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, 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.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

New DeadAirSpace

So Radiohead recently changed the look of DeadAirSpace.  It was previously based on the imagery of In Rainbows.  Now it's a clean white background, with type-writer-ish font (I'm no good at differentiating between Times or Cambria, etc.).  The header has elements of a memo or some sort of "official" document - a stapled corner, perforation and a little scissor icon telling you to "cut here".  Could this be an indication of the next album's theme/artwork?  It seems very office-y.  I don't know what to make of it yet, but if it is the direction they are going with the album art, there will definitely be a slew of similar imagery to go along.  So at the very least we will have more to puzzle over.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Trapdoors and Mosquito Traps: Where's the Fire?

A note to begin:

I know we're saving the artwork discussion for another day, but looking at the artwork for Kid A and Amnesiac is, I feel, radically important. Please take a few minutes to look and reflect.

While these albums are criticized for being "too cerebral," I have found the reality to be quite the opposite: the worlds that are depicted in these soundscapes are so vast, and so terrifying, that they require the entirety of your being to fully engage. I would encourage you to spend an hour at least to simply sit and listen distracted by nothing but your imagination (and perhaps the artwork and lyrics). Attempt to actively engage these albums and populate your psyche with the universe depicted therein. While I don't mean to be overly dramatic, the experience for me is beautiful, disturbing, awful (emphasis on AWE), and above all, profoundly NEW. Often dark and deeply unsettling, but always alien and unique. How many things in the world can you really say that about? For me, not many.

If you have the time and cash I would strongly encourage you to buy the physical CD so you can take a look. These images, particularly in those found in the Kid A booklet, affected me deeply when I first saw them as a kid and continue to today. Pay particular attention to the jumbled, nihilistic asides in the Kid A booklet.


"If you look at the artwork for Kid A...well, that´s looking at the fire from afar. Amnesiac is the sound of what it feels like to be standing in the fire"
- Thom Yorke: The Big Issue*, Jan 2001

Much of the discussion this Friday will focus on the relationship of the two albums. Should they be thought of as Kid A and Kid B? Does each have an individual identity, and can either album stand alone? Is Amnesiac simply a collection of Kid A throwaways?

My thoughts are that everything Radiohead does is painstakingly deliberate artistically, and they would never try to pass off a collection of B-sides as an album just to try and cash in on their outtakes. The band has more or less stated as much in interviews anyway. But since they (Kid A and Amnesiac) were both recorded in the same session, I think we still have to view the two as companion albums; albeit companion albums with a careful design, the pair fitting together like puzzle pieces.

I've always liked that above quote, despite (or perhaps due to) its obscurity. Isn't this, after all, what we all found so enticing about OK Computer's lyrical approach in comparison to Thom's earlier writing, the way it collages meaning instead of scrawling it in a diary with schoolgirlish vulnerability? Kid A and Amnesiac deal with the mythical tomes of Icarus and Prometheus, the tribal dance, the kids singing songs around a campfire, a city razed and burning: what happens when people play with fire? How does it feel to look from afar and not feel the heat? How does it feel to be up in flames, feeling and seeing nothing but fire all around you?

Kid A, like OK Computer, is quite voyeuristic. Thom sets the stage: "there are two colours in my head." Thom sees the world for all its contradictions; he points the lens and spares the commentary. Order in chaos. Hope in fear. Everything in nothing. On "How to Disappear Completely" he can walk through walls, go everywhere, see everything, while occupying no time, no space. Why is it so unsettling when we hear him talk about everything in its right place? Shouldn't that be reassuring, as much so as being "fitter, happier, and more productive?" The album reveals the biggest lie - we, as humans, love the fundamental shortcut of addressing problems with positive labels; inoculating the disease with euphemisms, even naming it as an asset. If (pulling lyrics from the album) women and children lying in bunkers, children being cut in half, cheap sex and sleeping pills are a portrait of everything existing in its right place, then God help us. That lemon we're sucking on is the notion that modern anxiety is not an anomaly, it's the rising bile that we try to suppress with ignorance - ears stuffed closed, eyes wide shut. See you in the next life.

With Amnesiac, Thom is the insect drawn towards the light. We are not watching the evening news, we are living on the edge of the earthquake in the alien nation. We are trying to put everything in its right place; but in "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" it is revealed that "we are looking in the wrong place." The lens shifts and now we are placed squarely in the midst of the horror. We are reasonable men, and we want to be left alone, but we can't ignore the bitter taste of the lemon in our mouths.

There is an obession on the album with irredeemabilitly. It is a response to Jesus' omnipresence in the psychology of the Western world. Is the idea of a next life just a way to navigate through the swamp of the one we currently occupy, a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? Are there trapdoors we can't come back from? If we are washed down the waterfall, lost at sea, is there a way back out?

When I reach the end of this album, however, I always feel oddly uplifted. "There are weapons we can use," Thom croons on Dollars and Sense, "be constructive with your blues." It's possible to read this ironically, but I get the impression that Thom is being fairly oblique here. If we are stuck here, burning, why doesn't someone go grab a bucket of water?

I am always inspired by these albums to get off my ass and be part of the solution. Radiohead has always done us the courtesy of being truthful, and the truth is that on a dark planet, dark things happen. Led by the Virgilesque/Pied Piper figure presented in "Kid A" I am brought, like Dante, through the depths of hell with a fortified soul and a hatred of evil, no longer tripped up by little white lies.


