Tag Archives: Radiohead

OK Computer is 20, part 1

On the whole, I try not to put myself into this blog too much. If you’re reading it, I decided at the outset, you’re reading it because a particular song interests you and you want to find out more about it, not the guy writing about it.

But all responses to art are necessarily subjective. I can try to tell you why a piece of music makes me feel the way it does when I hear it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way about it as I do when you hear it. The weaker pieces on this blog are hamstrung by my attempt to present an objective front on music I’m heavily invested in personally, and saying nothing about how and why the music really matters to me as a result.

I just can’t do that with the record we’re going to talk about today. It played too big a role in my life as a music listener, fan and musician.

Which is a long way of saying that we’re going to talk about Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns 20 in May.

I also can’t take my jumbled-up thoughts and turn them into one coherent post. It would verge on book-length, and take several months to finish. Instead, I’ll do a few posts on little aspects of it that interest me, for as long as I can find things to say.

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When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, already a fan of the band, and I was waiting for it. Paranoid Android had been released and was a pretty sizable hit single, and like many, I’d gone from being slightly bemused by it to loving it and wanting more. When it did arrive, OK Computer demonstrated a fair few changes from the group’s Bends-era sound, and while I hesitate to use the word progression – much was lost as well as gained – the record is more arrangementally complicated than The Bends.

Most obviously, the band dialled back the heavy guitars even more than they had on The Bends. There are notable distorted parts on Airbag, Paranoid Android, Electioneering, Climbing Up the Walls, Lucky and The Tourist, but most of that is lead guitar; there’s almost nothing in the way of the multitracked distorted rhythm parts that were the foundation of the band’s early sound and of ’90s rock more generally. This more than anything else made OK Computer sound forward-thinking in 1997 – in place of wind-tunnel guitars, there were several complementary, counterpoint parts. It was now possible to pick out which of the guitarists was playing what at any one moment.

The band’s new arrangement techniques are established on the album’s first song, Airbag. Jonny Greenwood plays the distorted bass string riff, Ed O’Brien plays the high-register melody, and Thom Yorke strums the chords. Colin Greenwood doesn’t start playing until well into the first verse, and Phil Selway’s drums are distorted and possibly cut up.* Even more than they had on The Bends, the band members were listening intently to each other, creating space for each other, taking pains to respond to each other without obscuring or overlapping.

This didn’t end up being the group’s permanent MO, as tracks where all three guitarists all played guitar at the same time became rarer in the Radiohead canon starting from Kid A. But it was clearly an important step in the band’s development, one that I remember reading Ed O’Brien talk about excitedly and at length in a Total Guitar interview at the time. It had been a lesson hard learned over the course of the preceding four years and a lot of recordings, some of which sound pretty unimpressive today.

We’ll come back to this more in our discussion of particular songs. But for now I’ll leave you with a picture of Jonny Greenwood playing his Starcaster with a violin bow. Had we all violin bows and Starcasters, perhaps we’d do the same.

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*Some of the effects on the album, such as the distorted drums, sound the far side of banal now, in a world where even the most basic DAW has a plug-in that, when applied, can do a passable version of the Airbag drum sound. It’s only fair to keep in mind that OK Computer is an endlessly emulated and referred-to ur-text for a lot of this stuff.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

2015 Clip Show Post

I’ve been pretty busy this last week or so with work and Christmas preparations, and I haven’t really been able to find the time to write anything. So I thought a good way to plug the gap would be to bring forward this year’s clip show post.*

I did this last year, too, and enjoyed the process of putting it together. I’ve gone through what I’ve posted this year (100 posts thus far) and picked out 10 favourites, with a bit of a bias towards posts I liked rather than ones that got a lot of hits. Some of them are brief little throwaways, others are long and rambling, but I like them and they seem to include most of whatever it is that keeps me still doing this.

Elliott Smith’s first two solo records (January)

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones (February)

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis (April)

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20 (April)

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai feat. Aimee Mann (May)

Holst’s Neptune (July)

The Sound of The Band (August)

Sail On – The Commodores (August)

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth (September)

Singer-songwriters in 2015 – is genuine originality possible any more? (December)

I hope that some of these are new to most of you and you find something to enjoy here. I’ll be back in a few days – Christmas itself is likely to be a fair bit quieter than the last few weeks have been! Hope you’re having a great time. Take care.

