Archive for March, 2011

Radiohead – King of Limbs – Review

March 11th, 2011 No comments

4 Stars out of 5

When you have a blog there is not an editor that can come around and say that they hoped to keep the comments down to 1000 words.  But Radiohead’s influence on the music scene goes beyond the 8 songs on this album and sometimes 1000 additional discussion is necessary.

If you were to turn back the clock and look at some of the initial reviews of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, you will notice that it does not have the universal acclaim that people put on that album now.  Some might have pointed to Pitchfork’s initial release of a perfect 10.0 score when it was released to spawn on the 21st Century. The album not only was the ‘Album of the Year’ for the music critic site based out of Chicago but went on to also be their top album of the first decade.  Kid A was a departure off the critically acclaimed ‘OK Computer’, which was a departure from the critically acclaimed ‘The Bends’ which was much better than its debut album ‘Pablo Honey’ that put them on the map with ‘Creep’. Sounds like a band that was continually developing it’s sound.

Now, critics would review that album much higher now than at the time of release, maybe because Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork told them to. Or quite possibly, ‘Kid A’, is one of those albums that needs some time to breathe and open up. ‘Kid A’ even had the benefit of leaking to the public beforehand so that the critics and fans could get a glimpse at this music-changing moment.  Don’t believe me? Go and read any review of this album and note the times that Kid A is being mentioned in the reviews. What is even more amusing is seeing music journalism magazines such as Q, Mojo, .etc, give the album a less than stellar review. I wonder what those magazines are saying now?

Everything by Radiohead is judged upon can be derived from that moment, the schism especially between Ok Computer and Kid A, both gloomy depressing albums but both instant classics and should be part of everyone’s record collection if only to have them.  And thus by having multiple albums with the “Masterpiece” label, they have a different grading scale (like my beloved R.E.M.) so where we can again compare this latest effort to their 21st Century specimens and see where we stand.

As I have just finished my R.E.M. review of ‘Collapse into Now’ and can safely go into M.I.A. for the next three years, I figured it was as good of time as any to get back into discussing the merits of ‘King of Limbs’.

For my own listening pleasures, the end of R.E.M. also signaled the beginning of Radiohead’s claim as the top modern rock band in the world. I might not have realized it at the time, preferring my local Wilco who had lauded that top spot but they have been slightly disappointing since their stellar ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ released what seems like a century ago.

Yes, Radiohead is the best band in the world right now. They have found a way to remain in the mainstream by releasing very non-accessible albums.  ‘Kid A’ does not scream top 40, and nor does ‘King of Limbs’ and yet for the past 10 years since that album came out they have done everything they can to go against conventional wisdom.  They have found a way to blend Rock, Electronica, Jazz and everything else they picked up along the way to find a niche all their own.

Their albums were not filled with singles.  Consider that ‘Creep’ was the song that put them on the map to begin with and arguably their most accessible. What I find unique is that they have not tried to become more mainstream over the years but less. Since Kid A, their albums in the US have all reached all reached at least Gold and there are still questions, for example, in the actual number of sales of In Rainbows.

We are also brought upon a music industry so desperate to hear anything that is exciting that will save rock and roll, or that is what they will say. There is a certain level of fear that hits the news about the dangers of downloading music for free or how sales of music in general has begun a downward trend and so when an album like ‘King of Limbs’ is announced, a mere week before it’s release, it becomes an event. Critics and fans have the opportunity to listen to the album at the same time, with early reviews popping up by critics that want to call “Firsties”.  ‘King of Limbs’ is not going to be defined in the first, second or fourth week and as I sit here writing this, I have no claim to have all the answers either.

So there was a certain nervousness in the air about what would Radiohead do next? Would the King of Limbs be the album that effectively begins the next 10 years of music?

Radiohead allowed us to answer the questions ourselves and not the critic or reviewer to pan the album. We have become the critics and it’s status in our playlists will be determined not by what the reviewer has to say but what we say and I think that is pretty fascinating. Music journalism didn’t die but began to flourish. People discussed it on Facebook, on Twitter.

Thom Yorke & Co. are not the easiest band to get your inner soul in touch with, particularly because their brand of music eschews the common American definition of a band.  Americans are known for their crap and if they cannot figure out what is going on after 1 listen or J-Lo, Randy and Steven Tyler do not have an opinion they are completely brainless as to why they think something might affect them.

Of course if you have a difficulty getting into dubstep or house music and your definition of great music is a Brad Paisley album, then Radiohead will probably be low on your satisfaction-o-meter.

Dubstep, for those that are not in the know is a UK dance movement based on bass, reverberating drums and sampling.  For many out there, the movement can seem a bit awkward, and if you are looking for a good primer, I would suggest trying out something by Burial. While King of Limbs is not a true ‘Dubstep’ album, hearing it most noticeably in the opening track with the Jazz drumming loops on ‘Bloom’ and the ambiance that it creates; also prevalent on ‘Feral’.  The universe that Radiohead created, and its sparseness dictating its sense of resolve, starts with the music.  I think what Radiohead is able to offer that many dubstep albums fail to produce are singers and lyricists with the voice of Yorke’s becoming one of the main instruments as his siren calls become dark psychedelic nightmare. The warmth of the guitars is gone and in retrospect the album feels very dark and pleasureless.

In ‘Morning Mr. Magpie,’ the Magpie represents death or a curse, and sets the album up by we are taking the beauty out of this picture.  And thus it becomes a short concept album, although when can you say that Thom Yorke and Co. are ever happy?

‘Little By Little’ would seem the most familiar of the Radiohead tracks, as the sparseness of the guitars with the constant rhythm section offering a bit of tease to the listeners as they feel the familiarity of the band before we are again distracted into the sterile ‘Feral’.

If ‘In Rainbows’ was their relationship album, this one feels much more internal, offering a sense of bareness and death. For example, Lotus Flower, the single, (and famous for Thom’s dance scene) he sings, ‘there’s an empty space within my heart, where the weeds take root’, the weeds becoming the darkness of his soul.

The title of the album ‘King of Limbs’, which one of the intended meanings is that of a decaying Oak Tree in Wiltshire, and anything that is dying is often taken over by the vultures of society.

We see growth out of death and that need to be in water, or a cleansing of one’s soul, or at least the desire as such.

In Bloom, “The ocean blooms and keeps me alive”, and in Codex, “The waters clear and innocent”.   Is Thom suggesting baptism?

As the final track Separator suggests, ‘King of Limbs’ comes off almost as a bad dream or a moment of purgatory, “I am falling out of bed from a long and vivid dream” a quick escape into a cold dank world.

Some in the Radiohead, based on the brevity of this album as well as the various tracks that did not make the album (These Are My Twisted Words comes to mind immediately) is that this album is just half or Part 1 of a sequel or second part. But that is the fun of the Internets and the fact that some are suggesting this is what makes Radiohead such a powerful influence (ala Paul is Dead from the Beatles Revolver).

With a band like Radiohead that have set the bar so high, you cannot make the ‘Album of the Decade’ every time out.  But this would not be the album that can sell to the masses. It’s like watching the movie ‘Leaving Las Vegas’. The performances that are given are top rate but the story is not one that often brings in repeated listens.

There has always been a glimmer of hope in past Radiohead albums, or the bar was raised high enough that, the hope was not always needed. We still need that moment to jam out from time to time and I would be curious to see the bands “Shiny Happy” album.

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