Giving Radiohead Too Much Credit: King of Limbs or Jack of Stems?


NOTE: this is less a review than reflection and speculation…

Album Art

So it’s been nearly a week of another repeat-listen Radiohead masterpiece (?) and already The King of Limbs and its 37 minutes have cranked out enough conspiracy theories to keep even Umberto Eco on his toes. The most obvious one making the rounds (begging the question of whether a conspiracy theory can actually be obvious) comes from an audience that is less than fully satisfied by the band’s latest effort. It goes something like this:

That’s it? There has to be more! It took them four songs just to get going, then it ends after a song with lyrics about “If you think this is over then you’re wrong…” By the Lords of Yorke there must… MUST… be a second album! And maybe… JUST MAYBE… it might contain a guitar hook.”

Now that wasn’t quite my own reaction to The King of Limbs at first listen, but it wasn’t far off. Usually if a Radiohead album comes out, I’ll give it the proper late night time frame, which would have been last Friday night. Yet for various reasons I felt a little too groggy to stay up late and decided to save a good headphone listen for first thing in the morning. Well, first thing in the morning came soon enough and King of Limbs put me right back to sleep. I woke up somewhere into “Codex” and by the time “Separator” ended, yep, I was saying to myself: “Really? That’s all? I must have slept through quite a bit of it. (Wake me up).” To me it sounded like a possible soundtrack to the motion picture The Social Network just before Trent Reznor decided to take it on. That or The Eraser Part II: Eraserhead.

Over at the world wide web, reviews were already coming in with similar perplexions (Note: does this neologism fit a “Palin-drome”? Just wondering). The response was mixed, with lots of “too early to tell” sentiment that is common with a Radiohead release. Yet if the reviews were varied, there were also some common questions: Why did the album come out early? What is a “newspaper album” and why is it coming out later than the digital release? Is there going to be a supporting tour for eight new songs? Regardless, these questions seemed less than uproar but rather questions of hidden motive.

Closer to home, my young Radiohead-fan nephew had already trounced the album in a Facebook update. Kids these days. Apparently he hadn’t really been through the “Dude, where’s my guitar” blowback of Kid A‘s release in 2000. I guess it’s a trip you have to go through, not around. While I remember really being into Kid A at the time of its release, then REALLY got caught up with it three years later, it’s just one of many moments – good and bad – that I’ve had with the band over the years.

Now by “moments” with Radiohead, I don’t mean I personally know these guys  other than through the music. I do know some bands from past travels and have done some experimental live concert video work for some of them over the years, but Radiohead is not one of them. Probably not a bad thing since I’m sure I’d come across as a jock they no longer play guitars for. However, 1993 was a long time ago, and, well, I was inevitably sucked right back in. Eventually, this led to some other (unsanctioned) experimental digital video work using the band’s music, and in particular Kid A and some old Russian silent film that became part of a multimedia research project and Masters degree defense. As a result of these past digital media experiments, and through my distance from a fan’s perspective, I tend to go into every new Radiohead album with a “revolutionary” outlook.

In other words, and regardless of how much of the credit they can personally take for this part of their by now well-established brand identity – any Radiohead effort makes me ask a particular question of the album, or tour, or video, or film, or whatever the cultural object is described as. Specifically, “how has this thing changed the game?” This most definitely can come with the problem of over thinking an entire high-concept album when a simple melody would’ve done nicely. Yet however they end up doing it, part of what Radiohead produces – a part that, ironically, can’t be packaged –  are questions about the music industry itself, as well as the reflections on technology’s role in people’s cultural selves.

Whatever. Get on with The King of Limbs stuff. Other reviews have said all this stuff before (and better), so what can I add that’s new for the conspiracy theorists to chew on, and interesting enough to make even the non-conspiracy theorists stop to ponder and reflect? Now I certainly love a good conspiracy theory for its entertainment, which is even more enjoyable when you throw a little Magritte on it by having an entertaining conspiracy theory about entertainment, which then doesn’t really make it a conspiracy theory… or does it? Does anyone need something to put in their pipe?

