Tuesday, September 30, 2014

album review: 'tomorrow's modern boxes' by thom yorke

It's been a really long time since I've talked about Radiohead in any capacity, the critical darling of so many music critics, Starting off in alternative rock in the early 90s, they quickly dove into the off-beat land of chilly electronica on latter albums that would proceed to influence thousands of artists for the next several years... and I'll admit right now that they're one of many bands that I can definitely respect without really liking. 

And most of my frustrations with Radiohead circle back to Thom Yorke. It's been a slow process, but for the most part I've gotten over most of my issues with his vocal delivery, even though I'd never say he's one of my favourite singers. But I've always found him a more interesting singer in alternative rock instead of electronica, which has meant that many of his experiments in that direction have left me a little cold, either with Radiohead, with his side project Atoms For Piece who dropped their debut Amok last year, and on his solo projects. The odd thing is that Yorke is an expressive vocalist and much of his lyrics tend to fall into the same category, but when paired with such stiff, regimented electronics, the contrast can come across as jarring, and not in a good way. And yeah, I get why Thom Yorke does it - as a singer and performer, he's always seemed distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of other human beings and that angst informs a lot of his material - but it has never quite clicked for me.

That being said, I was curious to check out his surprise album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, released via Bittorrent a few days ago. After all, despite my general antipathy towards Yorke, he is one of the more influential artists in the electronic sides of rock these days, so I downloaded the album and gave it several listens - what did I get?

Well, it's an interesting listen, I'll give it that, but being interesting is a pretty large step away from being good, and I'm not convinced at all that Tomorrow's Modern Boxes is a good record. It definitely has some solid moments that I did like, but it's one of those weird albums where several individual pieces don't work at all on their own but as a whole it can sort of come together into something cohesive. The big surprise for me is that all the pieces that don't work are exactly the opposite of what I was expecting would work.

So let's start with what I thought would be my biggest issues with this album: Thom Yorke's voice. I've gone on record saying I'm not the biggest fan, but his despondence really does fit the lyrical tone of this album, not so much bitter as tiredly resigned to the fate awaiting him. It helps matters that many of the songs let him stay in his lower range, which I tend to like a fair bit more than his upper range. And when he does get higher, it's restrained and quiet, with just enough subtle vocal production to prevent it from going flat or bleeding offkey, which can happen when you sing as quietly as he does. It actually reminds me a little of Steven Wilson's vocal production on songs like 'The Mother Lode', and for me, that's only a good thing. That's definitely more than I can say for some of the vocal snippets that are dropped onto several of these songs, like when the pitch-shifting renders them incredibly squeaky or just plain annoying like on the opening track 'A Brain In A Bottle' or all of 'There Is No Ice (For My Glass)' which then piles on the reverb or on the chopped and reversed samples in the last half of 'Truth Ray' or across 'Pink Section', the latter being the second instrumental piece and easily one of the more grating songs I've heard thus far this year.

So what about the lyrics and themes? Well, honestly, they work pretty well too. Thom Yorke's lyrics tend to be starkly sketched with odd still-frame imagery, but this album makes it work surrounding overall themes of being trapped and isolated. And it's where Yorke's despondence works to sell the material - he's already accepted it on some level and he's just weathering the tide as he and everyone else gets sorted and dropped into tomorrow's modern boxes, defined less by physical barriers and more by emotional distance, be they the rejection of 'A Brain In A Bottle', the pessimism against the darkness and new opportunities on 'Guess Again', losing the freedom to lie and mask one's feelings on 'Truth Ray', or the social stigma of 'Interference'. And the album closer 'Nose Grows Some' shows the aftermath, describing a one night stand where her lack of emotional honesty pens herself in as Thom Yorke has fully embraced the fact he'll be moving on but will indeed come back. The most fully-formed and best song on the record is 'Mother Lode' and it serves as the emotional high point as the clown that nobody laughs at and everyone ignores makes a break for freedom, because if he really does feel empty inside, he's still going to display courage and make a break for freedom. And while Yorke seems to regard that clown with bemusement and the track doesn't really land an emotional high, it's still potent.

But the bigger problem is that the instrumentation on this record just doesn't work if you start examining deeper and separating the pieces - and the cruelly ironic thing is that for all of Yorke's sonic innovations, this album has some of the same damn problems so many modern indie electronica and synthpop records do this year, in that the percussion tends to be decent but the melodies are severely de-emphasized or given keyboard tones that are either flat or completely unimpressive. The frustrating thing is that Yorke is still a solid producer in producing a mix with dynamics and depth, and some of the percussion lines he does pick are good, like the scratchy line on 'Guess Again!', but his synth tones feel small, leaden, and while they might fit the overarching themes and atmosphere of the album, it doesn't make them pleasant or all that memorable except for the wrong reasons. The opening track starts with a binaural oscillation of blubbery synths before switching into a slightly higher tone of blubbery synth before switching to a tone that sounds like someone's running an power drill underwater or squeezing a dog's squeaky toy. The synth melody on 'Interference' is a little better with the high electric piano and reverb-enhanced swell, but the backing synth feels like slightly fuzzy wallpaper and only seems to add dead weight to the song. 'Truth Ray' has a melodic progression that could have sounded rich if it was chopped up and filtered through a wall of fuzz and reverb... which I almost wished was the case for 'Nose Grows Some', which has a decent popping beat and cymbal line, but the synth line feels so inert and flat. I will say I did like the interplay between the percussion and bass melody and the skittering high key line on 'There Is No Ice (In My Glass)' or with the piano on 'Mother Lode', but really, the pianos that Yorke uses throughout this album are one of my biggest problems, whether it is going off-beat on 'Guess Again!' or just picking terribly flat and badly tuned pianos on the two instrumental pieces, the latter 'Pink Section' featuring effects that sound like bees right by your ear that sounds awful against the low keyboard section, which could have gave this album some desperately needed gravitas. And now I know what some of you are thinking, 'well, it's contributing that human element on such a rigidly mechanical album, artistic flourishes that reveal the man behind the machine, and add some organic presence' - but the transitions are handled very poorly. This isn't like Swans' To Be Kind where you could see every breakdown and it fit magnificently with the rest of the track - here, in contrast with the admittedly well-executed instrumental shifts on the rest of the album, it looks instead like Yorke got sloppy on the keyboards and left it in because this is a vanity side project to hold time until the next Radiohead album drops.

And really, that's ultimately where I'm going to fall on this record. I'll admit that this brand of electronica isn't usually my thing, but in revisiting Aphex Twin's discography in preparation for covering Syro, I found a melodic focus and degree of texture to his material that Tomorrow's Modern Boxes just does not have. Just like its title, it feels rigid and constructed, with individual elements that only serve to annoy and frustrate me even despite vocals and themes that were way better articulated than expected. It's just a damn shame the instrumentation did not click with me whatsoever, which means I'm giving this album a decent 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan of Thom Yorke. It's a thinly sketched, occasionally interesting, frequently irritating record, and I just hope Thom Yorke got it all out of his system before the next Radiohead album, which'll hopefully be a lot stronger.

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