Tuesday, 26 August 2008

An interim post

It's basically just sex music is sick of bands who think by using a particular band as a reference point they can justify their awful music.

Monday, 18 August 2008

In Rainbows - Radiohead

After the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003 and the accompanying EP Com Lag (2+2=5), Radiohead were released from their contractual obligations with Parlophone and its parent company EMI, ending their long association which stretched back to their debut Pablo Honey. Upon leaving the company Thom Yorke described the traditional record industry as a “decaying business model”, a notion supported by EMI’s purchase by venture capitalists Terra Firma. They are not the only artist to speak out against them; Blur criticised them in the song “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” long before the equity firm bought them out, while more recently Lily Allen has blamed the redundancies enforced by the new owners for the delay in releasing her sophomore album. Against this milieu they decided their seventh studio album would initially be available as a download only, and the price would be determined by the buyer. Ten days before it was released digitally they announced on their blog on official page Dead Air Space that it would be called In Rainbows, a curiously childlike and wondrous title. Obviously this brought a lot of media attention. According to recent analysis of the digital downloads by music rights holders, and despite the fact that theoretically it was available for free, the album was still heavily pirated online. The album was released physically in December 2007 by XL recordings for those who still hankered after a tangible object. A deluxe disc was available for £40, aimed at the vast number of Radiohead completists who owned all the Japanese imports. In the early rush of press releases and commotion surrounding the album’s public entrance, there were various utterances attributed to the band espousing the belief that this was their Revolver, their definitive collection. It certainly feels concise in comparison to Hail to the Thief, which had at least two too many songs on it.
The primary themes of the album are ones of alienation, paranoia, of temporal and emotional dislocation. Each song on the album is an encapsulated narrative, a self-enclosed world into which you are cast adrift. Ten perfectly formed songs comprise the album, while the discbox houses a second CD of bonus material. Because of the songs structure I find it best to approach each song individually in order to come to some form of comprehension of the whole.
A processed drum rhythm announces the record on “15 Step”, with Yorke declaiming “How come I end up where I started”. So far, so post-OK Computer Radiohead. Skittering rhythm - check, paranoid vocals – check etcetera. However on 23 seconds Phil Selway’s hypnotic acoustic drumbeat kicks in, all tight snare and clipped hi-hat, mirroring the processed drumbeat, building on it, enveloping it. On 43 seconds, the first guitar line of the album commences. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar phrase is a complete revelation; the warmth of the tone, the subtle nuances and the intricacies of his playing are breathtaking. Those more used to his bombastic playing on earlier records will be surprised. Greenwood junior has always been Radiohead’s secret weapon, from the moment he joined his elder brother’s band. His ability to take a song and completely unhinge it, taking it into new and exciting avenues has never been in question. That is why this phrase, so simple and yet so rich and perfect in execution, is such a joy. Around the two and a half minute mark the song breaks down, the processed beat rejoins along with found sounds, sampled children’s speech and Yorke’s schizoid vocals. Then the rhythm section propels the track forward with Colin Greenwood’s effortlessly funky bass line and Selway’s drum beat. The whole song is so well cadenced, with the various layers interwoven perfectly.
“Bodysnatchers” is another surprise. Hail to the Thief was hailed by many because it was perceived as a return to Radiohead’s earlier musical ventures. Essentially this comes down to them ‘plugging in’; Britain’s musical press is rockcentric and ultimately fears electronic music, both aurally and ideologically. Since OK Computer there has been a noticeable aversion to guitars in Radiohead’s music, although it has to be pointed out that both Kid A and Amnesiac feature many tracks that contain guitars, but that are just utilised in different ways. They are textured, layered rather than providing the focal point for the song. Hail to the Thief opened with “2+2=5”, which itself begun symbolically with the sound of a guitar being plugged in. “Bodysnatchers” is the heaviest, most frantic on the album and is probably the most frenetic since “Electioneering” on OK Computer. It starts with a fuzztone driven, dropped D riff. Once the whole band kicks in it sounds not unlike a dirty revved up version of White Album era Beatles, ending with half a minute of furious riffing and Jonny Greenwood emitting frenzied, strangled notes from his Telecaster. To put it bluntly, it rocks.
“Nude” began life in 1997, and has gone through various permutations before finding itself on In Rainbows in its new guise. It is a wonderful example of a songwriter, dedicated to his craft, refusing to let a good melody or idea go. It begins in a swirl of strings and descending vocal lines, with Phil Selway’s rimshot snare and a glimmering glissando guitar joining before Colin Greenwood’s dub influenced bass line begins. The track is heart rendering, aching, and yearning. The clean guitar refrain resembles nothing more than cracked Philly soul. Yorke’s voice soars and freewheels above the mix. However the boy meets girl scenario of classic soul is replaced with cautionary tales of not getting any big ideas. On 3 minutes 14 seconds the multi-tracked vocals reach for the heights. Strings, full of tension, strive to match Yorke all the way. The eternal paradox surrounding Radiohead is that how can something so well crafted and beautiful sound so close to collapse.
