About The Pennds

The Pennds is: Jared Rosenberg, Steve Waye, Andrew Bielen & Charlie Isaacs.

Mission Statement: The Pennds explores Radiohead from an academic perspective. We go beyond notions of active listening in favor of involved perception, in order to better understand the band's work. We do not assign superlatives; in fact we challenge those that exist. Using the framework of discourse, we aim not to pin down the essence of Radiohead, but rather to set free that concept, to give it pliable spirit.

Special Thanks to Al Filreis for making this (and so much more) possible.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Existentialism in Radiohead

Existentialism is a unique school of thought. While other types of philosophy seek to resolve questions of right and wrong, good and bad, meaning, purpose, and truth in terms of logical arguments and definite answers, existentialism is an attitude. Existentialism is about the mood in which we perceive and react to these questions. There is a consideration that there might not be answers to the questions we have, which means we must try to learn to live despite the life we are given.

It is this precise mood that in my opinion explains very well the approach of Radiohead to music and culture.

Though existentialism takes a number of forms, there are several themes that are usually held in common. There is an awareness of the finitude of life, of knowledge, and of human capacity; there is a toleration of an impending death. There is also anxiety, questions concerning a disappearing God, problems with detecting the whereabouts of the individual who stands faceless in the masses, and finally the concern for living an authentic life. Starting with OK Computer and especially picking up with Kid A and Amnesiac, and perhaps culminating with Hail to the Thief and even In Rainbows, Radiohead expresses the same sentiments of such philosophers as Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.

Here is how it goes: In OK Computer, we stare into an impending and growing nihilistic despondency. In Kid A and Amnesiac, we are submerged in it. In Hail to the Thief, we are lamenting over it and losing faith. In In Rainbows, we accept it and trudge forward nonetheless. This is the story of a band that grew up and got comfortable, as much as they could, living in a world in which they felt they did not belong.

Take, for example, “Airbag” from OK Computer. With Thom Yorke exclaiming “I am born again” (entering in the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal return), we have a layering effect in the sound: a lurking bass, a steady but shifting pace of percussion, and a far away chime. The layering makes for a decomposition of music, identifying each piece of the noise as an element in itself. The general approach is an existential one, for there is a thoughtful shift from strong meaningful enveloping meaning to a reduction to basic truths. For existentialists, the truths include mortality and imposition of meaninglessness. For Radiohead, the sound truths are each instrument and studying the range of experimentation of each instrument in each layer. And for the lyrics, there is the study of being born again, life lived over and over. Eternal return, to Nietzsche, indicates that we cannot live for the afterlife but must hopefully exert our true natural selves. For Camus, the return signifies the absurdity of staring at a situation far beyond our control, an imposed existence, and then taking joy rather than despair in the resultant uselessness of the work that is life. The “airbag saved my life” – Yorke exerts his sensitive relationship with mortality, drawing it out and amplifying it for the listening.

These themes carry forward, with the vivid analysis presented in “Paranoid Android,” a song that displaces the protagonist from the moral ineptitude of all surroundings. We have a storyboard, a shifting style of sounds, a humming of Yorke’s vocals. “Ambition makes you pretty ugly” – in other words, the world we live in might have made a mistake, for we seem to be working for the wrong reasons. Sarcastically, Yorke cries out that “God loves his children, yeah” as if to taunt the restitution we feel in the knowledge that suffering in life will pay off. The song has a mood swing in sound, and we seem to be vacillating between the revolt and the gloom of our conditions. Kierkegaard wrote of the problem of anxiety, that moment where we all stand at the edge of a cliff and we feel the impulse to jump, and yet we do not. This is anxiety. As Radiohead’s protagonist is lifted out of the world in the music video of “Paranoid Android” by an angel, we have that question of whether or not we will take that leap. We see the choice, and we see the temptation and monstrous spontaneity of the moment of death, and yet when the politician falls off the bridge and sinks to the bottom of the water, he loses his arms and legs and is then brought back to earth as an infant. He is born again.

Then, with “Fitter Happier,” there is a slow descent of the ordinary way of living. From the agreeable terms of being “more productive” to the unfortunate sense of being a “pig in a cage on antibiotics,” we see humanity deteriorate in its out illusionary approach to life. The protagonist is in “bad faith,” according to Sartre: trying to be what we are not, homeless, and out of touch with incarnate existence. The layering sound connotes the growing dissonance of life, with radio frequencies and white noise and whispers behind the computer voice of the lead vocals, and then eerie chimes that build and then spiral out of control at the end of the song. The introduction of electronic influences marks the effort of Radiohead to portray, phonetically, the despondent world that is unnatural. One of Heidegger’s chief tenets was against the building of technologies, technologies that serve to distract from nature and make life ordinary and structured. Technologies fade into the background, beyond our notice, so that we do not even realize we are homeless and detached from our actual mortal lives. As such, the sounds, too, are detached. Convention, on the other hand is broken: percussion, strings, and lead vocals are traded in for electronic chatter. Radiohead cannot express the sentiment of the nihilistic world in normal organized song. Hence, we move to Kid A.

