Always high, but never before falutin'.

2010 CRAM: Beach House – Teen Dream

Each day before the end of 2010, I will be reviewing albums that I neglected when I was busy listening to The Band all year (again). This is the diary of my struggle to form my year-end list with dozens of 2010 albums still unclicked in my iTunes library.

My skepticism of hype is as often a vice as it is a virtue. Beach House had the misfortune of popping up on the wrong Best New Music lists throughout the year, and I’ve only had a few days to pry my mind open enough to fit Teen Dream comfortably. Whether or not my reluctance was warranted, I knew myself well enough to know from the start that this album would have to live and die with its first track.

Fortunately, the duo at least smudged the “dream-pop” tag I pejoratively tied to them with Teen Dream’s incandescent opener, “Zebra”. The song is built around a chord progression too obviously poignant for anyone without the perfect balance of restraint and ingenuity to contrive. The pastel-toned guitar roves around Victoria Legrand’s attenuated voice so flowingly that the song stays firmly lodged in place with only the occasional snare hit for natural percussion.

“Zebra” raised my stubborn brow, but it became more and more apparent with each track that the first number would be the best. The album slows down gradually but surely, and it took a mentionable amount of willpower for me to listen through to the end. I will not rule out the possibility that Teen Dream‘s wispy tones and intriguing, albeit spotty, melodies will grow on me. Now that this behemoth is out of the way, I’m left with this elusive question: If an album fails to live up to its monstrous hype, can it still snag a low spot on a best-of list? Jury’s still way, way out on that.

ODDS: 45%.


2010 CRAM: Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Each day before the end of 2010, I will be reviewing albums that I neglected when I was busy listening to The Band all year (again). This is the diary of my struggle to form my year-end list with dozens of 2010 albums still unclicked in my iTunes library.

Scottish rock quintet Frightened Rabbit have figured out how to garnish folk-inspired song structures with foggy programming without bullying the listener to focus on one or the other. Frontman and principle songwriter Scott Hutchinson has enough of production tricks up his sleeve to have a firm hold on his songs but not enough to bulge out of the seams and give him away; the songs stand on their own so well that you hardly notice the pulsing effects, but the songs would certainly affect you differently if they were stripped.

The Winter of Mixed Drinks opens with “Things,” a juggernaut of momentum that accelerates throughout but somehow never crashes. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is an immediate standout, boasting unshakable melodies that suitably frost the standard folk-tinged pop progression. The rest of the songs on the album prove that Hutchinson does not fear simplicity; the chord progressions are insultingly simple and the melodies are only unpredictable because they are so unexpectedly predictable. But Frightened Rabbit finds interesting, subtle, unobtrusive ways to make The Winter of Mixed Drinks refreshingly peculiar in a 2010 that saw an unwelcome (in my opinion) influx of new, half-assed electronic artists.

Likelihood of making the cut: 90%.

Tardy Note

I’ve decided to post the reason why I have been unable to blog for the past couple weeks. In addition to finals, I foolishly took on a MASSIVE topic for my final paper in Music Journalism: the relationship between technological innovation in the late 90s and 00s and Radiohead’s entire discography. For the sake of full disclosure (actually, the opposite), I’m posting the unfinished, unpolished, unrevised version of the 6-page-turned-12-page-turned-9-page essay for anyone who is interested.

I’m planning to rework, restructure, and finish it, probably in a series of posts accompanied by pictures, quotes, audio, and video to back up my thesis (and so you don’t start foaming at the mouth from reading 9 pages worth of shit at a time). But for now, here’s “Gravity Always Wins, v.1.0”. I welcome any criticism or suggestions and will take any of them into serious consideration as I work on finishing it in the (hopefully) near future. Keep checking back, too, because I have lots of cool ideas for the end of the year.

Gravity Always Wins

Art fills its role in society when it relays the concerns of its contemporaries to the generations that succeed it. Some artists deliberately identify with these concerns and mean to influence their audiences on one side of the issue or the other. Others project disenchantment with the present and defer to influences from the past. But art reflects its audience best when the artist makes no effort to reflect. An artist who observes his subject from a pedestal merely symbolizes his audience’s concerns, but one who makes art for the sake of art embodies them unknowingly.

