This is the time of year when the year-end lists start rolling in and curiosity gets the best of me. I start rushing around, desperately tracking down anything notable that I really ought to hear before the year runs out. "Notable" covers a lot of ground, everything from music I didn't even know existed until this month (Six By Seven got back together and released an album? Whoa) to bafflingly overpraised cack made by unoriginal charlatans (MIA, I'm looking at you).
And then there's Radiohead. Normally, I simply step back and stay out of the way whenever they release something, avoiding almost all the discussion and allowing the mountain of hype to build up all around me. Eventually, much like a dog run that you never bother to clean, all that shit builds up so high that you finally have to clear it out once "In Rainbows" starts landing in the top ten on every magazine and website's Best of 2007 list. So I'm going to listen, finally, to the new Radiohead album.
Much like the "Kid A" exercise I did a couple of years ago, this is essentially a real-time review. I don't really have the time (OK, the inclination) to give Radiohead any more time than the bare minimum. Call it half-assing it if you wish, I call it "visceral". It's like reality TV -- unscripted, premeditated, totally unhinged! I haven't heard a note from this album, at least not knowingly. I barely skimmed most of the album reviews. This isn't liveblogging, but trust me when I say that I'm writing these words before I hear the music. I'm fully prepared to look like an idiot for writing this smarmy introduction should the album turn out to be astonishingly good. Needless to pay, I paid $0.00 for my copy of "In Rainbows". Lead-in music: Sean Kingston's bitchin' self-titled album.
"15 Step". So I do know this much: they're back to doing more freaky experimental stuff after rediscovering guitars on "Hail to the Thief". Where there's smoke, there's fire, Radiohead version = when you have Radiohead trying to be experimental, you have Radiohead trying to sound like Autechre. Except that Autechre weren't known for breaking into freaky space jazz in the middle of their tracks. Hey, that's one good track in the books!
"Bodysnatchers". Thom Yorke's voice isn't suited for singing along to sludge rock. Otherwise, I've got no complaints: this isn't too far removed from kind of music the Warlocks should be making these days, that is, if they had ever been bold enough to dig themselves out of their acid hazes and try something new. The Pitchfork review for their new album was so horrible that it scared me away from even wanting to heard it, but then again, Pitchfork has always hated the Warlocks with a passion.
"Nude". This may as well be a fairly uneventful strum through something from Acetone's backcatalog. But Acetone were always more enchanting live than they were on record, so I can see this track working beautifully in the middle of a long live set.
"Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". There's something proggy about these echo-y tracks where the guitars sound like jazz pianos, and I don't mean that in a good way. Have Radiohead ever done something really loose and jammy, I'm talking 15-20 minutes long? I'm wondering if they could pull it off.
"All I Need". They've gone from stealing from Autechre and Miles Davis, to Spacemen 3, to Acetone, and now to Bowery Electric's "Lushlife". That's quite a downward slope. That bass screams "we just wanted a cool-sounding bass sound and nothing more". The track starts to redeem itself by brightening into a piano and cymbal-led wall of sound. You know what Thom Yorke's voice *is* suited for? Wailing his way though multiple repetitions of a song's title while barely being audible above the music.
"Faust Arp". You know what Thom Yorke's voice isn't suited for? Trying to channel Nick Drake.
"Reckoner". The smooth, laid-back intro makes it official: this album is "Radiohead: live at Red Rocks". The singing ruins whatever good vibe I might have had. This track and the last one seem to force in a string section where it wasn't needed, presumably to sell the drama and emotion of the track. Note: the singing is prominently featured on both "Reckoner" and "Faust Arp". Coincidence? I think not.
"House of Cards". Oh great, liberal use of echo. Is Thom Yorke into reggae now? Is King Tubby the new Warp? "I don't wanna be your friend, I just wanna be your lover". I think my dick just locked itself into a cocoon for the winter. I'm hearing a lot of Verve, c. 1993 on this track (along the lines of "A Man Called Sun"), right down to the gently rising guitar squalls that are definitely Nick McCabe-ish. And what do you know, Verve reunited with McCabe this year and sound a lot like their jam-it-out, early incarnation (as opposed to the Ashcroft-dominated folkstrumming singer/songwriter wankery that slipped its way onto "Urban Hymns"). Coincidence? Perhaps not.
"Jigsaw Falling Into Place". It's the indie rock song. On the bright side, this is reminding me to check out the new Spoon album before the year is out.
"Videotape". Time to put away the bong and smell the paranoia instead. This is the kind of doomy minimalism I can really get into. Pounding piano, off-beat knocks and frittering hi-hats, ghostly voices, all of it has made me sit up and start paying closer attention. This track, all by itself, has redeemed the second half of the album.
Well, the first two tracks delivered plenty of twists and surprises, but it went downhill rapidly after that. Once they settled into the soft rock stuff and brought Yorke's voice to the fore, things dragged heavily and didn't fully recover until the very end. Still, there are four or five really good songs here, which is two or three more than I expected to hear going in. Sure, my level of scrutiny is raised when it comes to something like this, but for a band that's always lauded for being fearless and trying out new things, whose albums seem to make top ten lists out of habit as much as merit, I think I feel justified in holding Radiohead to that standard.