Just as songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Fitter Happier” appear to develop and evolve and alter toward the existential realizations, songs in Kid A inhabit that philosophical locale. Opening with “Everything in Its Right Place,” electronic manipulation is used to layer Yorke’s voice upon Yorke’s voice, with his lyrics coming in snippets that are repeatedly fuzzed out by blatant musical machinery: “Kid A, Kid A, Kid A… Everything, Everything, Everything…” Repetition (“tried to say, tried to say” and “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”) and reversing of sounds disarms the listener. We are locked into only a few lyrics. Finitude of the message is the larger message. There are no more struggles for a “good” or a “meaning” – not in Radiohead’s lyrics, not in their sound, and not in their world.

But there is still an art form, for here Radiohead is immersed in the existential dilemma of the sense of meaninglessness. In the song “Kid A,” the vocal lead is lost in the clatter of distortions and chimes and whistles. In “Treefingers,” a deep note keeps canceling out the buildup and rising of higher notes and chords, yet in the drifting pitch there is a salient note lost in the back. Radiohead sounds like they are wiping back and starting anew, searching for that note, that proper place to erect melody and tune. With “In Limbo,” the riffs are buried under more riffs, and the voice of Yorke disappears and reappears. “I’ve lost my way,” says Yorke mournfully. In the end, a wash of variations to Yorke’s voice engulf his dying lyrical sound, and then they engulf the entire musical attempt until we feel flushed out. Then comes “Idioteque,” which marks a sudden change in pace. “Women and children first,” cries Thom, suggesting an evacuation of the world. “Ice age coming” is a line that reflects impending death. “Take the money and run” signifies the loss of order in the apocalyptic world of Kid A. We find this anxiety of the question of whether inhabiting the world of meaninglessness and non-form is worth the suffering. The percussion disappears, and then returns, as if hinting at the finality of the musical form. Behind the resolute percussion, more cries and chatter fill the back like bells and metal shards marking the coming of a tornado.

When you listen to Kid A, you find each individual song to be difficult to consume on its own. But as an album, the music thrives as an orchestration of sound, and the sound transports us. The lyrics fall away from view (some songs were given lyrics by picking from a pile of lines arbitrarily), and we learn to communicate in a new form. Existentialism is in the forlorn sense that the hopeful calls and warnings of OK Computer are over. We are without endless possibility. Life is imposed upon us. God is gone from view. We cannot live for the afterlife, for we have no sense of right and wrong. Amorality thrives, for morality is a construction, just as conventional music forms and verse-stanza setups are a construction. Here, music can take new strides and still be called music. Yet all the while, we are within the finitude of sound. We are confined in the experimental tones of phonetics. The members of Radiohead push themselves in this album to explore the nature of their capacity as artists by abandoning traditional instruments and testing out the devices of incarnate life – in this case, the electronic. But it is important to note that Radiohead does not become an electro-group. This is alternative, experimental rock.

To finish off Kid A, Radiohead plays enchanting high glass-like notes with an undertone that is deep, enduring and unwavering. “Stop sending letter, letters always get burned,” calls out Thom, resigned from the illusions of anything other than the nihilism of existence, which, in the Nietzschean sense, repeats: “I will see you in the next life.”

Amnesiac carries the experiment forward to a conclusion. Strings return, for instance. We are starting to carve out room for the familiar. We are now sensing a recession of feelings of homelessness. But the experimental approach is still very apparent in songs like “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box,” where multiple percussion techniques combine and intertwine, a soft snare drum mixing with what sounds like the beating of water drops on hard and changing surfaces. These percussion techniques slow and then return as Yorke’s voice resonates around changing styles of beats. Nevertheless, his vocals are still set in the back and still treated as a mere “sound” rather than a front vocal centerpiece.

“You and Whose Army?” iterates an attempt to take power. “Come on, come on, you think you drive me crazy?... you and whose army?” – here we have an established force. Radiohead, though still struggling behind a strained, weak Yorke voice, is searching to assert itself. Eventually, Yorke overcomes the difficult nature of his music, blossoming with “You forget so easily…” And then the percussion sets in, the tough thick moving piano sound takes over, and we have a song. “We ride tonight,” says Yorke.

These are the signs of an attempt to exert willpower. Nietzsche’s noble forces of life-asserting and power and strength-embracement are heard here taking shape against the backdrop of existential uncertainty, meaninglessness, and ambiguity of God. There is still despondency, as in “Like Spinning Plates” where Yorke and Radiohead complain that while “you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds.” Nietzsche states that in a world of amorality, incarnate existence directs us to be our natural selves. We must exercise our states of being. There is no divide between potential to do and doing. The hope, therefore, for Radiohead is that in their realization of the finite, imperfect, purpose-lacking world, they hopefully fit the shape of the master, not the slave. They seek to affirm life when all others engage in their own suffering with a hope of redemption.

And in that hysteric worry over its own nature, Radiohead seeks out the strong master morality of setting good to powerful, strong, and noble. In “Like a Glass House,” York sings in front of trumpets and saxophone sounds, like a soulful funeral march in New Orleans. Yorke tells his “royal highness” to not throw stones and talk politics. He sings that he would love to “sit around and chat…stay and chew the fat” but “someone’s listening in.” Radiohead will elevate and not be subdued.

