Saturday, March 05, 2011

Album Review: Radiohead - The King of Limbs (4/5)

A friend of mine who is a real audiophile recently explained to me opinion how music has suffered in general from the compression of dynamic range to make music sound better on portable devices like iPods. Since periods of relative quiet are annoying when canceled out by background noise and periods of ear-splitting loudness can be jarring, if not hazardous (especially if you turned the volume up to hear a quiet part), engineers are reducing the range of music so that everything falls in a comfortable albeit less interesting middle zone.

I don't mention this to comment on actual dynamic range of The King of Limbs, but something similar is going on with this 8th studio album from Radiohead. Whereas their last album, In Rainbows, as well as the others that came before it were marked with uptempo rockers ("Bodysnatchers," "Optimistic") and elegantly moody slow songs ("How to Disappear Completely," "No Surprises"), this album offers none of the former and little of the latter. Most of its rather short playlist of eight songs is fairly even-sounding, mid-tempo stuff.

There's also little focus on traditional melody and song structure; instead, Radiohead has really focused on the layering of sounds--mostly electronic, often distorted beyond recognition. Sounds loop over continuously in a way that actually quite reminds me of the new wave sound of Talking Heads' Remain in Light, the new wave classic I recently discussed for my Essential '80s Albums series. Radiohead's sound is more electronic though, evoking perhaps LCD Soundsystem.

None of this is said to disparage the album, for I find it rather enjoyable, although not as much as their greatest works (i.e. In Rainbows, Kid A, The Bends, OK Computer). A lonely piano trills through the beginning of "Bloom," whose sustained electronic notes would be expected to sustain perfectly but actually sometimes falter (purposefully presumed), while Thom Yorke's heavily reverbed vocal soars up through the piece. Horns weave through the song's second half, when the piano can once again be heard. "Morning Mr. Magpie's" layering of complex beats with bass, acoustic guitars and synthesizer effects creates a meditative quality. Guitar comes more to the fore on "Little by Little," which also has a complex, vaguely African beat to it (further reason for comparing this to Talking Heads) and an eerie middle section.

While the lyrics on "Little by Little" are mostly barely inaudible, they become fully incomprehensible on "Feral," which contains fragments of lyrics as if someone took a sonic eraser and smudged over the whole thing, leaving little traces that amount to whispers. It's a cool effect and a I rather like this song, despite it bearing little resemblance to a "song" at all.

"Lotus Flower" was selected as the album's single and it's as close as anything comes to being an actual song, although it's not a standout for me. What is though is "Codex," the album's most distinctive song, since it breaks the from the general layered focus of the other tracks to deliver something that is rather simple musically--it's mostly just piano and vocal with a few horns thrown and synth effects thrown in. Quite lovely, especially its instrumental climax. "Separator," the final track rolls along with surprisingly warmth and slightly retro feel, as if lightly kissed by some sunny '70s sun. Some surmise its title (along with the short running-time) suggests that The King of Limbs is the first of a two-part musical piece. If that's true, perhaps the rock 'n' roll is being saved for part 2? We shall see, but I don't need loud feedback to enjoy the ongoing musical exploration this group is taking is on.

Best: Bloom, Feral, Codex, Morning Mr. Magpie, Separator

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