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Album Review: Atoms for Peace – AMOK [XL]

The first time Thom Yorke tried to do anything away from Radiohead, the result was 2006’s The Eraser. That record arrived as something of a surprise to many, who thought that perhaps this was the beginning of the end for Radiohead, and that Yorke would go on to traverse his own unique path of further fame and fortune. Here’s the thing about that first solo effort though: interesting as it might have been, it lacked the depth and experimental nature of Radiohead’s best work. The instrumentals were culled largely from leftover scraps that Nigel Godrich had been piecing together with Yorke over a number of years, and many of the songs came to feel like lesser recreations of one of Radiohead’s great accomplishments, Kid A. In other words, it wasn’t the easy home run you might expect from a man who’s a hero to many and a god to many more. The lesson The Eraser really taught us was that those other guys in Radiohead – Jonny, Colin, Ed and Phil – are geniuses in their own rights as well, and there’s a reason what they do together works in a brilliant and legendary fashion. Whether it was a function of Yorke simply wanting to play those solo songs live or the idea of collaborating with other artists he respects and admires, in 2009 when Radiohead was on a break he got together with Godrich, Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Ultraista) and Mauro Refosco (Forro in the Dark) for a short tour to play tracks from The Eraser. They called themselves Atoms for Peace after one of the songs on that record, and essentially decided that if they liked each other enough and had the motivation, they’d make some new music together. Welcome to 2013, where Atoms for Peace are now releasing their first official full length as a band that they’ve titled AMOK.

If you give AMOK a quick surface listen without paying very close attention, it’s easy to come away with the idea that perhaps the talents of this “supergroup” are being wasted. The album sounds a whole lot like The Eraser with perhaps a little bit of Radiohead’s last effort The King of Limbs thrown in. Considering Yorke put that solo effort together with only the help of Godrich, you may be left wondering what if any effect Flea, Waronker and Refosco have had on this project since joining the band. The short answer is kinetics. In their 2009 live dates, they brought unexpected and fresh life to Yorke and Godrich’s recorded compositions, turning an introverted record into an extroverted one you could practically dance to. That same vibe is reflected once again with AMOK, because while the tracks most often reflect Yorke’s traditional discontent with the world around him, there are denser layers and fuller arrangements this time to back him up. It’s not terribly noticeable, but enough that you can envision a bunch of “Lotus Flower“-style dance moves going on behind the microphone more often than not.

Because Waronker and Refosco are the main forces of percussion on this record, it’s fascinating to hear the many flourishes that they add and don’t add to these compositions. Apparently these songs came together by Yorke and Godrich handing practically finished tracks to the other three guys, who then took it upon themselves to squirm their way into the melodies. There’s plenty of skittering, electronic beats going on to form a nice base on most songs, and with something like opening cut “Before Your Very Eyes” it becomes so much more with an Afrobeat-style hodgepodge of brushed cymbals, bass drum and a whole lot of other unidentifiable clicks and clacks. The best moment for live percussion comes via “Reverse Running,” when you can actually hear the snares punching and cymbals crashing for the duration. But then you listen to a track like “Default” which immediately follows it, and the only organic-sounding elements in the entire thing include a grinding noise during the verses and a bell that clangs once during the chorus. Everything else is so heavily embedded in manufactured (yet complex) rhythms and synths that it can feel like the only bits of humanity to be found are in Yorke’s airy vocals, and even those can get buried on occasion.

Picking out Flea’s work on AMOK can be a challenge at times too, as he certainly doesn’t stand out as much in Atoms for Peace as he does with the Chili Peppers. On a track like “Ingenue” his bass has so many filters applied to it, distinguishing it from the synths is nearly impossible unless you know his unique playing style, which almost always has its own personality no matter what effects might try to obscure it. With “Judge Jury and Executioner” though he’s shoved so far into the background and given so precious little to do beyond staying the course the melody pulls him in that any unknown bassist with a halfway coherent knowledge of the instrument could pull the same thing off without a problem. It feels entirely accurate to say that Flea is underutilized for much of the record, though he is given a few moments to genuinely shine the best way he knows how. “Dropped” and “Stuck Together Pieces” wouldn’t be nearly as good, exciting or propulsive without his intricate and dynamic bass manipulations, to the point where you could say they steal focus away from everything else going on. It’s interesting too because whenever Flea is given songs to take control of, it can also feel like all the other guys in the band are purposely stepping up their performances to both compete and compensate with his great talents.