“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is the song in which all the ideas that Radiohead possess about their sound is distilled to the most success. Selway counts them in with four taps of his sticks, before starting a perfunctory solid drum beat. Ed O’Brien’s guitar motif of four minor key finger picked arpeggios is mirrored by Jonny Greenwood. It’s not the same refrain however; it intertwines with it, creates a new space, a fresh narrative for the song. Colin Greenwood’s bass is solid root note fundamentals, underpinning the guitar work.
“In the deepest ocean, the bottom of the sea.....”
The song builds and builds, it is claustrophobic, as though it has been submerged. Yorke’s vocals sound as if they have been recorded at the bottom of the ocean, yet the second (and third) guitars and Ed O’Brien’s backing vox intersect with them opening new vistas of imagination. It feels so organic, as if it hasn’t been written by five people but trapped in a net. As the song advances it yearns for a crescendo. One of Radiohead’s key traits is their control of song structure and the creation of tension within the construct. Unlike many of their contemporaries they are able to deliver the pay off. Just after the three minute mark Yorke declares “I get eaten by the world, and weird fishes” and the guitars are replaced by Greenwood’s intricate playing on the ondes martenot (an early electronic instrument). The electronic music swells into a new section on 3 minutes 41 seconds with disturbing white noise, electric glissandos that glisten beautifully, fade and decay while the first guitar refrain repeats.
“All I Need” begins with Phil Selway’s syncopated, clipped drum rhythm and a wash of synthesis, before a 5 string bass line introduces the main melody of the song. Radiohead’s devouring of all things electronic (particularly 20th century composers such as Reich, Glass, Messaien, Stockhausen and the output of Warp records) is evident on this track. The ambience is pure Boards of Canada, and is genuinely disarming in its beauty and frailty. This song highlights the feeling that has been growing and becoming more palpable on each track; the sense of a beating human heart lying beneath the sentiments. They had previously been criticised for their apparent reluctance to create a dialogue with their audience, preferring to use obtuse wordplay to convey complex emotions and politics. Universal themes and heartfelt emotions are perceptible, rather than the fragmented lyricism that normally characterises Yorke’s writing. The song is elegiac, but due to its sentiments becomes the album’s pulse, its touchstone. Yorke proclaims that he is “an animal that just wants to share your life”. Found sounds, sampled fragments contribute to the fractured soundscape which is lightened by plaintive glockenspiel. On 2 minutes 46 seconds minor key piano chords enter, cymbals crash and the vocals soar and undulate before returning. “All I Need” presents the album’s bruised face, a tarnished and blemished heart, a soul that wants to be loved. A soul that cannot change.
On first listen “Faust Arp” appears to be the weakest song in the collection. It begins with a B minor chord and is structured around this key. Its lyrics are nonsensical, yet further listening deepens and enriches the experience. Gently bowed strings and Yorke’s downbeat delivery conspire to drag you further in. While the song’s meaning is unfathomable, again it is the quality of the songcraft that stops this being a mere throwaway track. It is bucolic, pastoral and has more than a hint of Nick Drake about it. This resemblance is particularly enhanced by the version on “Scotch Mist” (the webcast they made at their Oxfordshire studio on New Year’s Eve 2007), where Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood play the song on a hillside in the country. By the last draw of bow on cello it has ensnared you but such is the track’s brevity by the time it has worked its charm it has gone, clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 9 seconds.
“Reckoner” opens with strident drums, with heavy use of the crash cymbal. After 10 seconds the main guitar phrase begins, three simply picked chords. Thom Yorke’s vocal on this song is tremulous, soaring, gospel like. Much like on “Nude” and “All I Need” it transports the listener to a different plane away from the complications of our everyday, humdrum existence. It ends with a rousing string coda, backed with aspirational jazz inflected guitar chords.