*Do they still make clip shows? You know, like in a sitcom, where characters sit and reminisce about something that happened in an old episode, then they show a clip? It’s been years since I saw one.

 

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth

Remember when Thom Yorke’s brother had a band?

Andy’s fate – to be the Jimmie Vaughan of angsty UK rock music – didn’t appear to be fun for him (he packed it in after two albums with the Unbelievable Truth), but there are, no doubt, worse fates. There are always worse.*

My relationship with this band and their music is a conflicted one. As a big Radiohead fan, I heard about the Unbelievable Truth earlyish (when Higher than Reason came out – I missed the group’s first release for Shifty Disco and their first single on EMI, Stone) and got all the singles they put out in the run-up to the release of their first album, Almost Here. As an acoustic-guitar-playing wannabe songwriter, I heard in their music a sound that I found inspiring and which I wanted to emulate. I liked the mix of acoustic guitars, organs, vocal harmonies and a rock rhythm section. Nigel Powell, the drummer, played with sticks and obviously came from a background in rock. He wasn’t a brushes-wielding jazzer or a rimshot merchant, and I liked that. Rock drumming was the only kind of drumming I understood. Obviously there are other artists whose music combines these instrumental textures (there’s nothing that UT did on Almost Here that, say The Beatles didn’t do 35 years before on I’ll Be Back), but these guys were the first ones I heard, and I was an early adopter.

So I retain a fondness for them, but for years I didn’t listen to them. At some point, I became aware of the juvenility of Yorke’s lyrics (there are clunkers in nearly every song) and after that I couldn’t listen to the band any more. All I could hear was the bad stuff. That this was unfair goes without saying. Rock music has thrown up many worse lyricists, and anyway, I’m not one of those listeners who respond primarily to lyrics – tunes, chords, rhythms, sonics, lyrics, in that order – and bad lyrics have never seemed a good reason for dismissing a band or song.

But something about Yorke’s overwrought mopiness was hard to forgive. Namely that, as a serious-minded, inward-looking 16-year-old, I hadn’t seen it, had accepted it unquestioningly.

Recent missteps, as has been said by many an intelligent commentator, embarrass us far more than ones made years ago. Now, 17 years (!) after it came out, I can hear Almost Here as a collection of more or less pretty songs, with a standout moment in basically every track. I still like Settle Down and Angel in their entirety; the “You can’t send it along” climax of Solved is suitably rousing; Same Mistakes’ middle eight (“Leave it on the table”, where the harmony vocals are all phased) is a great little passage; Forget About Me sounded much better than I remembered; the middle eight of Stone, where Yorke sings “None of this is harder than knowing about you” again, but the chords change to a minor key, is very cleverly written; and Higher than Reason is still a cracking riff let down by an awful lyric.

What I enjoyed most, though – indeed boggled at – were the mixing and mastering jobs (I am capable, if that’s the headspace I’m in, of listening to and appreciating music purely on that level). Almost Here‘s production was the work of the band’s drummer Nigel Powell, producer and mix engineer Jeremy Wheatley (now a big-name guy) and various second engineers. They did a stellar job.

All records that include as their dominant components acoustic guitars and drummers create an unreality. Don’t get what I mean? Then I invite you to come over to my place with your acoustic guitar, I’ll set up my drum kit, and we’ll play a few tunes together. Except, we won’t, as I won’t be able to hear you. And you won’t be able to hear you either. One ping on the ride cymbal will be all it takes for me to drown you out for a bar or two.

As music listeners we are, consciously or unconsciously, aware of the fictions that are created in the name of art. Engineers use microphones, equalisers, compressors and pan pots to create events that didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. One of the subtle, but most pervasive, is the placing in fixed and unchanging audibility of an acoustic guitar when the mix is full of other, naturally louder, things, like drums. That delicately picked acoustic guitar intro? Well, if I get my compressor out and do some automated fader moves, it’s just as loud against the vocal (or bass guitar, or snare drum or whatever) as the powerfully strummed acoustic guitar in the chorus!