And then, Radiohead rises, until they return in Hail to the Thief with a view of hindsight. “It’s the devil’s way now,” says Thom, “There is no way out, you can scream and you can shout, it is too late now.” These lyrics in “2+2=5” mark the opening of a new musical sound. We are in a place where now, the darkness of the world is accepted. In “Backdrifts,” Yorke exclaims that we are “rotten fruit” and “damaged goods” but “what the hell we’ve got nothing more to lose” because “one burst and we’ll probably crumble.” Life is finite, existence is fragile, and humans are imperfect. Like Pascal stresses in his form of existentialism, human knowledge is limited, and that limitation encloses us. There is an unpredictability in the songs of Hail as Radiohead ostensibly throws every technique at the music – special recording, layered sound, electronic distortions, percussion, string, convention, nonconvention, vocals, non-vocals, and so forth. “We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen,” declares Yorke in “There There,” a prominent call of the confinement of life and the lack of choice and agency in the entrance into existence. A system of strings tears away into the emergent melody, which harvests through a beginning of natural noise and yet stimulant drum sessions and overarching tones. “Jus cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” means that much of what we believe is constructed in our mind. What is real, and what is “there,” as Heidegger would say, is the sense of being, the natural, the possibilities of the incarnate. Yet these possibilities are only knowable as we relate to our own deaths. Finitude is our access to our potential, our “Da-sein,” our “being there.”

In “A Wolf at The Door,” the simple four-note melody repeats without end, and Yorke wraps himself around it. Yorke vocalizes the cruelty of the world in the Nietzschean: “Drag him out your window, dragging out your dead” and “smacks you in the head, knifes you in the neck, kicks you in the teeth.” This brutality is inevitable, a reflection of our animalistic core, which Nietzsche values highly and believes is the instinctual truth of our natural selves. Society, according to Nietzsche, domesticates and tames, but in this song Yorke struggles against the lack of help from a doctor, a taxman, investments, dealers, Stepford wives, and cops. Society is pushed aside, for society cannot keep Yorke safe from the wolf at the door who keeps calling him and telling him “all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” Yet this existence, finite and incarnate, is where Nietzsche believes we must be. The powerful must return to the wilderness and prowl and exert their will. The weak and wretched will suffer, and the strong and masterful will rule.

Finally, we arrive at In Rainbows. After a few songs, the melody slows, and for the first time in five albums, Yorke steps forward with a soaring vocal lead: “Don’t get any big ideas,” he says. “They’re not gonna happen.” There is a humming and a whistling, a psalm-like reflection on all that has passed. In “Reckoner,” with clanging clashing symbols, Radiohead rises up to speak on behalf of everyone, dedicating the music “to all human being.” “You can’t take it with you, dancing for your pleasure” – in other words, life is finite, and we can amuse ourselves and celebrate life now with the knowledge that all is fleeting and beyond control.

Radiohead grows and develops into an instructor on living in an existentialist reality. Life is not eternal, and there might not be an afterlife, and God is far away from humanity. Whoever told us what good and bad means got it wrong. Our existence is all we have, and we were thrust into it. The world suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. And here is Radiohead, moving from the initial worry of the impending death to the confident ring of “Reckoner, take me with you.” We are learning how to live life and how to wade through the conditions that appear to be set against our favor. We learn to affirm life. We embrace absurdity, we accept anxiety, we quit bad faith, and we identify the importance of the will to live authentically. For nothing is more closely connected to “good” than authenticity. To that degree, the journey and elevation over expectation and willingness to experiment in the career of Radiohead make this music group an example to follow. Whether or not they are truly a noble masterful living being over the masses of weak and powerless is uncertain. But, Radiohead identifies and pursues and takes residence in the conditions of life and the dilemmas of existence. They are an existential band.

Strung Out: The Use of Symphonic Orchestration in Radiohead's Music

Western classical music has for centuries been the standard for what constitutes high musical art. The most famous classical composers bear names that have become as widely studied and mythologized as the Greco-Roman gods. They are canonized and sainted, and their works are considered artifacts of genius; they are approached with almost Biblical reverence. Pop stars gain notoriety more as objects of celebrity; they are worshiped less as artists than as spectacles. We idolize rock stars because we can relate to their success. We can envision ourselves as a Johnny Ramone or a Johnny Rotten, pounding out three chord melodies that rely more on virility than virtuosity. Such is the general perception of the popular musician, a child in a grown-up's body making noise to simply to garner attention, in juxtaposition to the classical image of the eccentric, brilliant recluse pounding out sonatas alone in the dark.

So what then of the musician who aspires both to artistic authenticity and commercial success. Perhaps he listens to classical music and even adores it but know that no one listens to it if it's not a John Williams tune in a blockbuster film. Perhaps too he doesn't want to be bound by the strictures of classical form, and wants to be free to channel the vitality and accessibility of the popular song. What is he to do?

For many pop artists of this description, the answer was to borrow from the instrumentation of classical music. Strings and horns have been a part of the fabric of pop music since its inception; "Rock Around the Clock," widely considered the first rock song, makes more prominent use of horns than it does guitar. From Motown to R&B to Bubblegum pop to Hip-hop to Modern Top 40 rock, these genres have used glossy string arrangements to augment the rhythm and melody of the song. We have been conditioned to think of symphonic instruments as markers of high art and guitars as indicators of something more brash and uncouth.

