The Full Spectrum of Fanaticism:
One Man’s Obsession With Radiohead and Their New Record In Rainbows
Like many people, my first exposure to the Oxford, England band Radiohead was through the interminable radio and MTV play of their first single Creep. For all of the great stuff on their first disc ‘Pablo Honey’ and its infinitely superior follow-up ‘The Bends’, I didn’t fall into the role of a true ‘fanatic’ of the band until ‘OK Computer’ dropped in 1997.
I picked that disc up at a Best Buy in Memphis, Tennessee shortly after Jeff Buckley (who had inspired the Radiohead tune Fake Plastic Trees) passed away nearby in the Wolf River. I had already become addicted to Exit Music (For a Film) and the nutty prog-freakout of Paranoid Android, and the remainder of that disc provided a great soundtrack for a summer’s cross country drive.
There was no turning back at this point, as I soon realized that if I were to complete my collection of the entire Radiohead catalogue, I had some serious work ahead of me. For Radiohead are prolific songwriters who have enough shadow material from B-sides and EPs to fill another three or four full-length albums. Even worse (for the wallet) is that I consider most of that material to be essential listening.
What followed was a multi-year shopping spree as I scoured the internet and specialty shops for every last import disc and single. (The last remaining piece of the puzzle is the obscure Drill EP, and while I do have the songs contained on it, a legitimate copy of the limited edition disc runs around five hundred dollars or so. That’s 125 dollars per song!)
To add to my mania, I learned that Radiohead as a touring band are immensely popular amongst live concert recorders and collectors, and that much like The Grateful Dead just about every show they’ve performed is available out there in the ether on one format or another. Unlike many bands, they’re prone to switching up their setlists quite often, and will routinely play b-sides and other fan favorites – adding to the collectibility of their live work.
They also have a tendency to perform new songs right after they’ve been birthed, resulting in a weird scenario wherein every new Radiohead album contains at least one song that the diehard fans are already quite familiar with. Their seventh disc ‘In Rainbows’ is no exception, for the bulk of the tracks were performed extensively during their 2006 World Tour. Some, like Nude, have been around for a decade already – you can see vintage ootage of the band performing it in New York on the Grant Gee documentary Meeting People Is Easy.
Every new Radiohead disc seems to be accompanied by some sort of media frenzy (‘OK Computer’ for it’s alleged sci-fi concept and themes, ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ for being more techno inspired than previous works), and as many already know the release model for this new album was hailed by many as the death knell for the corporate music industry.
On October 10, 2007, Radiohead self-released the entire album in the lossy MP3 format from their website, and allowed the listener to decide for themselves how much to pay for the music. (Apparently there was a cap of 99 pounds, which fifteen Radiohead maniacs actually shelled out for the ten-song, compressed audio download!)
The much ballyhooed ‘up yours’ to big business was never the ultimate intention of the band, who had been without a label since their contract with EMI lapsed a few years ago. They merely wished to experiment with new distribution models, and thought it would be fun for the fans to be able to experience the disc before its official release. Some who bought into the hype propagated by the press later felt betrayed by the fact that the disc was going to be released in early 2008 through traditional methods via a number of record companies and distribution entities.
Of course this was always the intended goal, but for some it felt like they had stepped up to promote a new breed of anti-corporate warrior, only for this digital Conan to throw down his arms and embrace the Thulsa Doom that is the corporate music world. Now the big story is whether or not this multi-platformed release structure has hurt the sales of the hard-copy disc. Apparently first week sales are soft in comparison with previous Radiohead albums, despite the fact that it made number one on the UK charts.
Not only were the band not dead set on the destruction of ‘tangible’ media, but they were also offering pressed, full-bandwidth versions of In Rainbows in tandem with the price-adjustable digital download. This more fan-oriented item was a fixed-price set called The DiscBox, and contained a pile of goodies - a double-vinyl version of the album and a bonus compact disc containing eight extra songs.
The biggest drawback for global fans of the band was that this homegrown offering was steeped in their local economy, meaning that Radiohead freaks in the United States would enter the poorhouse once their hard-earned money was sufficiently pummeled by the harsh dollar-to-pound exchange rate. Most people were buying the DiscBox for high quality audio and the bonus tracks, but us Yanks had to shell out eighty bucks for it!
For those who missed out on the opportunity (the DiscBox was strictly limited, and no more will be produced), there’s always the possibility that the bonus tracks will reappear as B-sides on the eventual singles. Japan has a tendency to collect Radiohead and Thom Yorke rarities into special releases ‘intended’ for its own populace (‘Com Lag 2+2=5’, ‘Spitting Feathers’, and ‘No Surprises/Running From Demons’ being prime examples), so import-savvy listeners should keep an eye out in the future.
So enough with the hubbub and digital media hyperbole and let’s get on with the business of discussing the actual heart of the matter – the music itself. Both on the official domestic release through TBD records and the forbidden fruit that is the DiscBox disc two. The former seems bound and determined to justify the purchase of the much-maligned compact disc format, mainly through the usage of crafty packaging. The outer shell is built more like a container for artwork or postcards, and unfolds once the back flap is undone.
The disc itself comes housed in a rather subdued looking white cardboard sleeve adorned with a faded mosaic of arrows pointing up and down. Oddly, it is accompanied by two square stickers – one an array of multicolored representations of the title, the other a track listing. The backside of these stickers includes directions on usage, implying that they be used to adhere to the front, back and spine of a traditional jewel case.
Of course the question that arises is why not just release it in a stickered jewel case in the first place if that was the intended end result? I suppose they wanted to invoke a bit of DIY-generated pride in the listener, but further confusion stems from the fact that neither sticker’s dimensions match that of a standard CD jewel case. But whatever – the other draw is a booklet containing more of Stanley Donwood’s strange artwork and the official lyrics. Unfortunately, they’re formatted in an annoyingly spaced out fashion that all but transforms Thom Yorke’s words into an uncompromising E.E. Cummings poem. You might be better off downloading a regularly formatted transcript from the internet.
