'Eraser' head


July 9, 2006


In addition to the fact that Radiohead remains remarkably avant-garde while retaining its power to fill arenas, the most extraordinary thing about its recent tour, which was intended to road-test new material in the midst of recording a seventh album due in 2007, was that one of the biggest rock bands in the world is without a recording contract.

As I've noted in several columns over the last few years, the music industry is in the midst of a revolutionary change even more dramatic than the shift from sheet music and player pianos to wax-cylinder recordings and 78 rpm discs in the late 1800s, which ultimately led to vinyl records and CDs in the next century. To date, we've seen a number of Boston Tea Party-like skirmishes: much-publicized incidents such as Wilco floating "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on the Internet after its record company refused to release it, and young bands such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes 'n Tapes exploding onto the music scene courtesy of initial Internet-only distribution -- though in each of these cases, the groups eventually signed to conventional record companies.

We've yet to witness the Lexington-Concord of this upheaval, "the shot heard 'round the world," which I believe will come when an act decides that it doesn't need a corporate middleman at all and winds up selling a gold (500,000 copies) or platinum (1 million) release entirely via the Net -- when fans log on to MyBrilliantBand.com (or whatever it will be called), charge $10 to their credit cards and obtain some incredible piece of music on their iPods or hard drives, ready to burn to their own DIY CDs.

Radiohead could be that band. In recent interviews, its members have indicated that they're seriously considering whether they need to re-up with Capitol/EMI or any other label. Among what they see as the cons of self-releasing their music are their fondness for old-school vinyl LPs and their worry that some (mostly likely very small) number of their fans may not have Internet access. But these objections could easily be countered by a deal with a small independent record company charged with handling those chores, dealing with the ever-dwindling mom-and-pop retailers (as well as the dreadful big-box chains, if the band chooses to) while the majority of distribution remained in the artists' hands.

The musicians also wonder if such a plan would distract them from their craft, making them businessmen instead of artists. But face it: A group like Radiohead is already a sizable enterprise, with a dozen or more people -- roadies, managers, sound technicians and publicists -- in its employ. A small office dedicated to overseeing the administration of a Web site -- a minimal expense and bother compared to, say, coordinating an international tour or setting up a private studio, tasks the group has already mastered -- would hardly turn Radiohead from a band into a bureaucratic corporation. And if it succeeded, the music industry would never be the same.

Several groups have been in the position to be that first brave revolutionary in recent years, including Wilco, Pearl Jam and U2, though all of them ultimately opted for business as usual. It remains to be seen whether Radiohead will follow them or chart its own historic course. Meanwhile, as the fans eagerly await the verdict and the group's next album, the band's leader, primary songwriter and vocalist Thom Yorke has given us his first solo album, "The Eraser," out Tuesday on the indie label XL Recordings.

Meet Mr. Yorke

Actually, the unassuming Yorke doesn't like to think of the disc as a solo effort, since he drew on the help of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and built the opening title track on a guitar part recorded by his bandmate Jonny Greenwood. But the nine songs nevertheless have the intimate vibe of a thoughtful artist rendering intimate late-night sketches in his studio -- or, as the case may be, via headphones on his laptop during stray moments of solitude amid the chaotic swirl of the band.

I have always had two problems with Radiohead: Yorke's slippery vocals (most definitely an acquired taste) and the fact that its recordings often bury the visceral power of the rhythms and guitars so effectively employed onstage. Maybe the idea that "The Eraser" is credited solely to Yorke freed me from my expectations -- I went in knowing this would mainly be an electronic disc, augmented primarily by the artist's stately piano -- and perhaps the spare, moody soundscapes finally enabled me to hear the charms of his vocals. Either that or he just wore me down. In any case, this is the disc where I learned to stop worrying and love the twisted little gnome.

Although it is hardly the inventive sonic statement or conceptual masterwork of "OK Computer" or "Kid A," "The Eraser" maintains the core Radiohead aesthetic of pairing moments of timeless, crystalline beauty with the noise and electronic confusion of the modern world, via the burbling clutter of "And It Rained All Night," the frightening paranoia of "Harrowdown Hill" (which is about the mysterious suicide of British arms inspector David Kelly), the insistent throb of "Atoms for Peace" and the cautionary panic in the music and lyrics of "The Clock," which finds Yorke addressing the crisis of global warming by warning over a disarmingly gorgeous melody, "Time is running out for us / But you just move the hands upon the clock."

Things may indeed be "F---ed up, f---ed up," as Yorke warbles in "Black Swan," which, perversely, is the most striking chorus on the album. But with the revolution looming, things could sound much, much worse.