Radiohead – In Rainbows; round 43, Nick’s choice

in-rainbows-radioheadTess, Tom’s daughter, came into the room we were listening in last night about halfway through Tom’s choice, and pointed at Rob’s copy of the In Rainbows discbox on his shelves. “You should get that, Dad,” she announced, apros of nothing as far as I could tell. “Nick would probably argue that,” said Tom, to which I asked why (as well as expressing surprise that Tom didn’t own In Rainbows already). A short discussion about Radiohead ensued, in which Tom revealed that he’d never ‘got’ OK Computer despite all the hype, and thus hadn’t investigated further, before I said “Funny Tess should mention it, because look what I’ve brought along to play,” and pulled In Rainbows out of my knapsack.

I’m not meant to like Radiohead much – I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 15 years moaning about them not being as good as people say they are – but I’ve been thinking about bringing In Rainbows to our little club for some time now. Because, I’ve come to realise over the last four or five years, I really like it.

Like Tom, I was largely nonplussed by OK Computer way back when – some of my friends went gaga for it, but I was smitten by Spiritualized and Orbital and Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow and Björk, which made Radiohead’s 1997 output seem a little prosaic, even as it was lauded to the very highest heavens by people keen on canonical rock albums and desperate to anoint something of their own (remember that Q readers poll in 1998 which voted it the greatest album ever?). (I did, and still do, love “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android”, though.)

Three years later, at university, I’d fully embraced Miles Davis, been extraordinarily excited by XTRMNTR, explored Warp Records’ 90s output even further, tasted Fugazi, read Debord and Deleuze, and basically had my horizons stretched massively, which seriously diluted the impact that Kid A had on me, even as it seemed to seismically realign other people. Over a dozen years later, though I love “The National Anthem”, it still feels like a strange beast to me, neither fish nor fowl – nods to avant-garde and experimental music and electronica and jazz, but still sounding and feeling and touching and smelling like a rock record. (I’m convinced that, were it sequenced differently, without “Everything In Its Right Place” and the title track and “Treefingers” so frontloaded, that people wouldn’t think Kid A is quite as weird and radical as its reputation suggests.)

Later, Amnesiac struck me as the outtakes record many criticised it as being (albeit quite decent outtakes), and though Hail To The Thief contained some songs I loved instantly (“Where I End And You Begin”) and others I grew to love (“There There”), it felt long and unfocused, oddly sequenced and incomplete.

So I wasn’t excited when Radiohead announced the imminent “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows in the autumn of 2007. I’d been swept up in Caribou and LCD Soundsystem and Battles and Patrick Wolf and Spoon and a dozen other things that year, and so I paid 1p for the Radiohead album, gave it a cursory listen, picked up the CD out of a sense of obligation when it arrived, and put it to one side.

I liked “Reckoner” from the off, heard it as a compressed, consumable version of Talk Talk’s mystically beautiful “New Grass”, and I enjoyed the rush and push of the opening pair of tracks, which felt physical and enervated and almost, for once, vital, which Radiohead had never felt to me before. The rest of it, I didn’t much care for at all. But slowly, over the years, I’ve found myself going back to it a lot, often picking it up as I walked out of the door to play in the car. Which isn’t my usual optimum listening situation, but, y’know. It’s practical.

And In Rainbows is a very practical album, somehow. It’s very listenable, very functional. Utilitarian? Possibly. I’ve often daydreamed about finding a ‘perfect album’, which would obviate the need (the desire?) to ever listen to anything else ever again. This is a crazy, pointless daydream, but occasionally, I wonder if In Rainbows might almost be that record – it has a little bit of almost everything I like about music, its songs and structures are listenable and rewarding without ever seeming to become predictable or over-exposed.

I never feel like I get tired of or fed up with In Rainbows. I can put it on regardless of my own mood, and enjoy where it takes me; which is nowhere, almost, in some ways. I don’t get transported by it like I might by, say, The Seer, but I do get distracted by it, in a good way – I want it to distract me, to involve me, but maybe not too much. I don’t love In Rainbows, it doesn’t strike me as a radical and amazing piece of art, or even as a catchy and appealing piece of entertainment; but it is a rewarding and compelling thing in its own right, somewhere in between. Neither fish nor fowl again, but in a good way.

