Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool (A case for Indy Music)

Radiohead - Moon Shaped Pool (album cover)If there ever was a case both for or against the Big Record Labels (the Big Four: Universal, Sony, Warner, EMI), Radiohead would be the poster child for both sides of the argument.  They wouldn’t have acclaim without the big record companies.  But their fanbase wouldn’t have fully realized Radiohead’s talents if the band hadn’t transitioned to their independant (Indy) style of music release.  Their latest album seems to finally place the band where they always wanted to be.

Radiohead had the ears of many younger listeners from their first album, Pablo Honey, which featured their hit song Creep.  Fans of the band will already know the legend of the song, one that no member of the band wanted to bring to the spotlight.  In fact the grungy  crunches on the guitar was Johnny Greenwood’s attempt to ruin the song that he didn’t like.  Unfortunately for Radiohead (and fortunately for the rest of us), producer Paul Kolderie loved it and pushed to not only get the song on the album, but had it released as a limited edition single.  Capitol Records (a division of Universal) got behind the single, the album and the band and pushed Radiohead way up front in the limelight.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Though I can’t help but to think that a number of people stumbled onto the band because Stone Temple Pilots also had a song out by the same name at the same time (well, that’s how I found Radiohead anyhow).

But these days, Radiohead no longer plays Creep in concert.  It seems as though the band loathes the song in the same way that Rodger Waters and David Gilmore dislike each other.  I can only imagine that at some level, the band truly respects the song for garnering fame and a career based entirely on music.  But the band has not been without its struggles over the years.  Their early music was a pop-influenced alternative style that was clearly influenced by the Capitol/Universal Juggernaut.  Yet somehow the band managed to work their unorthodox stylings into the industry when they released Kid A and Amnesiac (which were written and developed as companion albums).  What band under contract has ever decided to all learn new instruments as a means to rediscover their own style?  The Beatles did it, but that was a different era.  In 2000, it didn’t happen.  And I’m not sure it’s happened since.  Somehow, Capitol/Universal let it fly.  The band’s last album under contract was Hail to the Thief, a title that I think was somehow a dig into the music industry as a whole, or just at Universal.  Then Radiohead did the unthinkable:  They decided to go Indy.

Indy Radiohead

Just under four years later, the band released their first Indy album, In Rainbows, with an experimental pay-what-you-want model.  Where most people could pay as little as a penny (or nothing at all), the average payment was in the five-dollar range.  That was a value the band could appreciate.  It was officially released on CD a short time later with set pricing, but more economical than most albums at the time.  And rumor has it that they made more off that one album than they ever had under the umbrella of the industry.  But let’s be honest…if the band’s first five albums hadn’t already built up a rabid fanbase, the model perhaps would not have worked.  But we were rewarded with the unrestricted sound of In Rainbows.  The King of Limbs, their second Indy Album, was experimental and great in its own way.  But the band was still trying to find their life without the big-wig execs calling the shots.  But the best was yet to come.

It’s 2016 and the band has all worked on independent projects over the past five years since their last release.  Thom Yorke and Phil Selway had a few Indy releases of their own.  Yorke also worked with a side band, Atoms for Peace.  Johnny Greenwod was writing film scores and working with the London Contemporary Orchestra (Remember the LCO, I’ll come back to them in a moment).  And then the band released another gem in their crown:  A Moon Shaped Pool.

The Latest Album

There are three gems in the Radiohead crown.  The first was OK Computer, which featured tunes that didn’t follow traditional music theory.  It broke the mold for the band with an experimental and eclectic sound; almost a class all its own.  The second was Kid A, the album that found the band exploring different roles.  Thom Yorke learned piano, Johnny Greenwood and Colin Greenwood learned percussion.  Phil Selway learned keyboard.  And the band started to really layer in ambient sounds, drum machines and electronic synthesizers.  I personally refer to this album as the Brian Eno moment.  But the third gem has very quickly become the envy of the ball:  A Moon Shaped Pool.

Suppose for a moment you were to create a band based on the eclectic stylings of McCartney-Lennon, the ambient tempering of Brian Eno, the delicate lyrics and voice work of David Bowie (and I’d like to remind you that Bowie and Eno were a legendary team) and layer in the sampling skill and mixing of Pink Floyd.  I daresay that the closest thing in existence that could rival such a supergroup would be Radiohead.  A Moon Shaped Pool is not likely to outsell the album offerings of any of the bands noted, including Radiohead themselves.  But it doesn’t have to.  It is by far the most brilliant piece of work that the band has produced to date.

Within the tracks of A Moon Shaped Pool, you will find the history of the band.  There are many songs that do not follow traditional music structure (queue OK Computer).  The album has a strong ambient influence (enter Eno-esque Kid A).  But it also includes the re-entry of Radiohead’s traditional sound in their acoustic guitars, non-synthesized brass, strings and woodwinds, thanks in part to Johnny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra who appeared on the album.  The album is filled with rhythmic percussion and off-tempo riffs that don’t seem to fit with each other if compared side-by-side.  But hwne you layer them together and the down beats of each track fits together on a broader scheme – one that is not readily apparent until several seconds into any given song – you start to realize the brilliance of each piece.  It’s as if you’re being transported into the minds of some of the most brilliant composers that ever existed; except who would have thunk it was Yorke, Greenwood and Selway who deserved the title?

Final Thoughts

Long story short:  The album is an absolute brilliant piece of work.  It’s very rare that I take to an album quickly, but this one caught my soul the first time I gave it a listen.  I bought it for myself without a preview; I am not dissappointed.