “Talk About The Passion” riff on “Calamity Song”. Despite these surface similarities, though, the album doesn’t ever feel particularly derivative. This is mainly because Colin Meloy and co. accent these songs with warm country overtones, further exploring American music in a way they haven’t done in the past. “Don’t Carry It All” and “Down By The Water” are fine countryside singalongs—especially with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings lending rich harmonies to the latter—but it’s the softer moments like “January Hymn” that give The King Is Dead a bit more versatility. At the same time, though, the Decemberists haven’t quite mastered this type of sound, and the album as a whole lacks the depth and emotion of the artists they try to emulate, both musically and lyrically. There’s enough potential here to suggest that if the band continues mining the Appalachians for inspiration, they could create something quite superb. For now, though, The King Is Dead is a pleasant, if insubstantial, listen and proof that the Decemberists are aging gracefully.
Radiohead – Hail To The Thief
After the separated-at-birth experiments Kid A and Amnesiac, it was unclear which direction Radiohead would head next. From the looks of Hail To The Thief, it seems the band didn’t really know either. Compiled mainly from songs they have been tooling around with for many years and some newly written material, their 2003 effort is the band’s longest and most varied effort to date. It’s also, as the title implies, their most explicitly political. This isn’t to say that Thom Yorke is going on any Rage Against The Machine-styled rants here—he’s not even particularly topical. Instead, inspired by the tumultuous global climate following the 9/11 attacks, he explores his fear of Orwellian governments (“2+2=5,” “Sit Down, Stand Up”), while imaging a safer future for his children (“I Will,” “Sail To The Moon”). But it isn’t all politics, and Yorke uses the opportunity to try a few new lyrical approaches, whether they be stream-of-consciousness paranoia (“A Wolf At The Door”) or a fictional character study (“A Punch Up At A Wedding”).
This eclectic approach extends to the music as well. After two albums of delving into particularly experimental territory, Radiohead return with more guitars, drums, and especially pianos than they’ve had since the ’90s. They haven’t abandoned electronics entirely—”Backdrifts” and “The Gloaming” make that perfectly clear—but it only informs the music here, rather than forming the foundation. “2+2=5” starts like many other Radiohead songs, ethereal and plaintive, until all the sudden it works itself into a furious frenzy with Yorke shouting, “You have not been paying attention!” as if indicting all those who hadn’t taken his neurotic warnings seriously. Elsewhere, the creepy dirge of “We Suck Young Blood,” the growling “Myxomatosis,” and the excellent “There There”‘s pounding percussion move in different directions entirely.
However, what makes Hail To The Thief unique in Radiohead’s catalogue is also its greatest weakness. It’s clear the band takes advantage of their longest tracklisting to date, trying a little bit of everything, but it also results in an inconsistent, unfocused listen. Songs like “Scatterbrain” and “Where I End And You Begin” fit the tone of the record to be sure, yet they feel like obvious filler. Radiohead are at their best when they are overreaching, and since they rest on their laurels here a bit, some of these songs don’t stick as well as they should. That being said, for anyone else, Hail To The Thief would be a great achievement, but for Radiohead, it’s a bit of a letdown. Despite this, the numerous great moments on here rank with the band’s best work.
Mika – Life In Cartoon Motion
Just a glance at the album cover will tell you if Mika and his debut album, Life In Cartoon Motion, are right for you. It’s fitting artwork, though. This is bright, Technicolor pop with bouncy guitars, twinkling pianos, and an insistent rhythm section, all of it in the grand tradition of Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and, more recently, the Scissor Sisters. So for music so flashy, why is Mika’s debut so dull? To be fair, it’s not the fault of the first few songs. “Grace Kelly” was deservedly a global hit, an unrequited love song featuring an absolutely euphoric chorus. “Lollipop” and “Love Today” follow suit and succeed, albeit to a lesser degree. But right after the fine, hypnotic “Relax (Take It Easy),” Life In Cartoon Motion begins to nosedive. Some of this has to do with the way Mika sings. Clearly, his touchstone is Freddie Mercury (“Grace Kelly” even namechecks him), but whereas Mercury was self-aware and knew how to frame his theatrics in equally bombastic arrangements, Mika affects his voice like a Broadway actor, making his attempts at sincerity sound forced and artificial. This is particularly the case on the saccharine ballads “Happy Ending” and “Any Other World” and on the MOR pop/rock of “My Interpretation” and “Erase.” The lack of earnestness continues elsewhere, sinking otherwise well-meaning pop songs like “Billy Brown”‘s tale of a closeted man and the love-your-body anthem “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful).” Sure, Mika may mean what he is saying, but it sounds like a put-on, draining the songs of both weight and feeling. While the music itself has interesting quirks and arrangements, Mika tries a bit too hard and a bit too much, and when “eclectic” starts slipping into “erratic,” the songs lose their hooks and their focus. It’s clear he has potential as a singer and songwriter (the best moments on the album make that clear), but other than the occasional highlight, there isn’t much here to sink one’s teeth into.