In terms of the actual music, I haven’t a clue what Thom Yorke is singing about here, and don’t really care – he uses his voice much more effectively and with greater understanding here than he has before, layering it beatifically on “Nude”, finding jitteringly compelling space on “15 Step”, edging towards sublimation on “Reckoner”. The influence of electronic music melds truly symbiotically, at last, with more organic approaches; songs and textures and rhythms are in pretty equal balance, and it works amazingly well.

And oh, those rhythms – Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are the stars of this album, for me. In fact, it’s on the tracks they’re not overtly (or at all) present on (“Faust Arp”, “Videotape”) that I feel the record wanes. On the other eight songs, though, Selway plays almost jazz-y, nervously ticking hi-hat patterns and propulsive motifs, and Colin Greenwood smashes huge waves of bass through the foundations of the songs.

For a long time I think I objected to Radiohead on the ideological grounds that they got more attention, despite making less interesting music, than a lot of the artists and musicians that they talked about, many of whom I adored. As I get older and more pragmatic, I’m starting to think that, actually, what they’re able to do is take the music they love, and build something different and accessible with it; that they act like both a gateway drug to and publicist for (rather than exploiter of) their own influences. Getting Four Tet to remix them, dragging Caribou on tour, sounding a bit like Talk Talk, name-dropping DJ Shadow… it’s not who you steal from, it’s how you steal?

So I might not love In Rainbows the way I love Laughing Stock or Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, or Ege Bamyasi, or In Sides, or any of many other albums I could name, but I do almost certainly listen to it a hell of a lot more frequently these days, which has to count for something.

Rob listened: inevitably we spent at least a portion of the duration of this record discussing the band’s innovative/cynical/indulgent approach to making their music available over their last few albums. It seems to me that the less it potentially costs to buy a Radiohead album, the more I end up paying for it and, almost directly in correlation, the less I listen to it. Slipping the ,big boxed vinyl and double cd version of ‘In Rainbows’ off my shelf, where it gathers dust next tithe newspaper edition of ‘King of Limbs’ I was forced to concede that I’ve listened to both no more than half a dozen times.

I like Radiohead. I like the fact that they exist and that they do that they do while occupying their particular position in the culture. I also like a lot of their music. We talked a lot about whether they were a band of phases and in doing so we established that Tom never liked them when they were a rock band and that Nick was never really convinced that their abstract electronica phase was anything of the sort. I can see that ‘In Rainbows’ and ‘King of Limbs’ are possibly the records which synthesise the bands different facets most convincingly and perhaps in doing so are the two records on which Radiohead actually define and occupy new territory. However, the tale of the tape tells us that, whilst I like them when they’re playing, I never go back to them. In my time I’ve just prefered ‘OK Computer’ and ‘I Might Be Wrong’. Which I probably am.

Graham listened: One of the many, many joys of DRC is to remind you to listen to bands and albums you knew well and somehow just put to one side. I own this and simply never listened to it properly. I didn’t conciously stop listening to the band for any particular reason but one listen to this has renewed my interest. Everything, which Nick has put far more eloquently than I could, is there to be re-discovered.

Tom Listened: As revelations go, this was just a notch or two below Frank Ocean! Shorn of the weight of melodrama and po-facedness (not that it’s Ian Dury or anything) that I found so suffocating on OK Computer, In Rainbows was a delight – beautifully played, beautifully arranged and wonderfully sung, this sounded like a top band at the top of its game. It seems to me that Radiohead have finally found themselves, no longer concerned about what’s expected of them, what might sell or what might be the next grand artistic statement, they are now making that sweet soul music that comes from being in either a position of total security or perilous despair.

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The Notwist – Neon Golden: Round 39, Nick’s choice

After three months of having my CD collection packed ready for moving, we’re now in the new house, and, though CDs are still in boxes right now, they are at least open boxes. Faced with a couple of thousand albums to pick from and no theme, I pretty much abdicated responsibility for my choice this week, and brought three records to Rob’s house. I revealed the years they were from (2002, 2007, and 2008) and asked my co-conspirators to pick. 2002, and The Notwist (pronounced not-wist rather than no-twist), won. (I shan’t reveal the other two, as I’ll probably play them soon enough.)