Which brings it all back to Yorke. Atoms for Peace started as his project, but arguably he’s brought in other people because he doesn’t want to carry the entire burden himself. Listening to the vocals and lyrics he turns in on AMOK, the idea of retreat seems even more obvious. On most of his recordings, be they with Radiohead, solo or in a guest spot on someone else’s record, he takes a very present and commanding approach with his vocals. It’s gone a long way towards turning a number of good tracks into great ones. The King of Limbs certainly wasn’t Radiohead’s finest hour, however it could have been much worse without Yorke’s gripping and emotionally courageous performance. So why does he sound so deflated and disinterested on this Atoms for Peace record? The mix likely has something to do with it, as the instrumentals nearly bury his voice on most tracks. He doesn’t help matters much either by singing in a quieter, sometimes whispered tone of voice. The intention may have been to show fragility and weakness in the face of difficulty and tragedy, but he’s never gone that direction before and almost every song he writes is based on those or similar themes. Lyrically speaking Yorke isn’t quite on his A-game either, practically telling the listener that on “Unless” when he chants, “Care less / I couldn’t care less” for the first 90 seconds of the song, and a whole lot more before it ends. Of course that’s not his real attitude towards writing lyrics, it just made for a convenient example. As does “Default,” which thanks to phrases like, “The will is strong, but the flesh is weak” and “I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it,” registers as riddled with cliches and implies shaky songwriting overall.

As easy as it is to criticize AMOK for all the things it seems to do wrong, it’s equally important to mention the things it gets right. If you’re in a certain mood, you can strap on some headphones and turn this record on and become completely enveloped inside its world. There’s something incredibly compelling about this collection of songs that makes them easy to love in spite of its perceived warts. You could say it has both everything and nothing to do with the parties involved. Yorke is hailed as a genius and is likable enough to make you want to root for him, and the talent he surrounds himself with all have their own amazing things going on too. So in one sense if you’ve liked anything Yorke has done before, why should you stop now, even if it is a lesser effort? On the other hand, think about the context in which you’re listening to AMOK. With the degree of talent involved, there’s also a certain amount of weight applied to this band and record that absolutely wouldn’t be there if Atoms for Peace was actually a bunch of unknown names. If this were some random band’s debut album, they’d be hailed as smart and a name to keep an eye on. The tragedy is they can never return to that clean slate and get away with it, because we know too much about the genius that can pour out of these people based upon their pasts. This album isn’t as good as anything Radiohead have done to date, The King of Limbs included. It doesn’t quite eclipse The Eraser either, because it’s so cerebral and dispassionate that you almost don’t want to dance to it despite the creative Afrobeat polyrhythms on many of the tracks. This is a difficult and challenging record trying so hard not to be. It’s successful on the surface, but the deeper you dive the shallower it becomes. At this point, let’s just hope that should this project continue, that Yorke & Co. will be unable to sink much lower.

Buy AMOK from Amazon

Album Review: Red Hot Chili Peppers – I’m With You [Warner Bros]

Let’s start this by chronicling the trials and tribulations of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After truly hitting the big time with 1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, the band descended into a world of drug use and abuse that eventually gave way to guitarist John Frusciante quitting the band primarily because they were “becoming too popular”. That was partly codespeak for saying he had a pretty crippling drug addiction, which by the way (pun) only got worse after he quit the band and fell into a deep depression. The rest of the boys soldiered on, in spite of their various addictions as well, and Dave Navarro was brought in to replace Frusciante. The Chili Peppers put out “One Hot Minute” in 1995, and it is widely perceived to be the worst RHCP album to date. Navarro struggled to fit into the band’s tightly established dynamic and quit after developing a drug problem of his own. At that point, the Chili Peppers hit an impasse. They were prepared to break up, but that things might be okay again if they brought Frusciante back. After cleaning up their drug habits a bit themselves, they found Frusciante freshly out of rehab and in bad shape both physically and financially. Rejoining the band was a lot like therapy for him, and the resulting record “Californication” sent the band back to the top of the charts bigger and better than ever before. Its follow-up “By the Way” did almost just as well, the boys energized by their renewed success.

Cracks in the facade began to appear once again via the choice to release their 2006 record “Stadium Arcadium” as a double album. Double disc affairs wind up being mistakes for 95% of bands that try it, and the Chili Peppers were no exception. If you whittled down the 28 tracks to just 14, it would have made for a great record. Instead, those great 14 tracks were parsed out across 2 discs and a whole bunch of not so great material, lessening the overall impact of that album. Still, on the strength of singles like “Dani California” and “Snow (Hey Oh)”, they sold more records than anyone else that year. Considering the band had been going pretty much nonstop since “Californication”, it was decided after touring in support of “Stadium Arcadium” that they would take an extended hiatus. Upon reconvening in October of 2009, they did so without Frusciante, who cited differences in musical direction as his reason for leaving. Touring guitarist Josh Klinghoffer stepped in for Frusciante, and RHCP took over a year to write and record their new album “I’m With You”, just to make sure they were satisfied with it. They were smart to take their time considering how their last Frusciante-less record turned out.

