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Major Lift

by David King on February 23, 2011

King of Limbs

Hi, my name is Dave. I’ve been an avid reader of Metroland for more than half my life and a writer for the paper for about seven years. When I started at the paper as an intern I figured I would get my feet wet as a music writer. I had sent the paper pitches to cover local bands as a teen. But it wasn’t to be. As an intern I wrote news. I am thankful for that, as it sent me on a trajectory that has led to a truly rewarding career. I now work full-time as state government editor at a website based in Manhattan and politics is my obsession. But I haven’t been able to abandon my urge to write about music for Metroland. John Brodeur, the previous master of this column has moved on, and I am extremely honored to have been asked to take over for him. And what a week it is to start: Radiohead just did that thing they do from time to time by releasing a surprise album on the series of tubes that is the internets.

On first listen, Radiohead’s King of Limbs sounds a bit like a Thom Yorke solo album—all loops, echo, and Yorke spewing venom at some anonymous lover in his crooked falsetto. At only eight tracks long and coming in at a little over a half-hour, King of Limbs could easily be dismissed as a slight, trite, nod to Yorke’s ego and his fascination with electronic music. And some have already done that. Where is the heart and soul of The Bends and In Rainbows? Where are the grand themes of OK Computer, Hail to the Thief? they ask. Clearly, these are people who don’t know Radiohead have ceded their status as heartwarming British rock featuring falsetto vocals to their many celebrated imitators.

Unfortunately, the art of King of Limbs seems to have been already overlooked by those Radiohead-obsessed conspiracy theorists who insist that this is only half an album, that Radiohead have more surprises in store, either hidden and to be time-released in the King of Limbs download or as a following album, as was Amnesiac to Kid A.
They may be right, but everyone is getting ahead of themselves. There is no question that Yorke’s paranoid, anxiety-ridden drama is all over this record—cantankerous and grating with tinny sounding beats and click clack guitars. This is not the pastoral album some predicted, or even the compromise between man and machine that was Hail to the Thief. This is an ugly album, but it is a Radiohead album, and with each listen it becomes easier to appreciate why this album is absolutely not a Yorke vanity project.

Take “Little by Little,” for instance. Johnny Greenwood delivers a chunky, foreboding riff that unfurls over a complex beatscape provided by the unbelievably intricate drumming of Phil Selway. Think Portishead, sexy and sinister. The track is similar to In Rainbows’ “Reckoner,” but delivers the opposite mood. I’ve heard “Reckoner” in Price Chopper, all sweet and sappy. “Little by Little” should only be played in the dark.

Yorke successfully channels Prince on “Lotus Flower,” but it would be nowhere without Colin Greenwood’s bass line. It is also the most accessible song on the album. But my vote for album-defining track goes to “Separator.” Like a magician laying out a trick for an audience, the song builds on a repetitive beat and simple bass line, with Yorke sounding lazy and crusty-eyed. “It’s like I’m falling out of bed/From a long, weary dream,” he sings. Greenwood’s riff creeps in, and it is a motherfucker of a riff, like something out of Keith Richards’ repertoire. And Yorke wakes up singing, “If you think this is over/Then you’re wrong.” Greenwood’s riff morphs again into a guitar tone the band haven’t used since the Airbag/How Am I Driving EP; it floats and shimmers like an organ. And as Yorke pleads, “Wake me up/Wake me up!,” is it an end to his nightmare? Is there another side? Another album? It doesn’t matter what Radiohead deliver after the eight tracks of King of Limbs; This is the kind of nightmare that sticks with you. The kind you go to bed wondering if you are going to have again, a bit curious as to whether you will understand it better next time. The kind you talk to friends about. The kind of think that you may not ever figure out. But boy, is it fun wondering exactly what it means.

If you’re still in the mood for something dreamy but a bit warmer, Mogwai’s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will should suit you well. Opener “White Noise” is a grand incarnation of the band’s epic instrumental soundtrack rock that swells to stunning heights. But it is the second track, “Mexican Grand Prix,” that finds the band really showing off. Crossed between the score for an early-’90s arcade racing game and a Neu! song, the ditty is simultaneously propulsive and enveloping. The album is full of Mogwai musical theatrics such as the undulating “Rano Pano,” but on some tracks the band seem to be having more fun and finding more inspiration than they have in their last few releases. “George Square Thatcher Death Party” is a blast—something that can’t really be said about any previous Mogwai song.
If you want to talk about internet releases that aren’t as compelling as Radiohead’s latest, let’s talk about Gorrilaz’ The Fall. Do I appreciate that Damon Albarn took the time to give away the music he recorded on his iPad on the tour bus during his North American tour? Sure, of course. But The Fall is not something I could listen to more than once just for the novelty. Albarn’s cheap-synth grooves are nice, but when he starts trying to turn them into songs—it’s just a mess.

At least Albarn gives it away for free instead of peddling it like Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo —or like the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, who gives the songs away for free but tries to sell fans pretty boxed sets of each four-song installment of his 33-song Teargarden by Kaleideyscope. Vol. 1 of the series sounded as though Corgan thought he might try the retro thing for a while, but Vol. 2 finds Corgan doing what the Pumpkins did best: delivering whiny pop songs drenched in big guitar hooks and distortion. Corgan is still finding his way back here, but if Vol.2 is any indication, he may have figured out why anyone ever cared about him.

If all this is making you nostalgic for the ’90s, check out Yuck’s self-titled disc. Razor-sharp hooks make this distorted guitar journey into pre-grunge alternative rock, a la Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, well worth the price of admission.