Oh yeah, I promised to discuss the music, not the packaging! I must say that having grown familiar with most of these songs well over a year ago tended to color the first few listens, so I waited a while before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Though in one case (the song Reckoner), the version that wound up on disc bore no resemblance to its earlier counterpart from 2003. While I feel that the live incarnations of the tunes from both ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ are superior to their studio counterparts, in most cases it was great hearing these newer songs augmented by strings and other accompaniments.
The first track is 15 Step, populated by frantic, staccato barrage of electronic percussion representative of Radiohead’s modern material. Shortly after singer/primary composer Thom Yorke queries “How come I end up where I started?” a great, warm bass line courtesy of Colin Greenwood appears, accompanied by a simple picked guitar hook (probably played by Ed O’Brien). As the song evolves, the bass really starts cooking, and the skeleton of the tune is augmented by a squawky, warped sounding electronic shimmer that I’m assuming was performed by the band’s orchestra-minded multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood.
Up next is Bodysnatchers, an upbeat song that is introduced by a dirty, compressed guitar chugging along with a catchy riff until the song transforms into a style reminiscent of vintage U2 about two minutes in. Despite Thom’s complaints that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and statements such as “I’m a lie”, he lays out some great vocals that accent the infectiously groovy song.
Nude is a longtime fan favorite, which has been tweaked with and rearranged numerous times since its live unveiling in the late 90s. Fans were left guessing as to its official title, since some people (including 120 Minutes cohost Matt Pinfield) extracted and rearranged the opening lyrics to conjure up Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any). The good news is that it’s officially available for the first time and that we finally know for sure what it’s called.
The less than good news is that while the version on ’In Rainbows’ is still a fantastic song, it’s never as hauntingly beautiful as the original arrangement – which saw Thom and Johnny performing it on both Rhodes and Hammond organs respectively. There’s a lot of ambient backing and subtle electronic arrangements here, but nothing can beat the organ dominated first version.
Thom’s vocals also seem to be missing some of the biting despair found on the initial performance, as here the words “just when you’ve found it, it’s gone” resonate less with a sense of bitter despair than with a meek resignation. Perhaps the following line “just when you feel it, you don’t” is applicable to Thom’s relationship with the song. Nonetheless, it remains a gorgeous track in any variation.
Weird Fishes / Arpeggi spotlights drummer Phil Selway on a quietly shuffling backing track, as the busily picked guitars and spare bass notes provide an achingly sumptuous accompaniment. Again, the band’s fascination with complex chord structures and jazz variations see them capable of making twists and turns that tug at the heart strings as they saunter by. One other delightful note is that I’m pretty sure Ed O’Brien gets to sing the shouting ‘yeahs’ that accent Thom’s vocal melodies. Ed sings a lot on stage, but it’s great that his position in the band was also rewarded in the studio - since he has a fine voice.
And even though this is one of the most inviting Radiohead records to date, you’ll find no comfort in the near post-apocalyptic imagery and loneliness conjured by wordsmith Yorke, and by the end of the tune he announces that he will “get eaten by the worms and weird fishes”. Cheers, mate!
All I Need is the next song, and it is legendary. I get goosebumps every single time it starts. Every Radiohead album has that one song that gets so far under my skin that I dissolve into it upon every listen. On ‘Hail to the Thief’ it was Sail to the Moon, and on ‘In Rainbows’ it’s this tune. And despite some of the less-than romantic lyrics, it’s one helluva sexy song.
It begins with a trip-hop beat courtesy of Selway (it’s near impossible not to bob your head while listening), before the addition of a super hooky bass/keyboard line. Eventually xylophone accents join the fold, as does a Thom’s piano playing. Thom’s incredibly beautiful vocals during the chorus are both soothing and heart wrenching, much like their older masterpiece True Love Waits.
By the time the song builds to a glistening climax, it’s as if God himself has plucked you off the face of the Earth and has lifted you into the heavens whilst simultaneously punching you in the solar plexus. And that’s a good thing in case you were wondering. I don’t know what it is exactly that Thom “needs” in this song, but I just need the song itself. I can listen to it all day, it’s that good.
The tender Faust Arp is populated by quick vocal wordplay courtesy of Thom, and sees him in the same territory as the song Wolf At The Door from ‘Hail to the Thief’. The music however is remarkably evocative of the work of Nick Drake. Perhaps Yorke realized how foolish it is to attempt aping the vocal delivery of Drake, and decided to put his own spin on it. But the finger-picked acoustic guitar and lush backing orchestra sound as if they’d escaped straight from that singer’s album ‘Five Leaves Left’. If Drake’s Cello Song had never been written, I doubt this one would exist either.
Reckoner is a trip, mainly because the original song was a grimy, hard rock juggernaut that saw Yorke screaming about being “ripped apart by horses”. What winds up on ‘In Rainbows’ is a moody falsetto-laden bit of delicate writing that also lends the album its title. The drums are rather low key, and cymbals and tambourines provide most of the rhythm. Guitars are also subdued, leaving the bass guitar and Johnny’s symphonic electronics to accent the whole affair.
House of Cards sports another masterfully addictive beat courtesy of Selway, and together with Colin Greenwood’s bass line they deliver an awesome, relaxed groove. The guitars are interesting in that they’re used in a very Robert Fripp/Michael Brook fashion – crafting orchestral accompaniment with delay and sustain. This is another rather sensuous song coming from Radiohead, and Yorke resists talking about politics and mutant ocean creatures long enough to aver that “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover”. It’d be the perfect song to cap an all-night bacchanal – supplying the last bit of musical succor as the sun slowly rises.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place picks up the pace considerably, for although it opens with an acoustic guitar, the drums and bass chug along at a reasonable clip. Thom delivers and edgy vocal performance that dabbles in sinister imagery about closed circuit cameras and people with Cheshire cat grins running about. It might contain a romantic finale about two people about to connect, or it might be describing two spies about to murder one another. You figure it out.
