David Bazan – Blanco

“If I’m not losing sleep, I’m probably over it,proclaims indie rock crooner David Bazan in the opening lines of his third solo album Blanco. 

Bazan has spent the last few years playing living room shows across America, performing songs from his extensive back catalogue. Finally, he stopped touring and recorded Blanco, a reflection of his life on tour.

Bazan has a reputation for being cynical in his perspectives, but he emerges with beautiful insights only the most observant find. As the lead singer of the now defunct indie rock band Pedro the Lion, Bazan candidly touched on topics of God, alcoholism, death, political corruption, infidelity, and eventually losing faith in God. His lyrics echo sentiments with a level of intimacy that is relatable on a profound level.

In Blanco, Bazan is reaching an existential crisis.

In the whimsical first track “Both Hands” Bazan repeats “both hands over my eyes” in the chorus, an avoidance mechanism we are all familiar with. He laments his heavy thoughts, but sets them aside to deal with the issues right in front of him. His distorted vocals accompanied with the hypnotic synthesizers construct a formula that sets the tone for the rest of the record.

The second track “Oblivion” mirrors the notion of avoidance. Over a quirky keyboard melody and provocative drum sample, Bazan says that “now is not the time for second thoughts” as he reflects on the man he has been.

Blanco sets itself apart from the usual Bazan fare. Opposed to distorted guitars and down tempo melodies, Bazan set out to make his version of an electronic record. Synthesizers, memorizing choruses, drum samples, and reverb-y vocals make up Blanco, and it is a refreshing change of pace.

The instrumental counterparts of “With You” are reminiscent of a 1980s new wave single, but don’t let the upbeat inflection fool you. “I might have found someone true/ But I turn around/ my life’s half over/ And I’m with you.” When I listen to this song I interpret it as a love song, regardless of the unfavorable imagery. That despite your flaws, I’m with you. Bazan’s unconventional flare for romanticizing the weaknesses of relationships are an example of his craftsmanship as a lyrcisist.

Reverting back to his acoustic roots “Little Landslide” is a thoughtful song about reflection. “Over Again” depicts the repetition of everyday life and the notion of being stuck. Despite the powerful lyrics, unfortunately the song falls flat.

The dreamy closing track “Little Motor” ends things on a triumphant note, “every day you wake up alive/ little motor behind your eyes”  it’s the understanding that life goes on.

Bazan has proven himself a master storyteller through his songs, and he continues to do so in Blanco. The album is reflective and requires a patient ear, but the payoff makes it worth while.

Blanco: B+

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Rating: A-

“I could get lost in these pianos,” read my post. “Daydreaming” had just come out a few days ago, and a new album was slated for release a couple of days afterwards. There was no name or track listing provided. All we knew was that Radiohead was done with their new album and that it would be ready for digital distribution on Sunday at 11:00 PST.

It’s been a week since A Moon Shaped Pool was released. A week where I’ve spent struggling  to do justice to an album that has stirred some energetic fanboyism inside of me. Gone are the dark times from The King of Limbs, in is the bright optimism of  A Moon Shaped Pool.

So, where do I start with this review? I start with explaining what exactly it is about this album that has me gushing over it. At this point in my music listening life I’m fairly simple. I don’t like prog rock. I don’t really like electronica. I like very simple pop songs. Nothing that dares deviate too much from the verse-chorus-verse song structure. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like I don’t profess to be someone with a complex taste. What I seek in music is feeling and emotion. This is what separates my favorite albums from a great album. It’s what makes a You & Me or a Kill for Love amongst my favorite albums of all time. Albums that miss this mark are superficial. They hint and tease at deeper meaning(s) but often miss the mark. Instead, they’re cold, emotionless and empty.

This important distinction is what distinguishes albums like A Moon Shaped Pool from The King of Limbs. For all of its polyrhythmic beats and video game guitar sounds, The King of Limbs never manages to be anything other than an album limping to its forgettable status. It never managed to go any deeper than an interesting Thom Yorke solo project. For all of its curious explorations in multiple rhythm sections, the album leaves no discernible impression. Nothing that struck me more than some rather throwaway music. A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead taking away the characteristic “bleeps and bloops” of 16 years and stripping them down to bare acoustic bones. There’s beautiful string sections harmonizing with one another; choirs that make their triumphant return to the Radiohead catalogue; grand pianos somberly reminiscing over lost and broken love. Even the acoustic drum set makes a return in jazz-like sleepy beats.

There’s a beauty in revealing ourselves to others. It exposes us. It leaves us wide open and vulnerable. “Ripe for the taking.” It is the revelatory moment that exposes us for all of our fragility and weakness. For all of its pretty instrumentation and lush production most of this album wouldn’t be half as great if it weren’t for how deeply personal Yorke’s lyrics are. Gone is the dystopian commentary about “bunkers” or technology or whatever other Radiohead trope there is. Instead, we have hurt songs about “daydreamers never learning” or love songs about “lollipops and crisps” with pained notes asking someone to not leave.

A Moon Shaped Pool is an album about human frailty. It explores the self and makes the self deal with the consequences of our actions. It’s reminiscent on our failures. All of this introspection is supported by dreamy, lush musical arrangements. They lend themselves to deeply to a pensive state, one slowed down and focused. It guides our eyes to what is in front of our lives. What do I want? Who do I want? What exactly is it that I want to get out of this life? The album pleads the listener for introspection. It embarks the self on a journey of self-discovery, a journey where to learn from lessons learned. It’s demands the listener to listen to our surroundings and consider all that we have. It’s an album that doesn’t tiptoe around its “humanity.”

