Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [2016]

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Radiohead isn’t a band that needs introduction at this point, at least usually. But during the lead up to their first album in five years, it seems as if they were trying to reintroduce themselves. In the days before A Moon Shaped Pool dropped, the band completely erased their internet presence, leaving nothing but a blank slate devoid of posts across their Twitter feeds and Facebook page. And when those gears DID start turning again, it was only to dribble out tiny clips of a child-like claymation video, which lacked any music, branding, or information of any kind. It signaled very clearly that something was about to happen, something that wasn’t beholden to their past, something cleaner and purer than before.

A Moon Shaped Pool is exactly that – it’s some of the cleanest, purest, and most human music the band has put to tape so far. Of course, this is Radiohead we’re talking about, so they’ll always bear some of that cold, insular, and electronic edge they’ve explored for so long. But what’s so surprising about this record is the much more emotional and naturalistic side they’ve chosen to explore within it. Acoustic guitars, string sections, and pianos take far more precedence over drum machines, sequencers and laptops, and more than ever Thom Yorke’s lyrics are focused on the pitfalls of the human condition instead of his trademark claustrophobic technophobia and paranoia. “Burn the Witch” is a perfect example of this: opening with a percussive gush of strings unlike anything in their discography, it drives forward with little need for guitars or drums, while focusing on the division of different peoples and the fear-mongering that causes it. But that song is actually a bit of a feint, as it doesn’t take long for the band to dip into more downcast, defeated territory: “Daydreaming” is one of the simplest songs in their catalog, but one of the thickest with emotion. Built upon a simple repeating piano motif, Yorke’s vocals barely rise above a murmur, and are cocooned with flourishes of violins and electronics that establish the song’s true movement and feeling. And “Decks Dark” is a slow burn of a track replete with chilly, rattling guitar lines and an introspective piano line that buoys some of Yorke’s most expressive vocals since In Rainbows – ones that equate encroaching dread and fear to visiting aliens blotting out the sky with their flying saucers.

But it’s after that three track run that the album starts revealing its truest colors. For example, “Desert Island Disk” is the closest thing to a folk song that the band has ever recorded. Calm and quiet, it’s led by an aerobic acoustic guitar line, gentle swirls of background electronics, and an oddly out-of-character set of lyrics that inspire uplift and hope instead of fear and paranoia. This track also finds a cousin on the album’s second half in “The Numbers”. It’s another gentle, folky song that this time finds its inspiration in ’60s protest music, as Yorke quietly rails against climate change and the powers that be, insisting that the people have the power to create change – which doesn’t solely have to function as an instruction against global warming. And while not nearly as folksy, “Present Tense” is a Spanish-sounding love-lost groove that’s almost danceable despite it’s lack of any sort of beat and heartbroken lyrics. Acoustic guitars aren’t the sole driving force of this album, however. “Ful Stop” throbs along with a repeating bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood that establishes the core of the song, a song which chooses to fully explore that groove rather than searching out another, more obscure path. And on “Identikit”, the rest of the band allows Jonny Greenwood to take his electric guitar out of storage, resulting in a song with plenty of spiky dynamics and angular guitar lines to complement its grooving drums and expressive chorus.

But as always with Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool has a moodier side as well. As “Daydreaming” foreshadows, this isn’t an album without its darkness. “Glass Eyes” is a short yet powerful piano ballad punctuated with otherworldy strings, exploring the anxiety one finds themselves faced with when arriving in a new place, and its bare bones musicality only serves to emphasize its narrative (one which is formatted in the spirit of a voicemail left on someone’s phone). And conversely, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor…” finds itself straddling both that minimalist slant of “Glass Eyes” and a bigger, more sweeping cinematic feel. Its first half drifts around with little direction and a listless energy, until Jonny’s Bond-esque string score swoops in to take the song into an entirely different world. What at first seems like an almost disjointed track soon makes sense, as that swirl of strings leads into the crowning jewel, and closing track, of the album. “True Love Waits” is a storied song in Radiohead’s catalog, having been played live in one version or another dating back all the way to 1995. But it’s been a notoriously hard one for the band to try and capture, as it wasn’t until Yorke’s 23 year long relationship dissolved that they were finally able to find the inspiration to nail it. Once written with the hope and promise of a new love in mind, the song is now transformed into a fragile, twinkling, and bittersweet one of loss, barely held together as its gentle dual piano lines threaten to spiral away from each other. Despite being so gentle and low-key, Yorke manages to wring emotion out of every syllable and key, and the rasp that creeps into his voice during the chorus truly sells it.