But across the board, symphonic instruments have been used in pop in the tradition of composers like Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Copeland, and other composers who write with a strong sense of melody and sonic order, and who are beloved and widely appreciated for these reasons. More experimental composers like Phillip Glass, John Cage, and Krystof Penderecki whose more open-ended compositions focus more on creating a mood than dictating a melody, the result often being something much more bizarre and frightening than is dealt with in popular music or traditional classical composition.

Radiohead and other contemporary Britpop groups in the 90's both used heavy orchestration in their music, but when we examine their influences we can see how Radiohead's start to diverge from syrupy Beatlesesque arrangements and delve more deeply into the darker atmospherics of a composer like Penderecki. While they never completely abandon the use of soaring, melodic string and horn arrangements, they also utilize techniques of modernist classical composition that simply do not appear anywhere else in mainstream music.

If you listen to songs from the Beatles like "Penny Lane" or "Eleanor Rigby," we see that the string and horn parts serve to elaborate on and accentuate the melody. Songs from Radiohead contemporaries Oasis and the Verve use the same techniques. The soaring violin melody in "Bittersweet Symphony" and the cyclical four note cello part in "Wonderwall" is forever embedded in the consciousness of kids who grew up in the 90's.

Radiohead's earlier work showcases similar techniques. "Nice Dream" uses strings to outline the melody and heighten the emotional impact of the ballad. In OK Computer, however, the group starts to experiment with different techniques. "Climbing Up the Walls," is something we've all fingered as a turning point for the band. After a lengthy string solo, the strings assume a discordant tone that lurks behind the melody instead of augmenting it and works to unsettle the listener. This paves the way for their prominent use of symphonic arrangements in their Kid A/Amnesiac period to create the ominous and chaotic soundscapes that won them such critical and popular acclaim, from the skronking horns on "The National Anthem" to the punch drunk New Orleans Jazz on "Living in a Glasshouse," strings are used to create dissonance and to set a mood, rather than to set a catchy hook.

Jonny Greenwood, the man behind the string arrangement in Radiohead's music, wears his influences on his sleeve. We can see in his soundtrack for "There Will be Blood," full of jarring cacophonous squeals and screeches, that he pays close attention to the importance of using string arrangements to set a mood rather than to simply outline a hummable melody. His prominently use of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument that produces sounds similar to a string ensemble, is integral to what Radiohead attempts to do with their compositions. "How to Disappear Completely" is a perfect example of how an stacking a series of notes that don't belong in the key on top of a simple two-chord turn can transform a song from a simple ballad to something much more haunting, subtle, and profound.

This being said, Radiohead never abandoned its use of Britpop symphonic arrangements. As we can see with "Faust Arp" and "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)" Radiohead still relies heavily on melodic string parts that are melodically insistent, but continue to mix in a variety of influences and techniques. It is this use of diverse instrumentation that has won Radiohead a label as an "art rock" band. But they have taken their musical exploration well beyond that of any of their peers and created a unique sound, and it is this, not the leaning on classical tropes, that earns them the distinction of "artist."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Sexuality of Radiohead

Ian Dury once said “Sex and drugs and rock and roll.” Though underrated at the time, this quote has become synonymous with the rock and roll industry. Artists from Elvis to The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles espoused sexuality at different times of their careers. Rick James described his persona as “wild and crazy, sex, drugs and rock and roll.” Though not all artists embraced this medium as much as others, sexuality certainly pervaded rock and roll music from the sixties till today.

One of the most important bands to reject this image and medium today is Radiohead. However, rather than conforming to the conceptions that people have about rock and roll artists, Radiohead has separated itself from rock and roll stereotypes. Through their disregard for one of mankind’s basest needs, they present themselves as artists, visionaries, and often as weak and vulnerable in ways that Keith Richards never could. This has allowed them to depict societal pressures, the sterilization of human existence, to embrace electronic elements, as well as involving orchestral influences in their music, keeping the band on the cutting edge for most of its career.

To better understand this concept one should look at a particular quote by Jonny Greenwood: “Our guitars are more clitoris substitutes than phallic ones, we stroke them in a nicer, gentler way.” Though this quote on the surface can be merely taken as an example of Mr. Greenwood’s inherent weirdness and repressed sexuality, this quote can be taken a step further and be used as a metaphor for what the band is attempting to do with music. Put succinctly, Radiohead does not thrust itself upon the listener. They show none of the swaggering bravado of Steven Tyler or Sid Vicious. Instead, this band remains aloof, encouraging the listener to come to them, to be patient and careful. They wish to be regarded as artists, not merely as a rock and roll band, and in so doing the members have decided to avoid attempting to create a forceful band image that might stick out for its edginess. Instead, they quietly release albums, update their website Deadairspace.com, and search for new musical innovations that will only further emphasize their talent.

This lack of sexuality can be seen throughout the bands catalogue of music. Even starting with Pablo Honey, which is their most blatantly poppy and sappy album, there is little talk of sex, or traditional masculine characteristics. Once OK Computer is released, the bands sexuality really begins to take form. From songs such as “Karma Police” to those such as “Exit Music for a Film,” there is little discussion of sex. Thus, as base desires are put in the backseat, the band can highlight more complex desires and needs as most clearly illustrated on “Fitter Happier.” Described as the most depressing thing that Thom Yorke ever wrote, this song deals with the sterilization of society. The absence of humanity in human life. How society has given us a list of thoughts that we must think. In this world there is little room for sexuality.