The closing track Videotape continues Radiohead’s tendencies to cool down the emotional presentation that came before with a transcendental, fragile song that once again toes that line between despair and resignation. It could easily play on the soundtrack to someone’s life as they either undertake a bold new beginning or head to the gallows for their final punishment.
The lyrics hint at a scenario similar to the one in the film Defending Your Life, where those approaching the pearly gates will have to validate their salvation through filmed evidence. This heavenly spin on reality television provides a melancholy closure, even though Thom asserts at the end of the song that “this has been the most perfect day I have ever seen”. He leaves it up to you as to whether or not more days approach, or if the one described has been his last.
It’s also interesting that the band saddled with the status of digital revolutionaries should title a song with a reference to an outdated form of video media. Do kids with iPods and Blu-ray capable PS3s even know what videotape is anymore?
Now for the secret stash – the goods that comprise the second disc only available as part of the band’s self-released DiscBox. While the box is worth the money spent (especially for the Brits!), those who purchased it solely for the eight extra tracks may be a little disappointed. Two of the songs on disc two are short instrumental pieces, meaning that there really isn’t that much material present.
In fact, you could burn both discs together onto an 80 minute CD-R and still have room to spare. Why didn’t they just do that in the first place? Many state that the two discs are stylistically incompatible and that the lyrics just don’t mesh well. I don’t get it, since that’s how I’ve been listening to the album for the past month, but your results may vary.
The first track is one of those short instrumentals; in this case an ambient intro called MK1 that barely makes it to the minute mark. Down is the New Up follows, which was a song I was certain would make it onto the main album. Phil gets to indulge in more jazzy, trip-hop drumming techniques, and Thom’s keyboard parts are accented by an orchestral backing that eventually evolves into a bombastic, cinematic happening. Towards the end of the tune Thom’s summons a voice I haven’t heard him use before, and it seems as if he’s channeling Beth Gibbons from Portishead.
We move from unbridled grooviness to the powerful sadness infused in Go Slowly, which begins with a simple picked guitar line before Thom’s brittle, plaintive vocals surround the listener like a blanket that’s both comforting and chilling at the same time. There’s also an unusual amount of acoustic guitar at play, accenting the harrowing bleakness before fading away with the rest of the song into blissful oblivion. It’s another one of those odd Radiohead bits where the optimistic parts could easily be describing death as freedom. Pass the Prozac, please!
The second instrumental (MK2) follows, and it’s another under-a-minute electronic piece that would feel at home on ‘Kid A’. This leads in to Last Flowers (full title Last Flowers Till The Hospital), a dark song that’d been lingering in the wings since the days of ‘OK Computer’. While the verses are grim affairs talking about “snot nosed little fools”, the chorus is slightly more upbeat, and is reminiscent of Karma Police. Thom wails in his falsetto about finding “relief”, but there’s not much joy to the occasion (and that’s a good thing in this instance). And the ending is simply fantastic, as Yorke sings about something (his own music, perhaps?) being “too much, too bright, too powerful”.
Up on the Ladder is a ‘Hail to the Thief’ era leftover that is primarily fueled by a sparse beat and a jangling guitar line. The layers of electronics enfolding it build to a crescendo of sorts, but the song never abandons its initial tactic. Bangers and Mash was played live at just about every show in 2006, so it was a given that this Can-inspired ditty would be a frontrunner for the new album, so color me surprised that it shows up here instead.
It’s a hot number, laced with hyper drumming, groovy bass lines and a badass guitar hook. It takes a short break around the two minute mark before pounding its way back into your head with the kind of nerdy funk that only Radiohead can conjure. The mini-album then concludes with the eighth and final song 4 Minute Warning, a gorgeous, stripped-down affair that confirms that the world is a nightmare while hinting at a possible escape from it. Hopeful, innit?
At the end of the day, ‘In Rainbows’ is one of the warmest sounding records in the band’s career, and carries on ably from the more band-oriented trajectory lauded on 2003’s ‘Hail to the Thief’. Perhaps the most notable element of these recordings is that Thom Yorke seems comfortable placing his vocals in the spotlight again, as he delivers a string of strong performances here. The band (and in particular, digi-mastermind Johnny Greenwood) still dabble in electronics, but implement them in an organic fashion that never outshines the simple magic of these five guys getting together in a room.
The last time I saw them on tour in 2003, they ended the show with a massive digital readout of the word ‘Forever’ scrolling on the wall behind them. It gave us fans hope, with the infectiously celebratory moment filling our heads with notions of buying (or mentally downloading) new Radiohead albums well into our elder years. Granted, sooner or later they’ll have to call it quits, but here’s hoping that doesn’t happen until after forever.
Back to the Top
Useless Rockers From England –
Radiohead Essentials From Beyond Their Full-Length Releases
As I mentioned in my piece about ‘In Rainbows’, Radiohead are a prolific lot of musicians. They have a wonderful catalogue of full-length releases under their collective belt, but they also have released scores of B-sides that are just as good as anything on the ‘official’ discs. Most of these titles are still in print in some fashion, though many of them will have to be imported – luckily, there are a number of local music shops that routinely stock these titles. The demo tapes are still unofficially released, and are only available through fan trading and online sharing routes. That said, they are pretty common items and should be relatively easy to find in lossless form.
