10 Favourite Albums: 8 Radiohead In Rainbows

81KWYrlOt7L._SL1254_Conventional wisdom is that the best Radiohead album is either OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) with the latter usually shading it in most verdicts. These ranking lists are more meaningful than most with Radiohead by most measures the most influential band in the world for two decades and my personal favourite. I certainly loved OKC from the moment it came out and played it on high rotation for at least 12-18 months in the time that followed. Perhaps because I played it so much, I listen to rarely these days though several songs on the album still have the ability to enchant. Kid A I liked less from the off though has been growing on me over the years. But the Radiohead album I most often turn to these days is the album usually listed by critics as their third best album In Rainbows (2007).

I still remember the buzz around OK Computer when it first came out 21 years ago. I didn’t like their 1993 debut Pablo Honey (and was possibly the only person in Australia who hated the single Creep) so was uninspired to pick up the second album The Bends (I would later grow to appreciate that album). But OK Computer touched me in ways I did not expect, despite its nerdy off-putting title. As a Pitchfork review said it combined “delicious melodrama with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration which perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Thom Yorke’s choirboy cry.” Radiohead were certainly feeling Lucky “I’m your superhero /
We are standing on the edge.”

Their pre-millennial tension gave way to Kid A three years later, an album Rolling Stone said “was the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius (which loomed) over everything else they’ve done before or since.” While the critics agreed it was their best and it had three or four great tracks, it strangely left me cold. It seemed to forgetfully blur into the off-takes that followed, appropriately called Amnesiac (with Morning Bell linking both).

Hail to the Thief (2003) was released in the aftermath of the Iraqi War and like most political albums failed in its over-earnestness. Radiohead being Radiohead it still had some great tracks like 2 + 2 = 5 and Go To Sleep.

The hype around any new Radiohead album was enhanced with In Rainbows over the band’s decision to introduce a pay-what-you-want model including getting it for free, after the band has broken up with record label EMI. It was worth every penny people didn’t pay for it. 15 Step got the album off to a cracking start “You reel me out then you cut the string.” The rocking Bodysnatchers was released as a single, while Nude sounded lushly romantic with its strings and swooning guitars.

I have no idea what Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is about, but its pulsating rhythm makes it one of the best tracks on the album. All I Need slows down the pace but is just as good. “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” It sure is. Reckoner is an instant classic and is voted by many as the best song of the decade. “We separate / Like ripples on a blank shore / In rainbows.” And if that wasn’t enough there is still room for another great song Videotape, with a secret reason as to why is a deceptively difficult song to record for such as great earworm. As Open Culture said about the song’s structure “the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.” For some it was Thom Yorke’s way of saying goodbye “because I can’t do it face to face.”

Radiohead are still producing great music today – A Moon Shaped Pool is a fine album but as the Guardian wrote In Rainbows flows seamlessly along. “It sounds supremely confident, like a band who know they’re at the height of their powers,” the Guardian wrote. “Whatever you paid, it’s hard to imagine feeling short-changed.”

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10 Favourite Albums: 7 Cat Power The Greatest

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It is quite the risk to call one of your albums The Greatest – even if the name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali – but Cat Power pulls it off with her 2006 album. Cat Power is the stage name of Atlanta musician Chan Marshall, daughter of blues musician Charlie Marshall. A move to New York aged 20 introduced her to the Big Apple experimental music scene and there she recorded her first two albums, the second of which Myra Lee (1996) got a 5/5 review from Rolling Stone. Her third album What Would the Community Think (1996) was produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and featured styles ranging from alternative rock to folk and blues.

She moved to Oregon and spent time in Melbourne where she recorded Moon Pix (1998) and then after releasing a covers album followed it with You Are Free (2003) which received widespread critical acclaim. The Greatest came out a year later, recorded in Memphis. As Pitchfork said in its review The Greatest resembled all her previous records as “a mostly sad, heartbroken, hopeless, rainy-day affair.” Pitchfork noted several veteran Memphis studio musicians served as her backing band, including Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. “These soul legends have played with Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and more; in other words, they don’t seem like the kind of dudes who’d stand much tortured diva bullshit from some no-name white girl off Matador Records,” they said.

