Books

'Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album' Explores the Problems of Concept Albums

In Letts view, the concept album remains consciously uninterpretable, or at least the artists who create it refuse to allow an easy interpretation.


Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album: How to Completely Disappear

Publisher: Indiana University Press
Length: 234 pages
Author: Marianne Tatom Letts
Format: Woftcover
Publication Date: 2010-10
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The term “concept album” makes me cringe, even though some of my favorite albums handily fit into that category. The granddaddy of them all, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably changed popular music forever and set the stage for the Beatles most creative period. More recent efforts, like the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, suggest that the form is alive and well.

And yet the creation of the concept album also has the reek of good garage rock gone bad, of supreme self-indulgence of Nickelbackian proportions. Although we frequently identify the term with prog and art rock, some of the worst efforts have been the outgrowth of pop rock superstardom.

Consider the post-Peter Kriss effort Music from the Elder by KISS. It's unlistenable, unless you want the smaltzy pleasure of deciphering the bizarre sci-fi storyline. Don’t even get me started on Styx’s Kilroy Was Here which included a stage show complete with masks for Dennis DeYoung and the gang (although, to its everlasting credit, it did give us “Mr. Roboto”, one of the weirdest moments in '80s radio listening… right up there with “Rock Me Amadeus”).

And, though you wont like this, does anyone really listen to all four sides of Tommy without wearying of the angst ridden orchestra rock? Sure, the project that gave the world “Pinball Wizard” deserves all the acclaim it has since received. But the story of the alienated young white male (rock 'n' roll’s favorite protagonist) becoming a messiah? It makes a very high Ace Frehley fighting “the lords of darkness” sound appealing to me.

Music theorist Marianne Tatom Letts has found a near perfect angle to examine these issues with her book Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album: How to Disappear Completely. It’s a book that’s less a study of Radiohead, and their two least accessible albums, and more an exploration into the problem of the concept album itself. “What exactly is it?,” becomes the question that drives Letts study and her answers shed light both on the more obscure work of one of the truly great rock bands and on the nature of performance and the performer in the post-modern moment.

In her introduction, which doubles as a fine tour of the genres of prog and art rock, Letts examines the traditional definition of the concept album. Everything you would expect to be here is: thematic or narrative repetition, the recurrence of motives that appear in major and minor key at important transitional moments in the album’s progression, and the use of a protagonist(s) who becomes the narrative voice. She also makes clear what it is not; simply songs tied together by a theme. She humorously accents this by pointing out that an album entitled Today’s Country Christmas doesn’t qualify as a concept album, despite narrative continuity.

What is most interesting in her exposition is the idea that the concept album is “resistant” to categorization. In her view, the concept album remains consciously uninterpretable, or at least the artists who create it refuse to allow an easy interpretation. Here, it feels like to me that Letts is describing a "good" concept album rather than an abstract definition of a concept album. As she herself notes, plenty of artists are more than open about the higher and deeper meaning of their work.

In order to make these somewhat abstract points, Letts pursues a very close reading of both Kid A and Amnesiac, a song by song analysis that includes an examination of chord progression and vocal intonation as well as both album’s seemingly impenetrable lyrics. Letts goes further than most will want to go in this direction and the ability to read music is probably a necessity for getting the most out of this book.

She notes the ways that both of these albums rework the basic conceit of the concept album while also holding together thematic elements. The subtitle of her book is track four off of Kid A, an allusion to the complete disappearance, or maybe disintegration, of the narrator. Its almost as if Tommy had been killed somewhere around “The Acid Queen”.

Letts manages to tie her discussion, although only loosely, to Radiohead’s famous anti-capitalist gambit, allowing fans to set their own price for digital downloads of In Rainbows. Letts sees this as an artistic strategy that tries to renegotiate the relationship of performer and audience just as their music has often-resisted accessibility and easy categorization (although it may have actully lifted CD sales later the same year).

Not at all for the casual fan, Letts' work contains meaningful insights into the state of the album as an art form as well as into Radiohead’s oeuvre. I must admit that reading the book actually reminded me of the first time I heard Kid A. I had the same realization that a lot was going on above my head and that it would require more time and patience than I have to sort it all out.

This is the kind of text that could likely transform a college-level music theory course for the better, prompting discussions about everything from the structure of modern rock music to the sometimes conflicted triangular relationship between performers, media and the masses. And, needless to say, it’s required reading for Radiohead cultists.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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