A Moon Shaped Pool strikes a very fine balance as a whole piece of work. Despite featuring downcast, dreamy tracks like “Daydreaming” alongside folksy excursions such as “Desert Island Disk” and “The Numbers” and percussive orchestral numbers like “Burn the Witch”, and despite also pulling songs from many different points in the band’s career (“Ful Stop” and “Identikit” originated in 2012 on the King of Limbs tour, “Present Tense” in 2009 a a Yorke solo gig, “Burn the Witch” in the Hail to the Thief era, and “True Love Waits” in 1995), it feels like a body of work that was created concurrently. These songs have been massaged and finessed into the gentle, moody, yet very human forms they appear in here, and feel like puzzle pieces that were always meant to fit together. Even more so, despite their disparate eras, the fact that much of their lyrical content syncs with the huge loss Yorke has recently suffered makes these tracks feel even more fated to be together. Radiohead may have erased their own social media presence, and in doing so took a stab at erasing their own past. But the album they did it in service of inverts that by collecting little bits of ephemera from throughout their career, and uses them to form their most gentle and intimate sounding record ever, and one that’s the closest thing to a traditional heartbreak album the band has ever made. Where they once feared the world’s ever-increasing reliance on technology, here they’re fearing the breakdown of personal relationships and the loss of love. After looking outward for so long, it’s not so surprising that they’ve finally chosen to look inside and take stock of their own hearts. No longer are they paranoid androids suffering from future shock, but instead have opened their hearts up a little more to reveal the glassy-eyed daydreamers they truly are.

Key Tracks: Daydreaming, Decks Dark, Identikit, True Love Waits

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Thom Yorke Moves to Bandcamp, Releases New Song

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After the experiment with BitTorrent’s new distribution model, Thom Yorke has now also made the move to Bandcamp. Besides uploading his newest solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, he’s also released what appears to be a b-side from that album, featuring similarly themed artwork, as well as sporting a “pay what you want” download price.

The song itself is gorgeous, and more vocally-driven than most of the tracks on the actual album. It’s a very gentle, almost upbeat sounding song, with Yorke’s falsetto sounding much more sweeter than his usual forlorn wail. It’s reminiscent of the Amnesiac b-side Worrywort in a way, especially in its use of retro-sounding synths and almost chiptune styled sound effects. Honestly, it’s my favorite song from the TMB era of his solo work now, next to Nose Grows Some. Here’s hoping there’s a few more tracks like this still on the cutting room floor.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014)

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Mr. Yorke has been a pretty busy man these last few years. Radiohead released and toured their eighth studio album, The King of Limbs in 2011, and he then defected to supergroup Atoms for Peace to create their debut, Amok. Now, eight full years after The Eraser, Yorke has delivered his second solo album with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes won’t surprise anyone who’s been following these recent releases, as it provides yet another variation on Yorke’s recent infatuation with densely layered electronic beats and rhythms. However, what sets it apart is that it is a true solo effort, and as such, it’s much more pared down. Aside from programming by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood on “Guess Again!” and production assistance from longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, just about everything on this record is Yorke’s work.

The result is a spare, melancholic ride through paranoid electronic soundscapes and melancholy beats. The album opens with the tight, neurotic “A Brain in a Bottle”, with rattles along with a pulsing bass line and warbly retro synths. “Guess Again!” provides echoes of Aphex Twin, with Yorke’s voice easily floating in and out, sounding as beleaguered as ever. Surprisingly, one of the most down-tempo and spare songs is one of the strongest, that being the haunting “Interference”. Yorke’s restrained and defeated voice details the slow death of a relationship, and the skeletal music emphasizes the hopelessness of it all. Speaking of Yorke’s voice, he’s had a penchant for mostly staying in his falsetto range on his past few releases, but Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes finally finds him once again striking a balance between his regular voice and his falsetto. Nowhere is this more prominent than on “The Mother Lode”, which finds him gliding back and forth between registers to great effect, and making it one of the most memorable tracks here.

Though as with The King of Limbs, length works against the album’s favor, especially in light of “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”. The aforementioned song is a marathon 7 minutes of largely vocal-less ambience, built around a repetitive beat that never truly evolves or gets expanded upon, choosing instead to simply exist in it’s own little bubble. One weak track can sink an album of such short length, especially when it’s already a slow, introspective work to begin with. It doesn’t manage to kill the entire album, but it certainly destroys the momentum that the first half builds, and the affair doesn’t truly recover until the closer, “Nose Grows Some”.

However, “Nose Grows Some” is worth the journey alone. On par with Radiohead’s best songs, it’s a beautiful track that floats along with synth lines that sound hopeful, yet restrained and somehow nervous. Yorke drenches his voice with reverb here, filling the empty space created by the simple beat. It’s a song that feels like it could go on forever and you wouldn’t mind (on the vinyl release, it actually does go on forever, thanks to the looped groove on the disc). It’s moments and songs like these that make Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes well worth exploring.