Five weird, small and odd-looking Englishmen have dropped their ninth album in the span of 24 years. It is a beautiful ninth album adding some of their best work to an already storied catalogue. Here’s to more albums.

 

Radiohead Release a New Song, “Burn the Witch”

The “most important band in the world” released a new single/song/who knows what today. Living in our day and age, it’s virtually mandated for all content producers to release immediate takes reacting to everything that happens at any time. Continuing down their hole of “music-as-a-filter-for-politics,” Pitchfork ran a piece trying to decode the politics of the new song and video, going so far as having a senior staff writer writing the piece. Noisey ran a smaller piece. Half taking the piss out of the collective need for music journalists to out-take each other, while simultaneously indulging in the same practice, Noisey published a collection of 15 takes from its music staff on the new song. These are the times we live in, and no amount of high-horse posturing is going to change that fact. Radiohead, for better or for worse, is an event.

We live in a day and age where rock bands have become an archaic relic of times passed. Whenever Radiohead decides to put the guitars and retire, they will go down as the last rock band to command the commercial and critical success that they have achieved. Rock bands are done. Look at the bench. After Radiohead, who is next? Coldplay? They’ve been critically panned for a few albums now, and are their record and ticket sales even close to those of Radiohead’s? Look at the front page of music websites like Pitchfork or The Rolling Stone. Wholly owned by pop stars like Beyoncé or Kanye West. Rock is dead. If you want to see the evolution of the genre, one has to dig a little deeper and see smaller acts with much more niche audiences.

So when “the greatest band in the entire fucking world” releases a new song, it becomes a gaze into a fading past. A past that, at one point, dominated the mainstream conversation, a past that was dominated by white men with guitars, a past that has seen many of its storied architects recently pass away. Self-styled “serious music journalists” will write countless think pieces and analyze with meticulous attention every move the band makes, and to be completely fair to those guardians of good taste and culture, analysis that the band coyly encourages.

I was, and still am, a member of the rabid Radiohead fanbase. There was a good period in my life where the only thing I seemingly listened to was Radiohead. They consumed about two years of my life. I lapped everything up. The rare bootlegs of live concerts, recordings of unreleased songs, the occasional cover. I wanted it all and I mostly got it all. Spent $50 or so on the Newspaper edition of an album that I ultimately did not really end up enjoying. I fanboyed really, really hard but the fanbase encourages this. There’s countless forums dedicated to the band, websites dedicated to recording every known information about a song (as of today, 5/4/2016, Citizen Insane appears to be down but apparently not for long), and even at one point massive conspiracy theories revolving around an unreleased part two to The King of Limbs. It was a fun geek out for a while. I could indulge my obsessive tendencies on a band that had the mythos around it that allowed for such geeking out over. Then I grew older, lost interest after The King of Limbs and a couple of Thom Yorke related flops and started listening to other music. Nowadays, a lot of my music sensibilities are not with rock music. Instead, they are with singer-songwriters who write personal music about boxing matches, smooth RnB singers with lush and intrinsic production or sweet and simple pop tunes composed by various women. So I woke up with a bit of anxiety over the upcoming release. I didn’t want to be further disappointed and nail the final nail on the Radiohead coffin.

My girlfriend has bronchitis. We had planned to wake up early to take her to the doctor and make it to a hair appointment I had previously made. I got up around 8:00 in the morning and checked one of those said music forums for any updates on the band. In true Radiohead fashion, nothing has been announced and everyone is in the dark. To my surprise, at the very top of the page was a very excited post with a YouTube link and the acronym “OMG” spelled right next to it. I clicked it and checked the run time for the video. 3 minutes and 59 seconds. A music video. I went to a more private setting, put on the video and got ready for what I was about to hear. The song starts right away with staccato strings that are repeated throughout the song. A low synth is heard in the background as Yorke’s crooning voice kicks in. It’s the sense of dread and anxiety that is classic Radiohead. It’s the same dread that Yorke is so good at building up with his voice and cold lyrics. Radiohead is often about the atmospherics being built, and this song is the first in a while to be reminiscent of that prestige that the band has created. The video, itself, centers around these themes of being constantly watched and monitored. It is a claymation video inspired on the movie The Wicker Man. A town official on a witch hunt who ultimately gets burned at the effigy himself. Knowing Yorke the song is political and some commentary about our modern times, but those messages are often beside the point. Most Radiohead songs don’t have lyrics to write home about. There’s nothing particularly impressive about Yorke’s lyrics, rather his voice and words are conduits for feelings and emotions that are part and parcel for the moods and themes of a Radiohead album. The staccato strings climax into a final crescendo in the end. It’s a great finale for any symphonic composer, the new career path of the band’s musical polyglot, Jonny Greenwood.

Needless to say, I have hopped aboard the hype train. I’m still cautious about the album. “Lotus Flower” interested me when it was released, so I don’t want to blindly jump in, but there is something that feels different about the way things are going. I look at “Lotus Flower” and can say that was indicative of the direction of The King of Limbs and it wasn’t very good. This, on the other hand, bodes well for the new album. It feels like a return to form, at least for me, for a band that was so good at building lush atmospheric music that felt natural and organic. If “Burn the Witch” is any indication, the cold bleeps and bloops from The King of Limbs are exhausted. Maybe it’s the fact that the song has been around since the early 2000’s, maybe it’s the fact that song is a relic from a band’s past whose frontman didn’t seem all that interested to ever get back into. Maybe it’s just my old, geeky self coming out and wanting to relive just for a few moments. I don’t know what it is but I am most definitely hyped for whatever ride is about to come.

Watch Radiohead’s new song, “Burn the Witch,” down below