Inevitably, there are going to be haters of this new album by Thom Yorke — Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes — which was released as an appealing $6 download some weeks back. Thanks to my music buddy Milton, I was happily alerted to the fact that there was link on the download site where a physical version of the album could be purchased.
It wasn’t cheap as an import item — costing me ten times the cost of that download — but it sure promised to be something interesting and (if you will) more deluxe. I sprang for it knowing that you, Dear Readers, might be interested to know about it.
As it was, I didn’t want to listen to the initial download of the album (available when I purchased it) until the physical vinyl arrived yesterday. I wanted to absorb the full, shall we say, artistic statement Yorke was making with this release.
I’m not being snarky here.
I’m glad I did wait to look and listen as the package is as otherworldly as the music within, arriving in a giant custom static-free bag (like you might get when buying a new hard drive or other computer component) and featuring cool illustrations and other graphics. One side of the inner sleeve depicts a forest of trees with their limbs cut off (perhaps a reference to Radiohead’s prior King of Limbs album) while the front cover shows a devastating landscape that appears to be the moon but when you flip the backside you realize its a forest that has was cut to the stumps and then dug out of the ground.
There is handwriting there that reads: “earth gone deaf.”
Yup, this cover art screams the question of whether anyone listening and paying attention to what is happening in our environment? Clearly Yorke is aware and he want you to be as well. Perhaps the “modern boxes” he’s talking about on the album’s title are our own wooden caskets made from earth’s last remaining trees?
The record itself is lovely snow-white, dead-quiet,180-gram vinyl with small “undersize 75mm” labels bearing some cool graphics that tie the whole package together.
With the arrival of the album, came another download card, so this time — as it offered WAV as an option — I decided to opt for that. It took longer to download, for sure, but I was curious if there might be any noticeable difference.
While its downloading, I’ll get on to the music and come back to that in a bit.
This album is not a throwaway and is immediately more engaging than Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser (which I’m admittedly probably overdue to give a good re-listen after all these years). Continuing in the realm of where Radiohead has been these last number of years, this album is full of tripped-out synthesizer sounds, old school drum machine bits, bending piano, glitchy cut-up production tweaks and most importantly, Yorke’s haunting voice and challenging songwriting.
This is not a party record, but then has any Radiohead album been a party record?
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes really does underscore the undeniable fact that so much of Radiohead’s sound lies in Yorke’s haunting voice. While some would argue against what I’m about to say, I can’t help but feel that this album is very much a part of — and continuation of — an exploration that began with King of Limbs and stretched out into the “side projects” Atoms For Peace. Or possibly its a continuation of the deconstruction / reinvention Radiohead began with Kid A and Amnesiac.
At their core, all of those songs are “owned” (in an artistic sense) by Yorke, even though others in the band may have had input on their creation.
It is kind of like trying to consider Pete Townshend’s solo work separate from The Who. You really can’t.
Sure, the other guys added essential stuff that made Quadrophenia and Tommy and Who’s Next what they were. But…. go listen to the demos Townshend made for those recordings (most have been commercially released) and you’ll hear just how much he brought to the table.
Thus, when i’m listening to nearly funky tracks like “A Brain in A Bottle” and “The Mother Lode,” I can’t help but hear in my head Radiohead playing these songs.
Am I saying these are unused demos for Radiohead? No. But they might well have been part of a blueprint for something that Radiohead could have built upon. No question. Heck, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was produced and edited by longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and even some of the beats (on “Guess Again”) were programmed by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood.
Anyhow, its clear that Thom must have something important he wants to say here.
]]>On the vinyl release we even get a cryptic secret message (oooooh, kids, I love this sort of thing, gotta say!). Yup, there you have it in the run out wax on Side A in a very difficult to read white-on-white etching, the words “Villain I am none, therefore farewell. See thee know me not.” I don’t pretend to be a Shakespeare expert, but a quick search on the Interwebs revealed this is basically a line from Romeo & Juliet (Act 3, Scene 1, for those of you familiar with the work).
Now, of course those of us who like to ponder such heady thoughts will dig through the lyrics on this album (and the last few) to see if there is any continuity of storyline. After all, Radiohead is one of those bands that still warrant that sort of attention.
Of course all of this may be pure happenstance. Perhaps it was simply a clever line added by the LP mastering engineer who made the original plates for pressing the album!
There is another message on the other arc of side one that is harder to read: I think it says “GW and Bazza Alchemy.”
Maybe the album is a love letter to earth? An album about a broken affair? What would Weekly World News say of this?
By now some of you are probably saying “Who cares, Mark, really! What’s the stupid album sound like!?”
Ok, I hear ya.
In short, comparing the WAV and FLAC downloads to the vinyl…. you know what? … They all sound about the same! The vinyl getting some some undeniable loving warmth due to Bob Ludwig’s mastering and the little tube on my Bellari phono pre-amp. But I’ll be honest with you I’m not hearing a whole lot of difference and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Clearly this type of vinyl package is as much about the physical art as it is the sonics, maybe even more so.
Overall, as glitchy as the music is, it is not a harsh listen. As we’ve heard with other of York’s projects, he has found a way to warm up lo fi digital beats and hand claps, aided significantly by his close-mic’d hushed-sung vocals and fat round tub-thumping bass samples. Spacey processed piano tones round out the mid ranges.
Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sounds like a natural offshoot of Yorke’s recent work with his other bands…. which sound like parts of Brian Eno’s Another Green World run through a food processor. Treated pianos, wobbly tape-recorded type sounds, intentional hiss, sounds running backwards and forwards and sideways (oh my!).
There is even a deadwax run-out groove that plays out on Side B — the clicky-beats of the last song “Noise Grows Some” repeat infinitely to the point where it sounds like you are playing an old scratched record.
Its cool stuff.
And because it is Thom Yorke making these sounds — who has a history of pulling off some of the most compelling progressive music this side of Pink Floyd and perhaps even The Beatles (and, yeah, I’ll stand behind that last comment) — you should be listening and not writing it off as sounding too old school this or passé that or whatever.
Some artists, like Dylan, Springsteen, McCartney and Waits, you follow for the long haul, exploring their ups and their downs. Yorke is right up there with them doing his own thing his own way and I view this as another up on his fantastic voyage.
And so it goes…
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine, HomeTechTell.com and many others. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.