The quality is evident from the opening title track. “Once I wanted to be the greatest /
No wind or waterfall could stall me.” It is bleak but beautiful. Following on is the breezy Living Proof. The Guardian review said about this song her band get to stretch out and kick back in their signature fashion, “but there is something about Power’s vocal drift, and her almost abstract lyrics, that makes the conjunction strangely inconclusive.” My conclusion: my favourite song on the album.

Could We takes off in another intriguing musical direction while the brief but beautiful Islands is perfect Nashville country in Memphis. The final two songs end the album on a perfect note. Hate is hard and you can feel Power’s power “They can give me pills / Or let me drink my fill / The heart wants to explode / Far away where nobody knows.”

Hate can be great but love is better and Love and Communication is a great way to finish a great album. “Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts / Don’t hate the night with what you shouldn’t have.” As Pitchfork said Power turned the tables on the final track “Instead of the Memphis crew welcoming Marshall into their world, the closing track sees Marshall luring the studio vets down her dark, claustrophobic alley. ”

There may not be much room to move and it may be hard to see but The Greatest is a rich and rewarding journey still paying itself off a decade later.

10 Favourite albums 6: Mercury Rev Deserter’s Songs

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A few years ago I attended a gig at the Zoo in Brisbane. The American band playing was Mercury Rev and the venue was sparsely attended. But those few there got a terrific performance from Jonathan Donahue and his crew and the small crowd lapped it up especially when they played any song from their hallmark album Deserter’s Songs (1998).

I bought that album not long after it came out, most likely on the recommendation from my brother who was also telling about similar great American music being made by bands like Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. Donahue, the founding member of Rev used to be a member of the Lips and his vocal style was not dissimilar to Wayne Coyne. Indeed the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were recording in the same studio at the same time and while Rev produced Deserter’s Songs, the Lips came out with The Soft Bulletin, an album almost as good.

Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1980s Mercury Rev experimented with a psychedelic rock sound on their debut album Yerself is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993). Their third album See You on the Other Side (1995) crashed and burned and the band found themselves deep in debt. Donahue slipped into a deep depression and cut off all communication with his fellow bandmembers. Donahue began listening to albums he loved as a child, including “Tale Spinners for Children” which inspired him to compose  simple melodies on a piano. He began to recover and set a new musical direction for Mercury Rev.

Though without a manager, lawyer or label, the band got back together. Deserter’s Songs was written and recorded in the Catskill Mountains (where Donahue grew up) in six months, helped by Catskill residents, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. Donahue admitted the world “wasn’t exactly waiting for another Mercury Rev record” but as the Guardian said the end product was “near flawless, one of those records on which not a second is wasted and every track could be a single”.

The song Holes gets the album off to a terrific start. According to Pop Matters Holes “is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm’s fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder.”  Yeah whatever, but great music. Tonite It Shows has Donahue at the top of his power vocally “with spine-tingling power, his voice catching at the edges like a man overcome with the force of memory.”

The next classic on the album is Opus 40, named for a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor Harvey Fite. Keyboardist Adam Snyder told Uncut in 2015: “I remember Jon (Donahue) and I were sitting in a room in Kingston, which is like the gateway to the Catskills. I started tinkering around with a Wurlitzer, and that’s how ‘Opus 40’ was born.” Guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak said it was a place Donahue used to hang out.

Goddess on a Hiway was the first single from the album and a personal favourite. As NME wrote Goddess was “the biggest pop moment of the record, like a Disney theme tune if it had been fucked up by a cult US indie band.” If that doesn’t sound like praise, they concluded: “It still sounds awesome.”

It’s followed by another classic The Funny Bird which as one reviewer (appropriately named Deserter’s Songs) says “takes Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and significantly ups the paranoia levels: Grasshopper wrestling great squalls of unholy terror from his instrument, which seems to dissolve in on itself by the song’s climax.” I agree with that reviewer’s take on the entire album: “It remains full of secrets I can’t begin to fathom, and depths I haven’t even begun to explore. The funny bird still refuses to come to earth.”