“House of Cards” begins with the couplet “I don’t wanna be your friend/I just wanna be your lover”, intoned over a serene guitar line. There is a lot to surprise on this album, and that is high on the list. The couplet could have come from any one of a number of pop songs, so its use in a Radiohead song is strange. In the past it could have been perceived as being subversive, using the lexicon of pop to comment and create discourse on the subject, yet on this album it truly feels sincere. The vocal register that Yorke uses is deeper, richer with less of the caterwauling to be found on Radiohead’s edgier material. It has soul. This newfound candid nature could be perplexing to diehard fans but I find it refreshing. Yorke’s vocals are swathed in reverb, while Greenwood uses an Ebow on his guitar to create an ethereal, haunting effect over the song. The accompanying music video, filmed using a geometric mapping visualisation technique to capture three dimensional close ups of Thom Yorke singing and multiple lasers to create remarkable cityscapes, is truly groundbreaking as it used no conventional film equipment in its production. Seven albums in and it appears that there is no comfort zone for them, they consistently utilise technology to push the envelope in terms of the band’s presentation.
If “All I Need” is the album’s love song, then “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is the albums seduction song. It begins with an acoustic guitar picking out a chord pattern in an open D tuning, gradually descending. The song is a caustic tale depicting a one night stand as a nightmarish conceit. The guitars interlace while backing vocals swoop and soar over the top. On the Scotch Mist version Jonny Greenwood uses the ondes martenot to harmonise with the vocals, but this unfortunately is not included on the album version. The song drives inexorably onward to its logical conclusion, and after the redemptive spirit shown on earlier songs the mistrust and ache exhibited is something of an intrusion.
“Videotape”, funereal and distant, closes the album. The lyrical theme concerns a person at the “pearly gates” of heaven reviewing their life captured on home movies, debating their worth and what they have achieved. It is a beautiful piece of music, and the album version is augmented with glitch-style percussive beats and flicks. Despite its austere nature it is an incredibly moving song, based around a simple piano theme. It showcases long time producer Nigel Godrich’s effortless skill in melding together layers of acoustic and synthetic sound.
In Rainbows is a beautiful album that allows it to transcend discussion of the ethics concerned in its release. The experimental sections are firmly wound into the melodies of more traditional song structures. It does appear to be an epithet of everything they have ever wished to create, the logical conclusion of their previous records. The combination of post-rock, electronic bricolage, patterns, pop, dub, jazz, synths, strings, acoustic instruments, frenzy, restraint, dreams, beauty, frailty, pain, anguish, schisms, fragments, paranoia, rock and roll, hope and fear is well measured and delivered in exemplary fashion. By this stage in their career Radiohead are so consummate in the studio I would back them to deliver at the very least an interesting record; but this is so much more. It is perfect on every level, and they can only get better from here on in.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Modern Life Is Rubbish - Blur

In the mid 90s there were no dedicated twenty four hour ‘indie’ television channels. The most you could expect was the indie chart rundown fortnightly on ITV’s Chart Show on Saturday mornings, or the occasional Super Furry Animals or Supernaturals video. Whilst certainly not a barren spell for music, the coverage was poor. Pre-internet meant scouring teletext (nominally Channel 4’s Planet Sound) for demo and gig reviews, and forums. To keep in touch with underground music from other locales in the UK meant sending 50p and a stamp addressed envelope to obscure villages in Derbyshire, or £2.50 for a badly recorded four track demo. That sometimes came with a badge. The prevalence of ‘indie’ as a fashion, as a sound, as a preset construct means it is easy to forget about these leaner times. It is also easy to romanticise them.
Against this backdrop Blur released Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993. It is usually credited with starting the Britpop movement, and while this can be debated the album’s influence cannot. Its highest chart placing was 15, and was critically well received on release but didn’t shift enough units to be considered a success by EMI, the parent company of Blur’s record label Food. The British sound which it expounded traced a direct line through The Kinks, The Who, The Jam, ska, skinhead, and shoegazer. It was Village Green Appreciation Society for the early 1990s. Using these antecedents as reference points allowed them to distance themselves from the baggy movement which their debut Leisure had been lumped in with, while also dissociating them with grunge. Although they would later adapt an American sound on Blur and 13, at this stage in their development (and particularly after a torturous American tour) they wished to put as much open water between them and the sound from across the Atlantic.
The ideas of Britishness, both as a notion and as a construct, are central to the album. It informs debate about the album and its merits, and why it is still an important recording today. One of the promo photos for the album’s release showed them in a mixture of mod and skinhead gear, with a pitbull and the phrase “British Image 1” on a brick wall behind. The best place to find members of Britpop bands was hanging out in some greasy spoon or pie and mash shop in London’s East End (until the dawn of New Labour when membership of the Groucho club became de rigueur). While this can be argued to be an affectation, the ethos that fortified it is more problematical to scrutinise.
What this album rails against is a general malaise that affected the nation at the time; the dissipation of traditional Britishness. The decay of modern culture (ie 20th century modernism) is posited against the milieu of globalised popular ethos. 19th century industrialisation had woven itself into the texture of inner city life in Britain, yet by the 1990s the idea of community had dissolved. The traditional British image has receded. Britishness is something that can be learnt; indeed has to, if you are applying for citizenship. National identity isn’t concrete, it is malleable and fluid. The album provokes debate on the construct of national identity, if it is still relevant, and examines the signifiers of nationalism itself.
