Radiohead fans know that drummer Philip Selway is not the first member of the band to go solo. But he does seem to be the first member of the band to write and record songs that sound so very little like his day job. When singer Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood each made recent solo projects, their respective sounds did not catch anyone off guard. Yorke’s album, The Eraser, recorded with producer Nigel Godrich, did not fall far from the Radiohead tree at all. There were differences, yes, but they were outnumbered by the similarities. Greenwood’s soundtrack work and avant-garde classical pieces were pretty out there, but he was also responsible for many of the alien sounds on OK Computer and Kid A.
Selway’s slow, hushed British folk, on the other hand, didn’t sound like it came from neither a Radiohead member nor a drummer. This makes it sound like he was courting disaster, but Selway’s debut album Familial was just good enough to reward the curious while leaving room for him to grow as a singer and a songwriter. Four reheated outtakes from the album now comprise Running Blind EP. As his label puts it, “he kept back a handful that he felt worked best as a separate piece of work.” But realistically speaking, they just sound like they weren’t good enough.
One thing that works against the EP is how homogenized it is. Despite the fact that Selway is the drummer for Radiohead, his songs are not rhythmically driven. Sticking to nylon or steel string guitar, his songs revolve around his vocal melodies. Selway has a certain way of spinning melody that can be frustratingly subtle. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it was as if no one working on this recording noticed that all four songs had the same tempo and dynamics. They are all medium-slow and quiet. One of the things that made Familial better than this EP is that it had a little more variety. And not variety in the sense of loud and fast pitted against ballads, but variety in the details. It was the little things that counted. The brightening of a high-end tone, the addition of one small instrument to the mix, and the small shifts in pace helped differentiate the songs. All four songs on Running Blind EP are entirely too like-minded, exposing more weaknesses than necessary.
I also believe that Selway is a better singer than he leads on. He can carry a tune just fine and was good enough to sing on the same CD with Neil Finn and Jeff Tweedy, so that’s certainly not the problem. It’s just that his harsh afraid-of-waking-the-baby whisper begs for a change-up. Standing back and looking at his lyrics, this approach may not be altogether unwise. He seems preoccupied with troubled people. Shortly after the release of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, I read an article about Selway’s volunteer work with psychiatric hot lines. It all started by trying to get a girl’s attention, but he found that sacrificing his time to talk people down from their ledges gave him special meaning. “I’ve been going ‘round in circles / trying to figure you out”, goes the opening line on “What Goes Around”. The title track admits to feelings of fear while “All In All” acknowledges how good fortune often comes in smaller packages than we"d like. If anything sounds like a breakdown, it’s the moderately pounding “Spit and Cough”: “I believe you, now please go away”.
Phil Selway’s talents as a singer and songwriter warrant attention. Running Blind EP, however, does not. As the drummer moves on to bigger things, this 15 minute collection will hardly be a footnote in his history.