For all Radiohead’s commercial success, the band draws capacious dividing lines between its music and the collective taste buds of the mainstream. By tugging the boundaries of society’s tolerance for cacophony, Radiohead exposes what Joe Mainstream fears of the 21s century but never speaks of: that the Western world’s reliance on technology puts the intangible intricacies of human nature, the millenniums-old foundation of civilization, in danger of extinction. And they do so without ever singing words or arranging notes in a way that would explicitly elicit that idea.

Radiohead grew into its ambitiously disenchanted shell as the Internet juggernauted its way into our daily routines and lodged itself into virtually every niche of society. Both matured and gained momentum gradually at first, and skyrocketed to the forefront of their respective forums (pop music for Radiohead, civilization for the Internet) around the same time. Nothing in Radiohead’s catalogue, save for a few titular references (OK Computer, “Idioteque,” etc.), suggests that vocalist and principle songwriter Thom Yorke intended to mirror the chaos of human minds vs. hard drives with his deliberately confused style of electro-rock. But lack of intention does not devalue the analysis of this coincidence; in fact, it justifies it.

The public got its first glimpse of Radiohead in the 1994 from an unexpectedly colossal radio hit off of the band’s debut LP, Pablo Honey. “Creep” introduced a theme that pervaded early Radiohead and nearly typecast the young British alt-rockers: misery and self-loathing via overwhelming feelings of purposelessness. “What the hell am I doing here?” Yorke asks the tyrannical wall of power chords, “I don’t belong here.” Radiohead’s early output leaned on a bottomless rhythm section, yanked to the surface by sweeping drums, and a massive three-part, textured guitar platoon that owed more to arena rock than to punk or grunge.

Yorke’s lyrics dealt with the somewhat existential feeling of displacement that Radiohead shared with many of their grunge counterparts; they belonged to a culture that often looked to the sixties for inspiration but lacked a cause to support or a civil injustice to march against. In the title track of the band’s second LP, The Bends, Yorke sings, “I’m just lying in a bar with my drip feed on / Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen / I wish it was the sixties, I wish we could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen.” The Bends, released in 1995, showcased a more refined version of Pablo Honey’s anthemic, guitar-centric sound. But Yorke unconsciously began hinting at the motif that would evolve into the inexplicit essence of the rest of Radiohead’s output: the struggle to keep technology from dictating humanity, and not the other way around.

“Fake Plastic Trees” doubts the longevity of artificial extensions of human existence as Yorke sings in tender falsetto, “She lives with a broken man / A fake, polystyrene man / Who just crumbles and burns / He used to do surgery / For girls in the eighties / But gravity always wins.” The instrumentation is fittingly unadorned: Yorke plays the first and chorus unaccompanied until the band stealthily joins in for the second verse. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood creates a roomy atmosphere that takes several listens to notice even though the song would sound naked without it. The song climaxes with a paroxysm of guitar noise and feedback set to drummer Phil Selway’s onslaught of open high-hat and trenching toms.

Radiohead placed one of the most straightforward and personal songs in its catalogue right in the heart of one of their most straightforward and personal albums. Just as Yorke did not intend for the “fake polystyrene man” to serve as a retrospective metaphor for online networking vs. personal connection, Radiohead did not predict the ubiquitous digitization of the civilized world, nor did they set out to create a time-appropriate concept album at its cusp. However, the very lack of intention only strengthens The Bends’s ties to the digital boom of the mid-nineties, as does the giant stylistic and ideological leap Radiohead takes with their next record, OK Computer, two years later.