As other bands pay attention to the basest of all human desires, Radiohead looks beyond. It is this fervent attention to the deeper motivations of human beings and their interaction with society that has so solidly cemented Radiohead’s place as one of the greatest rock and roll bands to ever play.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Since Radiohead turned their focus outwards with OK Computer, the use of space and dimension has become an integral part of their music.  Through a variety of methods, the band has created an atmosphere unique to each album they have released since then.  Whether confined and suffocating, or hauntingly empty and echoey, the instrumentation and aural effects of each album create a place as well as they create a mood.

The construction of soundscape truly began on OKC.  Informed by the knowledge of where and how the album was recorded (in an English countryside mansion), it is easy to point out that that is exactly the place OKC aims to take its listeners. Pianos pushed up against marble staircases to create icy echoes (Karma Police), orchestration that fills up the recording until it climaxes in a wall of strings (Climbing Up the Walls), a radio or TV left on in the background chattering on for no particular audience (Fitter Happier)... all of these methods make the listener feel alone in a haunted house.

On Kid A the "location" of the soundscape is not so easily pinpointed.  There is less form to the picture being painted, as should be expected from an album as chaotic as this one.  After all, in so many words, the band members (Thom in particular) have described the album as a "distant view of the apocalypse".  Buzzy synths, chopped and distorted vocals, and uncomfortably quirky time signatures create a jagged landscape.  Roiling in the distance is the fire, which climaxes with a static burst on "Ideoteque".  That song in particular serves as the prime example of "soundscaping" on Kid A.  It's earthquake rhythm, deep bass pulses and nebulous mechanical sounds give the image of some great complex erupting in a shower of sparks and electric explosions.  "Ideoteque" dies out with the rusty oscillations of twisted metal and radiation, leading into "Morning Bell" - a song whose mood could be interpreted as emergence from the bunkers of "Ideoteque".  Then the closing track, "Motion Picture Soundtrack", whisks us all away with angelic harps... an escape from the ruined landscape left in the wake of "Ideoteque".

Whereas Kid A is the apocalyptic expanse, Amnesiac is the quaking core, the heart of the fire.  With far less echo and reverb than its "twin" Kid A, Amnesiac is confined.  Tight rhythmic structures guide this album through the immediacy of the situation it describes.  Where Kid A was vast, Amnesiac is compact.  The first half of "You and Whose Army?" with its muffled vocals and airy guitar sounds like it was recorded in a puddle.  Soundscape, though, might not be an applicable term for Amnesiac.  Most of the music, despite its quirkiness, sounds like studio music, probably because it uses far more typical studio instrumentation than Kid A.

Unfortunately, Hail to the Thief is so scattered that one would have a hard time delineating a consistent mood for the album, and thus it is difficult, as well, to pin down the layout of Hail's soundscape.  Moving right along then to In Rainbows, one might picture a calm ocean.  IR's watery guitar and wavy, loose vocals will make a listener feel submerged, but not desperately so.  Not to mention the lyrics' frequent metaphors to that effect - in "Weird Fishes" Thom discusses sinking to the bottom, and being "eaten by the worms and weird fishes"... but this is not cause for alarm, rather it's "escape".  There are few jolting moments on IR, and even those are minor.

As listeners, we should appreciate the dimensions of space that music can conjure in our experience.  It is hard to find such a detailed crafting of distance and texture in music as Radiohead creates, especially music grounded (though distantly) in pop and rock.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Radiohead and the Future

There is much discussion and debate about what the next Radiohead album will be like. Will it be another In Rainbows, or will it be a Kid A? To shed light on the issue I think it is helpful to look at the Beatles, following their progression, and decline, and using this as a lens for studying the future of Radiohead.

Beyond all doubt, Beatles and the Radiohead will go down as two of the greatest rock bands of all time. They both were able to change the music of their day dramatically and with seeming ease, creating legacies that other groups have had a difficult time measuring up to. Therefore, through studying the development and progression of the Beatles, especially a later work, one can more clearly outline the direction Radiohead is likely to take as they continue to make more music.

Both of these bands first albums were a medley of pop songs. These songs made them popular, made them famous, but rather being content with this fame, these groups took the influence they were given to take rock and roll into an entirely new direction. They then began to progress and mature, creating album after album that were often as startlingly different as they were groundbreaking as their innovation became less encumbered. Both groups also released what can be called “Mid-Life Crisis” albums, the White Album and Hail to the Thief, in the middle of their careers, that were less succinct and clear than their other albums, but still contained a remarkable set of songs.

The Beatles then went on to continue to experiment and refine their music until their eventual breakup. With each album after their respected interregnum the band continued to progress and mature. However, with each following album the Beatles became less and less focused on the creation of the album, relying more on individual efforts, which at times makes their albums feel choppy, and not as coherent as others. There was also a move by the members of the band to do more independent work. The reasons behind this change are complicated, and are likely a combination of attempts at being able to keep innovating and personal reasons, as the band was dominated by two major personalities, Lennon and McCartney.

