Spiritualized just continues dropping albums full of blues, feedback, gospel, drugs, love, pain, intensity, the sun, repetition, catharsis. None of these things are new, this their seventh album. This is pure Spiritualized, striking and affecting, a brilliant mix of simple parts making something more. This is what they do.
(This is, though, the worst album cover I’ve ever seen.)
In reading through the lyrics of The Haunted Man in the liner notes, I noticed that there are a lot of exclamation points. “Thank god I’m alive!” “Let the perfume drip, let it rise!” “I’m in bloom! Oh yeah!” “Baby throw your head back! Let your hair down!” “And we’re only but a second away!” “And the headiness howls, rise and rise!” In a way, this sums up the album.
Some of Khan’s earlier records (also amazing) are more dreamy, goth, fanciful than this one. The Haunted Man feels more real and earthy: nature lurks in most of the songs, sex in others, little bits of the haunted past here and there, the beats pulse and thrive, and above all, it feels alive. That’s her exclamation here, song after song. This is what it feels like to be alive.
The title implies some sort of haunted feeling, the album cover makes that explicit: the weight of someone else on your shoulders. But instead of feeling the burden, it makes her exclaim.
Ultraísta is a band formed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich, partnering with Joey Waronker, Beck & Thom Yorke’s drummer. They “discovered” a singer named Laura Bettinson and this is their first album. The music is based around Waronker’s groovy krautrock-type beats, the steady repetitive rhythm. On top, Godrich washes it all with keyboards and effects, and Bettinson voice drifts in and out of it all.
There is a slight feeling that the music/atmosphere takes precedent over the songs, but I think that will reverse as they grow together. This is not just a Godrich sound experiment.
I was looking over my list here, and I realized there are not a lot of bands on it, both up to this point and what’s to come. This year was highlighted by solo artists and projects with one main leader. Ultraísta is one of the few that is a real band/collaboration. Godrich may overwhelm due to his name as a legendary producer, but this isn’t going anywhere without what Waronker and Bettinson mix in.
Last week I drove out to Glendale, Arizona for to see my seventh Radiohead concert. I’m proud of the fact that I have seen them once per album since 1997. And while I cannot say this was as epic as some of the shows in the past, it was a total blast and quite memorable for a few reasons.
First, an indoor arena has a significantly different feel than the big outdoor concerts they have been focused on the past 10 years. While the capacity of the arena in Glendale was not drastically smaller than, say, the Hollywood Bowl (surprisingly very similar), the fact that it was indoor with a general admission floor gave a much different experience. You could actually see the band! I could, anyway, as I was on the floor, not too far back from the stage. This video is indicative: it seems to have been shot and zoomed over my head.
That video also brings me to my other point about Radiohead’s setlists. Most bands will play their new songs pretty straight, while maybe experimenting a bit with their older songs. Radiohead? The exact opposite. As you can hear with this old song (“Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box”), it sounds fairly similar to the recorded version on Amnesiac. But compare that to the new “Bloom” at the top, which has expanded and blown up into an entirely new experience. Most of the new King Of Limbs songs were like this. “Little By Little,” while dark on record, sounds downright menacing live. “Good Morning Mr Magpie” is sped up. “Feral” explodes into some crazy thing, somehow becoming one of the more exciting songs in the set. (Why can’t it sound like that on the record?!) The new songs were pretty mindblowing, and that is what I will remember most of all about the music this tour.
But then, the converse is true too: the old songs sound exactly like you’d expect. I love hearing the songs fucked with and expanded like this and why can’t they do that with the old songs too? Doesn’t have to be drastic, but “Paranoid Android” and all those sound like they always have. Do they have to? If they can experiment with “Feral,” why not the old stuff? I do not mean to diminish the excitement of hearing the “Airbag” riff in person, don’t get me wrong. I definitely recognize how great it is to still go to a show, 15 years later, and still have that “Paranoid Android” crowd frenzy. But it did make me wonder if they cruise through certain things to some extent? I don’t know, I’m conflicted on this–torn between wanting more experiments but also loving their back catalog. In the end though, Radiohead on cruise control still sounds like this, so I’m just nitpicking:
Other little thoughts: “Lotus Flower” appears to be their new most-popular song, the crowd went crazy for it, along with old faves like “Idioteque” and “There There.” I really can’t imagine them dropping any of those from any set they do, ever.
Outside the King Of Limbs stuff, they also played recent tracks like “The Daily Mail” and “Identikit.” A few other new songs have shown up on this tour, but those were the two I heard. Thom told the crowd that their goal was to play more new stuff–looking back is ok but looking forward is what keeps them going. “Identikit” reminded me a bit of “Lotus Flower,” maybe just less seductive. That’s first impression though, and will be curious if they release it soon (Thom said it was his favorite new song). They did release a live version of “The Daily Mail” recently, and it’s been growing on me quite a bit.
Anyway, Radiohead’s songs are so good and they’re such amazing performers that there’s no way a show won’t rejuvenate you.
