Radiohead kicked off my summer by releasing “Amnesiac.” A return to their roots? Hardly. Thom Yorke and company still can’t keep their hands off the electronics, and we still have a few tracks that are, in all honesty, electronic gibberish. But unlike its predecessor, “Kid A,” the songcraft on Amnesiac shines. “Pyramid Song” is among the finest pieces they’ve ever produced, as Yorke’s breathtakingly beautiful vocals soar over an equally gorgeous piano line, gradually building in “Hey Jude” fashion. “You and Whose Army” and “Knives Out” capture a similarly haunting feeling, aided in no small part by Yorke’s voice, which has become Radiohead’s trademark. “I Might Be Wrong” builds on a mesmerizing guitar riff backed by Phil Selway’s solid drum track and displays the band at the cutting edge of rock.
The highlight, however, comes with the album’s closing track, the gloriously moving “Life in a Glass House,” where the band allows its jazzier influences to come through with a full horn section. Self-indulgent? Perhaps a little. But if these guys aren’t allowed, I don’t know who is. More innovative musicians cannot be found these days, and with “Amnesiac,” Radiohead have secured their position atop the world of rock and left us wondering what else they could possibly have up their sleeves.
Long accused of stealing Radiohead’s sound, Travis proved this summer that they will soon have imitators of their own, creating a very unique brand of Brit-folk on their third LP, “The Invisible Band.” The album’s opener and first single, “Sing,” features a banjo which somehow fits perfectly under Fran Healy’s powerful vocals. “Pipe Dreams” is the album’s highlight, featuring a classic Britpop acoustic strum and a catchy vocal line, all the while maintaining the folksy feel of the record. The first half of the record culminates with “Flowers in the Window,” a song Healy wrote for his wife. As he sings, “You are one in a million / And I love you so,” I can’t help but wonder if Healy finding happiness in his own life will inevitably add a little (perhaps unwanted?) sentimentality to his music. But those who miss his half-crying, half-singing style will welcome “Last Train” and “The Humpty Dumpty Love Song.” In the latter, Healy whimpers, “All of the king’s horses / and all of the king’s men / couldn’t put my heart back together again.”
Travis are not doing anything amazing here. But almost anyone would be hard-pressed to dislike this album-it’s catchy, the lyrics are very accessible, and admittedly, it’s incredibly endearing when it’s so obvious that these guys are having a great time making this music.
On the other side of the pond, indie darlings Built to Spill, led by guitar genius Doug Martsch, released “Ancient Melodies of the Future,” appeasing fans who were eagerly awaiting the follow-up to 1999’s “Keep It Like a Secret.” “Ancient Melodies” does not mark a great departure for the band: Martsch’s guitar noodling is still incredibly inventive and intriguing, his lyrics still struggle with the difficulty of human relationships, and Brett Nelson and Scoutt Plouf still provide a solid rhythm section to back him up. Moreover, Phil Ek’s production touches allow for just enough fuzz on the guitars to turn off the mainstream crowd but bring smiles to the faces of indie rockers. The record’s bookend tracks, “Strange” and “The Weather,” are far and away the highlights. The former is driven by clever tempo switches and Martsch’s Neil Young-esque whine, while the latter is the kind of song every guy wishes he had written for “that one girl.”
Martsch is at his most sincere when he declares, “As long as it’s talking with you / Talk of the weather will do.” Built to Spill won’t win over any new fans with these 10 songs, but this is still as fine as indie rock gets.
One outfit that did manage to win over some new fans this summer calls itself Gorillaz. A mysterious conglomerate whose members have developed animated alter-egos for their videos, Gorillaz is the brainchild of Damon Albarn from Blur and hip-hop producer Dan the Automator. Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads fill out the roster, playing hip-hop with a decidedly lo-fi rock flavor. Unlike previous attempts at such supergroup concoctions (DJ Shadow’s Unkle project comes to mind), Gorillaz manages to develop a sense of cohesion over these 17 tracks.
Blur fans looking for something to tide them over before the boys get back in the studio will most likely be disappointed. Though Damon’s lazy vocals, particularly on “Clint Eastwood” and “Re-Hash,” are pleasing to hear, Blur fans will quickly be wishing the incessant hip-hop beats would just go away. This is a typical summer album, in that its lifespan, both on mainstream radio and in the CD players of those who bought it, will probably not last very long into the fall. I predict that this will be the first and last we’ll hear from this mildly diverting supergroup.
The Beta Band rounded out the summer lineup with “Hot Shots II.” The group has managed, over the past three years, to develop an interesting and tumultuous history. After a sensational debut album that fostered “next big thing” buzz in the U.K., the group’s follow-up record completely flopped. “Hot Shots II” is more in the vein of the band’s debut, mixing breakbeat, avant-garde pop, groovy basslines, odd samples and an impeccable sense of melody. The highlights of the album are indeed enjoyable, but overall the album feels like a regression. The soft acoustic guitar and piano combination on “Gone” are painfully beautiful, and “Dragons” proves that these guys can still groove, as the drum sound they achieve displays studio mastery. But, unlike their debut effort, “The Three EPs,” these sounds are no longer on the cutting edge, and their charm soon wears thin. Still, it’s hard to begrudge the effort. The CD will be off my rotation come October-but hey, what’s a summer album for?