Actually, the total, fixed and unchanging audibility of every element within a mix is a recentish development in rock mixing. Even in the 1990s, mix topologies reflected reality a little more than that, and Almost Here is a great example. The acoustic guitar picking that leads off Stone and Forget About Me, not to mention the quietly strummed acoustic at the start of Building*, are by today’s standards ludicrously quiet. No major label would let a mix engineer turn in work that the mastering engineer couldn’t easily smash. Wheatley’s mixes were unsmashable, and therefore stayed unsmashed. You couldn’t compress, say, Stone, so that opening guitar was around -12 or -13dBFS without turning the louder sections of the song into something that sounded like Iggy’s remix of Raw Power.

Listened to from the vantage point of 2015, it’s glorious. Unbelievable or otherwise, that’s the truth.

AY
Andy Yorke – Takamine EN10s were everywhere in the late 1990s. I still play one!

*Powell, for instance, ended up playing with the reactionary goon Frank Turner.

**The first chord of Building peaks (peaks!) at -32.8dBFS, and that’s in the left channel, where it’s a good 10dB louder than it is on the right. The loud section at the end averages -11.5dBFS. As I say, no one has turned in a mix this dynamic to EMI since.

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20

Like many records that were among my favourites in the 1990s and early 2000s (that is, my teens and early twenties), Radiohead’s The Bends is not one I pull out much anymore. But the recent spate of articles to mark the record’s 20th anniversary prompted me to dig it out for a few, hugely enjoyable spins.

The first listen was pretty weird. I have so many memories connected to this album, and I’d have said it was one I knew well, but while my recall of the key elements of the songs and their structures was fairly unerring, little details did leap out at me for the first time.

First the bad stuff, to get it out the way. It’s definitely a guitar player’s album, which I loved about it in 1996-7 (The Bends and OK Computer were sacred texts to me, and Greenwood and co. sort of guitar-playing high priests), but there are times when the focus is on the guitars so much that it’s to the detriment of the overall: listen to how much more authority Phil Selway’s drums seem to have during the intro to, say, Bones than the during the intro to The Bends; to allow him to fit inside a mix utterly dominated by rhythm guitars, he’s been so heavily compressed on The Bends that not only do his drums sound tiny, they seem to drag behind the beat. Drums give rock music its drive, its weight and its physicality. A more balanced, harder-rocking mix exists within the master tapes, I’d wager. I hope one day some enterprising soul at Parlophone gives album producer John Leckie the masters and lets him do a remix (25th-anniversary edition in 2020, guys? Just an idea).

But the weight given to the guitars by mix engineers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie does allow us to hear how every song on The Bends is filled with amazing parts, whether it’s Greenwood’s constantly ascending octave-chord lead during the intro to Just (repeated at the end of each chorus), the pillow-soft acoustic guitar strumming of [Nice Dream], or the decelerating tremolo effect (Jonny again) in the verse of Bones. Radiohead’s early albums saw Greenwood, O’Brien and Yorke expanding the vocabulary of rock guitar more than any of their contemporaries with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a veritable one-man factory of astonishing effects and textures.

Let’s take a couple of the album’s less frequently hailed tracks and look a little closer at what’s going on. The “big”‘ songs on The Bends have been dissected and analysed to death, so let’s go with Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was and Bones, a couple of album tracks you’re not likely to hear on the radio soon.

Bones sounds to me like the most confident full-band performance on the album. Some of that may be a perceptual thing, a result of the space afforded to Selway’s drums and Colin Greenwood’s bass (great tone!) by the sparse guitar arrangement in the opening verse. But really, it swaggers in a way that very little else in the Radiohead canon does, and that’s encoded in the song’s DNA. Yorke and Greenwood’s later involvement in the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine merely confirmed what a listen to Bones suggests: that behind their studious exteriors lurked a couple of long-time glam rock fans struggling to get out. The vamp on A played by the guitars at the during the chorus to Bones – possibly the lowest-IQ guitar riff in existence – goes back through Keith Richards all the way to Chuck Berry, but when it’s played with that much distortion and an almost audible leer, the only provenance can be glam. If Noel Gallagher were to end up in a pub with Greenwood or Yorke, they’d be fine as long as they talked about T. Rex and Bowie and Sweet.

Elsewhere during the song, Greenwood pulls out his old favourite, the oblique bend (when a note played on, say, the G string is bend upwards by a tone to sound in unison with a note two frets down on the B string), for lead guitar interjections between Yorke’s vocal (“You’ve got to [whee] feel it [whee] in your bones”). Apart from the decelerating tremolo I spoke about earlier, none of the stuff going on in Bones is clever or unusual or groundbreaking. But, given the typically dour subject matter, the musicians seem to be having an awful lot of fun on this track.

Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was is something else again, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently played by O’Brien and Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless Leckie got the scissors out). But it’s Greenwood’s delicate arpeggio part on the chorus that’s most telling. It’s done by playing a fifth and third on the D and B strings and letting the open G string ring out in the middle, so it only works on a few chords, but it’s beautiful. I’ve been playing variations of that riff on my own songs and other peoples’ for a good long while, in fact.

It’s another song where the rhythm section shines, too. An unfortunate by-product of modern (and in the terms I’m talking about, The Bends is modern) mixing and mastering practice is that quiet, sparse songs tend to have more weight in the low end and greater size to the drums than their louder counterparts, and Bullet Proof is a great example of this. The more you turn it up, the more impressive it sounds (The Bends and Just exhibit the reverse behaviour). Colin Greenwood’s bass line, in which he plays single high-register notes with quite a thick, sustaining sound, is particularly effective and foreshadows the pivotal role he’d go on to play in OK Computer and Kid A.

The band may see The Bends as a piece of juvenilia, or a necessary step on the path to where they wanted to go, but it shouldn’t be judged by its influence on bands with scarcely half of Radiohead’s combined imagination (you can probably guess who I’m thinking of). This is a collection of top-notch songs* topped with some of the most inventive guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear.

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Radiohead circa The Bends: Yorke kneeling in front; Colin Greenwood, O’Brien, Jonny Greenwood and Selway l-r

*Not Sulk

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 4 – San Geronimo – Red House Painters

Anthony Koutsos used to have one of the most thankless jobs in popular music: he was Mark Kozelek’s drummer in Red House Painters.

Thankless because Red House Painters songs were long and slow. Very long and very slow. Often with no dynamic shifts at all, or with only a barely perceptible rising intensity. Playing them was an exercise in self-abnegation. Drummers that don’t have a tendency to push the tempo a little over the course of a long, slow song are rare. Drummers who don’t push the dynamic either, and who are happy to play for two or three minutes without a single fill, they’re even rarer. Anthony Koutsos is not a one-off in rock & roll, but he’s pretty close.

By the time the Red House Painters cut Ocean Beach in late 1994, Koutsos had been occupying Kozelek’s drum stool for five years, during which time he’d patted and rimshotted his way through several Kozelek epics – Medicine Bottle, Down Colorful Hill, Katy Song, Funhouse, Mother, Evil and Blindfold – some of the slowest, darkest, most intense songs in the alternative rock canon (seriously listen to Funhouse. It ain’t the Stooges).

How did he do it? Well, the only thing I can think of, as a part-time drummer (unfortunately, very part-time at the moment), is that Red House Painters songs often had pretty cool drum parts, distinctive rhythmic patterns that belong definitively to the parent song (what do I mean? Well, think of, say, Ringo’s drum part on the verses of Come Together. Ever heard that exact part in any other song?). Anthony Koutsos did this kind of thing frequently, only at 16rpm, and quietly, which is actually quite an achievement. Listen to his patterns on the drum versions of Mistress and New Jersey, the Katy Song lick in the verse that misses out the second backbeat, causing the song to feel like it’s turning around upon itself every two bars. These drum tracks are distinctively Koutsos’ own – belonging to these songs and these songs only – and if he needed motivation to remain in a band that forced him to play slow and quietly all the live-long day, that would probably be enough.

San Geronimo was his big moment on Ocean Beach, and it’s one of my favourite Koutsos parts. By this point in the Red House Painters’ career, their music had begun to open up a bit and was no longer so intense and claustrophobic; by the standards of, say, Medicine Bottle, San Geronimo is almost breezy.

Underneath a tapestry of chiming and semi-distorted guitars, Koutsos keeps time on his toms, laying off the snare drum until the stuttering pre-chorus section, during which the interplay between his drums and a guesting Carrie Bradley’s violin first establishes itself. It’s a neat lesson in how a drummer can provide a supporting base for a song and leave room for a little push in the choruses without turning the song into Smells Like Teen Spirit. And frankly, I’m a sucker for using a rack tom in lieu of the snare. Radiohead’s Let Down, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow – a lot of my favourite songs do it.

