March 28, 2011

Douglas Martin also thinks your restaurant’s falafel is scrumptious (no Halal).

Last month, Radiohead– a band so notoriously well-known for needing no introduction that the very mention of their name serves as one– announced they were going to be releasing an album later in the week, and then sent out downloads one day early. A move that would have been considered flagrantly unpredictable and maybe even revolutionary if another band tried it, but simply boilerplate in the refreshing We Do Whatever We Want template of the Radiohead release schedule format. On the heels of that came a frantic music journo Easter Egg Hunt, scores and scores of critical thinking types stumbling over their “submit” buttons to be the first to evaluate what is, ironically enough, the Radiohead record that requires the most time and attention.

And now, we’re in the middle of the physical release of The King of Limbs— a period that, for the second album in a row, now, is seen as the least interesting component of the Radiohead release schedule. If you read this article regularly, then chances are you’re a lot like me in the idea that you are really, really attached to an album’s physical version, particularly when it comes in vinyl. So in the hyper-accelerated world of internet music listening– a culture Radiohead has obviously and thoroughly revolutionized– the practice of listening to this album on a format that may not be its most intended, but definitely the most sublime, is all but lost. Think about the dusty stylus needle crackling along with the chirping birds between “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost”. The textural brilliance that Radiohead has been chipping away at for almost two decades now lends itself to the vinyl format.

But ultimately, this isn’t a Save the Vinyl Format commercial, it’s a Radiohead review. And regardless of what format you prefer, The King of Limbs is a Radiohead Album, one that– like most Radiohead Albums– slinks and floats and plows and bulldozes its way through a set of five personalities and their ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-evolving tastes. Of course in any group configuration, some personalities are meant to shine forth brighter than others, but the run-up and follow-through of The King of Limbs has seemed more Thom Yorke’s Big Adventure than any Radiohead release to date. Thom Yorke dances and shit! Thom Yorke crashes The Airliner and plays Jaylib and dubstep! Thom Yorke thinks your restaurant’s falafel is scrumptious!

Musically, Yorke is also pushed into the forefront more than any prior Radiohead album, to the point where early evaluations were met with more than one reference to Yorke’s solo endeavor The Eraser. The album is split into clear, direct halves, the first of which draws more than a little inspiration from the hyper-rhythmic, hyper-experimental grooves of Brainfeeder albums. The second-half seems to focus on the ethereal vocal elegance– and, in the cases of the aforementioned “Codex” and “Give Up the Ghost,” the spectral, glacial balladry– of the latter-day work of longtime friend PJ Harvey. Yorke’s voice is probably the highest musical focal point, just as it was on In Rainbows, with him snarling on “Morning Mr. Magpie,” crooning soulfully on “Lotus Flower,” and being a harbinger for doom on “Bloom” and “Little by Little”.

But, with more attentive listening, it’s easy to see that The King of Limbs is not something Yorke could have drummed up with only the help of his laptop, frequent Kombucha runs, and his friendly local weed farmer. Colin Greenwood’s basslines are expressly rich throughout, especially with his rich, jazz-like navigation of the uber-tricky time signature of “Bloom”. His brother Jonny– easily the most inventive guitarist of his generation– has a small-but-dazzling role in “Morning Mr. Magpie,” where his oscillating, stuttering lead pushes through and gives the song its rising sense of urgency. “Little by Little,” with all its creeping eeriness, is highly suggestive of Amnesiac, while the metallic shimmer that vibrates through “Codex” is a textural additive of great delicacy.

Another knee-jerk reaction to The King of Limbs has been in regard to its brevity. At 37 ½ minutes, it’s Radiohead’s shortest LP to date, which is a completely inexplicable talking point to someone who holds a bunch of full albums that are literally half that length in very high regard. But its running time coupled with its sparseness has sadly misinterpreted as incompleteness, even prompting misguided fans to make a King of Limbs 2 website.

Though it’s quite clearly a complete statement, the word “transitional” comes to mind when listening to The King of Limbs. But haven’t Radiohead always been in transition? Isn’t it quite possible that, in being two steps ahead of every other entity in music, sometimes they don’t even know where they’re going themselves? Isn’t that part of the reason why we gleefully follow them everywhere they go? If it seemed as though Radiohead knew exactly what they were doing 100% of the time, you can be dead certain we wouldn’t like them as much. For all of their relentless, superhuman, godlike creativity, the idea of Radiohead blindly feeling around for the rails to carry them to their next big idea gives the band a distinctly human quality. In the end, that’s what makes Radiohead one of us (heh), which is why many of us consider them to be the greatest band of our lifetime.

MP3: Radiohead-“Morning Mr. Magpie”

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