In the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper tells a room of hippies that the “universe is indifferent.” This bums them out, but it does get to the heart of Don Draper — this idea is how and why he feels free. (Sorry if you don’t know the character.) Similarly, on The King Of Limbs, Radiohead’s universe is a tumultuous one, and probably also an indifferent one. From within that tumult, Thom Yorke, as always, is trying to feel free.
The first few tracks depict the universe. Oceans bloom, jellyfish float by, the universe sighs. A no-good magpie steals memories, magic, melodies. “Obligations / complications / routines and schedules / drag and kill you,” Yorke sings on the dark “Little By Little.” These are hardly unusual depictions for Yorke, who regularly writes of the havoc in the universe in his songs, from car crashes to ice ages to spinning plates to weird fishes and worms. Metaphors? Sure. But also a world in constant upheaval.
That’s all well and good, but it’s just a set-up for the second half of the album. While this havoc goes on all around, Yorke keeps confronting it head-on. “And while the ocean blooms / it’s what keeps me alive,” he recognizes. This confrontation leads to a freedom, a state of mind, where there’s nothing to fear and nothing to doubt:
– “We will shrink and be quiet as mice / While the cat is away / Do what we want”
– “I will shape myself into your pocket / I will shrink and I will disappear”
– “Jump off the end / Into a clear lake / The water’s clear and innocent”
– “I think I should give up the ghost” (a phrase defined as “ceasing to exist” on dictionary.com)
– “Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying”
– “Put the shadows back into the boxes / I have jettisoned my illusions” (on a b-side that didn’t make the album; shared below)
Those are all from the last four songs on the album; and clearly tie them all together. He is free. I’ve read a lot of different interpretive angles about Limbs, from climate change to suicide to dreams to Buddhist rebirth to whatever. And I’m not going to try to get that specific on it (besides comparing it to Mad Men, of course). But that is to say, these are some pretty deep songs when you look at them closely. (Just like Mad Men.)
Musically, of course, Radiohead keeps expanding their sound. My understanding from following them for so many years now is that after every album, they nearly break-up, and then totally rebuild how they create music. The end result may stay the same (killer songs), but the process evolves. The King Of Limbs seems to me to borrow a lot more from electronic music (that gorgeous “cat is away” break in “Lotus Flower,” the creative drums/percussion on “Separator” and “Bloom,” the vocal loops of “Give Up The Ghost,” etc.). In some ways, this is the Radiohead album that feels less like a band performance than ever before; but perhaps that was in reaction to their last album, which totally felt like that.
I’ll be honest here too: out of all Radiohead albums this is probably the one I’ve obsessed over the least. It’s still better than most everything out there though, and that’s why it’s one of the best albums of the year. I won’t claim to be unbiased on this list–it’s Radiohead and I’m me and they’re going to be ranked high. Regardless, I’m sure everyone I know who might possibly be reading this probably has already heard The King Of Limbs. (If not, why are we friends?*)
A couple of albums ago, I mentioned how there were few albums I listened to more than The War On Drugs’ Slave Ambient this year. The Kills’ Blood Pressures probably got my most plays. There was a 2-3 month period earlier this year where I was working 14-15 hour days, 7 days a week. I took to playing Blood Pressures on my headphones every evening at full blast for a nightly jolt of rock energy, to get me through the last few sleepy hours of work.
So I have probably ranked it higher than it should, but I cannot deny–when I look back at the music of 2011, this was one of the defining albums for me. The album was perfect for that energy jolt. Even now, when I’m in that mood, I can play it in the car, and the windows start rattling and it’s AWESOME. Their loud choppy guitar riffs are infectious, the window-rattling lower end and relentless drums are exciting, and Alison Mosshart does the highwire seductive roar better than anybody around.
The songs are usually built around meaningless phrases: “the heart is a beating drum,” “loneliness never truly leaves me alone,” “it’s not the door you’re using, but the way you’re walking through it.” They really do not mean much, but they sound good, loud. They’re simple and effective and with just the right touch of power. “I can’t find enough pots and pans / let alone knives in my kitchen / To keep you cooking” — I mean, only the rockingest rock stars could get away with rocking lines like that, right? “Could be a nail in my coffin / and Lord knows I ain’t ready yet!” Alison Mosshart sings on “Nail In My Coffin.” It pretty much sums up most of the songs–a mix of frustration and temptation and whatever else raises your blood pressure.
The songs aren’t all relentless. Songs like “Satellite” show off their ability to weave some uplifting gospel choruses into their rock and roll. Usually these moments are wordless, and short, but they’re there, providing nice breaks from all the intensity. Similarly, “The Last Goodbye” is a end-of-the-night closing-time piano torch song–I’m surprised it’s not the final track on the album. But since it is not, it also acts as a break between the roar of the other songs.
After The Dead Weather had my fifth favorite album of 2010, I definitely count myself as one of Mosshart’s biggest fans now. Her partnership with Hince has turned The Kills into a great band, and their electrifying Blood Pressures was one of the highlights of 2011.
