Sunday, May 5, 2013

Thom Yorke, “Ingenue”

I promise I’m not praising this Thom Yorke solo piano version of Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue” in an attempt to fetishize traditional, “authentic” arrangement and performance with respect to the original, which I love for its quicksilver percussive droplets and its fat-rippled, metallically tangy synths. (And here you might cry I’m fetishizing tradition etc. by praising a Thom Yorke tune, which is a tiny bit valid, maybe, but I’m ignoring it.) I love the potential that’s coursing through this: if your ears are familiar you can hear the points at which it’d bloom into a traditional Radiohead song, or where it’d turn inward into a The Eraser-era Yorke song, and the elements that found their way into the ultimate Atoms for Peace hybrid-type cut. It’s an incredibly intimate performance, too, Yorke’s mouth right there on the mic making physical contact, and maybe that’s a totally normal, commonplace detail (I don’t know) but I find the way it’s filmed very striking. Love the songs or hate them, the man is a remarkable vocalist.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A really unpolished review of the Atoms for Peace record

I started working on this review of the new Atoms for Peace album Amok before the major publications got theirs out the door, but work and school and laziness got in the way (as they often do) and it sat in Evernote for a while and collected dust while better writers put their stamp on the record. There are some good ideas in here, but most of them have been expressed more eloquently at Grantland and Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and the conclusion is especially rough. I’m putting it out there because it’s long and it’s worth maybe half of one of your eyeballs and who am I to pass up an opportunity to drop some self-indulgent writer’s commentary in the form of a preface? It’s below. 

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When The King of Limbs was released in February 2011, I spent about two weeks playing the role of Radiohead conspiracy theorist. Certain corners of the Internet were whispering about a secret EP called Wall of Ice, with appropriately grey, jagged artwork; mysterious, locked Twitter accounts were popping up and issuing scrambled missives; the album ended with a song called “Separator” whose last lyric is “If you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” I was convinced that The King of Limbs 2 was lurking on some Russian file sharing site, waiting to take over the Internet. Obviously, I was wrong: the band released the “Supercollider”/”The Butcher” and “The Daily Mail”/”Staircase” singles later that year, but there wasn’t a companion full-length album waiting in the wings. In hindsight, my belief in a second disc reads like a manifestation of a disappointed reaction to an album that failed to reach the heights of In Rainbows. Eight tracks? Half-hearted IDM dabbling? “Morning Mr. Magpie”? No amount of stanning was going to inject the album with the vitality it mostly lacked. I bring this up because The King of Limbs has finally received the sequel I thought was destined for the second half of 2011, but from an entirely different Thom Yorke-led crew. Atoms for Peace’s Amok is that album’s spiritual companion, and represents a strong midway point between the sterile electronic landscapes of Yorke’s first solo effort The Eraser and the half steps towards rhythm and groove sprinkled throughout The King of Limbs.

It’s apparent almost immediately that Flea’s bass is the instrument du jour, and ultimately the album’s best hooks and finest moments are marked by the interplay between his prominent, catchy bass lines and Yorke’s vocals. The introduction of “Before Your Very Eyes…” represents a brief acclimatization period, with its prickly guitar and skittering beat; from the first bass note, Flea ably jumps into a Scottie Pippen role, serving as a strong complementary asset and ideal second banana. He dominates “Default”, whose first notes arrive with such force that they seem to leak from your ears down into your mouth, viscous and heavy as blood. “Stuck Together Pieces” is another standout, pairing a oil-drip bass melody with a featherlight Yorke vocal. The album peaks with the robo-R&B of “Ingenue”, its sliding synths and the best Yorke performance since “Reckoner” making a decent case for the sensual synthetic. Even mid-level cuts like are buoyed by exciting passages, like the dark highway strut of “Dropped”. 

Amok falters when its lesser tracks are caught in limbo between buzzing rehearsal sketches and full-fledged songs. There are always interesting textures and sounds at play, but they’re occasionally missing a certain spark, failing to come to life. “Unless” and the title track are handfuls of individually intriguing elements that fail to coalesce; on the former Yorke repeatedly intones “Care less / I couldn’t care less”, and it’s not hard to believe him. But the existence and defining characteristic of Amok is precisely that: Yorke has the freedom to care less and stop at imperfection when operating outside the confines of the world’s last, biggest rock band. He’s made it clear on his recent press tour that Atoms for Peace is a fun digression with some talented friends, and it’s easy to pick up that narrative thread while listening to the album. It finds Yorke expanding on some of the concepts hinted at by The King of Limbs and exploring the terrain between that album and the absolute isolation and sterility of The Eraser. I’m looking forward to hearing the influence of this exploration on the next Radiohead record; in the meantime, there are a few great songs on Amok and a few good ones too, and that’s fine in its own right.