Monday, February 28, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Announced out of the blue and arriving one day ahead of schedule, Radiohead’s newest release The King of Limbs seems like an attempt to sneak up and surprise the music community. For Radiohead, this has become par for the course. Like them or not, this is a band with a penchant for the unexpected, both musically and in terms of their reclusive image. The initial novelty of the pick-your-price scheme introduced with In Rainbows has long since worn off, and wisely, no such attention grab has been made here. As a result, the music-listening collective and I are forced to dig in to the music directly rather than distract ourselves with notions of industry-changing gimmicks, effective as they might be.

So, after a week or so of repeated listens, I can’t help but feel a bit confused by this album. Generally speaking, Radiohead seems to have momentarily abandoned the charged instrumentals of In Rainbows for a more electronically-focused approach, similar to the one they used for Kid A. The album’s opener, “Bloom,” feels constricted by Phil Selway’s trademark choppy rhythms, which are as proficient as ever but seem toothless under weak synthesizers and wandering vocals. The cluttered percussion samples of the first two tracks are as close as this album will get to the sound of In Rainbows, but “Bloom” feels like more of a downgrade than an evolution from the previous album’s opener, “15 Steps.” It’s not long, though, before the band switches gears, dropping the mash of rhythms for the more laid-back roll of “Little By Little.” This one is the most seamless blend of Radiohead’s sonic capabilities, mixing electronic percussion under organic melodies in the best hook the album has to offer.

If three tracks in feels like an early peak, that’s because it is. It would be a mistake to skip the rest of the album, but one can’t help but feel like everything tapers off a bit from here. “Lotus Flower,” the literal centerpiece of the album, is Thom Yorke’s best moment on the record. His falsetto is focused and precise here, an improvement over the textural vocals that pervade a good portion of the album. The song is close enough to the top of the slope that it is memorable enough to stand out from the rest of the music here. The pulsing piano chords of “Codex” are sonically gorgeous but lacking in direction or motivation. Beyond that, the album just kind of shuts itself down, running out its brief 38-minutes with two more tracks of pretty music that don’t really add anything substantial to the structure of the record. “Give Up the Ghost” is too subdued and fuzzy for its own good, and “Separator,” though an effective closer for this particular album, just sounds like something we’ve heard before.

And that’s the real problem with The King of Limbs. It is the rare album that will likely be enjoyed more by non-fans than by Radiohead devotees. On its own merits, it is perfectly listenable, and frequently enjoyable. It can be texturally and instrumentally beautiful at times, but there is little here that feels grand or musically daring. There is no tension and no anxiety. It too often sounds like an album put out by an excellent band that sat down and said, “Hey, we haven’t done anything in a while. Want to put out a record?” Radiohead’s characteristic music prowess is certainly here, and for many listeners, that will be more than enough. It’s just hard to see the band’s fans accepting this as an integral part of Radiohead’s catalogue. You just have to decide how it works for you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cut Copy - Zonoscope

Speaking from grossly limited experience as a music writer (read: unemployed blogger), it can be difficult to review a band that you know nothing about. This is true of music from all genres, but the effect seems amplified when writing about indie, partly due to the massive influx in popular artists from the genre in recent years. As quickly as the scene grows, so does the range of sounds encompassed under the descriptor, often resulting in combinations of influence that are simultaneously derivative and entirely inventive.

This phenomenon is most recently embodied in Zonoscope, the latest album from Australian indie outfit Cut Copy. In some ways, Cut Copy have here chosen to stick with their guns, following the sonic tropes of their obvious influences. Singer Dan Whitford prominently echoes Joy Division and other early electronic artists, even as far up to the present as LCD Soundsystem. The similarities can be difficult to ignore. Whitford sings with the same wistful tenor as many of his predecessors, but with none of the prerequisite angst and teenaged frustration that characterized so many early electro-pop artists.

It’s a marked similarity, but the resemblances more or less end there. Behind Zonoscope’s vocals lie such a vast array of sonic devices that you can’t help but feel that you’re hearing something entirely new. In “Take Me Over,” Cut Copy provide a lush arrangement of echoing percussion, prominent guitars, and electronic backdrops, all set around one of the best grooves to come out of the scene in recent memory. Next, the pounding drums of “Where I’m Going” lay out the frame for Whitford to do some of his most creative vocal work. He hits his stride here, harmonizing an excellent chorus melody that numbers among the best moments on the album.

That chorus also represents all that is best about the album. Each tune resounds with an enthusiasm for creation that is rare in all forms of music. Track for track, this might be one of the happier albums you’ll hear in months. The songs are almost uniformly upbeat, but in a way that never feels cheesy or less than genuine. For example, “Alisa” is really not much more than a good love song, but it is composed with such clarity and sung with such stylish grace that it becomes something more. The album does occasionally fall too far into its own patterns, as is the case with “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat.” The track thumps along on the album’s most patient groove, relying on shimmering electronics and strummed acoustic guitars rather than huge dynamic bursts and polyrhythmic explorations. It’s not so much bad as uninteresting, given the immensely animated sound of the album as a whole. It’s a rare miss for an album that is otherwise entirely in charge of its own direction.

Speaking of structure, it’s impossible to talk about Zonoscope without mentioning its closer, the 15-minute electronic excursion that is “Sun God.” Lyrically, the song is nothing spectacular, but the sheer audacity of ending a pop album with a song over ten minutes long should not be ignored. “Sun God” is a trek through the best of Cut Copy’s electronic abilities, an entrancing showcase of pop sensibility and inventive instrumentation. It’s as effective a closer as it is a standalone work, a feat that is admirable in itself, and a testament to this band’s willingness to follow their creative urges. Ultimately, it is the album’s ending that provides its most resounding endorsement: when “Sun God” finally drew to a close my first time through, I just wanted it to keep going. It’s tough to get much better praise than that.