Manic Hedgehog tape – this is the well known 1991 demo tape produced by Bryce Edge and Chris Hufford that essentially scored them a record deal. It later received its name from an Oxford record store where it was sold. Some songs (Thinking About You, I Can’t, You) were recycled and/or rerecorded for the ‘Drill’ EP and ‘Pablo Honey’, while other tunes (Phillipa Chicken, Nothing Touches Me) faded into obscurity.
1988 & 1991 Demos – more old material from when the band were still called On A Friday. The three song ‘88 demo surfaced relatively recently, and contains a radically different early sound for the group, which at that time included a trio of saxophonists. The ‘91 demo is more pre-‘Pablo Honey’ work, including an early version of Stop Whispering and some more obscure numbers such as What Is That You Say and the surprisingly funky Give It Up.
Shindig Demos – the holy grail of Radiohead demos. This 1990-era collection suddenly surfaced a few years ago, and contains a full album’s worth of material when the group was waffling between the names On a Friday and Shindig. Give it Up and What Is That You Say return (though the latter is now called What’s That You See?), and they drop early versions of Maquiladora (here titled The Greatest Shindig of the World) and How Can You Be Sure?, but the remainder are all new compositions that never made it onto an official release. Sound quality wavers from track to track, but it’s great stuff.
Drill EP – the über-rare (limited to 3,000 copies on each format) 1992 predecessor to ‘Pablo Honey’. It includes the Manic Hedgehog demo version of Thinking About You (which transforms the soulful acoustic song into a punky, retro stomp), an alternate version of You as well as the first appearance of Prove Yourself and the soft, moody Stupid Car – the first of many vehicle-oriented songs.
Pablo Honey Singles – The Japanese Creep EP can still be found relatively easily, and contains the B-Side Yes I Am, a remix of Blowout and a scorching live version of Inside My Head. The English Anyone Can Play Guitar single is necessary if only because it’s just about the only place to find the track Coke Babies. Good luck locating it for under a hundred dollars, however. The rest of the Pablo era B-sides can be easily collected through the Japanese import of the album proper and the ‘Itch’ EP
Pablo Honey (Japanese Version) – same as the domestic album (minus the censored version of Creep), with the addition of a number of B-sides and live tracks. Pop Is Dead, Inside My Head and Million Dollar Question are all fun, energetic rockers.
Itch EP – A great compilation of live tracks from the Metro in Chicago, and acoustic performances of Creep and Banana Co. Also includes Thinking About You (the Drill / Manic Hedgehog version again), the US version of Stop Whispering and the twisted B-side Faithless, The Wonder Boy.
My Iron Lung EP – definitely showing that Radiohead were growing as artists, this prelude to ‘The Bends’ contains a pile of new material, bookended by the title track and the same KROQ acoustic performance of Creep found on the ‘Itch’ EP. The B-sides here are legendary, from the pumping The Trickster and Lewis (Mistreated) to spookier fare like Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong and the Sonic Youth-inspired Permanent Daylight. There’s also a pair of mellow acoustic guitar centered songs – You Never Wash Up After Yourself and Lozenge of Love.
The Bends Singles (Planet Telex – High And Dry / Fake Plastic Trees / Just / Street Spirit) Unfortunately, there are no official compilations gathering all of this material, so to get at all of the nuggets, you have to nab all 8 singles (two for each release). There’s a pile of live and acoustic tunes and remixes, but you also get a stunningly copious array of fantastic studio B-sides including India Rubber, Molasses, How Can You Be Sure?, Killer Cars, Banana Co., Bishop’s Robes, Talk Show Host and the tuchus-kicking Maquiladora.
Ok Computer Singles (Paranoid Android / No Surprises / Karma Police) These six discs again contain a bevy of remixes and live tracks, and also some beautiful B-sides. Not included in any of the later compilations and only found here are Lull and the truly haunting How I Made My Millions.
No Surprise/Running From Demons and Airbag/How Am I Driving EPs The former is an EP aimed at the Japanese market, and the latter is a once out-of-print American compilation. ‘Demons’ is still collectible for containing a remix of the song Pearly*, though you may be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two versions. The original incarnation of the incredible song is found on the ‘Airbag’ EP, alongside Palo Alto, Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2), Melatonin, A Reminder and the techno-inspired Meeting in the Aisle.
Amnesiac Singles (Pyramid Song / Knives Out) ‘Kid A’ yielded no official singles, so all of the B-sides wound up on a 5-track Japanese EP and a pair of British Knives Out singles from the ‘Amnesiac’ era. One cool addition is an extended version of the New Orleans jazz-infused Life in A Glasshouse. New songs include Trans Atlantic Drawl, Kinetic, The Amazing Sounds of Orgy, Fog, Worrywort and Cuttooth.
Com Lag 2+2=5 This Japanese import combines everything from the numerous ‘Hail To The Thief’ singles – minus a demo version of There There that is only available on the first disc of the single for 2+2=5. It also adds a live version of 2+2+5 and a live video for that same song. It’s a great one-stop destination for the new songs I Am Citizen Insane, Gagging Order, Paperbag Writer, Where Bluebirds Fly and I Am A Wicked Child.
Spitting Feathers Japanese EP (Thom Yorke) Another Japanese collection compiling the tracks found on the singles for Thom’s solo album ‘The Eraser’. Not too many songs, but there’s a great extended version of Harrowdown Hill alongside B-sides Jetstream, Iluvya, A Rat’s Nest and the Drunkk Machine.
In Rainbows DiscBox Bonus Disc – just about the last thing you need to complete your collection.
There are still a ton of obscure releases with some great remixes and live performances, but for the bulk of the studio-recorded material you can definitely make do with everything on this list (until the ‘In Rainbows’ singles start rolling in!). Once this puts the bug in you for good, you can start collecting live shows and looking for those few songs that were never officially recorded off of the stage. Good hunting!
