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How TV Saved the Record

From late 1994 through 2009, Radiohead went on an insane run as the greatest band on the planet.  Almost everything they touched caused critics to drool uncontrollably and fans to purchase records and concert tickets without reservation.  After a merely good debut, Radiohead proceeded to dominate Brit-rock, create one of the greatest records of all time, blend rock and electronica, and then come back around to make a statement about the record industry.  Even their few missteps were glanced over (The Eraser), and their more divisive efforts were eventually regarded as near-perfect (Kid A and Amnesiac).  Radiohead just didn’t seem like a band that could do anything wrong.

Then along came The King of Limbs.  It was quite shocking in a number of ways. Firstly, it came out of nowhere.  The band took to their website on Monday February 14 to announce the record.  That Friday, Limbs was released.  Pretty quick turnaround by any standard.  The next shocking element was the length of record. The entire thing was only 37 minutes long and featured 8 total songs, making it the shortest proper release in Radiohead’s history.

But the real shock was the music itself.  On first listen, it was without structure, without rock sensibility and pushed into semi-dubstep.  But the problem was that it just didn’t feel right.  Songs were too rhythmic and didn’t feature enough melody. There were plenty of layers to pull back, but it was very difficult to do so and the rewards weren’t quickly accessed.  Limbs was just hard to deal with, not great for a cursory listen, and didn’t seem as valuable even with careful ears.

So it came as a shock to me that the record could be truly saved.  And then it was. By television.

The first crucial detail about Limbs is its density.  Without decent speakers or reasonable headphones, entire basslines and drum patterns are lost beneath more prominent sounds (vocals, the guitars, and primary percussion figures).  This makes each song very difficult to fully embrace.  But even with good audio equipment, the structure of each track is unwelcoming to the new listener.  With so much happening (even in the forefront), it’s difficult to latch onto a primary melody and even harder to anticipate direction.

Typically, these traits of difficulty have been celebrated by Radiohead fans.  They would hold the band up as a sort of hipster IQ test; if you couldn’t handle Kid A and Amnesiac you weren’t worthy of their rewards.  Limbs isn’t even as welcoming as those twin records.  By no means was Limbs a bad record at release.  It just wasn’t great and couldn’t hold my attention, even after forcing repeated listens.  By Radiohead standards, that comes pretty close to failure.

So why has Limbs suddenly gained regular play from my catalog?  The answer lies in the power of a live performance.  Even in a recording-studio setup, Radiohead has proven that their live show is powerfully engaging and forces the band to retool their album products for realistic performance potential.  They proved this on both their tour for In Rainbows and the In the Basement session for that album.

Quite thankfully for us, Limbs got a similar treatment for its Basement episode, and the result was stunning.  The first positive change is a visual connection to the music, instantly evident in the opener “Bloom.”  In album form, the song is a leap into deep water without any guidance, direction, or expectation.  The rhythm totally overwhelms the song, and it’s difficult to hear everything that’s happening.  It’s quite shocking, especially coming after the melodic, accessible In Rainbows.   The Basement version of bloom remedies things by letting the audience see two drummers (the second being Clive Deamer, from Get the Blessing).  Suddenly, all that beating begins to make more sense as you see sticks hit surfaces – it is much easier for my brain to process a stimulus when it’s happening with two senses (sight and sound).

The next powerful change in the Basement Limbs is the mixing.  Even without particularly good sound equipment, the songs feel more balanced.  The bass is sharper, helping to define and direct each song.  The drums are cleaner, allowing the exact beat and propulsion of any track to shine through.  The vocals are pronounced but not so much as to overwhelm other details.  Guitar noises are louder, letting melodic elements of the music take greater control.  Everything is much more cohesive, cleaner, and easier to follow.  The band also shows more energy (which is a very subjective metric, but seems to make the music brighter and stronger).

The presence of visuals and improved sonic standing make even the weakest songs from Limbs pop out.  I initially considered “Feral” to be a poor attempt at dubstep without any real merits.  Now the track feels alive, crawling, pushing the body to movement.  Instead of a sterile song, the Basement “Feral” feels as savage and ferocious as its title.  A Basement transformation also strikes “Morning Mr Magpie” in all the best ways.  The album version felt like an extra-disjointed Talking Heads song, but it lacked any force, any strength.  It felt empty, even with all the drums and guitars pushing it along.  The Basement “Magpie” has much louder, more distorted guitar parts, giving the track real teeth.  Even more impressive is the bass mix.  The musical breakdown about two minutes into the song is more pronounced and mystifying with the live energy and recording setup.  Suddenly the song seems like classic Radiohead – innovative, unlike anything they’ve done before and yet still enjoyable.

Radiohead’s Basement expedition worked to improve, and inject real life into, all the songs from The King of Limbs.  But also impressive is the addition of two new songs to the Limbs lineup.  The first of these is a slow-build-into-massive-payoff track called “The Daily Mail.”  It begins with Thom Yorke alone crooning while he plays a piano.  Then about two minutes in, he builds the keyboard volume and drums enter.  These are quickly followed by an impressive horn section and quite rocking guitars.  It’s a great payoff and feels like a proper rock song, even though it’s certainly within the overall Limbs aesthetic.  The second new piece is “Staircase,” a track that feels like a version of “Feral” with vocals.  Complex drums, a flowing bassline and synth noises dominate as Yorke sings around them and guitars occasionally interject.  The live energy and overall mix quality again give a real swagger and gravitas to the sound – the song feels alive and (at times) funky.

If, like me, you found The King of Limbs to be an over-saturated, uninviting and somewhat boring record, I encourage you to try out the From the Basement version of these songs.  Instead of dense and lifeless songs, Radiohead’s live-show energy and new mix setup works wonders, allowing each track to fill the mind and impress. It’s tough to change a first impression, but Radiohead may have done just that. Limbs has moved from Radiohead slip-up to yet another reason to celebrate the music of 2011.