Those that wonder exactly why John Frusciante is such a key member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers clearly haven’t spent much time with the band. Frontman Anthony Kiedis is probably the third (maybe even fourth) strongest member of the band, or at least he was until Frusciante left. The way Frusciante’s guitar work soared and powered so many songs on so many RHCP records, it’s a wonder more attention and success hasn’t come his way via his solo work. Bassist Flea is the other key Chili Pepper, one of, if not the best bassist working in music today. When you lose one of your key members, there are several ways you can try to compensate for that person’s presence. One is to find a nearly equally talented replacement, but the bigger the talent the harder that void is to fill. Josh Klinghoffer is no John Frusciante. Not by a long shot. Listening to “I’m With You”, you get the impression that he’s hoping to fill the role of utility player rather than aggressive superstar. His guitar work accents most of the songs, blending into the background instead of surging out in front of the pack and pushing arrangements to new heights. If you’ve heard first single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”, that’s about as up-front as Klinghoffer gets, and one wonders what Frusciante would have done with the same song. Ironically, the one song Klinghoffer truly proves his worth on is “Goodbye Hooray”, but you likely won’t notice his blistering solos because he’s overshadowed by intense work from Flea and drummer Chad Smith. Maybe that dynamic will change over time as he becomes more comfortable with his new role in the band.
But the RHCP approach to losing Frusciante appears to rely more heavily on the assets that they do have, which basically means Flea has that much more weight shoved upon his shoulders. Take a close listen to the band dynamic on “Annie Wants A Baby” to get a great idea of just how Flea has taken control of this band and has done a great job teaming up with Chad Smith to drive this record forward. In fact, both Flea and Smith haven’t sounded this vibrant and strong in awhile, practically having taken a back seat to Frusciante the last 10 years. Fully uncaged now, they rise to the occasion. Opening cut “Monarchy of Roses” would easily have fallen flat on its face were those two not behind the helm. The same could be said for “Look Around”. Sometimes even their exceptional work on a song can’t save it from succumbing to a host of bad ideas though. Moments like not-so-hot attempt to be funky on “Ethiopia” and the odd emergence of horns on “Did I Let You Know” cause the band to stumble and fall a couple times. On “Meet Me at the Corner”, what’s sad is how bland and unexpressive the entire band sounds, almost like they’re on autopilot. Tucked away as the second-to-last track on the album, that is the sort of place you hide your filler anyways. It’s just a pity that the word “filler” can be used to describe songs on this or any album for that matter.

For long time Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, the good news is that “I’m With You” is not nearly the mess of a record you might expect given the loss of key member John Frusciante. Josh Klinghoffer may not be the best or strongest replacement they could have gotten, but it’s clear the guy is trying extremely hard and as a close friend of Frusciante’s wants to do his legacy justice. Really it’s Flea and Chad Smith that tower over everyone else on this record, and Anthony Kiedis is no exception. His lyrics on this record show continual improvement over some of the earliest RHCP material, but he remains one of the weaker elements in this band. We’ve been exposed to many sides of his personality over the life of this band, from the early, halting approach from the hip hop and funk days through the smoother and more tuneful side pushed in more recent years. On “I’m With YOu” he sounds a bit bored and unengaged with the melodies he’s given. Moments like “Even You Brutus?” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” are reduced in power and scope because Kiedis doesn’t quite deliver vocally. On the poignant “Brendan’s Death Song” or “Police Station” though, he shows that he can still belt one out to the rafters when needed. So that’s hit or miss, as are a couple of the ballads that populate the second half of the record. The addition of piano is a nice touch in a few cases, but eventually the record becomes somewhat bogged down in slower bits that make you long for something with a little more pep – particularly as the run time moves ever closer to 60 minutes. 10 albums and nearly 30 years in, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are starting to show their age. Still, with or without John Frusciante, there’s plenty of evidence on this record to suggest they could and should keep going for awhile yet. The quality hasn’t nearly dipped past the point of no return. Like a cat, the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem to have nine lives. Let’s keep hoping they use their last ones wisely.

Buy “I’m With You” from Amazon

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