It is this path that Radiohead seems to be following. Since Hail to the Thief, its members are attempting to do more solo work, take Eraser and the soundtrack to There Will be Blood. The band had come close to breaking up at points earlier because of the dominating personality of York, creating great strain on the personal relations of the members. Thus it seems that Radiohead as a band is waning. They will likely release several more albums, and they are likely to be great albums, but as this progression shows, it seems that their vitality has been spent. They have also refined their sound and their image. They also have figured out who and what they are, and are comfortable making an album such as In Rainbows, which is my favorite album, but lacks the innovation or edginess of the bands earlier work. This is a trend that I think will continue with each next album having a more personal sound. This is not to say that Radiohead is over and that they can no longer create, but merely that they no longer have the energy to create another OK Computer or Kid A, in the same fashion that the Beatles no longer had the energy to make another Rubber Soul or Sgt. Peppers.

To a certain extent, I hope that I am wrong. I would love to see Radiohead revitalize itself, and its members, and create new groundbreaking albums. However, with the release of Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows it just does not seem likely. Their legacy has largely been set, and future albums will not, largely because they can not, have the energy and innovation of their earlier work.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

There Will Be Blood - Jonny Greenwood's Score

Despite its ineligibility to win an Academy Award in 2007, the score for the film "There Will Be Blood", written by Radiohead lead guitarist/ondes-martenot player/lemon-shaped-shakey-thing-shaker Jonny Greenwood, is widely recognized as one of the best in recent memory.  (The only thing that kept it from winning an Oscar is that, technically, it is not completely original... parts of it are derivative of Greenwood's earlier orchestral work, "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" and the score from the documentary "Bodysong").  Its sinister undercurrent swells and recedes, billows and tapers.  At times discordant, at others calm, it complements the diegetic goings-on in a way uncommon for a film score.  In many ways, the score acts as a narrator - telling us in a strangely understandable way the mood of the scene.  In times of confusion, it is uncomfortably arrhythmic.  In moments of mortal danger, it is menacingly stilted and slithery.  Greenwood's score gives us as close an understanding as we could possibly have of a character as unsettlingly powerful and unfathomable as Daniel Plainview.  Like the oil waiting to burst from the land beneath his feet, Greenwood's strings as well as Plainview's temper roil and and bake, trembling, waiting for their moment to explode forth in staccato fury.  It is this dimension of the score - that it successfully reflects the theme of the film and attitude of the character - that make it so articulate despite its complexity and peculiarity.

The score progresses in a way that parallels the film's narrative.  The film opens with a long, wavering note; buzzing strings over sweeping shots of the desolate dust plains of the American Southwest.  This buzzing is as ominous as it is directionless - unformed, rooted to no real theme.  Sinister in its simplicity.  Correspondingly, Plainview's work at this time in the film is solitary and amateurish, as was the case for many argonaut prospectors of the late 19th century.  The music becomes more structured as Plainview becomes more organized and prosperous, adding members to his team.  It continues in this way, adding new elements and patterns as the characters (particularly Plainview) develop, and as thematic framework takes root.  Perhaps one of the score's most striking features, though, is not its building complexity, but rather the power it has in absence.  In its sharply sudden lapses, it tells more of impending danger than does any sustained theme.  In its silence as well as in its seething presence, the music acts as both a portent and a shroud at the same time - it makes us feel an imprecise sense of doom and malaise, telling us something mortally terrible is about to happen; yet it obfuscates what we expect from the scene, heightening tensions in subtly unnerving increments to the point of extreme discomfort, in much the same way that the unreadability of Plainview's demeanor and expression causes extreme unease for those in his presence.

But the cleverness does not end here.  After the film's final scene, an exchange more shockingly bizarre and violent than any up to that point (famous for the grotesque piece of dialogue "I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!"), the screen lingers on the image of a blood-crazed and exhausted Plainview (having brutally beaten his nemesis to death with a bowling pin), rendered as helpless and deranged as he once appeared staunch and dominant, sitting  hunched and childlike on the floor, before abruptly cutting to credits.  The music, despite the image, is heroic and lithe - Brahms's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77.  This European classical music does not whatsoever fit the mode of the film's score to that point, but in an absurd way is as expressive as the rest.  It is now the incongruence that speaks volumes - a stately and composed string arrangement overlaying such a wretched image.  And whether the choice to close with Brahms was made by Greenwood or director P.T. Anderson or somebody else, it was the genius of Greenwood's score that preceded this moment that lends it its power.


Monday, March 22, 2010

In Rainbows

In Rainbows is a major turning point for Radiohead.  Musically - as with any Radiohead album - it is radically different from its predecessor.  Shifting gears is nothing new for the Oxford fivesome.  What has really changed, however, is the band's attitude.  From the lean irreverence of Pablo Honey and The Bends, to the laborious malaise of OK Computer, to the scrambled and erratic doomsaying of Kid A and Amnesiac (and the dregs of that mode which carried into Hail to the Thief), every one of the six predecessors to In Rainbows was charged in one way or another with resistance.  Each of these prior albums told of struggle - struggle to escape the ills of modern use-once-and-throw-away culture, or to unhinge from a near-paralyzing psychosis, or to abortively resist an impending apocalypse.  But not In Rainbows.  Subdued and lucid, In Rainbows is almost a coming of age for Thom and the boys.  Or if not a coming of age, at least a coming to terms.