The King of Limbs… or… “ceçi n’est pas un Radiohead album.” Well if it’s not a Radiohead album, or I should say a proper Radiohead album – in the proper sense of a traditional rock n’ roll record, like an OK Computer, or a Sgt. Pepper, or a Nevermind, or a DSOTM – then what is it? Elementary, my IBM-sponsored Watson… it’s a remix album!

“Scandalous!” you say. “There’s no songs from which to make a remix albu… oh… i see.”

The King of Limbs Part II: The Jack of Stems

Let’s lay out a couple of key ideas and basic precepts here that ground the hypothesis of The King of Stems actually being a collection of songs created (at least partly) by remixing individual building blocks (i.e. “stems”) of songs on second album that is yet to be released:

TIME CONSTRAINTS: The album is 37 minutes long and only eight songs. Even the In Rainbows [Disc 2] had eight songs… sort of (more on this in a second).  That’s basically two songs short of the “traditional” 45-minute 12″ album format and two songs too many for the “pre-traditional” but discontinued 10″ format (roughly 28 minutes total playing time). So unless Lou Reed got involved in this, it’s reasonable to assume more songs will come out with the physical version’s two 10″ records. Then again, the band’s previous comments after In Rainbows of never wanting “to get into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again” may mean it 37 minutes and that’s it.

LEFT-RIGHT COMBO: Radiohead have already done the 1-2 punch of an anticipated release (Kid A) followed by unanticipated followup that was more than just a b-sides record (Amnesiac). At this point they’re not in a record deal that requires them to produce some legal definition of a proper album as part of the contract’s fulfillment. So besides a simple followup album of new songs being too obvious for these “clever blokes”, there’s no external requirements to define another release as an ordered sequence of songs, approximately 45 minutes in length. So why should they?

PRAGMATISM, DEAR FRIENDS: The answer to the previous point is that by releasing an “ordered sequence of songs”, though only 37 minutes in length, the band has addressed the real and pragmatic need to deliver a listening experience – with a price tag to boot! – that is accessible to large parts of their audience (as commented on as being an important realization by Ed O’Brien in an interview from last year). But there’s still another 19 minutes of material left to fit on whatever is left of the 10″ record. Why not do something REALLY out there with those remaining minutes, such has having a set of songs that were separated into “stems” (i.e. individual instrumental tracks) in order to create the songs currently released as The King of Limbs?

STEM-CELL RESEARCH: The band has already put out a trial balloon prototype of “songs-as-stems” that are GarageBand-ready for  remixing (as was done with “Nude” and “Reckoner” from In Rainbows). Some of the stems of other songs, both from In Rainbows and The King of Limbs, seem to be in the mix of the random-sounding “MK 1″ (the vocal of “Bloom” and piano of “Videotape”), so it’s not as if elements from other songs/albums have recurred before. But what if some of the very dense sounding first half of The King of Limbs was just that: condensed from entirely different songs made up of the same stems. The common perception is that the track “Separator” refers to splitting the album into two parts, but why not go all the way and separate it into its stem tracks?

Stepping back from the ledge, some wise words from Culture Bully Chris Deline:

But until there’s the remotest bit of honest evidence backing up the “this can’t be all, can it?” faction, can’t a touching collection of songs which continues to elaborate upon Radiohead’s ever-maturing sound as a collective simply be enough?

Yes. Absolutely. But it’s not about the music. Radiohead wouldn’t be so obvious. Of course not. There’s plenty of reviews of the music, but what about the business (and the “void” in between). Now I do actually enjoy The King of Limbs as it is, and maybe the 37 minutes are about as much as we can handle at a time now without moving on to something else. But that only speaks to business models that require adjusting to shorter attention spans in media oversaturation, i.e. the challenge of modern advertising.

But what about the music business implications of the “Jack of Stems” model? What if the album became not simply an ordered sequence of songs but rather a collection of stems with a subscription of updates? Begin speculation.