The inhabitants of Blur’s songs are insulated. They feel uncomfortable in working class communities; the traditional post-compulsory education route was via heavy industry not the social mobility offered by higher education. Thus Damon Albarn writes about middle managers, such as Colin Zeal, and the pressure on Julian as he pushes trolleys in the car park. This Is Middle England. The banal and mundane are not taboo subjects. They are embraced, allowing them to adopt a microcosmic viewpoint which embodies this sense of frustration with the 1990s. For further elucidation on their thoughts of the decade, listen to “1992” from 13. It says it all.
Blur are modernists in the truest sense of the phrase – their music is a reaction against the rise of mass culture, which is perceived as formulaic and a superficial novelty. The lyrics are full of references to advertising, billboards. It was a time when advertising wasn’t so pervasive, so the novelty of American style marketing hadn’t yet worn off. “Advert” begins with the phrase “Food processors are great!” The Andy Warhol phrase “Buying is much more American than thinking” lurks underneath. Globalisation has shrunk the world, has shrunk time. According to Paul Virilio, “We live in a time of intensely tiny units of time. The real world and our image of the world no longer coincide”.
This album marks the initiation of Damon Albarn’s obsession with London. As usual it is the frontier lands in the suburbs that take precedence, fitting for a boy from Leytonstone. Along with other correspondents from London working in the latter half of the 20th century, he finds solace in these areas. They stimulate and engender thought in a way that the tourist filled centre could not. Thus the protagonists live in Emperor’s Gate and plan trips to Primrose Hill; they travel into the centre on the underground, they live in fragments of history. They drink sugary tea in hovels and buy trainers (with air cushioned soles) from Portobello Road market. They inhabit the places between places, that can’t be mapped, that are ever shifting.
The spectre of vaudeville raises its head on “Intermission” and “Commercial Break”. This link to music hall was something The Who had explored on Tommy, so it wasn’t new for a British band to explore this area of cultural tradition, but it’s embracing on the album is important in entrenching the idea of Britishness that permeates.
The problem with Modern Life Is Rubbish’s version of Britishness; it is Anglocentric, particularly biased to the south, and it is easy to see how a group of five beer swilling Mancunians armed with songs that married the bombast of the late era Beatles to the urgency of the Clash could challenge their place for Britpop primacy. Retrospectively Blur’s songs seem twee in comparison, but they possess an ironic, post-modern heart truly in keeping with many of their art-punk heroes and predecessors. “Sunday, Sunday” (a distant cousin both thematically and structurally to “Just Who Is The Five A-Clock Hero?” by The Jam) is the most ‘British’ song on the album. Colour supplements, TV guide, Sunday roast, Songs of Praise, war heroes, Mother’s Pride; all traditional ‘British’ imagery referenced in the opening verse. Yet the CD booklet introduces the song as “Legislated nostalgia: to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess”. This is coupled with the cover artwork; at a time when the rail network was being touted for privatisation, the image of a steam locomotive was an uncomfortable reminder of bygone days. The idea of the traditional British Sunday is shown as collective cultural amnesia, a fallacy, a construct. Britishness as national identity is erroneous. Blur were aware enough in their adoption of the signifiers that they were utilising were on the way out, yet they enabled them to comment on our national character and deepen the discourse surrounding it.
There is a real dichotomy in their songwriting body, and this is particularly evident on Modern Life is Rubbish (as well as its companion piece, Parklife). Bombastic songs, such as the singles “Sunday, Sunday”, “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow” sit alongside more reflective moments such as “Blue Jeans”, “Miss America” and the beautiful album closer “Resigned”. A precursor to “This Is a Low”, its restrained tremolo laden guitar and melodica interweave before culminating in one of Blur’s classic outros. Much like the closing section of “Beetlebum”, every last fragment of emotion is wrought from a few simple chords. Beautiful. Graham Coxon’s guitar work is immense throughout, layering the songs with shimmering motifs over major and minor chord structures.
Despite its flaws this is still an important album. It is more than just a forerunner for Parklife, and in terms of its social impact and importance I believe it has a greater resonance. There is prescience in the title which allows it to transcend the generational gap. 15 years later the twentysomethings that Blur would have appealed to still experience the aspiration deficit. In 1993 Britain was in the grip of recession and an unpopular government that had begun to outstay its welcome was steadily sinking the ship. But in 1993 you couldn’t watch identikit indie bands 24 hours a day. Oh, for simpler times.