All praise aside, I’m not sure how Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes holds up. On my first few listens I was completely enthralled and lost in the atmosphere of it, but as I’ve listened further and the newness wore off, I’ve found myself more ambivalent towards it. Yorke isn’t really offering anything he hasn’t done before here in one band or another, and he’s not doing it exceptionally enough to justify it. That’s not to say it’s a bad effort by any means, though. While many artists out there have explored this style of electronic music better, there’s something unique about the way Yorke pairs his fascinating sense of melody with the music he’s created. For that alone, it’s always worth listening to and exploring his newest work, even if it’s no longer as groundbreaking as Kid A.

Key Tracks: The Mother Lode, Interference, Nose Grows Some

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

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In Rainbows is Radiohead’s seventh album, released in 2007. It comes from a band with a long history of taking chances and experimenting with their sound, never releasing something that sounded like a clone of their last album. And true to fashion, In Rainbows sounds like nothing they’d done before – and like everything – all at once.

Radiohead consists of five members, Thom Yorke (vocals/guitar/keyboards), Jonny Greenwood (guitar, Ondes Martenot, effects), Colin Greenwood (bass guitar), Ed O’Brien (rhythm guitar/effects), and Phil Selway (drums). Most people know the band for their biggest hit, “Creep”, and brush them off as just another alternative rock band from the 1990s. However, beyond that, they developed into a band with a penchant for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable from a rock band, and that sense of daring is probably the biggest reason why I enjoy their music so much.

In their previous work, they morphed from a British alternative rock band, into something resembling the offspring of Pink Floyd and Aphex Twin – expansive textures and paranoid, insular electronica. Before the release of In Rainbows, they had largely eschewed the melodic quality of their earlier work, which alienated the band to a lot of casual listeners. But with this album, they managed to make something that blended both that strong melodic sense, and the lush textures that they had become more known for. The first song on the album, “15 Step”, is a good example of this – it starts off with a looped electronic drumbeat (that’s strikingly danceable), before Yorke’s high, melodic vocal line comes in. From there, a clean, jazzy guitar line enters, adding texture, but still leaving more than enough space for the bass guitar and vocals to breathe and mingle.

Texture and space are in fact the two biggest keys to the album’s sound. After the short, uncharacteristic burst of fuzz-guitar rock on “Bodysnatchers”, the album quiets down into songs like “Nude” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, which bring in slower tempos, plaintive melodies and lyrics, orchestration, and warm, rich instrumentation. The songs ebb and flow with keyboards and strings, groovy bass lines, and well-placed guitar work that neither dominate the songs, nor sink into the background. Right when you think “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is about to explode into climax, everything but Yorke’s vocals fall away, and when “Jigsaw Falling into Place” starts off with a quiet acoustic guitar intro, it’s the one that launches into a powerful and cathartic resolution halfway through.

Another facet of this album is how subtlety complex it is. At first listen, the songs sound fairly simple, but on repeated listens (and a good pair of headphones), it reveals more and more layers of sound. Keyboards, guitars, xylophones, drum machines, and reverb build to create a full range of sounds, and makes it a rewarding album to dig into time after time. Radiohead also sounds like they have embraced jazz more than on any other album, with the song “House of Cards” being the most prominent example of this. The guitar comps a jazzy chord progression along to Selway’s restrained time-keeping, which also adds a sparse, relaxing atmosphere to the song.

The title “In Rainbows” is more than perfect for this album – it has more vibrancy and color than any other album in their catalog. It doesn’t follow the normal Radiohead format of veering away from the expected on each album, but still manages to be surprising. They managed to combine the cold, computer-generated effects of their albums Kid A and Amnesiac, with a more natural, human element, and a sense of melody that they’d hidden away for nearly a decade. Even though this review sounds cold and professional, everything I have talked about here contributes to why I love this album so much – as much as I enjoy their more electronic, expansive songs, I am a sucker for the melodic, human feeling that their first three albums had. All of the different layers intrigue me as a musician, because they work together in ways that are subtle and sometimes almost imperceptible, but in a way that if they were not there, you would definitely notice. And unlike some of their moodier work, In Rainbows isn’t as emotionally draining to listen to, compared to Kid A or Hail to the Thief. It’s a much easier record to reach for anytime, and still get something that sounds like Radiohead. All in all, In Rainbows is a feat – ten years after their most critically acclaimed album, long past the prime of many other bands, they pulled out an album that stands alongside their best work, and in the light of The King of Limbs, is a like a send off to what Radiohead was, letting them adventure off into more obscure formats and sounds.