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.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Critical Response, Formation, Pablo Honey & The Bends

The following is a summary of our 1st substantial meeting (1/26/10):

We [note: not "we" in the sense of ambiguously inclusive journalistic pronoun, but rather we as in The Pennds team, with Steve leading this discussion] began with an examination of two articles - one from Spin magazine "debunking" the Radiohead myth, the other a categorically mawkish Pitchfork review of Kid A (read to induce vomiting). These two pieces serve as relative bookends on the spectrum of critical response that Radiohead's work can garner.  The Spin piece, while it does point out the obvious fact that Radiohead is often over-hyped, makes empty criticisms and is largely inaccurate - fault-finding for fault-finding's sake.  Radiohead often evokes this response because of their notoriously standoffish attitudes (particularly towards journalists), and one should avoid taking it too seriously.  On the other hand, PF's Kid A review is laughable.  While the web-zine is famous for its cluttered and oblique reviews (stuffed with self-fulfilling name drops and obscure musical references, making their pieces inaccessible to the common music fan), this one is unhelpful for the opposite reason - the author drops the pretense and actually gushes.  Avoid this as you would avoid directionless "debunking", because its syrupy crap.  Between these two articles lies a continuum of reaction to Radiohead's work.

Next to address is what formative elements influenced Radiohead, and how these show through on their earlier albums.  As Steve pointed out, the story is "more than a bit cliched": Art-school kids, some of them bullied, all of them capricious and musically inclined, the attentive teacher who gets them safe passage through the cruel, testosterone-driven world of the young adult male grade school experience.  The alienation inherent in their childhoods is perhaps the most consistent theme throughout their entire body of work, particularly their early stuff, and for that reason a lot of it is rather childish.  Pablo Honey is rife with obtuse and inane metaphors and lyrics (from the sun, moon and stars to goofy Jim Morrison references...).  Musically, Pablo Honey is straightforward.  It's catchy and well-framed, but contained in typical rock structures.  Nothing too dangerous about the song "Creep", with its reserved verse and crunchy chorus that sounds like just about everything else that was popular on the radio in 1993.  Influences are not well hidden - most songs are immediately redolent of either The Pixies, The Smiths, U2 or R.E.M.  Still, there are moments of prescience: "Blow Out", the closing track of Pablo Honey, provides a look towards the future - a wall of paranoiac guitar noise with a backbone of smooth bass and jazzy percussion.

With The Bends Radiohead began their maturation process, taking a more subtle approach in nearly every regard.  Emotions are veiled in cryptic and insidious lyrics.  The music is less chunky and metallic, a bit more spacious and warm.  The result is an unsettling combination - like walking through a seedy part of town on a nice day.  By taking a less direct approach, the band successfully transitions from the formless angst of teenage boys to the lingering malaise of disaffected young men.  The Bends centers about a slow-burning, debilitating pressure in the midst of our modern culture of synthesized happiness - even the album artwork (a graphic hybridization of Thom Yorke and a crash test dummy, locked in what could just as easily be a whip-lashed grimace as an expression of lascivious pleasure) speaks to this brilliantly sculpted contrast.

But why the transition?  Why not just pump out another "Creep", do another big tour and rake in the cash?  The answer, for the most part, lies in the title of the sophomore album.  "The Bends" is a slang term for the condition that occurs when deep-sea divers rise too quickly to the surface, without allowing their bodies to decompress.  This sudden change in external pressure causes bubbles to form in the blood stream - very painful.  The album title comes from Thom's feeling that he was not able to decompress when he returned home from touring - emerging too quickly from the pressures of sudden fame caused him anxiety to the point of physical illness.  This anxiety soon took the form of disillusionment, and depending on what you read, sometimes what appears like disgust towards their first album. 

But rather than let this disillusionment be their demise, they used it to drive a reformation.  There is no better evidence for this than the song "My Iron Lung" - a bitingly sarcastic attack at "Creep", the very song that made them famous ("this this is our new song / just like the last one / a total waste of time/ my iron lung").  But it is in this irony that Radiohead was reborn - by revolting against the album that made them, they established the protocol that would make them one of our generation's most influential bands.  They started a cycle of burning themselves down and rising anew from the ash of their previous work, their trademark to this day.