The State of the Music Industry Address:
A Nation of Audiophiles in Crisis
An Editorial by Sam Hatch
As I mentioned in my longwinded review of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”, that album’s initial availability as an MP3 download was one of the more recent examples of the ‘digital revolution’ reaching new heights. This battle has been building ever since the Napster fiasco at the edge of the new millennium. The good news is that the RIAA and its members have been continually challenged to revise their artist-hostile business models and cease turning their contracted talent into indentured servants.
The supposed bad news (as everyone is well aware by now) is that these same artists are also battered in the digital sea, unable to make a dime off of recordings that are freely traded amongst computer-savvy college kids with University-granted broadband connections and oodles of spare time. I’ve watched this scenario unravel and spread throughout the past decade, and have grown bemused over the eventual selling of these downloads through hyper-popular outlets such as Zune or Apple’s iTunes (tailor made for those handy little iPod listening devices, which have brought the personal listening device back from the edge of the Walkman’s grave).
The real bad news (and unspoken truth) is that the MP3 format stinks out loud. Sure, it may sound reasonably okay when encoded at a high enough bit rate, but the fact is that most people aggressively crunch these files as small as possible, resulting in a cruddy copy that can’t even be remotely compared to an uncompressed file found on a store bought CD. The big lie being disseminated is that kids who share MP3s are in essence ‘stealing’ the exact same thing as found on an officially marketed compact disc.
While they are receiving a replica of a recorded musical product, it’s a faded replica that isn’t worth paying for in the first place. I remember when my father was initially excited about the storage capacity benefits of MP3, and the first time I took a listen to one of his ambient/techno mix CDs in the car. What I was immediately struck by was the feeling that this experience was somehow hollow. The bass was present, but there was no kick to it at all. And on highly compressed files, the high end becomes just as messy with digital artifacts and warbling. I still can’t believe that he wanted to sell all of his CDs after ripping them all into MP3s.
For those unfamiliar with the wonderful world of MP3, it’s a compression format that saves file space by discarding elements of music that it feels you are less than likely to notice. You can choose to retain as much or as little of this ‘unimportant’ information as you’d like, but the popular opinion is to squash as much as possible to fit more ‘tunez’ onto whatever storage medium you prefer using. I actually think the format works reasonably well for spoken word material (making it ideal for podcasts of discussion-oriented radio shows), but for music it can be extremely detrimental.
John Williams said that he wrote the jazzy Cantina music from the film Star Wars to reflect what strange, futuristic creatures would birth if they tried to reverse-engineer a Benny Goodman tune. This same thought occurred to me when I first experienced the empty nature of MP3 – it was if aliens (or the future robots from AI) had attempted to recreate human music, losing the soul in the process. Not to be a snob or anything, but MP3 can be like an Oreo cookie with air in place of the ‘stuf’.
Not to say that I’m some sort of audio-despot, demanding that you only listen to 24-bit/96 kHz recordings while you smoke a pipe and reflect on the nature of the universe. To the contrary, if you want to squeeze your library down to iPod friendly size, embrace the convenience and have a blast. Judging by the constant complaints aired in traditionally snooty publications such as Stereophile, most digital compression supporters claim they can’t hear a difference anyhow.
My problem is that these same people are being sold a bill of goods by the same recording industry that was supposedly near-bankrupted by the proliferation of online file sharing. As far as I’m concerned, MP3s are worthless anyhow, so go ahead and pass ‘em around. Audio tape trading never incited this much outrage, and I’d much rather listen to a slightly hissy analog cassette copy than a heavily compressed digital file.
Back when Napster-mania was inducing apoplectic fits amongst the recording industry executives, many of us were thinking that they should just get on the bandwagon and make some money out of the situation. Unfortunately, they took that to heart and began charging obscene amounts of money for single-song downloads (okay, they’re only a buck, but they shouldn’t be that high). When breaking things down it becomes apparent that people are oftentimes paying the same amount (or more!) per song on MP3 than they would for a fully uncompressed PCM file on the official CD release. That’s a rip-off.
But convenience is the name of the game, and with this download-crazy mindset we’ve seen a return of the ‘single’ mentality. By claiming that people are no longer interested in full-length CDs, the single song becomes the primary focus, and the high prices are somehow justified in the process. But unlike ye olde 45s, you don’t even get a b-side for your buck. And don’t even get me started on the Digital Rights Management issue. I once got a ‘free’ Queens of the Stone Age song to download, and after twenty minutes of attempting to prove that I was ‘licensed’ to play it, I was ready to throw my computer out the window before I even got to hear it. The recording industry assumes that you are an audio terrorist, and they will gladly treat you like scum for the sin of enjoying music.
Strangely, as the home theater industry keeps unveiling cheaper and cheaper products that each raise the sonic and visual quality bar infinitely, the musical side of the coin is regressing remarkably fast. As technology advances, convenience is the only thing brought to the table, as audio fidelity is thrown to the wind. It’s amazing that DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD were recently introduced to the marketplace as if either stood a chance at becoming a new paradigm. The world has spoken loud and clear, and the general consensus is that nobody cares about sound quality when it comes to music. Really, why not just call it a day and go back to mono recordings?
And as tiny earbuds and tinny computer speakers become primary listening implements (not to mention the destroyer of high fidelity – the cell phone!), recording engineers continue mastering their discs hotter and hotter, so that there is no dynamic range to the music at all. So those of us sticking with traditional CDs have already begun to pay the price for everyone else’s apathy. The album “Vapor Trails” by the rock band Rush is one of the most popular examples of the ‘loudness wars’ – the audio files on it have been expanded so that everything is on the edge of digital overload, and those of us with equipment sporting less-than-perfect digital-to-analog converters are left with a harsh listening experience full of distortion and clipping artifacts.
