Tag Archives: thom yorke

Toxic Rock Syndrome: Street Spirit (Fade Out)

I don’t know how it took this long for me to get to Radiohead on this blog*, but I figure it’s time to correct that error. I got into the band through a back door, actually, starting with Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, and then moving straight on to the polarizing Kid A, mostly interested in their electronic stuff and ability to use their studio as another instrument. I eventually branched out to either side of their discography, but always held fast as that era being their best and most creative. Why, then, does The Bends‘ album closer, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, have by far the most listens on my iTunes? The Bends was the band’s second album and showed them on their way up in the mid-90s, a guitar-laden cornerstone of the Britrock scene of that era, in among Pulp, Blur, Oasis and others and a prelude to the monolith that would become of OK, Computer. Why is is that on a quiet walk home, “Street Spirit” is my go-to song and not “Everything In Its Right Place”?

It’s perhaps their most clear precis on the sheer urban paranoia that is a throughline in much of their work, but usually presented in a much more cryptic way. Here, Yorke croons about “rows of houses/bearing down on me”. Here’s something you can easily connect to – there’s no imagery stand-ins. It’s just what’s around you. No need to make up something else to fear when you you’ve got houses right there, especially as he struggles to get the words out to anyone: “This machine will/will not communicate/the thoughts and the strain I’m under.” In contrast to the paranoia, Yorke calls on a camaraderie that may not exist, but that he must believe in to deal with the concrete prison around him: “All these things into position/all these things we’ll one day swallow whole.”

Honestly, though, it would be difficult to put anything but the main riff/picking pattern at the center of this song, with the descending A minor pattern pulling you down with every iteration. The chords change, but the pattern never does – no matter how you twist and turn, it gets you every time, creating a web over the whole song. Even when the song takes off at the end, and the synths soar, and the mumbled coda of “immerse your soul in love” reaches out of the darkness, it’s still lying underneath before everything drops out again, and you’re left what you started with.

Despite the bleakness of the whole affair, it continually scratches an itch I have whenever I’m not listening to a new or barely-remembered album – I can throw it on almost any time and immediately get into it. The atmosphere is full realized and it never breaks out of the initial mood it puts you into. The vocals and melody are quite strong and the performances are a fairly light touch for Radiohead, but delicately placed where they need to be. A single vision, no matter hopeless, makes for a powerful song.

*I am a person with a music blog, of course I like Radiohead.

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#14: Atoms for Peace – Amok

(XL, 2013)

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(Image from gigwise)

This is a homecoming for me, of sorts, as I got into Radiohead (now one of my favourite bands) via The Eraser. Initially I had slung Kid A (now one of my favourite albums) through the headphones before throwing them off in frustration. It was only when I heard The Eraser that I found myself warming to Yorke’s voice and the jumbly, bloopy sounds happening all around.

But I need to get my beeps booped somehow, and with no Radiohead album in sight, what has now become a full-fledged Thom Yorke side project is rising to meet those needs. This album has its beginning in Thom’s solo electronic venture, The Eraser, and the band is comprised of musicians he used to tour that album, with Flea of RHCP fame covering the low end. Atoms for Peace (named after a track from The Eraser), however, is a different beat altogether from Yorke on his lonesome. The sound of a full roster here is evident from the get go, with each part moving and locking into place around you. The Eraser had Thom’s vocals soaring and diving against what seems like a mostly ‘flat’¬† backing track – the effect was that of Yorke singing¬† on top of playback from a tape recorder (though it was effective, nonetheless, for that album). There was a homogeny there, whereas the Z-axis is employed on Amok, and each piece is easier to consider separately.

Maybe that’s why Yorke’s vocals don’t lift off quite as much here. There’s no vocal hook here as memorable as the one from The Eraser’s title track (“and it’s doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in”) and he, for the most part, keeps his voice in its lower register, where it occasionally hovers dangerously close in range to some of the other instruments in the song. There are more low moans and held notes – very wispy and ephemeral, it blows through the hard cityscapes created by the rest of the instruments, occasionally snatching a newspaper up in the draft, but mostly inconsequential. The real show is happening elsewhere.

Flea’s presence here is a welcome one, and a lot of the reason for the thickness of the tracks. He provides a smooth depth to the overall sound, moving deftly through each track with confidence (whereas Yorke’s vocals mark uncertainty). As to be expected in electronic tracks, the basslines are oft repetitive, but never boring, as there is enough variation from your standard afterthought low end track for Flea’s presence to really make itself known. Having a dedicated bassist focusing on a single aspect of a given track really makes the instrument shine.

Often times, the loops here are given a long leash, so you are able to hear them build up of wind down as they go, effects fading after one pass and the returning again after the second (“Ingenue”). One thing I would have liked have seen more of, but was glad to have what we got were the interjections of non-tonal sounds thoughout, as the buzzes of electricity (“Dropped”) or electronic egg being hurled at and sliding down the wall (“Unless”) provide some nice atmosphere or small hint of a narrative with just a simple sound. It keeps the proceedings from sounding one hundred percent organized or plan and lends a little credence to the idea of the chaos inherent in the name of the album.

Apart from the electronic handclaps, which I don’t know if I’ll eve get used to, Amok has a great variety of percussive tones and busy beats working its way through each track. The album credits both a drummer (Joey Waronker) and percussionist (Mauro Refosco), as well as Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich both credited with programming, so a majority of the aural space is dedicated to adding to, countering and enhancing the beats, with only the synthesizer, bass and occasional guitar filling in the spaces in between. The different layers and types of percussion provide a very full sound, unlike The Eraser, and because of that, Amok may be and easier move for Radiohead fans than the former.

7/10

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