Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 17 (Radiohead – Rilo Kiley)

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Radiohead –In Rainbows

An unexpected result of Radiohead’s new album is that some rather extreme and inexplicably negative re-appraisals of their previous album have started emerging. With this in mind, let it be known that I consider Hail to the Thief the band’s most satisfying album, and that some of the small problems I have with In Rainbows are really only apparent by comparison.

In Rainbows is a strong effort, which should come as little surprise from the band at this point. What is a little surprising is how familiar much of it is. The much-cited similarities between “15 Step” and parts of Thom Yorke’s Eraser album are just the beginning. “Nude” sounds much like one would expect an OK Computer-era leftover to sound, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” place similar arpeggiated clean guitar lines over a straightforward “Knives Out” groove, and “Bodysnatchers” snatches its propulsive sound from the latter half of “2+2=5.” Even “All I Need,” one of the strongest songs here, has the piano and slow momentum of “A Punchup at a Wedding.”

The general consensus upon the release of Hail to the Thief is that Radiohead was attempting to bridge the gap between its emotional, guitar-oriented past and cerebral, electronic present. The great part about that album is the way in which they did so, fusing their previous work into a cohesive sound, but also incorporating sounds we’d never heard from them before (“Myxomatosis,” “Wolf at the Door,” “We Suck Young Blood,” “A Punchup At a Wedding,” the second half of “2+2=5,” and “Where I End and You Begin” sound like nothing else the band had released to that point). “Faust Arp,” “Videotape,” and “House of Cards” are the closest the band comes here to carving out new territory, and even those songs aren’t entirely without precedents. The bonus second disc, on which you might expect the band to put its more experimental, extreme work, only really surprises with the near-funk of “Bangers and Mash” (foreshadowed somewhat by the first disc’s “Reckoner,” which throws a Can-style loping thump into the mix) and the pretty “4-Minute Warning,” which may be the closest the band has come in years to evoking its Bends-era sound in mood if not in volume.

In Rainbows, when considered outside of the context of Radiohead’s other albums, is an impressive work, no doubt about it. It’s worth many, many listens. But one thing we’ve come to expect from Radiohead is progress. Hail to the Thief was the big moment when the band stopped for a moment and synthesized its myriad styles. In Rainbows seems to aim for the same result but hits its target in a slightly more predictable way. Maybe this move will make more sense with the next album, but it’s hard to be too disappointed in the meantime.

The Ike Reilly Assassination – We Belong to the Staggering Evening

Back in 2001 or so, the band I was in opened for Ike Reilly (before he and his group started going by the “Assassination” handle). No one had heard of the guy yet, but either he, his bandmates, or their manager type insisted that we set up our gear in front of them, post-sound check. This is hardly unusual in bigger venues, but we were playing a (quite rightly) much-adored local club that, at the time, only had a tiny stage in the corner, and the touring bands we’d played with there previously had always been gracious enough to tear down after soundcheck so we all had room to spread out. So let’s just say things got off to a bad start. By the end of the night, our guitarist and his cousin had gotten into a physical fight with some folks from the Reilly camp. It was broken up quickly, but we apparently entered local club lore for a couple weeks afterwards as the band that fought Ike Reilly (which is kind of hilarious if you know me).

Anyway, his set didn’t sound so hot that night, but I might have been biased. His new CD is a singer-songwriter-y, Stones-y thing somewhat along the lines of ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson’s solo work (even down to the swagger, phrasing, and vocal range), but it’s not too bad. It’s a little too forced and “badass” to pull off what the new Josh Ritter album does much better, but it’s also decent enough for me to overlook the fact that he probably just narrowly missed a semi-justifiable beating at the hands of some slightly overzealous friends of mine.

Marc Ribot – Book of Angels Vol. 7: Asmodeus

Don’t let the title fool you. Tireless session guitarist and avant-garde jazz guy Marc Ribot hasn’t finally gone prog. No, this is his contribution to a series of albums comprising the latest incarnation of John Zorn’s Masada project. If you’re not up to speed on this amazing set of recordings, you might want to check out the Wikipedia entry on it, but here it is in a nutshell: in the early 90s, bandleader and composer John Zorn decided to create a body of work based on traditional Jewish scales but in a context that fused jazz, rock, metal, and whatever else was handy. These compositions were first performed by a four-piece jazz crew that included Zorn, himself. Soon, he expanded the focus to include all kinds of ensembles (my introduction to the project was the superb Bar Kokhba, a two-disc set of the songs performed in all different contexts; the live 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol 11: Bar Kokhba Sextet, which features a string trio, plus Ribot on electric guitar, a drummer, and a percussionist, is also particularly mind-blowing).