By 1997, the Internet had made significant progress toward infiltrating virtually every household and business in the Western world. It had spent the previous decade gradually spilling into various slots of daily life and had gained nearly enough momentum and speed to uproot traditional means of commerce and communication—in turn, everyday human existence—forever. Yorke intended OK Computer to communicate his disillusionment with consumerism; songs like “No Surprises” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien” thrust this sentiment to the forefront while the rest lightly jar general theme and shift it to a range of subtopics. “Airbag” advocates simpler living with a near-death scenario while “Electioneering” blames Parliament, and the spoken-word interlude “Fitter Happier” outlines the anesthetized lifestyle that keeps the vindictive “Karma Police” from avenging frivolous self-indulgence.

The lyrics make few, if any, direct references to computers; the Internet still had not grown into the imagined skin of Yorke’s giant consumerist monster just yet. Reliance on that motif would have condescended Radiohead’s audience; they had no more or less instinct of the digital takeover that loomed than the rest of the general public. That knowledge would have prevented Radiohead from crafting an accurate snapshot of mid-nineties, pre-Y2K capitalist society.

Radiohead uses relatively few computerized effects throughout OK Computer, especially compared to the three albums they would release in the first half of the following decade. The scattered freckles of computer magic never play more than a complimentary role anywhere on the guitar-dominated third album, as it shares many of the same arena rock influences with the previous two. The song structures, however, far exceed the level of complexity containable in the classic rock arena. OK Computer stretches the conventional structure at its most humble and demeans it at its best. “Paranoid Android” features multiple movements in a manner that is more schizophrenic than theatrical; the chord progression employs chromatic scales that beg for Greenwood’s swindling lead.

Greenwood’s guitar tone throughout the album presents the fundamental conflict of Radiohead’s plight: it emerges to the surface of the band’s natural-toned rhythm section drenched in guitar effects, but Greenwood’s slapdash, deliberately imperfect technique applies human distinction to the otherwise unrecognizable sounds. Most notably in “Electioneering,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” and “The Tourist,” Greenwood’s style creates a tension that suggests Radiohead’s ambition had outgrown its rock’n’roll foundation.

As society began to outgrow its traditional, physical means of business and communication, the public swiftly embraced the Internet as a way to satisfy its growing lust for immediacy and alacrity. Meanwhile, Radiohead wondered along with its community what would result, and unconsciously expressed that anxiety by emphasizing the consequent deadness of leading a hectic, consumerist life. In OK Computer’s closing track, “The Tourist,” Yorke sings “Sometimes I get overcharged / That’s when you see sparks / They ask me where the hell I’m going / At a thousand feet per second / ‘Hey man, slow down’ / ‘Idiot, slow down’.” These final lyrics pin Yorke as just one of many member of his demographic who fear the direction technology compels them to take; he sings from his community, for his community, and despite his community that seeks to eschew a digital revolution but feels it may require one.

In 1999, that subtle, vexing fear manifested itself in boogieman stories of total informational annihilation—namely, the Y2K scare. Society put all its vital day-to-day records, and, subsequently, its future, in technology’s hands, despite not knowing whether or not the computers could withstand the shifting of digits as 1999 turned to 2000. While his bandmates advocated a more succinct approach to writing for their fourth full-length, Kid A, Yorke insisted on capsulizing the computer-induced paranoia of the new millennium.

After a laborious inter-band dispute over the track list, Radiohead decided to start the album with the baleful “Everything In Its Right Place.” The song builds on a disquieting progression of entirely synthetic chords while an almost inaudibly deep bass drum keeps the off-putting 10/8 time signature from falling apart. The title track follows with an eerily sanguine parade of programmed raindrop sounds against Yorke’s indecipherable, mechanized vocals. Seven of the ten tracks on Kid A feature little or no guitar tones, and only the acoustic ballad “How To Disappear Completely” allows the guitar to drive the song. Even so, the brilliant tension Greenwood created with his guitar-playing technique on OK Computer does not affect Kid A; the influence of technology completely absorbs his alluring, stylistic human error and captivates it in infallible, programmed tones. In fact, Greenwood trades his guitar for keyboards and other electronic instruments, such as the ondes Martenot, a theramin-organ hybrid, in almost every song.

