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.

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.