Two gigs, a documentary and THAT album
There are some gigs which have the bang of an event gig to them long before you walk into the venue. These are the gigs which many of those in attendance hope beyond hope are going to be like those …
There are some gigs which have the bang of an event gig to them long before you walk into the venue. These are the gigs which many of those in attendance hope beyond hope are going to be like those fabled event gigs of old. You know the list: The Strokes, Broken Social Scene or Sigur Ros at the TBMC; Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, The National (look, you weren’t at the Cobblestones’ gig, OK?) or Jeff Buckley at Whelan’s and, for the six older readers in the audience, Oasis, Suede or Beastie Boys at the Tivoli.
You know the feeling too: the gig when the next big thing came to town, slayed everyone in the audience and sent them home sweatin’ and testifying about what they just saw. The gig you wish you’d been at instead of staying home and watching Celebrity Lumberjack Olympics. The gig which, 10 years from now, you will say you were at because the gig has become Irish indie rock’s equivalent of the GPO in 1916. The event gig which brings out the event junkies. The event gig which the vast majority of the audience will swear blind was the best thing they’ve ever seen. This old town, it seems, has a propensity for misrepresenting ordinary gigs as extraordinary nights out. Let’s be clear, Mona’s Irish debut at Whelan’s last Thursday night was not one of those gigs.
Oh, I know, there will be protests. There will be many who tell us in the comments below that the band from Nashville, TN stood and delivered, that they are the future of rock’n'roll, that they are the new messiahs, that they are young guns who were born to run and who will hightail it into the sunset for many years to come. They will tell us that Nick Brown has the swagger of a young Springsteen and the quiff of a young Strummer. They will claim that last week’s show was the last chance we’ll ever have to see a band like that up close and personal.
But every time I closed my eyes, I just heard the Kings Of Leon. There was a surprising disconnect between the authentic wham-bam of the singles to date and what was coming out of the PA stack in a packed-to-the-gills Whelan’s. Instead of the real thing, though, we kept hearing diluted, disappointing, swagger-free, contrived blue-collar rock’n'roll. Instead of reaching for the stars and going for broke, Mona played their contracted 45 minutes and sipped a Guinness. The excitement we came in search of was elsewhere. We’ll probably still be saying the same thing when they’re headlining a stage at Oxegen 2012, doing two nights in the O2 in 2013 and playing Slane in 2014.
I’d wager that there were probably no more than a dozen people who saw both Mona and Sleigh Bells last week at Whelan’s and 10 of them were working for the venue or promoter. What they missed was a short, sharp, sweet thrilling gobstopper of a show which fired on all cylinders and oozed EXCITEMENT (yes, excitement, the real X factor) on every level. It’s a simple concept: you have Derek Miller throwing poses with his guitar against a backdrop of Marshall amps and you have Alexis Krauss throwing shapes over every inch of the stage. The music is savage, a hell-yeah slap of heavyweight distortion, cranked-up infectious buzz and beligerent songs which are so high on the hog that they float up to the roof and out of the venue. The guitars and electronics do the boompty-boomp and Krauss does what comes naturally when those sounds begin to work. Yet in the midst of the smashing, gleeful pop carnage of “Crown On the Ground” and “Infinity Guitars”, you get a soft-toned, love buzz like “Rill Rill” to show that the duo can also coo with the best of them. A show which sent me home beaming with delight.
There wasn’t a seat to be had in the Lighthouse on Saturday evening or night for Inside Job as the crowds came out to see the Oscar-nominated documentary on the back of a slew of good reviews from various quarters. Following on from books like The Big Short, Too Big to Fail and Fool’s Gold, Charles Ferguson’s documentary tells another tale of the housing and credit bubbles which blew up in late 2008, brought down so many banks and financial institutions and caused the kind of worldwide shitstorms which are still resonating today.
Ferguson begins his documentary in Iceland, but the outlandish behaviour of a tiny number of that tiny island’s 320,000 population is a mere amuse-bouche for the story he find in the United States as the banking business lost their collective reason in an effort to redefine the “greed is good” mantra. There was no mention of domestic baddies and gombeens like Seanie or Fingers or Bertie in this flick, but there were still guffaws (usually when there was yet another announcement that yet another person refused to be interviewed for the film), tuts and sighs from the stalls at the stories which were unveiled on the big screen. A powerful, angry, thought-provoking documentary. Who ever thought that a story of men in $3,000 suits could be so gripping?
And finally, THAT album. Curiosity got the better of me so I paid my money, pressed a few buttons, downloaded the files and listened to “King Of Limbs”. When Thom Yorke buys his next set of dance lessons, he can thank me for the cash.
Regular OTR readers will know that I have regularly expressed certain strong opinions on Radiohead’s business machinations and especially how the band are protrayed as some sort of geniuses who are thumbing their noses at the traditional way the music industry works when they’re really just a band who’ve played the old-school game really, really well. When it comes to the music, I never really heard any reason to be excited about them until “Kid A” came along and knocked me for six. That album continues to be one of the most adventurous, exciting, unconvential and gamechanging records ever released by a big-ass rock’n'roll band. I keep returning to Radiohead’s music to hear more of that but, sadly, that horse seems to have left town. Yorke’s solo album “The Eraser” did a quick gallop around the same yard, but there haven’t been any more gymkhanas of that sort since.
And therein lies the problem. “King Of Limbs” is alright if you’re looking for something which is stuck between the trad-rock stations, which the band seem ready and willing to abandon, and the far side, which the band don’t seem quite willing to completely embrace. If you haven’t heard Tune-Yards or Flying Lotus or The Notwist, you’ll probably think “King Of Limbs” is alright. You know that the band have been listening to the right records and that they have the right motivations for their electrobleeperyrock haze, yet they just don’t seem able to close the deal.
Instead of conviction, there is conservatism. They’re a big band who want to make the big jump into the unknown, but something is holding them back for going for broke. The more I listen to “King Of Limbs”, the more it simply fades into the background like a bad ambient electronica album. You don’t get that with “Cosmogramma” or “Butter” or “Space Is Only Noise” or “Cerulean”, four albums which “KIng Of Limbs” would probably like to be seen hanging around with. With “King Of Limbs”, the spark which sends those other albums into the stratosphere is missing. Listening to “King Of Limbs”, you keep hearing a band who have inexplicably donned straitjackets.
Oh sure, it has moments when all of that uneasy, slightly fussy abstraction finds a focus and you can see where the band wanted to go. “Bloom” is a wild, bracing blast, “Codex” has a graceful, old-fashioned, orchestral style and “Lotus Flower” has a fine, idiosyncratic momentum (even when you’ve not watching the video). Elsewhere, it’s hard to pinpoint any moments when the album or band truly gels. You can hear Jonny Greenwood’s film score influence throghout for sure, which is always a magnificent sound, and York’s liking for skittery, glitchy electronics is clear and present, but where’s the influence of the others on this sonic shopping list? It’s no surprise that most electronic producers fly solo so Radiohead’s collective embrace of the sound was always going to create some bumps.
When you forget about the sideshows (there’s now apparently a raft of conspiracy theories surrounding “King Of Limbs”) and simply view the album as a single piece of art, it’s OK, but far from great. While it’s always interesting to see a big rock band abandon their comfort zone, “King Of Limbs” is really another grope in the dark after the huge, confident strides once taken on “Kid A”. Sure, they seem to have abandoned the dumb-fuck indieguitar histronics of their early days and that’s to be welcomed. But a band of Radiohead’s ability need to be bolder and brasher. Or, perhaps as seems to be the case, true adventures in sound can be only be had when the artist in question has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.