The fact the first ever solo album from Thom Yorke, the enigmatic frontman for Radiohead, is set to debut on the Billboard Album Chart at number two next week says a lot about two things.
First of all, the bad news.
The fact it will make that debut selling somewhere in the area of 90,000 copies speaks volumes about the sorry state of the music industry right now. The fact the great posthumous Johnny Cash album American V: A Hundred Highways opened at number one on that same chart… selling only somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies… speaks much to the same thing. And that is simply music isn't selling at retail right now folks.
The record that beat out Yorke's solo debut for the number one spot, the latest of those God-awful Now That's What I Call Music compilations, did so by a whopping 200,000 copies. These are compilations of current Top 40 hits that epitomize just how much music has become commoditized with the advent of "pick and choose" delivery systems like cellphones and iPods. It's a topic that is also fodder for another conversation completely.
No matter. Let's get to the good news.
Yorke's number two chart debut next week speaks equal volumes about the continuing influence of Radiohead, a band that continues to steadfastly defy the commercial conventions of the day, and stubbornly stick to its art. To that I give Mr. Yorke and company a most heartfelt amen.
And pay attention here record executives.
There is still very clearly an audience hungry for just such a band. Radiohead's current sold-out mini-tour of America, without a new release to support, and where they are trying out new material for as much as half of the setlists played, is being received wildly. Think about that the next time you are in a staff meeting trying to decide just how to jumpstart sales okay?
It's called music.
That having been said, let's talk about Radiohead's considerable "rep" as a band with ultimate "cred" shall we? Radiohead's credibility is based largely on the album OK Computer, an album which outside only of Nirvana's Nevermind has been hailed by critics as the true masterpiece of the nineties alternative rock era.
Personally, it's an argument I've never bought and I'll tell you why. Good as it is (and it is a very, very good record), at the end of the day all OK Computer did was reintroduce nineties acolytes to all of the same musical tricks practiced wholesale by practitioners of seventies progressive rock.
The swirling mellotrons? The progressively drummed time signatures? The Sci-Fi themes? Done to death in the seventies by prog-rock stalwarts like Robert Fripp's King Crimson and Peter Gabriel's pre-Phil Collins Genesis, and universally dismissed by music critics as pretentious crap at the time. It is a matter of record. If you don't believe me, go ahead and Google it.
But don't get me wrong here either, because I love OK Computer. The thing is, I also loved Genesis' The Lamb lies Down On Broadway (still do). I even liked the early Genesis knockoff band Marillion.
What floats my boat far more when it comes to Radiohead, is the albums they made after Ok Computer. Most notably, the electronic excursions mined on Kid A and Amnesiac.
In the same way OK Computer owes it's very life to albums by Genesis and King Crimson, these albums were more than likely born out of a homage of sorts to David Bowie's "Berlin" trilogy of albums with Brian Eno, beginning with Low, continuing through Heroes, and ending with Lodger.
In the case of these albums however, Radiohead expanded on those influences to come up with something completely new and innovative. The synth based electronics of these albums is certainly cold and detached in places, but is in others complimented by the warm surprises of tracks like Amnesiac's "Knives Out" (which contains what may be Thom Yorke's most haunted vocal ever) or the pulsating bass powered politics of "National Anthem" from Kid A.
It's almost enough to make you forget lyrics as dumb as "yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon."
So I've had a chance to live with The Eraser for about two weeks now. And you know what? Coming out of the Bose speakers in my living room it sounds absolutely great. The sort of layered sounds and effects you'd expect as an audiophile are here in abundance. You want the ultimate test CD for a high-end stereo buff? Well I got your puppy right here brother. This album sounds absolutely amazing. No doubt about it.
The other thing that stands out about The Eraser (and confirms it's advance hype) is the way Thom Yorke's uniquely haunting vocal sound is mixed front and center for the very first time ever. If you can actually get past all of the electronic "busyness" going on within the layers behind the vocal heavy mix of The Eraser, Thom Yorke has never been so easy to decipher vocally.
Which would be great except for one thing. Where are the fucking songs?
As much I loved (and continue to love), the experimental Radiohead of albums like Kid A, those albums had songs which immediately stood out (and indeed took on new life in Radiohead's live performances). My question is where on The Eraser is the song that stands out the same way "Dollars And Cents" did on Amnesiac?
Or even the way "Everything In It's Right Place" (with it's brilliant update of the Frippertronics concept) does on Kid A?
Truth be told is I'm still waiting. The closest thing to something that sticks to the brain here is the "this is fucked up" refrain of "Black Swan". So for me, as a fan of the "experimental" Radiohead, my Bose speakers, not to mention the latent audiophile snob in me, thank you very much for that Mr. Yorke.
My only question is where are the songs? Where are the fucking songs?