The unfortunate writing on the wall is that we who enjoy music (not to mention those who still listen to it on a dedicated home system – remember those?) are up the creek. We can avoid MP3s, but somehow the public’s aversion to quality audio will allow studios to justify creating CDs with superhot levels (to make them stand out of course!). I routinely receive catalogs from places such as Audio Advisor and Mapleshade, offering 180gram+ vinyl pressings and the like. And as time goes by there are more and more specialty CD offerings available as well (such as those from the old-favorite Mobile Fidelity).
What can possibly happen is that all of us left behind after the hi-fi Armageddon will go the way of the ‘vinyl nut’, searching through specialty catalogs for unique releases with uncompromised dynamic ranges. Those who don’t embrace compressed formats will be forced into the unseemly category of ‘hi-fi dork’ and will wander the streets aimlessly talking about the ‘golden years’. For me, the most disconcerting element of this new mindset is the explosion of the ‘now’ factor. I know people who go through ‘old’ mix CDs of their MP3s and chide themselves for listening to ‘dumb’ songs and ‘junk’ just a year or two prior.
While this may be the case with regards to a large portion of corporate-sponsored music, I’ve heard these people trash talk some very good songs and write them off for all time because they are guilty of being ‘old’. What these people are in essence saying is that music in general is junk culture, and everything they currently enjoy is actually trash that they will eventually recognize as such and ultimately reject. If everything supposedly reeks, who’s going to want to invest in a library anyhow? It’s much better to have an erasable iPod hard drive so that you can periodically wipe out your embarrassing listening choices to embrace newer, fresher slabs of musical tripe.
But back to the ‘revolution’ – what fascinates me about it is how premature the entire thing was and is. Now that computer storage capacity and transmission bandwidths are at an all time high, people can truly share media in a lossless compression format such as SHN, FLAC or APE. There are more efficient compression formats available (such as Apple’s favorite: AAC), but why bother? As miniature hard drives grow more and more efficient, one can fill an iPod type device with plenty of lossless audio. But as MP3 has dominated the market, only underground fanatics seem to embrace these alternatives. And why load your portable device with a hefty pile of tracks encoded in FLAC, when you can dump a zillion MP3 files on there instead?
While the opportunity to embrace better sound arises, nobody seems to notice or care. Which is perhaps a good thing for the music industry, for while people ‘stealing’ music via MP3 was really a case of folks sharing inferior goods that had little to no inherent value, for once the accusation could become a reality if those same people started sharing lossless versions of their music. And if the industry embraces these alternative, higher quality formats as sales options, will they make them more expensive than their already overpriced MP3 counterparts? A song encoded in FLAC for a buck online isn’t too bad, but jack that up to $2.50 and we’re back in rip-off territory.
I think a huge problem is that the industry generally stays afloat from monstrous sales of highly popular yet equally mediocre material. This is the perfect fodder for the ‘digital download’ architecture. Music companies never made money off of the good music the rest of us had to go digging for, and those lesser-known acts were kept alive by the overflowing wealth generated by Turgid Pop Star A and Execrable Rock Band B. Now that those cash cows are the ones being passed about gratis by downloaders, there’s less and less incentive to support the good stuff residing lower on the totem pole, and more and more incentive to abandon CD sales altogether.
One extremely interesting byproduct of the online file sharing world is that there are a number of record labels that have been put out of business – the pirate labels producing bootlegs. With torrenting programs, sharing hubs and ftp sites making information easy to spread, many people are concentrating on sharing lossless versions of unofficially recorded live performances. There was a time when the recording industry claimed that these bootlegs were crippling their sales, but now that the boots have been essentially neutered, you don’t hear them talking about how good business is nowadays.
Even the term ‘bootleg’ is no longer applicable, as fans are now sharing what are called ROIOs, or Recordings Of Independent Origin. Online torrent directories such as Dime A Dozen can put the average surfer in touch with a wide array of live recordings, most of which are posted straight from their original sources. This community is both vehemently opposed to the sale of this material (and will self-police themselves to remove content should it become officially released) and to the act of compressing these recordings into MP3s. For fans of live music, it’s an exciting time indeed.
As for the release of studio recordings, the industry is still in a nosedive because those of us anticipating a strong, thriving download-friendly sales structure were wrong. Come to find out, neither CDs nor digital files are selling briskly. Perhaps average music listeners are ‘thieves’ after all (or downloads simply cost too much). As brick and mortar stores continue shrinking their music sections at an alarming rate, it’s up to the rest of us to support whatever small, local music shops remain. And when they go the way of the dinosaur, ordering discs online or through mail-order may be the last option available.
The optimist in me yearns for an evolution of the current structure, so that if we’re forced to abandon the physical CD we can at least purchase reasonably-priced uncompressed digital downloads and print our own artwork and lyric booklets. If money is of no concern, perhaps the best current option is to invest in the new, high-grade vinyl releases and transfer them to CD-Rs ourselves through some of the newer USB-capable turntables such as the Pro-Ject Debut III.
The bottom line is this – if you enjoy high quality audio, you’re now officially an ‘audiophile’. Get used to it. And be prepared to pay dearly for it. I don’t hate the MP3 format, but I am befuddled as to how the line has become so irreparably blurred that people see it and the real thing as identical twins. They’re not. One is a pale reflection of the other. The phrase I see used the most in reference to this dissimilarity is that MP3 is “good enough”. Good enough for free, perhaps. But to borrow a phrase from filmmaker James Cameron, sometimes good enough isn’t.
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Opeth – The Roundhouse Tapes (2 CDs/Peaceville)
Leave it to those music nerds in Opeth to title their latest live double-disc after an obscure Iron Maiden album (“The Soundhouse Tapes”). Yet for all of this heavy metal street cred, Opeth frontman and primary song composer Mikael Åkerfeldt is no slouch when it comes to other rock genres. His obsession with classic progressive music certainly helped his band shrug off the shackles of being labeled a pure death metal group.