In Rainbows is an album of acceptance, which in Radiohead terms is parallel to surrender.  It seems that Thom has finally given in to the reality of things, though he still can't pin down why they are so (as evidenced by the album's first lyric, "How come I end up where is started / How come I end up where I went wrong").  And while this might seem like the most desperate attitude yet - surrender - it actually makes for the most relaxed album to date.  After burning off the restlessness left over from Hail on the crunchy bangery of "15 Step" and the rusty chug of "Bodysnatchers", the album descends into a dreamlike series of watery songs, poetic in lyrics and pillowy in instrumentation.  And yet, as calm as they may sound, Thom never abandons his trademark hopelessness.  Amidst the gently repetitive guitar arpeggios of "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" Thom sings of falling off the earth, telling us "Everybody leaves if they get the chance / And this is my chance".  In front of Jonny's dreamy keys, he happily (or in whatever way passes as happily for Thom Yorke) tells us "I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes", and later that "I'll hit the bottom and escape".  This metaphor of deep ocean is just one of a few powerfully desolate images that Thom paints for us.  "All I Need" is a collection of these - "I'm an animal, trapped in your hot car"; "I am a moth who just wants to share your light".

The success with which In Rainbows conveys the message of its lyrics through its music sheds some light on why Hail to the Thief failed.  With In Rainbows the approach matched the intent.  Relaxed sessions were appropriate for an album this mellow, whereas similar nonchalance could not produce the intensity that Hail required to deliver its charge.  But when the method fits the mode, the result is In Rainbows - an album spectacular in its minimalism and ease.  This is completely new territory for a band that is constantly looking for ways to say more.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Some new songs from Thom Yorke

Here are some videos from Thom's recent solo show in Cambridge, England.  He will be touring soon with his new band, recently named Atoms for Peace (for a while they were called Thom Yorke ???? or the "Eraser" band...), ending in Indio for the Coachella festival.

Lotus Flower is so willowy and so desolate, it's harrowing.  What a song...

PS - to the rest of Radiohead:  WHERE ARE YOU GUYS, when do we get the new album?  Soon please...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hail to the Thief

Nobody really seems to have much to say about Hail to the Thief.  Fans, critics, even the band themselves.  It is not so much a forgotten album (yet), but it is safe to assume that if one were to rank Radiohead albums, it would be towards the bottom... most fans put it one above Pablo HoneyHail just doesn't merit discussion the way other Radiohead albums did before it (and have since, but we'll get to that later).

Despite its immediate commercial success, Hail lacks staying power.  Perhaps it is due to the relative lack of effort the band put into making the album.  After the brutally divisive Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, the band wanted to get in and out of the studio as quickly as possible.  To call the approach to recording Hail "relaxed" is a bit generous... "sloppy" is probably a better word.  While some of Hail's individual moments are quite impressive - the layered climax of "There There", the melancholy chugging of "Where I End and You Begin" - the album, as a whole, suffers from the lack of exactness.  Hail was supposed to deliver a message - in fact, it might be Radiohead's most sanctimonious album.  Loaded with political metaphors (the title a play on "Hail to the Chief", the march music associated with the office of the President of the US), Hail was meant to impart similar lessons of earlier albums, this time at a more sociopolitical angle: society, absorbed in post-9/11 fear culture, is moving towards the dark ages, into "the gloaming" (which is this album's parenthetical alternative title.)  The album cover is a collection of buzzwords that Thom picked up while listening to American radio, arranged as a roadmap of Los Angeles - the implications of this imagery are powerful, but the music does not execute what the imagery promises.  Because the album lacks musical cohesion, it does not play well as a whole, and so the messages fall apart, a scattering of disjointed ideas.

While Hail could have benefited from a tighter approach to recording, its weakness as an album owes as much to its lack of innovation (on a relative scale - anything seems pedestrian when you compare it to Kid A).  Whereas OK Computer opened the gates to soaring instrumentation, and Kid A brought electronic influences into the fold, Hail operates within the musical frameworks that the band had already established.  Much of the music is repackaged.  The hollow percussion of "There There", while striking, is a poorly disguised rehash OK Computer's "Climbing Up the Walls" (it's still an amazing song, but don't miss the point).  "The Gloaming", filled with fuzzy and erratic blips, sounds like something off of Amnesiac.  A similar description befalls "Backdrifts" and "Sit Down Stand Up".  Much of the rest of the album is inoculated, unrefined, lazy.  "We Suck Young Blood" could have been a much more powerful track - messy hand claps marking the rhythm of a funeral procession, drooping piano that kicks into gear with a chaotic swagger - but Thom's vocals are anemic (not in the way that would befit the track) and the songs idles in its own morbidity for too long.   It is this idling, this lack of consistency from track to track, that causes the album to feel patched and directionless, and thus so many otherwise powerful images and themes - vicious predation, rainstorms, animalism, and of course apocalypse - are lost.  Interestingly, one of the only moments on Hail that is truly separate from Radiohead's prior work is its closing track, "A Wolf At the Door" - stringy, lucid, and relaxed despite its disturbingly violent imagery, it's actually a decent portent of what is to come four years later on In Rainbows.