But Koutsos’ best moment comes in the half-time middle section, where he and Bradley take over. The rest of the band play the changes on the one and sustain them but otherwise let Bradley’s harmonised violin line duet with Koutsos’ ride cymbal and snare fills. It’s a beautiful, weightless little passage, the most pretty to be found on any Red House Painters record. Kozelek’s songwriting was always passionate, but the Red House Painters’ delivery of it had always previously been chilly. San Geronimo, though, is earthy and warm. Bradley’s violin is like gulls calling on a late summer’s day, and Koutsos gets the tasteful, simple little instrumental section to show how crucial he’s been to the band’s music all along.

After RHP broke up, Koutsos continued to play drums with Kozelek in Sun Kil Moon while building a real-estate career in San Francisco. He’s made of stern stuff, then, even if you now hate him on a point of principle.

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Red House Painters, Koutsoson right in hat and shades

Head Home – Midlake

The world of indie rock is a very beardy place right now. It’s most noticeable in London. Guys playing rock and metal have always done facial hair, but London is bigger on indie than heavy rock. As recently as 2004, two months after Take Me Out was released, every young male musician in London (and they did all seem to be male) had Franz Ferdinanded themselves: clean shaven, short, neat hair in a side parting, clean Telecasters. It lasted until after the Arctic Monkeys hype died down.

Around 2006 or 2007, certain records were coming out that felt more rootsy. Acoustic guitars started making a comeback. Soon there were banjos being openly played on stages up and down the country. Not to ascribe cynical reasons to this, but I observed it in the appearance and sound of the bands I saw, and played with, around London. I don’t know if they were conscious of it at all, but a lot of musicians were heading in the same direction at the same time. Now, a few years later, every guitar-playing dude has a beard, a hat, and a waistcoat, except the ones who’ll tell you that beards are over. There are many more co-ed bands than I saw 10 years ago, too, which (unlike the waistcoats) is an unambiguously good thing. Singer-songwriters are no longer confined to a sort of ghetto. The end point of this is a lot of bands playing a hideous Mumford-style acoustic stadium indie. But on the plus side, I know, like, half a dozen double bassists now; where were they ten years ago?

There are three records I’d nominate as being responsible for starting all this: Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver and The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake.

They all share common elements: a pastoral, back-to-the-country vibe, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, and a lack of interest in engaging with the world as it is today (and a resulting nostalgia for the past, an imagined past). All three records were stronger at mood and atmosphere than melody and lyrics. All three had a good sound more than they had great songs.

The partial exception was Midlake, who had evolved to that sound rather than arriving at it first time out. They began as a jazz quintet at the University of Texas, before saxophonist turned singer/guitarist Tim Smith discovered Radiohead and Grandaddy; his vocal style recalls Thom Yorke so much I thought it was a joke the first time I heard Van Occupanther (after a while I stopped noticing). Their first album Bamnan and Silvercork went nowhere, and they abandoned the lo-fi synths for a clean, semi-acoustic 1970s West Coast sound; essentially a more rustic Fleetwood Mac, with Thom Yorke on vocals. It was released to little immediate notice (its reputation is now such that some might be surprised to read the mixed reviews it received at the time) but slowly built a following in Britain and the US and is now one of the most beloved and influential albums of the last ten years. Wherever you go in London, you’ll run into young musicians with a Midlake influence. Furthermore, their blatant imitation of Fleetwood Mac has led to that band being re-evaluated by the indie press: last year a tribute album came out of twenty-something indie bands playing Fleetwood Mac songs (and showing how good the originals were by comparison).

Tim Smith has now left the band, and the remains of Midlake are following a more democratic vision, with a bigger, louder, rhythm-section led sound, albeit with some remaining 1970s prog influences. Their last album, Antiphon, was a step back in songwriting and vocal quality, but a leap forward in originality. Nevertheless, if they were to stop now, they’d be remembered as essentially a minor, derivative band. They haven’t yet improved on the work of their influences.. But both Van Occupanther and follow-up The Courage of Others, which is more imitative of British folk-rock acts like Fairport Convention, contain half a dozen excellent songs each, and if you’re interested in any of the beardy, folky West Coast-style indie rock that’s so prevalent at the moment, those two Midlake records are the place to start, the best of the bunch.