Zorn’s now in the process of writing a second set of Masada compositions, and he’s giving them to some of his favorite musicians, including heavy-hitters from the other Masada ensembles. Aside from Ribot’s album, I’ve only heard Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier’s solid, but somewhat less noisy, violin/piano contribution thus far.

On to this entry in the series… You may not know it, but you’ve heard Ribot’s playing before. He’s the guitarist that supplied that pointy edge to Tom Waits’ post-Rain Dogs work and Elvis Costello’s late 80s, early 90s non-Attraction albums, but I was also surprised to find him behind the sedate, understated guitars on Madeleine Peyroux’s debut. Since then, it’s been a habit of mine to do a Marc Ribot check on liner notes for albums by singer-songwriters that fit somewhere between indie and adult-contemporary. He shows up a lot.
In short, Ribot’s work with certain artists is really easy to notice, and with others, it’s nearly impossible to notice, so it’s anyone’s guess what his “natural playing style” is. Here, it happens to be a bizarre hybrid of heavy Hendrix-style soloing, meter-defying jazz, and occasionally, the just barely-identifiable Jewish scales associated with Zorn’s project. In spots, it’s almost as if Zorn and Ribot are making a case for a natural crossroads between traditional Jewish scales and blues, but it’s all shot through a lense of heavy distortion and, sometimes, a nearly metal sensibility (see “Dagiel,” especially). Not the easiest listen for the Zorn novice, but it’s still one of his more accessible projects, overall, especially for those who might seek an entry into his material via heavy guitars (though the first Naked City album is really the place to start for just about any rock fan).

Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

As with Paramore’s album, there’s almost a sense of guilty pleasure one gets from Under the Blacklight, if you manage to keep a check on your expectations of Rilo Kiley. It’s as if the hooks are too obvious, the appeals to a pop audience too shameless. For many fans, this lack of subtlety spells the end of their relationship with a once-loved semi-underground band. For me, it’s just a reason to find a new way to appreciate a still-vital pop act.

Under the Blacklight seems to me a rebirth of the band as a vehicle for the members’ most overt pop impulses. With Jenny Lewis’ solo career as neo-Loretta Lynn off to a promising start and Blake Sennett’s increased dedication to the Elected, Under the Blacklight strips much of the southern soul, indie-rock, and alt-country from the band’s sound and leaves a blank canvass on which Lewis and Sennett essentially play “guess the influence.” Abba, Lindsey Buckingham, and 80s-era Heart show up on “Breakin’ Up,” “Dreamworld,” and the title track, respectively. “Dejalo” sounds like it emerged from the shallow end of the late 70s disco pool alongside “Copacabana.” Even the song that most resembles Lewis’ solo output, the internet-age Lolita saga “15,” sounds like Dusty in Memphis filtered through 80s pop crossover Dolly Parton.

This care-free genre-hopping suits the band for the most part. I love referential music when it’s done with a wink, and the influences are too obvious here to be considered anything but intentional. The band does fumble tremendously on “The Moneymaker” and somewhat on “Close Call”; not too surprisingly, this band doesn’t sound cut out for arena rock. Lewis also capitalizes a bit on her status as indie-rock pinup girl by fixating on titillating lyrical subject matter like porn, underage sex, and casual sex. This is hardly unheard of on their earlier albums, but the focus here can be distracting. Still, this is all done with a light touch (too light for some tastes, I suppose), and the best parts of the album render Under the Blacklight one of the best junk food listens of the year.

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Written by Dave

January 9, 2008 at 12:20 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Still have been unable to get into In Rainbows. I start to get fidgety, and look for something else to listen to. I think Kid A/Amnesiac set a “great album, comparatively disapointing album” precedent.

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 9, 2008 at 5:50 pm

  2. I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen more reactions like yours, not because I fully share it, but because it makes perfect sense to me, nonetheless. Most reviews have been fairly ecstatic, which strikes me as weird for such an unassuming album from a band known for big statements.

    It’s not even that it has a learning curve, as I ultimately found Amnesiac to have (though that’s still my least favorite of theirs next to Pablo Honey), but that it doesn’t. It’s the first album of theirs since The Bends that doesn’t hold mysteries that take multiple listens to solve. It’s good, but surprisingly and a little disappointingly straightforward.

    Dave

    January 9, 2008 at 7:02 pm

  3. I totally agree with you, Dave. Hail to the Thief doesn’t get enough respect, and while I admire In Rainbows for it’s simplicity in comparison with the bands back catalog (and I think it’s a really great “grower” album) Hail to the Thief is almost their White Album.

    I think the band probably figured that experimentation and a progressive attitude can only carry you so far, and the next step forward might be a giant step back. I think the biggest change with this release were the lyrics and some of the issues they addressed. I couldn’t really imagine Yorke writing/singing a song like “House of Cards” four years ago.

    Parker

    January 18, 2008 at 10:53 am


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