Hail had goals, but its poor structure due to lack of effort leaves it to fall short of those goals.  The band members themselves (particularly Thom, who at this point in the band's chronology had become Mother Russia to the other members' status as satellite nations) have admitted that they are disappointed with Hail.  The frustrating thing is that there are some brilliant moments that show what the rest of the album could have been... but can we rightfully ask for more?  Can we really expect the band to tiptoe back to the very ledge they clung to on Kid A?  Regardless of what we demand of Radiohead, it's important to remember that if we are to be disappointed, it should be not with what Hail is, but with what it could have (and should have) been. 

Looking forward to In Rainbows the question is: did Hail's relative failure cause the band to reconsider their approach? Did it push them back to the painstaking recording process of Kid A?  Did they labor over every detail of their next album? Absolutely not.  In fact, In Rainbows is their most relaxed album to date.  That they were still unwilling to get back to the atom-by-atom approach after Hail failed to be what they envisioned just speaks to how intense the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions must have been.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Kid A & Amnesiac

“They are separate because they cannot run in a straight line with each other.  They cancel each other out as overall finished things... In some weird way, I think Amnesiac gives another take on Kid A, a form of explanation."

The albums Kid A and Amnesiac are often thought of as conjoined twins.  Though released separately, each album's songs were recorded in the same sessions.  The fact that Radiohead did not release any singles for Kid A (and therefore no B-Sides), and came out with Amnesiac only a year later has led many to believe that Amnesiac is a collection of the Kid A B-Sides.  But why would Radiohead release an entire album's worth of B-Sides?  To cash in on what was left over from the intense Kid A sessions?  Hardly likely.  Radiohead is never out to make a quick buck.  Their work is deliberate, their approach to an album meticulous.  Everything from where to record, when, how, track order, album artwork, even the method of releasing the album (Amnesiac came packaged in a book...) is planned, down to the last detail. It is feasible, though, that given the amount of effort and strife that went into recording Kid A - by many accounts, differences in opinion pushed the band to nearly irreconcilable altercations - the band didn't want to let the remaining songs (an entire album's worth) just sit around.

If that is not the case, then the question is "why not release a double album?"  If these albums complement each other, why shouldn't they come together?  The problem with a double release for these two is that while they have a very similar thematic focus, the perspectives are so vastly different that they deserve their own space.  Amnesiac is not an epilogue to Kid A's distant observation of an apocalyptic scene; it is a retelling, from the center of that scene.  This difference in the locus of perspective is the key to understanding why, despite the cotemporality of their creation, Kid A and Amnesiac are as different as OK Computer and The Bends.

On Kid A, Radiohead ditched the traditional guitar/bass/drums lineup, choosing instead to use enough electronics to rival NASA headquarters: synths, samples, drum machines, the list goes on and on.  If the jump from The Bends to OK Computer was astonishing, then OK Computer and Kid A are separated by lightyears.  And yet, despite the sudden change of approach, there is as much traditional musical influence as there is unorthodox.  Syncopated jazz beats underscore sun-beam synthesizers.  You are as likely to find soaring violins as you are mechanistic drum machine beats. The synergy between musical styles is truly amazing.

Kid A tells of a coming apocalypse.  Although the album's opening track is titled "Everything In Its Right Place", we can immediately take this for some good old Thom Yorke irony - the song is completely disjointed: a quirky time signature, chopped and distorted vocals, enigmatic lyrics.  In the world of Kid A everything is, in fact, in quite the wrong place.  There is something not right in this world, and it all becomes clear in "Idioteque", a song best described as a dance party for the apocalypse.  "Idioteque" summarizes Kid A right in the middle of the album - full of hissing clicks, deep thudding bass beats that slip in and out of different time signatures, this song more than any other shows the heavy influence of electronic music a la Aphex Twin on Kid A.  The vocals describe the imagery on the album cover - "Ice age comin, ice age comin".  The song is chaotic, erratic and yet coy.  The paranoid doomsayer warns of the end, yet finds it so funny that he will "laugh until my head falls off", and later suggests we "take the money and run" - an interesting solution to the impending ice age. 

But while Kid A is the story from afar, Amnesiac is told from the midst of the disaster.  Perhaps the video for "Pyramid Song" best sums up the attitude of Amnesiac - a lone, digitally ambiguous and colorless survivor swims amongst a sunken industrial city.  The song itself is slow and melancholy, its lyrics chillingly describe experiencing the hereafter: "Jumped in the river what did I see? / Black-eyed angels swam with me"

Still, Amnesiac is not album of one mood.  It is, at times, as erratic as it is, at others, calm - from the  clangs and blips of "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" and mulchy rhythmic patterns of "Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors", to the time-signature-less piano wanderings of "Pyramid Song", Amnesiac suffers from manic-depression.  But its calmer moments suggest that, despite the disastrous end to the world, there is some peace in the hope of future.

We must remember that none of this thematic exploration would have been possible on either album, had Radiohead not taken the extreme risk of shifting their style.  Unrestricted by the limitations of traditional band structure, Radiohead was able to craft individual sounds.  Every minute detail of every fraction of a moment on both Kid A and Amnesiac was tweakable, and the result is precise chaos.