*Read about "The Big Issue" here. Pertinent to our discussion on Radiohead's social conscience.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

OK Computer & paradigm shifts

Summary of 2/2/10:

This week, The Pennds team broke down Radiohead's magnum opus - OK Computer - its origins, inspirations, transformations and influence.  It's a complex album, and in order to really identify how it functions, a contextual and thematic framework is important - it is necessary to examine it against its predecessor, The Bends, and against its contemporaries to access its true influential power.

While we know today that Radiohead is constantly shape-shifting - like a shark that has to constantly move to stay alive - in 1997, the breadth of their transformation could be measured only by the important, yet largely basic, changes made between Pablo Honey and The Bends.  These changes, while substantial to the band's evolution, certainly didn't blow anyone's mind - bands tweak their sound all the time.  But for a band to apply a generation's worth of experimentation and metamorphosis in the span of 2 years - what Radiohead did with OK Computer - is a rare event.  For it to work, even rarer

This transformation took place on multiple levels - musically, of course, and thematically.  Instrumentation became more complex - the use of sound as a vehicle for expression was elevated.  In order to craft an album so spacious and atmospheric, the band drew from a wider base of musical styles, including jazz and 20th c. classical music.  They expanded their collection of instruments.  Thom learned piano; Jonny wrote string arrangements (not the "Eleanor Rigby"-esque strings archetypal of pop-rock, but rather soaring, elegant strings); more inventive percussion was incorporated.  Important to note is the decreased prominence of vocals.  There are long intervals of pure instrumentation, and Thom's singing blends in with the music, itself becoming an instrument; as a result, melodies become as influential on emotions, moods and attitudes as lyrics.  The band also took a new approach to recording.  For instance, Thom recorded the vocals of "Exit Music" on a marble staircase to achieve that airy timbre.  Most of what you hear on the album was recorded on the first take, with the band playing together.  This is what gives the album its organic feel. It was created as a whole, rather than pieced together.

OK Computer advanced Radiohead's struggle between convention and innovation.  Take for instance the iconic single "Karma Police", a song that splits its time between minimalist piano-pop balladry and soaring, resonant climax, before winding down with what sounds like a distorted ambulance siren.  Not your typical rock song.  This clash of styles results in a curiously effective method of build-up and let-down, bringing the listener into a chaos of burgeoning noise and emotions so suddenly, yet so imperceptibly that it feels almost comfortable.  "Paranoid Android" lives up to its name - like an android, it is a patchwork of so many different styles that the individual segments bear little resemblance to each other, and yet it is one of the most complete and stable songs on the album . Another example of Radiohead's innovation is the simple addition of persistent, but unoppressive, background noise.  The deep reverberations that underlie much of OK Computer have a monumental effect on the way each song conjures emotions in the listener.  Case in point: "Climbing Up the Walls" - an insectoid droning behind metallic drums and muddled vocals burns with unsettling eeriness, setting a tone of damp insanity, before a tidal wave of strings incinerates it all, a final deranged scream, then smoldering reverb.

These new methods of instrumentation help to expand the album's thematic perspective.  No longer introspective, the band themselves have said that OK Computer is about the world around them.  According to Thom, he was "just taking Polaroids of things around [him]..."  Even the album title reflects this expansion - while The Bends refers to an individual affliction, OK Computer is an ambiguous phrase, with strangely discomforting connotations.  It speaks to the concept of our increasing dependence on machinery, a theme that Thom will become obsessed with over the course or Radiohead's work.  "OK, computer" as a sheer phrase is powerfully articulate - a beleaguered acquiescence to the dominance that machines have over our lives.  And this goes right along with some of the main themes of OK Computer - transport, technology, machine-related disasters and emergencies.  The album's other, non-mechanistic themes are morose at best: social disconnection, insanity, paranoia, the systematization of life, and the mental and physical paralysis that these combine to bring about.  The songs of OK Computer tell of vast, sweeping emotions.  The alienation and fear of OK Computer are far deeper than the agitation of The Bends

Perhaps the most brilliant method of any on the album is the use of contrast, especially between music and lyrics.  While many of the songs seem uplifting, their lyrics are actually quite bleak. A prime example is "No Surprises" - with dreamy xylophones and breezy vocals, you could mistake it for a lullaby, until you hear lyrics like "a heart that's full up like a landfill" and "a handshake of carbon monoxide".  Or on "Karma Police", where Thom sings the line "this is what you get when you mess with us" in such a way you might think he was humming to himself.  The soft instrumentation and carefree vocals that veil this threat make it that much more menacing.  And then there's "Let Down", populated by an utterly despondent metaphor of crushed insects against a background of cheery guitars and riding cymbals.  Still, the most striking instance of contrast on OK Computer is on the album's least musical track, "Fitter Happier", the lyrics of which were described by Yorke as a checklist of slogans for the 90's, grammatically unstructured clippings of phrases by which people measure their happiness: "Fitter, happier, more productive" "no longer afraid of the dark" "an empowered and informed member of society".  But instead of Thom, these lyrics are read by the speech program that came standard on Mac computers.  The rendering of common human goals in a computerized voice indicates all too well the sterilization of human ambition, the automation of life.

But why was all of this so influential?  For one thing, nobody saw this coming.  What people expected was another album of lean, clever, guitar-centric protests of society's many ills; another installment of the irreverent and sarcastic rock that had taken residency in 1997.  Instead, what fans received was an album that addressed ultimate rather than specific feelings that had been left unaddressed by Britpop & grunge predecessor.  Nirvana and Blur certainly were not making any metaphors about crushed insects.  Nor were they using xylophones for emphasis.