Still, don't miss the true motive.  This was not disillusionment with fame - that would be too cliche, even for a young Thom Yorke naive enough to dye his hair bleach blonde.  It was a wholehearted attempt to reverse the misconceptions - they didn't want to be "those Creep guys" anymore.  Pablo Honey was essentially a "Best Hits" album of all of their work up to that point (they say you get twenty years to make your first album, and two for your second).  Every track is a time capsule of different moments from their angsty teenage lives.  Even if it was released in 1993, "Creep" probably retained sentiments from more than 5 years prior.  And don't we all wish by the time we're 25 that we could erase most of what crept forth from the jumble of our late teenage years?


Wednesday, January 27, 2010


A reserved yet detailed profile of the band, by Alex Ross, for the Nëw Yorkër. Terrifically done.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where language fails, Radiohead succeed: alienation and music

As the resident "fresh listener" of the class, I thought it would be worthwhile to post immediately about my first experience of truly listening to the work of Radiohead. I went through their two first albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, which apparently represent the foundation of their fame, the LP's that provided them with enough commercial success to experiment and transcend genre and convention later on in their career. Even though I have yet to delve into the alleged complexities of OK Computer and Kid A, I found both albums to be influential on both an conscious and unconscious level. For some reason, not sure how, Radiohead evokes a sense of alienation in their music. Everyone who ever felt misunderstood or driven from a norm or disappointed can connect with their music. I suppose it's an observation that many have had, but what I find unique about the alienation appeal is the strange combat of forces for listeners. We connect with the sense of alienation, and yet, alienation in itself requires us to establish a personal, private relationship with the music. The bond each fan has with Radiohead is unique and unprecedented and based on both Radiohead and the listener's personal narrative.

In high school, we all undergo a torment and turbulence of changing feelings, confusions, hormones, and psychological conflicts as we struggle with our becoming who we are. My mother used to tell me when I was upset about something I could not label or name, that, "Everyone is going through this feeling at your age..." And I hated hearing that. But she was absolutely right; I was simply so held up in my own struggle, but the point is, my own struggle is a personal, internal struggle. I cannot look to other examples, because I am within the confines of my own evolving mental and ontological arena. I believe the average fan (or Cult Follower) of Radiohead is someone stuck in that similar conflict of harnessing a wavelength he or she very much considers to be the first thing that ever happened in the history of the world, when really, and consequently, we all fall into the wavelength.

When reading about the personalities of Radiohead, I thought I discovered a group of people that spoke, acted, and thought like me, and conversed like me. I said to myself, 'Finally, evidence that someone out there can join me in the tension of the paradox of living via inner monologue passing into dialogue, the ADD stream of consciousness that involves the unpredictable juxtaposition of images and feelings and considerations, and everyone else will try to interpret the poetic musings of my mind when really there is only one statement to be made: disorder in the order, order in the disorder, and disorder in the order. All analytic dissections of my thoughts, or Radiohead's table conversations, or Radiohead's music, are silly and problematic as they all are in hindsight, and they all are never to understand the infinitesimal moment when the thought or note or key or lyric comes out.

And that is the connection I harvest. And that is the connection so many others harvest. We harvest together, yet I am the farmer of my own land, and I cannot see into any other land. Radiohead drags us with them, as their narrative search and introspective exploration parallels and mirrors ours. The paths might appear different, but the pace is the same, the obscurity in the curving of the road is the same, and the purpose is the same.

So why am I so not ready to accept such a connection with anyone else, but with Radiohead, the link is readily available? Perhaps Radiohead has the courage to truly express the angst and alienation. Or perhaps the language of alienation cannot come in the form of diary-like confessions but rather in the form of musical sound, sound that is spatial and curious and uncertain. Maybe the music of Radiohead represents the gaps in our language. Language has failed us. Language has failed to encompass everything we were designed to express. The strange compounds of sounds and words discovered by Radiohead are what we need to express alienation. And that is where the tension resides and the sense of non-belonging abounds.

