Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Virtue Of Simplicity

Radiohead - In Rainbows pt.2
Olafur Arnalds - Eulogy For Evolution

Recently I’ve been becoming more and more intrigued by, if not the complete rejection of technique in music, then at least the subordination of technical ability to the clear exposition of simple and affecting ideas. I keep coming back to the austere advice of Talk Talk’s brilliant Mark Hollis – ‘Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note…and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it’. When I first read this in an interview, I felt it provided a neat counterpoint to Miles Davis’ statement about playing ‘what’s not there’ instead of what’s there. Often it’s precisely what’s not there – the space as much as the sound – that makes music such an overwhelming force.

Listening to the tracks on the bonus CD that comes with the discbox of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ (leaked to the internet of course!), it strikes me that whilst this band have a reputation for unprecedented intricacy amongst rock ensembles, their latest material succeeds largely through its unashamed simplicity. Yes, they veer in some directions most rock bands are not even aware of (asymmetrical time signatures, extended harmony, unconventional song structures etc), but the arrangements of these new tracks are stubbornly minimal in the best possible way.

‘In Rainbows’ part two opens with an eerie, mysterious reprise of ‘Videotape’ called ‘Mk 1’, with Thom Yorke ghosting his own vocals in the opening seconds. It is of course a throwaway offcut – perhaps just one phase in the band’s development of an idea, but it is interesting precisely because of this. It also acts as a particularly effective curtain-raiser, and demonstrates that the group have thought carefully about the sequencing and structure of this bonus disc. It’s not just the remains from the cutting room floor, but rather an accompanying featurette that shows a band in transition, and signposts a number of the themes of the main release.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘Bangers and Mash’ is severe and intense, with some snarling, savage guitar riffing battling with Phil Selway’s characteristically definitive drum pattern. Yorke sounds completely demented here, and there’s a whole spectrum of disorientating sounds and harmonies in the background to satisfy the more intent listener. It’s a direct and brutal assault on the senses, and a significantly more realised track than the live versions that emerged on the internet last year. It’s a neat complement to the more aggressive tracks on the main disc (‘Bodysnatchers’, ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Pieces’).

There’s also a real sense of the band developing some of their earlier ideas. ‘Up On The Ladder’, with its attacking, percussive guitar and electronic beat, is reminiscent of Depeche Mode in a similar way to ‘I Might Be Wrong’ from ‘Amnesiac’. The piano dominated ‘Down Is The New Up’ sounds like a looser, funkier, less off-kilter take on Pyramid Song, incorporating more of that haunting, lingering melancholy that the group possibly derived from the music of Alice Coltrane.

Best of all is the almost unspeakably beautiful ‘4 Minute Warning’, which emerges from a fog of fuzzy guitar with one of the group’s most memorable melodies. Yorke’s lyrics here hint at the fear of terrorism (‘running from the bomber’), and his delivery is at its clearest and most direct, with little or no affectation. Musically, there’s very little going on, but every part seems to add something to the haunting overall impact. It’s a close relation of ‘House Of Cards’ on the main disc, albeit without that track’s reggae lilt and more personal perspective.

In addition to the acres of space created by these songs' skeletal arrangements, it also strikes me that this once frustratingly sexless band are now becoming more erotic, in both the obvious and broader sense of the word. For ‘Reckoner’ and ‘House of Cards’ on the main disc, Thom Yorke at last found it within himself to write something candid and personal (even if the subject matter was not in fact drawn from his own personal experience, the songs come across as uniquely honest in the Radiohead canon). Similarly, there’s a powerful intimacy across the best tracks on this bonus set, where every sound is serving an overall sense of intrigue and mystery. The rustle of a cymbal, or the very delicate plucking of a guitar string – all combine to convey a rather sensual and hypnotic impression. I stand by my earlier conclusions about ‘In Rainbows’ even more in light of these extra tracks – put the best moments from both discs together and you easily have the group’s least self-conscious, most assured work to date.

Another album to exploit the merits of simplicity, to starker and more devastating effect, is Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds’ ‘Eulogy For Evolution’, released this week on the Erased Tapes label. The record has been touted as an obvious next step for those enticed by Sigur Ros’ rock orchestrations, although I feel the comparison does Arnalds something of a disservice. Whilst Sigur Ros sometimes sound burdened by rhythmic banality, Arnalds’ work takes flight by mostly abandoning percussion altogether (and indeed, the occasional bursts thunderous drums are all the more unpredictable and menacing as a result). ‘Eulogy For Evolution’ also mostly dispenses with the quiet-loud post rock formula in favour of a dignified restraint. Distorted guitars only make a couple of appearances, and sound all the more violent and aggressive as the listener is totally unprepared for the effect. With nameless tracks that are simply assigned four digit numbers, and a seamless, thoroughly consistent mood, Arnalds creates an atmosphere loaded with profound grief through his lingering piano motifs and elegant string lines. It’s nothing particularly maverick – there’s little dissonance or unpredictability in the harmony – but the development and continual emphasising of a small number of motifs is both haunting and unsettling. As a result, there’s something deeply mournful and achingly sad about this suite of music.

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