Still, Opeth never deny that description, and it seems they derive a certain amount of glee by maintaining that they are a death metal entity even while crafting experimental prog projects such as their brilliant “Damnation” album. The truth is that they fall somewhere in between. Åkerfeldt is one of the scene’s best growlers, and even as his songs progress beyond the traditional styles of the genre, his cookie monster bellows are never wholly omitted.
While this may dismay some listeners, they may take heart in Opeth’s numerous moments of clean vocals and haunting harmonies (how many metal singers list Nick Drake as an influence?). They’re a complicated band, so you have to take the beauty with the brutality, no matter which one you prefer most. It seems with every new year this group keeps getting bigger and bigger, and certainly inviting Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson into the production fold for three albums didn’t hinder their exposure to ears outside of the traditional heavy metal circuit.
I reviewed the DVD of their superlative live show entitled “Lamentations” a few years back, which rightfully received numerous accolades for its exquisite audio quality. A double CD of that show was eventually released as part of a limited boxed set of their most recent albums, but with only one more full-length album between them and that tour, they’ve chosen to release another stunning example of the live Opeth experience.
While the clarity of “Lamentations” is undeniably laudable, some have noted that the bottom end is a wee bit anemic. There’s also the fact that Åkerfeldt’s dry wit wasn’t quite represented on that release. Opeth gigs are almost like stand up comedy shows, as Mikael’s deadpan antics between songs make him a sort of Death Metal Steven Wright. On “The Roundhouse Tapes”, both of these small complaints are rectified.
Recorded in November, 2006 at the Roundhouse in Camden (an old converted locomotive turntable shed), this set captures the band on their tour for the amazing album “Ghost Reveries”. Åkerfeldt, bassist Martin Mendez and recent addition Per Wiberg on the keys are all present. Longtime drummer Martin Lopez had been absent for a while before leaving the band for good, so here his jazzy skinwork is ably handled by Martin Axenrot. Unfortunately, axeman Peter Lindgren left the group after sixteen years, but he too is present at this show.
Opeth songs tend to favor the progressive rock tendency of long running times, so even though this is a full concert performance, there are only nine songs spread across these two discs. And unlike “Lamentations”, which was forced to only represent three albums’ worth of material due to licensing issues, here they are free to delve deeply into the vaults of work on their old labels Candelight and Peaceville.
Strangely, having now signed to Roadrunner Records, this set was released not by them but Peaceville, who only worked with Opeth on one album, “Still Life”. It’s a great package, with a black and gold foldout digipak (adorned with Travis Smith’s trademark gothic imagery) housed in an attractive slipcase with some shiny accents. It would look fantastic as a double LP package, right down to the band photo montage on the back, accompanied by the track listing done in a wavy, retro sixties font.
The sound is great, with a warmer, deeper bass presence than on that previous show. The acoustic guitar on the mellow Windowpane is slightly obscured by Mendez’s powerful bass guitar, but the distorted electric guitars present on the rest of the album are more than capable of standing up for themselves. Åkerfeldt is in great growling form, and can switch between monstrous bellows and golden, sweet pipework with ease.
There are songs present from all of their albums save one – “Deliverance”. Longtime Opeth fans will be delighted to hear great renditions of classic material from “Orchid”, “Morningrise” and “My Arms, Your Hearse”. Most of these songs are eight minutes in length or more, but time moves quickly once they sink their hooks in your ears. It’s also great hearing Per lend his own distinctive keyboard flourishes to the older material.
Åkerfeldt is more than willing to play the court jester here, and he toys with the audience on multiple occasions. The funniest stuff occurs before the final song, where the band performs a jazzy backing track as he gives credit to the individual players before finally introducing himself as Bubba Smith. The audience is also remarkably fired up here, and the rowdy bunch is at one point cheekily told to shut up by the frontman (though in slightly stronger terms!)
When they’re not goofing around, Opeth are delivering some of the most highly technical yet devastatingly powerful music out there. For me the highlight of the evening would have to be Blackwater Park from disc two. There’s something about the sound and performance that just elevates that moment into the realm of the sublime.
There will be an eventual DVD release of this show as well, which may possibly ruin the experience in my mind, but I’ll still buy it regardless. Due to the history of the venue, I am intrigued to see what it looks like, but in my mind I pictured this concert taking place in some sort of dank, underground mead hall – crafted out of weathered wood and lit by a spare arrangement of gas lanterns. Perhaps even a section of a wrecked pirate ship converted into a tavern after the craft was scuttled.
Either way, whether they’re performing on a pirate ship or in a modern amphitheatre, Opeth are definitely a worthy act to catch live. If you haven’t had the chance, this might be your best bet until they come around with Dream Theater later in the year.
Disc One – When / Ghost of Perdition / Under the Weeping Moon / Bleak / Face of Melinda / The Night and the Silent Water
Disc Two – Windowpane / Blackwater Park / Demon of the Fall
Witchcraft – The Alchemist (Candlelight USA)
Witchcraft is a band comprised of young Swedes who effortlessly channel the sound of classic 70s rock/doom despite the fact that none of them are old enough to have experienced that era firsthand. Their eponymous debut surprised plenty of listeners, and handily landed itself on Terrorizer magazine’s top forty releases of 2004. Their 2005 follow-up “Firewood” was another prime example of their ability to capture the spirit of a bygone era through vintage equipment and analog production methods.
The members of the group don’t particularly see themselves as stuck in the past, and their new release “The Alchemist” shows them spreading their wings slowly, making moves that wouldn’t be made had the only purpose of the band been to rip off old Sabbath records. And while they flirt with the doom genre, they ultimately never securely fit into that mold either. Whatever they are, they certainly do a good job at it.
