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Friday, February 18, 2011

Radiohead's The King of Limbs: A First Listen

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 9:39 AM


If Radiohead wants to move in real time, we music critics can oblige. I'm putting on the just-dropped The King of Limbs and engaging it as I listen. Here's a first take:


Thom Yorke guested on Flying Lotus' Cosmogramma last year, and not wanting to be outdone, swiped a falling-down-stairs drumbeat and plinking, jazzy two-note figure from it to start this thing. You can tell he's in love with dubstep's minimalism, but Flying Lotus would've killed this long before the five-minute mark. The airy soundtrack strings and scribbling hard drive noises aren't bad, but Yorke adds alarmingly little. It's almost a parody of how In Rainbows started: the thrill of hearing a real live human try to gather his footing with jagged drums shooting out in all directions, except without the thrill -- it sticks to one direction.

"Morning Mr. Maggie"

All right, an intense sort-of shuffle out the gate. Yorke's more 60-40 on the sinuous/moaning scale than 40-60 this time. The pointillized tic of Jonny Greenwood's hyperdrive one-note guitar is impressing me a lot more than Phil Selway's cut-up drums, which are now so cliché for this band that it's when they use live wooden-sounding ones now that gets the oohs and aahs. This one's, dare I say, funky? Yorke's ghostly wooooos when the beat drops out are honestly less haunting than annoying at this point. Song kicks back in just as it threatens to become "The Gloaming Pt. 2." Like "Bloom," I have to admit, it's not really taking me anywhere beyond that initial frantic burst.

"Little by Little"

Finally, a new sound. Literally, this historic tune expands Radiohead's instrumental repertoire with the same jangling, clacking (Burundi maybe?) percussion that I can only identify from remembering it in Beck's "Beercan," 1994. (Back when these guys had one hit.) I've loved Radiohead several times in my life, but is there any question they accumulated massive popularity from wedding Bono's airy largesse to Nirvana's cathartic chaos? And then again for assimilating technology? Anyway, this also has a distinct TP-808 drum machine and the steadiest beat so far. Yorke enters in his highest chicken-cluck register and my girlfriend comments it sounds like Clinic. She's right.


Sick of the drums (which really aren't as polymorphic as they believe), sick of the little snatches of voice and tune, and around 1:25 one of the bendy vocal manipulations shows its hand: this track is trying to emulate James Blake and not succeeding very well. It's genuinely sad. I'm not much of a Blake fan and I don't believe he'll ever be as exciting as Radiohead has, but this is like a less chaotic "Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors" that's afraid of its own shadow. Definitely not feral.

"Lotus Flower"

The drums are still trying too hard (yet not enough!) but I'm no longer getting the feeling that I'm supposed to be impressed by their polyrhythmic utility. Because the main attraction here is Yorke's voice -- finally! The melody takes a couple minutes to get its bearings but I'm actually delighting in it, the first thing on this record that sounds like a genuine grower rather than a loose pile of scraps for fans to sort out themselves. It also sounds like R&B, which is really cool, if an almost inevitable side effect of their increasing sparseness. I could well end up preferring five minutes of this to "There There."


Just what this album didn't need as it was starting to build momentum: a sucky piano ballad. The tune's buried enough that it doesn't feel worth digging up. The rhythm's about six feet below that. Wannabe fancy drums come back, all is forgiven! Maybe it'll be like "Videotape" where it starts speeding up until it's a big rattling blur?

Nope, didn't happen.

"Give Up the Ghost"

Another dirge--this one sounds like the aging innovator's been bearing down hard on How to Dress Well. But with acoustic guitar; evokes college students gathered on the bleachers at midnight with acoustic guitars during a prank fire alarm. Yorke duets with himself, one high vocal and one low, and neither sounds very into it. Not stirring, not pretty, not much. I thought In Rainbows had a spacious hole in the middle and The King of Limbs is looking similarly like a donut.


Funky drums again, more relaxed than "Morning Mr. Magpie," or "Little by Little," and an even more traditionally R&B-sounding vocal line than "Lotus Flower." This one actually sounds really good. The sonic décor finally gets a chance to surprise a little: Greenwood's lead guitar comes in for only the second time on the record and it's squeaky like a sitar. The Yorkette harmonies are actually filling in the melody and not just space. We have a winner.

But this was very slight. Only half the grooves-not-songs were good on first listen, and none were great. The very little guitar is welcome when there is any, and judging by the same old rhythm tricks and dull James Blake rip, Radiohead no longer sounds like innovators thinking three steps ahead of us. The band sound like it's been running on empty ever since John Mayer deciphered its Klingon. The best moments here were the ones least like themselves: South Asian guitars, Mideastern percussion, swooning (if not quite sultry) soul. Radiohead needs to go further, and the fact it needs to be told that means it's no longer in the lead.

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Dan Weiss


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