The Notwist started out as a grunge/metal influenced group near Munich in 1989, and have moved through various sonic identities since then. By their fifth album Shrink in 1998, Neon Golden’s predecessor, they were exploring strange territory between jazz and electronic music, far removed from their early beginnings. Neon Golden itself is a synthesis of low-key, understated indie-pop songwriting and carefully detailed and layered electronic production.

This Room, Pilot and, especially, One With The Freaks offer genuinely catchy pop thrills, whilst the title track, closer Consequence, and opener One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand are much more minimal and metronomically languid, understated to the point of almost feeling abstract. Singer Markus Acher’s voice is something of an acquired taste – he sings in a presumably deliberately flat manner, the remove of singing in a non-native language, which I often find fascinating, adding to an emotional distance which becomes strangely affecting, words as signifiers of emotion rather than delivery as signified.

It would be easy to see Neon Golden as a post-Kid A record, if it wasn’t for the fact that Shrink had mined electronic influences and textures even more fully two years before Radiohead’s giant curate’s egg. It would also be easy to see it as part of some kind of almost-scene of music that looked to bridge the gap between traditional indie rock and what one might call, in a moment of weakness, laptronica or IDM or electronica or whatever. I feel like Neon Golden, which I didn’t like initially back in 2002 but which has grown on me massively over the years, has more of a kinship with the electronic side of things than the indie side.

Because The Notwist weren’t just sprinkling electronic fairy dust over indie pop songs here, they seemed to be actively integrating different compositional techniques – looping, layering, repetition – that are common in electronic and other ‘experimental’ musics, rather than more traditional songwriting. Tellingly, predecessor Shrink is even less based around songs, with several long, predominantly instrumental tracks that owe a debt to jazz and krautrock. Neon Golden is also, to my untrained ears, mixed much more like an electronic record than a rock record; Kid A, for instance, feels much more like a rock record in terms of physical sonics and dynamics to me, whereas Neon Golden’s sound design feels much more genuinely akin to purebred electronic music.

In the wrong context I fear Neon Golden could sound very much of its time, the glitches and bleeps that make up much of the sound palette seeming like trendy affectations, but to me it’s the genuine article, a rich and rewarding record that grows in stature with every passing year.

Tom Listened: I’ve owned Neon Golden for about a year now and have listened to it a handful of times but can not claim to have got to know it well enough to make a definitive judgement on its quality. In a similar way to The Wrens, this is a noughties indie album that is mightily revered but which I came to late and have never really clicked with – maybe it’s the flat vocals that remove any sense of emotion from the songs, maybe it’s the seemingly adolescent sound of the album…That said, I enjoyed the listen at record club much more than on any previous occasion and I can well imagine that this could be one of those albums that years from now I’ll listen to and think ‘how could I have ever missed its genius at first?’.

Rob listened: Nick played a track from ‘Neon Golden’ at a previous meeting and I recall thinking it sounded great, with the sweet sparkle of indie pop lashed to the propulsive drive of Stereolab. Some months later, whilst digitizing my CDs I came across a 10 year old CDR with ‘Tony’s album’ scrawled across its back. I was delighted when my laptop IDed it as ‘Neon Golden’ then slightly disappointed when I played it. Flat electronoodles.

Happily this evening’s playback came over much better. I have no problem with deadpan vocals and in many other ways this is an album precision tooled to get under my skin. The tunes and the momentum started to assert themselves this time around, certainly enough for ‘Neon Golden’ to begin to glide back towards the top of my listen again list.

Graham Listened: Knowing nothing of their “journey” as it were, I could only go on what I heard on the night. Have to say it was great. Had that sound of a band not trying too hard and concentrating on just just getting it “right” on the record. Magnificent and understated at the same time, I may just buy it!

Liars – WIXIW: Round 37, Nick’s choice

Since Rob played They Were Wrong, So We Drowned at us almost a year ago, I’ve been wanting to properly re-evaluate Liars, who I’d dismissed circa Drum’s Not Dead rather too quickly. When I heard that they were releasing a new album earlier this year, and that it saw them fulsomely exploring electronic music, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tackle my preconceptions.

So I bought WIXIW (pronounced “wish you”) on day of release, and dove in enthusiastically. I’ve not been disappointed – alongside Field Music it’s probably the album I’ve listened to most this year, and it’s very definitely amongst my favourites. It feels to me like an important record, somehow, like it has a purpose and a point to make. I thought I’d passed a point of caring about “importance” in things like that, but Liars and Swans are making me doubt that I have.