I will not be surprised if my thoughts change, but this is my initial hunch.
- Charlie

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The fencing season is filled with long bus rides, often at night, and often quiet.  Though I do enjoy the camaraderie of the team, I also enjoy separating myself from the group both physically and existentially for times of introspection.  There is something about the rapidly changing landscapes and views that leads me to believe that perhaps life is not as predetermined as we sometimes leave ourselves to think.  That if we can so easily change what we view and our location, that there is no reason why we cannot change ourselves as well.  It is thus during one of these moments of introspection that when listening to the album In Rainbows on my bus ride to Pennstate that I had a minor epiphany.  

So much of what Radiohead does is purposefully unsettling.  I have found that certain guitar strokes, ambient noises, a number of Thom Yorke's lyrics and his vocals all make me feel uncomfortable.  They make me vulnerable.  Suddenly exposed to a new world of sounds and cracked textures that I do not understand, maybe cannot understand, I realize that this is purposeful as it makes me question what it is that we as a society consider music.  Is it merely tones and melodies, or is it merely the use of sounds to produce complex emotions.  Indeed, one cannot truly understand Radiohead and their songs till one gives in to this alienation, because when one is ensconced and armored in primitive and conservative conceptions of what music is, then Radiohead's alternative message is missed.  Though many artists may discuss the often pained existence of mankind, Radiohead goes a step further and indicates that is pain is the result of the fact that life is not complete.  That it is not comfortable.  That it is not simple.  That life is often fractured, disjointed and twisted, and instead of merely saying it they are able to portray it in their music.  By throwing open your arms wide to the odd and eerie music and embracing this estrangement one may get a dose of reality in a world that is as odd and eerie as Radiohead's music make it out to be.  This "uncomfortable" music thus does not only challenge what music is, but also what life is.

For many people this is not always welcome.  It is not an easy thing to embrace life's imperfections and vagaries.  But, through their music Radiohead has remained in touch with some of the more difficult questions that humanity faces.  

As I get off the bus and turn my Ipod off, my eyes readjust to the bright neon lights of the parking lot, I find that my eyes are not the only things becoming readjusted.  My life outlook has also been altered into a more somber, pained experience that is perhaps a more accurate depiction of what life is.  

Initial Readings and Musical Terms

Here are the two articles I think it would be good for everyone to read:

This article in spin "debunking" the Radiohead myth: http://www.spin.com/node/56100

And this disgustingly florid review of Kid A from Pitchfork; my favorite line is "Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper." http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/6656-kid-a/

The following should also be helpful for providing us with a common vocabulary to use in the musical discussions we have in this class:

When thinking about music, especially popular music, we can divide our discussion into two main categories. I apologize if some of these terms are too basic, but I’m not sure what background you all have in music training. Most of this stuff is taken from classes I’ve had with Guy Ramsey, and to borrow from Guy, a good question to keep in the back of your mind at all times is, Why is Radiohead making this music in this place at this time? And additionally, Why (and how) are people listening?

1. Formal Qualities: What do you hear?

Melody – a succession of pitches; pitch being the “highness” or “lowness” of the note

Rhythm – how music moves through time; when pitches occur (or don’t occur)

Harmony – two or more pitches sounding simultaneously. Harmony falls out into three major categories:

•Monophony – a melody without an accompanying harmony

•Homophony – a melody harmonized with one or more additional pitches which form chords. These chords move more or less with rhythmic uniformity. A series of chords strummed on the guitar, where each note is played for the same duration between moving on to the next chord, would be an example of homophony

•Polyphony – a melody harmonized with one or more additional pitches which move with rhythmic independence. A song sung in “round,” like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” where one person starts, then another joins in later but starts from the beginning would be an example of polyphony

Timbre – the quality of the sound; also known as tone quality or tone color. It’s used to describe the way a trombone and a piano could play the exact same pitch but you can clearly hear them as different instruments. The timbre of the piano note could be described as clear and cold whereas the timbre of the trombone note could be described as warm and robust. The same timbral distinctions can be applied to the way a note is played on the same instrument, particularly in reference to the human voice. Bob Dylan’s vocal timbre is thin and nasally, while Luciano Pavarotti’s vocal timbre is powerful and resonant.

Form – succession of musical events. For example, most pop songs employ verse-chorus-verse, or “strain” form. Blues employs the 12-bar form.

Texture – layering of sound

2.Cultural Criticism: What does it mean?