When writing lyrics for Kid A, Yorke engaged a unique method to make the lyrics sound as impersonal as the instrumentation: he cut up one-liners, like “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and pulled them from a hat to determine what to sing on a given song. He cited writer’s block as the inspiration for this seemingly primitive idea, but the accidental origin lends accuracy to Radiohead’s interpretation of Y2K apprehension; it reflects a society that no longer sympathizes with intangible human whims, but both fears and revels in the random yet methodical conjunction of disjointed ideas. “Idioteque,” Kid A’s eighth track, perhaps best illustrates this confused sentiment with its persistent electronic drum beat that starkly contrasts its meandering machine squeals. Yorke and Greenwood sampled these meandering tones from Paul Lansky’s 1970 experimental, computer-based composition, Mild und Leise. Kid A ends with another conflicting piece, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The track features Yorke playing a pedal organ and singing the only intensely personal lyrics on the album as chopped-up harp and choir samples dance haphazardly over the delicate vocals.

Radiohead’s next two releases, 2001’s Amnesiac and 2003’s Hail to the Theif, make no effort to resolve the confusion on Kid A; if anything, they see the band splinter off into every irrelevant direction imaginable. Amnesiac features unused songs from the Kid A sessions, many of which diminish the effectiveness of both the natural and electronic tones by using them in relatively equal parts. Hail to the Theif follows this model with even more oversaturated, seemingly deliberate strangeness. While the Internet quickly became a new vehicle for old forms of human vice—identity theft, child molestation, etc.—Radiohead rapidly became disenchanted with a computerized landscape they no longer knew how to operate without.

After an imperative four-year vacation from the studio, Radiohead emerged to the complete surprise of the rest of the world on October 10, 2007 with In Rainbows. The band, liberated from the shackles of a major label for the first time since the early nineties, released the album on its website as a digital download for which customers could name their own price—even “free” was fair game. The physical album hit stores on January 1, 2008 and, despite (or, more to-the-point, thanks to) the intentional leak, sold more than three million units in less than a year.

Where Kid A and its immediate successors drowned in computer programming (distastefully, but intentionally so), In Rainbows harnessed it to supplement the astounding natural tones, and not vice-versa. Album opener “15 Step” finds Greenwood’s bold guitar alone with a smacking 5/4 electronic drum beat and Yorke’s rhythmic croon. “Bodysnatchers” reaches more for classic rock influences as the gritty guitar takes an undeniable lead in the frantically gratifying lead single. An elegant ensemble of drums, cymbals, tambourines, and other auxiliary percussion on “Reckoner” proves that Radiohead can produce stylishly grandiose textures without an electronic crutch.

Radiohead reworked several songs from sessions dating as far back as OK Computer for In Rainbows. “Nude” debuted as an organ-driven ballad on the OK Computer world tour in 1997. In the ensuing decade between its original composition and its official release, “Nude” slimmed down to a bass-and-drum groove accompanied only by gossamer guitars and Yorke’s most majestic vocal performance to date. “Videotape,” one of Yorke’s most lyrically introspective and vocally intimate compositions also underwent nearly a decade of paring to finally earn its place on a studio album.

Conceptually, and perhaps, for the first time, consciously, Radiohead succeeded in balancing human and computerized influences. The sparse artificial sounds on In Rainbows enhance the multihued guitar, bass, drum, and piano tones that propel the album. With Kid A, Radiohead capitalized on a raw, unprecedented idea that ultimately distorted their outlook on music and consumed them for more than half a decade. In Rainbows showed the band how to wrangle their feral electronic impulses to complement their charmingly imperfect rock band persona. Meanwhile, they translated that ideology to a business scenario by using the Internet as form of promotion to enhance a physical product. Instead of fighting the inevitable widespread leak of In Rainbows, Radiohead used it to market the box set.