The value now shifts to the mix, or, more accurately, to the tool to execute a final mix as an outcome. A vinyl record will do the trick, in analogue form, for setting a final mix, but what’s it worth a company like Apple to have GarageBand be the environment for the “official” mixdown of stems to take place? But what about the traditional album-listening consumer? What’s it worth to have an integrated one-click download for someone who just wants to have the songs or the whole album on his or her iPhone, or Android, Microkia handheld? What’s it worth for Radiohead to have it’s own custom app to do the same thing, as a way to filter out any other mixes that might be around? Or a beat pad app like the Beatmaker one (pictured below) with all the stems sounds preloaded into pads (I tried this out with the “Nude” and “Reckoner” stems and it worked well as a test case / head case).

Beatmaker on iPhone

Anyway, I think I’ll go put in my order for this “newspaper” album (subscription?) of King of Limbs, just to see what’s there. I don’t care if I’ve already bought the MP3s. I already give them too much credit. I’m obviously a sucker for these kinds of things. Now if I could only remember where I left my actual In Rainbows [Disc 2] CD. Kind of defeats the point of having the fancy box for it, right?

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Joel Flynn is a multimedia researcher and an obsessive creative who has been playing at the fringes of live concerts, digital video, networked collaboration, and curriculum design for many years. As a digital media artist, Flynn has operated under the pseudonym “the karmafia”, authoring numerous experimental concert recordings with a twist of tongue-in-trigue mystery. As a nod to avant garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov* - the original "Man with a Movie Camera" - Flynn would eventually publish two extensive masters projects around these digital video experiments - a Master of Applied Science in Interactive Arts and Technology in 2006 as well as a Management of Technology MBA in 2010 - both while at Simon Fraser University. Flynn’s work steals an academic page from Marshall McLuhan, then rams it through Hunter S. Thompson’s journalistic sensibilities, and doesn’t try “to make a distinction between education and entertainment” (as if he knows a thing or two about ether). He [is no longer heading] the social media research and development at SoKap Community Networks in Vancouver BC. a startup that is addressing the crowdfunding, marketing, and distribution needs of digital content producers through its unique micro-licensing model. Since 2010, he has been a contributor to (TMV), an online publication for industry perspectives on digital music and technology, covering number industry events in North America.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. 10 months after this was posted, I say well done to you sir. A follow-up album of remixes is being released.

  2. An interesting followup to the idea of artists possibly making more significant moves into selling “wr-apps” (I’m not sure this is actually a term) for their unmixed content vs. selling finished songs:

    The economic question is one of how valuable it is for the artist to be able to completely control the price point of such an app in the App Store vs. the standardized/simplified/rigid $.99 per song iTunes model vs. the cost of design and development of an app that hopefully won’t alienate the artist’s existing market (fans).

    A colleague in the business (Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky) has been ahead of this curve with his app for “The Secret Song” album that he released in 2009. But this app experiment followed the release of the album of finished songs, and has also had to go through some re-design versions to work out its kinks since it was an experimental effort. The hypothetical for the Radiohead situation discussed above is whether they’d release a finished app – possibly a customized version of an existing sequencer application like a Beat Maker – containing unmixed stems of yet-to-be-released finished songs,

    In other words: “Here’s the list of ingredients we use (custom app pre-loaded with song stems), but our chef is still preparing your meal (finished album), so hang tight with your appetizers and drinks in the meantime (The King of Limbs)”

    Again, I’m not saying this is actually what Radiohead is doing, but rather playing around with the idea of the traditional “album release”, its economics, and what it means in a digital context, i.e. at what point will the album become a one-click app purchase that is capable of automatically self-producing finished songs that directly feed into the purchaser’s iTunes library?

  3. Shit added to clay is called “reinforcement” (that’s how Adobe got its name), and I’m not sure what “maybe they’re all stems” is actually supposed to mean. Technically ALL the songs are composed of stems and mixed down, so yeah, maybe they ARE all stems. But as jubr says, the idea was that some of the songs – such as “Feral” – are mixed down from stems of songs from a possible followup to TKoL. Think of taking one of the songs on the first half of the album, such as “Feral”, as though though it’s a zip file that expands into something less dense by rearranging and changing the tempos of the song’s stems.

  4. The whole ‘maybe they’re all stems’ idea is incredibly stupid but I like the idea of the songs on TKoL being remixes of other (better) songs.

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