Vocalist Magnus Pelander has a highly distinctive vocal tone, and you can often hear his accent creeping into his primarily English lyrics. He doesn’t seem to recall any one particular singer, and his upper-register wail creates a unique feel to Witchcraft’s music. The guitars (courtesy of Magnus and main axeman John Hoyles) are overdriven, but done using tube amps and traditional methods as opposed to plugging into to one ‘vintage box’ effect pedal. They’re not too distorted either, but straddle the line between crunchy and clean.
The opening track Walk Between The Lines is one of those classic rock odes to taking the path less traveled, and is a generally up-tempo beast filled with some dreamy guitar solos. If Crimson Was Your Color is a badass, shuffling jam about demons and dragons, and finds time to fit in some retro-organ solos courtesy of guest musician Tom Hakava. The two minute mark is where it really gets pumping, and continues building to a slamming crescendo that will have you selling your soul and banging your head.
As the band’s distribution and fanbase has widened, it’s odd to hear them dropping a song sung in their native Swedish - but that’s exactly what they do in the song Leva, which is about utanfors, jungas, manniskors, nagontings, and many other Swedish words that I have no familiarity with. Words aside, it’s a great tune that would feel right at home on a “Freedom Rock 35” compilation. (“…well turn it up!”)
Hey Doctor slows things down for a bit to rail against medical professionals who profit from others’ miseries. It picks up some steam a few minutes in, winding up to a smoking hot guitar solo. Samaritan Burden initially sounds a bit more contemporary than their other material, starting with a funky intro that melds into a bass-driven verse section backed by loose drumming (by Fredrik Jansson) that sounds lifted straight out of a Clutch release.
Remembered begins with a fiery, southern rock jangle before settling into a chunky power-chord groove. There are plenty of sweet guitar licks in the tune, swaddled in that warm, tube-driven sound so rare nowadays. And just when you think you’ve figured out all of their moves, they throw in a saxophone solo by Anders Andersson to keep you guessing.
The album concludes with the title track, a roughly eleven minute prog epic about living for thousands of years and other elements of magick coupled with a dose of world weariness. There’s some fantastic instrumentation in this song, which leaves the main thread after a few minutes to indulge in a moody sideshow loaded with delicately picked clean guitars (both acoustic and electric). It then evolves into an ascending jam accompanied by mellotron and guitar solos before breaking out into a full-band machine-gun attack.
After a few minutes of silence there’s a quiet outro to wind you down after this weird journey of Swedish time travel. Some may call them pretenders to the doom throne, or overly self-conscious nerds who will never truly express themselves while embracing the trappings of nostalgia – but to hell with those people.
Witchcraft is a truly interesting band, and I look forward to what they bring with their next release. And if you can find a copy on vinyl, you can beat it up a bit and fool your friends by telling them you found an obscure vintage release at a flea market.
Tracklisting: Walk Between The Lines / If Crimson Was Your Color / Leva / Hey Doctor / Samaritan Burden / Remembered / The Alchemist
Jonny Greenwood – There Will Be Blood
Motion Picture Soundtrack (Nonesuch)
Most people consider Thom Yorke to be the musical leader behind the group Radiohead, but the truth is that much of their sonic glory is conjured by multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. He began as an awkward fit to the group, the bassist’s little brother who always wanted to play with the big boys. But his ability to find new ways to accent what the other fellers were doing gave him a great ear for crafting multilayered textures within his music.
On “Kid A” he began working on introducing stranger accents to the songs, such as atonal saxophone medleys or a squadron of ondes martinet players. This experimentation evolved into his first cinematic composition, the score for the film Bodysong. As he’s continued honing his orchestral chops when not strumming the six string on stage, he recently unveiled a BBC Orchestra recording of a piece he composed called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” – which is actually referenced in two tracks here.
I happen to think that Paul Thomas Anderson is a wildly overrated film director, but I have to concur that his knack for pairing his images with great music is top-notch. While people have thought of using Radiohead for a film soundtrack before (they were pursued to craft the music for Fight Club), don’t mistake this for a singer-songwriter accompaniment a la Eddie Vedder’s music for Into The Wild. No, this is beautiful orchestral work that would put a smile on the late Stanley Kubrick’s face.
When viewing the film, I was struck more by the dissonance inherent in the work, and felt it was a brilliant mash-up of Arnold Schönberg, Alice Coltrane and vintage Jerry Goldsmith. However, the accompanying album release is more focused on gorgeous melodies and spare, haunting string arrangements. And while critics lavish endless praise upon the film itself, its soundtrack is even better. Greenwood also refrains from embracing traditional film soundtrack moves, and can easily stand on its own two feet as a ‘classical’ composer.
I’m assuming that a multi-disc set will be forthcoming at some point, since the music on Nonesuch’s singe disc release is highly edited compared to what appeared on screen. The nerve-wracking barrages of atonal strings that began the picture are trimmed down considerably here, and the pumping, percussion-heavy Proven Lands (one of the tracks utilizing material from “Popcorn Superhet Receiver”) doesn’t build as it does in the film, but slams into you from the first second.
That said, the experience of listening to this album as its own entity has been much more rewarding than that of watching the movie itself. I wasn’t constantly reminded of Anderson’s filmed images, but was able to conjure new visions while floating down my own personal river of the mind. It’s a great record, and will sit alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “1996” as one of my all-time favorite explorations of traditional stringed instruments.
So for any potential naysayers out there, let me clearly state that there’s much more to this guy than worn Fender telecasters covered in Japanese anime stickers. Definitely essential listening.
Listen to Culture Dogs every Sunday night
at 8 PM for an hour about films on the
local scene (and at your local video peddler) with Kevin O'Toole
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WWUH: Program Guide 2007