Whereas examining the formal qualities of a piece of music is an objective exercise, cultural criticism focuses on subjectivity, the characters involved. Think about the way that music is consumed. Who controls its distribution? Who gets the money for the work being done? What addition work is being done besides the writing and recording of the music? This is where we recognize that music does not exist in a vacuum. It takes people to create it, to capture it, to market it, to sell it, and to consume it.

There are power structures that exist that dictate who we listen to and when, and who gets a cut and how much. With the advent of the internet and an explosion in the last 10+ years of the means available to an artist to self-promote and self-distribute, we see a shift in power away from the record companies and towards the artists themselves, and the consumers. With internet and satellite radio and the digital music revolution we as consumers get to vote with our dial and our dollar (or our illegal download) with a specificity that we were never able to before when there were basically 4 or 5 radio stations (hard rock, top 40, country, hip hop/R & B, wash, rinse, repeat). This issue is particularly pertinent to what we will study in this class. Radiohead is emblematic of a popular music culture where the underground has risen up to a place where it is closer than ever before to converging with the mainstream. The line between the two is blurrier than ever before with the almost limitless access we have to music in the internet age.

In addition, we can think about the ways that the internet allows one to brand oneself, and to be branded. Dialogues are exchanged communities are formed across national and ethnic boundaries based solely around the cult of personality that coalesces around a musician or group. The music you listen to is a marker of consumer identity. How much control do musicians have over these identity markers? To be more precise, how many of the ideologies or viewpoints that we as a global music consuming culture attach to Radiohead were propagated by the band themselves, and how many are projected on them by their fans?

Finally, think about the three “discourses” I mentioned two days ago. I say discourses instead of categories because they should be thought of as fluid. These don’t define pieces of music in and of themselves but define the way that people talk about music and what they’re really saying when they use these terms. For example, what are people really getting at when they refer to Radiohead as “art music?”

Art – revolves around providing a “transcendent experience.” However only those with the right training can experience the real meaning of “great” music. The music has little to do with the social world. It stands on a pedestal of greatness by itself – it is universal and appropriate for all, providing moral edification. It is not, cannot, and was not intended to be understood by the masses. It achieves this status through an exclusionary process of canonization. It is a work of rare genius, deriving its worth from its inherent value, not from any historical or societal sanction.

Pop/Mass – created by and organized around the industry – musical and monetary value are equated, and sales charts are the yardstick by which “good” pop music is measured. We think of this music as accessible – it is meant to be understood and enjoyed by all.

Folk – revolves around providing an authentic experience of community. These communities (at least in the past) are typically designated by race, ethnicity, minority status, class-status, or nationalistic boundaries. Connection to a common historical past is generally cited.

So, think about the ways Radiohead navigates, challenges, and sometimes transcends these discourses.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Radiohead As Activists

Radiohead announced (somewhat haphazardly) on DeadAirSpace in the last few days that they will be playing a benefit concert this weekend in LA, with proceeds going to relief efforts in Haiti. No glossy campaign, no heroic press release, no teaming up with huge corporations to sell a Radiohead-flavored consumer product, just a pair of rather informal notifications from drummer Phil Selway. Which got me to thinking... Radiohead is quietly one of the most vocal groups in this modern era of super-charities. Case in point: U2 records a song with Jay-Z to play at an MTV telethon for Haitian relief, Radiohead books a show at a tiny LA theater and auctions the tickets.

When Radiohead picks up a cause, it seems they do it if not the "right" reasons, then at least for earnest ones. Thom snuck in to the Copenhagen climate conferences (alone, and with no fanfare), wherefrom he posted his scathing (and rather disjointed) opinions. No "official celeb activist correspondent" status. Just a long, ranting lament on DAS after a series of little "reports" (scroll down for all of them), and a couple of youtube vids, none of which garnered more than a few thousand views. An attempt to get the point across. No face-time. No personal glory.

We already knew Radiohead are probably allergic to limelight, and this is just another manifestation of that fact. And just like I wonder how this bunch of aloof weirdos manages to infiltrate popular culture so intensely, how they balance fame and commercial success with their borderline sociopathic personalities, I sit here amazed that they are consistently among the most vociferous proponents for a variety of causes (most notably climate change), and yet you'd only know it if you cared to find out. Maybe that's the point.