Monday, January 2, 2012

The Mystery of Radiohead

The Wall Street Journal ended the year with a Speakeasy piece on "The Best Concerts of 2011" which I couldn't resist reading. I almost thought I was going to see mention of particularly great performances at La Scala or at some of the many summer festivals or at Lincoln Center or, or... But no, apparently the best concerts of 2011 were, every single one of them, popular music (not the writer's fault, he is the rock and popular music critic, not the classical critic). Perhaps there was another article that I missed, the best non-rock and pop concerts of 2011 which might have included, amidst the world music, jazz and other sorts of music, a classical concert or two. I did see a video with four of the WSJ's music critics, including classical critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, discussing the year in music.

The piece, by Jim Fusilli, did mention a concert by Anna Calvi, who is the most interesting popular musical artist I have run across recently. But particularly effuse praise was reserved for Radiohead:
Radiohead, Sept. 28, Roseland Ballroom, New York:  A concert so dazzling I’m still not sure I’d taken it all in.  The group all but abandons the standard rock-concert format and plays its singular blend of rock and electronica as if its members were in the thrall of improvisational bliss.  With two drummers – newcomer Clive Deamer joins Phil Selway behind the kits – the percussion swirls.  But it isn’t only the drummers who swing and clack:  At times, every musician onstage is making percussive sounds on synths and guitars.  (How does Thom Yorke find his tone amid music that lacks a melodic platform?)  Bassist Colin Greenwood turns in a memorable performance and the guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien offer thick waves of sound but nary a solo, save a few bars for color.  Extraordinary night.
If you follow the link you see this clip:

Here is another excerpt from the same concert:

Radiohead keeps coming up again and again and seem to be honored as among the most creative musicians currently active. But I just don't hear anything going on here. The first clip seems to me a mess of everything but the kitchen sink. The second one just seems to me to be dreary and boring. Everything I have seen of Anna Calvi, on the other hand, seems interesting, original and containing authentic expression. Everything I hear of Radiohead seems dull, contrived and affectless. I just had a brief look around and, apart from a nasty rant by Liam Gallagher of Oasis, I don't see much in the way of critical discussion of Radiohead. So maybe it's just me...

I can't say I've ever enjoyed hearing artists "in the thrall of improvisational bliss" if that's what it is, because it always sounds like a stew of the self-indulgent to me. But yes, this music does seem to lack a "melodic platform", if by that Jim means "melody". Isn't that another problem? "Thick waves of sound" --become tiresome rather quickly, don't they? So no, I just don't get Radiohead. They remind me of Stockhausen: great facility, great skill, but at the end of the day, really nothing to express except the skillfulness of himself. And he was a perfect example of the "throw everything in, including the kitchen sink, and they won't notice the phoniness of it all" school of composition. That's pretty much how Radiohead sound to me.

Now listen to how much Anna Calvi does with the simplest of means:

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