Sunday, May 3, 2009

Primer Part 9: Thom Yorke- The Eraser

No offense to the Mike D and Badly Drawn Boy fans out there, but I don't think anyone would disagree with the notion that 'Rabbit In Your Headlights' was the best track from UNKLE's Psyence Fiction album. It was a rare glimpse of one of the members of Radiohead working outside of the band and paired Thom Yorke with one of the influences on the sound of OK Computer, specifically lead track 'Airbag.' That is to say, DJ Shadow. At or before this same time, Yorke's fascination with electronic music grew by leaps and bounds until, during the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, he had all but given up on guitar based music. 2003's Hail To The Thief ably recombined the acoustic/guitar and keyboard/drum machine/loops aspects of Radiohead's music, yet Yorke was left with the itch to pursue his fascination with electronic music. During the long downtime between Thief and the eventual In Rainbows, he did just that.

"I don't wanna hear that word solo" (emphasis added) Yorke insisted of The Eraser, but I'm not sure what else it should be called. If it was a side project or one-off lark, why use his name on it?? Why not stealth release it without his name?? Ultimately, though, the name doesn't matter because you know exactly what you're getting into with The Eraser: Thom Yorke letting his whims run free, producing a bedroom/laptop electronic album. Its ambition, scope, and palette are deliberately reduced from a proper Radiohead album, so those in the audience expecting some sort of secret masterpiece or new direction will be disappointed. The music on here is like Yorke continuining in the direction of tracks like 'Everything In Its Right Place, 'Kid A', and 'Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box.'

The Eraser's success or failure depends entirely on how much you like Thom Yorke's voice. Much as electronics are the brush he's painting with here, if you can't stand the guy's voice then you're going to hate this. As In Rainbows would bear out, during and after Hail To The Thief Yorke had begun to appreciate his voice again, to allow it to be the centerpiece of a song instead of, as during the Kid A and Amnesiac sessions, using it as another element or texture, burying it in the mix from time to time. The lyrics in general are also much more verbose and deal with more specific and personal topics than they had in awhile (this, too, points the way to the borderline traditional and romantically inclined In Rainbows).

So, yes, this album is like being locked in a room with Thom Yorke and a healthy supply of samplers, loop machines, laptops, keyboards, drum machines, and a microphone. If that idea thrills you, then The Eraser is for you. The less experimental, hardcore, and noisy elements of influences like Aphex Twin and Autechre are prominent and the best hint of the sound here. The title track lurches to life with staggered piano chords and a minimalist drum machine backing. 'The Clock', appropriate to its title, sounds like a time piece malfunctioning, with glitches and cut-up loops creaking in and out, Yorke's voice sailing through the typhoon and giving us ground to stand on. 'Black Swan' apparently samples some recordings done by Radiohead and sounds the least "solo laptop electronic album" of the nine tracks, with what is probably a guitar(!!) laying down a sidewinding rhythm. Meanwhile, Yorke warns us that "you have tried your best to please everyone, but it just isn't happening."

Taking his own advice with this album?? You decide.

The Eraser is an odd bird because it's weirdly thrilling in a microcosmic way. Something about those sluggish keyboard chords on 'Atoms For Peace' sits in my head and won't go away. Every song has one or two things that will fire up the pleasure centers in your brain, but nothing about this album is majestic, anthemic, or stunning in the way Radiohead's albums are. Not to mention that there's a downside and an upside to having an album with a consistent 'sound': it's great, because the songs work well together and there isn't a dud in the bunch, but it's bad because none of them strike me as especially outstanding and this is the sort of music you have to be in the mood for. The Eraser demands headphones and quiet contemplation; though electronic, it isn't electronic in a dance music sort of way.

It was only recently that I got around to The Eraser and I suspect it will remain that way for Radiohead fans of the future. It's the sort of solo/side project release that you're aware of and eventually pick up, and you enjoy it a lot, but it doesn't fill you with the same sleepless fascination that full blown Radiohead albums do. It's a good little bedroom/laptop electronic album, in the end, and reminded me, at least, just how much I love Yorke's voice in any context: DJ Shadow collaboration, PJ Harvey and Bjork guest appearances, inside the Radiohead context, or on his own.

No comments: