Monday, July 24, 2006

The Eraser Review

Thom Yorke - The Eraser

As a listener, I have always been extraordinarily interested in solo albums and side projects. To me, they show more of what an artist is really about than their regular band. For instance, how many people work day jobs they hate, and would never classify themselves as “a bank teller?” To me, these alternate paths reveal where someone’s heart really is, music wise.

So, for Thom Yorke, he would be just as happy with a laptop, a midi-trigger and an electric guitar than with a band. This may not be the case (hell, who wouldn’t love to be in Radiohead?), but his first solo record sure makes a case for him being just as adept at this game than the world-changing music that he makes with the ‘head.

The reason this album speaks to me so much is that it brings a god back into the realm of mortals. Much like when Paul McCartney eschewed Abbey Road for the self-recorded and lo-fidelity McCartney record, Yorke brings us into his home and shows us what he does in his spare time. I’ve used a drum machine before (poorly) and messed around with samples, so this record sounds like something that, sonically (not creatively), I could probably do. Since The Bends, I have never felt that way about Radiohead. There are no virtuoso moments, no insane time changes, or bizarre instrumentation – this sounds like it could have been created in the back of a tour bus with a minimal assortment of resources.

Title track and album opener “The Eraser” works on every level. It draws you in and gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect from here on out. The stuttering piano sample (couresy of fellow Radioheader Jonny Greenwood) and glitchy beat act as a perfect support for Yorke’s floating vocals. Each track on the album manages to have an individual aesthetic (like the claustrophobic and haunting “And It Rained All Night”) while still being a clear piece of the album’s puzzle. The fact that it only contains nine tracks furthers my opinion that this was not some grand orchestrated work – Yorke had nine songs he didn’t see Radiohead utilizing, recorded them, and released them relatively quickly. In fact, the album was one of the quickest in recent memory in terms of hype – it was announced it May, leaked a bit later, and released in July.

Despite the relatively ordinary sounds on the record, The Eraser has a vibe that is far more personal than anything Radiohead has ever done. Yorke’s vocals are up front and clear as a bell – in “Black Swan” it sounds as if he leans over, puts his mouth by your ear and quietly sings “This is fucked up…fucked up.” Never before has Yorke’s voice been so confident sounding and on display.

Similarly straightforward are the song structures. No surprises (ba doom ching!) like “Paranoid Android” or “Sit Down. Stand Up.” What you initially hear is pretty close to what you get - electronic drum beats, synths, a few samples and scattered guitar work; pretty clear verses and choruses, too. However, there are moments of beauty and surprise still hidden within. The vocal melody on the chorus for “Atoms for Peace,” for instance, jolts you with a beautiful, cascading melody that climbs to a falsetto over a bed of static-y drums and warm, bell-like tones, before a droning figure comes and goes, while the same drums and keys bring the song to it’s conclusion.

“Harrowdown Hill” is an elegy of sorts for David Kelly, a member of the UK Ministry of Defense who died mysteriously a few days after appearing before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. It is also a sad commentary on the state of activism in the world – “we think the same things at the same time, we just can’t do anything about it.” This may be the catchiest song on the record, which coupled with its lyrics, make for a morbid yet unforgettable song.

The final piece of the album was a mystery to those who downloaded the leaked album and did not purchase it. The artwork, cut from linoleum by Stanley Donwood, shows a man holding off a tidal-wave of water and the floating remnants therein. This is a perfect metaphor for this album – Yorke is standing up, holding off all the anticipation and expectations for a new Radiohead album, and while damming the momentum, slips us this humble and simple album that exceeds all expectations.


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