Eschewing “rock” instruments and textures almost entirely, Liars recruited Mute label boss Daniel Miller to produce WIXIW, and his lifetime’s expertise in and knowledge of electronic music apparently awed (and almost overwhelmed) this otherwise seemingly pugnaciously confident trio. The resulting album, whilst sonically extremely confident and accomplished, is spiritually and lyrically conflicted and ambiguous: Liars here vacillate between the desire for proximity and intimacy, and solitude which borders on solipsism, and the cumulative effect is of a record full of and beset by doubt. The doubt that subsequently infects these songs seems to be about the creative process as much as it is outside relationships.

I’m fascinated by WIXIW, by the way its looped synthesisers, found-sounds and rhythms simultaneously attract and unsettle you, by the way its lyrics seem both obstinate and unsure (“I refuse to be a person”; “I wish you were here with me… / wish you would not come back to me”), by the way it marries beatific near-ambience (The Exact Colour of Doubt) with unrepentant, electro-shock-therapy 21st century punk (Brats). A handful of the songs seem straightforward accessible, with hooks, refrains and rhythms to tempt you in (the afrorementioned Brats, No. 1 Against the Rush), whilst others trade in complex, obfuscating structures (the title track) or spooked textures and messages (Ill Valley Prodigies), adding to the sense of doubt and duality.

Liars’ closest sonic and spiritual cousins on WIXIW are, rather unsurprisingly, latter-day Radiohead, and the vocals and melodies here are occasionally redolent of specific moments of that band’s career (one lyrical melody in particular reminds me of Amnesiac-era b-side Cuttooth), but there’s something edgier, more outsider, about Liars. I’ve delved backwards from WIXIW into Sisterworld, intend to reacquaint myself with Drum’s Not Dead as soon as our CD collection is unpacked after we move house, and I have another three albums to investigate after that. Exploring them from a distance, I’m rather disappointed not to have been along for the ride since the beginning.

Tom Listened: I was very taken with this (however you spell it/pronounce it). As opposed to other Liars records I have heard (records 2 and 3 in their discography), WIXIV seemed really accessible and friendly, even warm…which is not something I would have thought I would ever be writing with regard to a Liars album. Whilst it is probably a tad less intriguing than Drum’s Not Dead or the other one with the very long name, it seemed a much more enjoyable (in its purest sense) listen to me – kind of like comparing Clear Spot to Trout Mask Replica. I’d take the latter to my desert island but I have played the former far more times and am much fonder of it.

For some reason, and I am can not put my finger on why, there was something in the sound of WIXIV that reminded me of Tame Impala, but seeing as Liars are definitely not a retro-psych-rock outfit, I can only imagine its Angus Andrew’s Antipodean origins that are creating any vague similarities, most likely in vocal style.

Rob listened: Liars are one of my favourite bands of the last ten years. Any band that makes successively startling records, with no hint from album to album where they may be heading next, is surely a treasure to be clasped to the collective bosom. I’ve been trying really really hard not to buy records this year, and as such ‘WIXIW’ is at the top of my Christmas List and had remained deliberately unheard until this evening. I found myself deliberately failing to listen closely, deferring that particular pleasure, but the album sounded every bit as intriguing and mesmerising as Nick describes. I got lots and lots of echoes of ‘They Were Wrong, So We Drowned’ which is possibly my favourite of the preceding five albums. Whilst it’s a first to hear an album of theirs that seems to have such overlap with a previous effort, this simply serves to put a double underline underneath the first item in my letter to Santa.

Graham listened: I am a dinosaur.

Perhaps to expand a little, I mean the above in relation to all electronic/dance type music since the early/mid 1990’s. I nearly had a moment with The Knife and Fever Ray and its the closest I have come to an eureka moment. While choices like this continue to challenge me, I seem to be immune to the stuff and I’m gonna have to face it (apologies, but my anxieties around modern electronic music has led to me suffering a Palmerism).

I’m in no position to comment really but enjoyed listening to this and maybe if I had been at Round 18 I could have appreciated more the distance of travel from Rob’s offering earlier on.