Kate Bush! After a six-year absence, she put out two albums in 2011. While the first, Director’s Cut, was a relatively useless re-imagining of songs from two of her older albums, 50 Words For Snow included all new material.
One difficulty here is that if I were to explain these songs as ideas, they almost all would sound gimmicky. A song about a snowflake falling? A passionate night with a snowman? A song with 50 words for snow in it? Yetis? These sound kind of silly. Kate Bush, however, is a scientist. These are actually songs about snow. Snow is not just in the background or an atmospheric detail. By using snow so intimately in the songs, looking at it so closely, Kate Bush ends up discovering ideas and metaphors within.
“Snowflake” starts the album, and its repetitive piano mimics a snowfall, slowly pulsing and staying in the same place the whole song. The song is the story of a snowflake “born in a cloud” and falling down to the world. To make this story of growing up even more apparent, Kate Bush’s teenage son sings the whole song in a fairly gorgeous youthful falsetto. (It runs in the family.) Kate sings one line, repeated: “the world is so loud / keep falling / I’ll find you.”
The heavy “Lake Tahoe” uses a similar arrangement, Kate again at her piano with gentle drums. Instead of snow lightly falling, it feels darker and stronger and colder. A male opera singer harmonizes with her a bit, but she sings most of this ghost story, about a woman who drowned and froze in Lake Tahoe, leaving her dog behind. Later on “Snowed In At Wheeler Street,” Bush duets with Elton John. A lot of artists might write tragic romance songs, but only Bush would take “Wheeler Street” into such fantastic fantasy. Instead of being cliched, “love lasts forever,” she writes of lovers finding and losing each other throughout time (from ancient Rome to World War II to 9/11 in New York).
“Misty” begins with her building a snowman, who then follows her into her room. He lies down next to her, “his snowy arms surround me / so cold next to me / I can feel him melting in my hand.” Only Kate Bush could get away with this, and like on “Wheeler Street,” she takes the story all the way. “The sheets are soaking and on my pillow / dead leaves and bits of twisted branches.” Her lover melts away, leaving her hopeless.
“Wild Man” and “50 Words For Snow” show Kate Bush’s linguistic skills. “Wild Man” looks at the myth of the abominable snowman, and how it shows up all around the Himalayas. “From the sherpas of Annapurna / to the rinpoche of Qinghai / Shepherds from Mt. Kailish to Himachel / found footprints in the snow,” she informs, clearly enjoys weaving the names of mountains and Tibetan words into her song. “50 Words For Snow” is just that, a song with exactly 50 words for snow, few of which you’ve ever heard before (“faloop’njoompoola,” “spangladasha,” “anklebreaker,” “vanilla swarm,” “icyskidski,” “sorbet deluge,” “boomerangablanca,” “bad for trains,” to name a few).
Bush’s last album, Aerial, was a 2-disc set. The first disc was more typical verse-chorus songwriter songs, while the second was a thematic operatic piece of music, lacking in choruses, and all the songs flowed together. It is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. That one used the sea as a theme, and was lively and intense. In contrast, 50 Words For Snow is more of a shapeless snowdrift than a sea of waves. The songs may be just as intense, but in a much softer way. The end result is very similar: yet another gorgeous, glorious album.
(Also since all the songs are so long, none of them are under the file size limit the blog will allow me to share. So here’s a fan-made YouTube video for the killer Elton John duet.)
On Laura Marling’s wikipedia page, it mentioned that she has a small pile of unreleased songs that she sings live, and that most of them are on YouTube. I’m sure she has a lot more–the time I saw her live around 6 months ago, she sang a few songs that were not released yet (a few ended up on her new album this week). As I was hinting at in my last post, she’s an extremely talented songwriter. And any good songwriter will have songs stored away, songs tested and shelved, songs being worked on.
A good choice for our first Stuck In A Groove artist, I first learned of Laura Marling on a recommendation from our blog host Breathmint around the time of her debut album 3 years ago. Her talent was immediately obvious:
Marling’s first two albums (Alas I Cannot Swim & I Speak Because I Can) displayed her ability to write songs and melodies that sounded extremely natural, but were not necessarily simple. Only the best songwriters have that ability, and she was there right away. And her voice! Marling’s sound, while wrapped in an older folk music language, still felt like it was solely her own. She’s not the first folk musician to do these things, but somehow it feels like she is.
But to top all that off, she’s only 22. She’s still an artist learning, and presumably figuring things out. I was reading an interview with her earlier today and she described her songwriting as “vomiting emotion on to a melody.” But that has to underplay the depths she must go in order to get these songs? Doesn’t it?
But I won’t lie, as much as I enjoy her albums so far, I feel like Marling has yet to do her masterpiece. But anyone who writes songs as good as this one surely will eventually:
Her third album came out just this week and I’m still processing it so I won’t refer to it too much during my Stuck In A Groove posts, but I will say that it contains some subtle changes, and there are a few stunning tracks.
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