Radiohead’s commercial success with OK Computer and Kid A stupefied critics and music industry experts; how could something so sonically unpleasant and topically challenging crossover from a critical darling to a pop radio powerhouse? The leak of In Rainbows seven years later left critics, professionals, and consumers wondering what inclined millions of people to pay for something that the primary source offers for free. The mainstream is a funny thing; its sweet tooth throbs for half-baked dance anthems when the times don’t require guidance. But when some outside force, usually of society’s own creation, creates unanswerable questions, the mainstream reaches out for a voice that sounds confused and disillusioned in the same way—and their attraction to this voice is as unconscious—and, by virtue, as true—as the artist’s alluring message.

DAILY SHUFFLE: Elton John – “Harmony”

All the women in my life love Elton John (and I’m pretty sure my dad does secretly as well)…I’ve never got it. To me, he seems like the punchline to his own joke. That’s not a bad thing, however, especially for a guy who started his career during an era when rock’n’roll mistakenly took itself way too seriously. Anyone want to convince me to give Goodbye Yellow Brick Road a few spins?

Lennon died 30 years ago today…

Since I called attention to Larry Bird’s birthday yesterday, and this is supposed to be primarily a music blog, I suppose it’s worth noting that John Lennon was shot 30 years ago today.

Yoko told NME that if Lennon were alive today, he “would definitely be experimenting on some new music, using the computer…I am sure it would be quite something.”

I’d take that over most of the shit that’s being produced “using the computer” by contemporary musicians today.

But no time to dwell on old music…I have over 1100 songs from 2010 to listen to before the end of the year. That responsibility should compliment finals week well…

Happy Birdthday, everyone…

“Bird was the embodiment of “Celtics Pride.” He was a classy, confident, hardworking player who thrived on pressure and inspired teammates to excel. Like Bob CousyBill RussellJohn Havlicek and Dave Cowens, the low-key Bird [was never one to] force the spotlight upon himself, but rather one who brought out the best in the players around him. But even those legendary players didn’t fill Boston Garden, wowing fans and dominating games as Bird did.”


DAILY SHUFFLE: Blink 182 – “Sometimes”

I’m sure I’m not the only 20(something)-year-old who grew up on Blink in the late 90s/early 00s, but I’m of a dissolving crowd that doesn’t mind admitting it. When I first started on the WECB music staff two (three?) semesters ago, I mistakenly introduced myself as, “Mike Flanagan, sophomore Journalism major from the South Shore. I grew up on pop-punk…” I might as well have cut myself off right there, because everyone stopped listening and started wondering how in the name of Surfer Blood I slipped through the cracks. Since then, I’ve been subject to the occasional (lighthearted and chummy) ridicule from my staffmates and forced to review all the beggarly 2010 pop-punk shit that plops its way into our inbox (I’m looking at you, You Me At Six).

Yes, Enema sucked me in with it’s hooks that stuck to me like a fresh booger on a windsheild…I was nine when I heard “What’s My Age Again,” for the first time, so you can’t get me for that. Perhaps had I been 13, I would have already been gunned down by Cheshire Cat, Blink’s first studio album, on which “Sometimes” is the seventh track. I won’t dive too deep into the track for fear of coming up with my spine poking out the side of my neck. If Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge are preteens stuck in nearly middle-aged bodies, “Sometimes,” and the rest of Cheshire Cat, for that matter, is what you would expect them to produce in teenage bodies.

Devout Blink fans can argue that their dog-sodomizing heroes were seminal in the development of punk all they want; they weren’t. I could even change the wording of the previous sentence to make it sound less absurd, and the answer would still be an eager “no.” They were, however, a valuable and now-nostalgic snapshot of what life was like for suburban white kids whose parents generally loved each other and treated them fairly, but just not fairly enough by their tubesock-wearing standards. As sarcastic as that proclamation comes off, it’s as serious as “Adam’s Song” was supposed to be; why should the middle-class white kids from the 90s be wiped off the radar just because they grew up in an era where black people enjoyed constitutional rights, women could hold public office, and politics were just too damn boring to interrupt a hard day’s loitering in front of the local Mexican joint?

And for old times’ sake: