Radiohead’s drummer serves up a third solo work with an open house guestlist and an intimate, subtle production
On the 30th anniversary of their debut album Pablo Honey, the Radiohead band members are flourishing. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway all have fully fledged solo careers, and in what is proving a productive year for drummers (cf. Dave Rowntree and Danny Goffey), Selway serves up his third album.
In celebration, he oversees a musical open house. Keen to collaborate with his favourite musicians, Selway pitched a fantasy album to them. Imagine if Carole King and Daphne Oram collaborated, and he was playing drums? Surely you would join that sort of supergroup?
The response was emphatic, with guest slots secured on the album for Hannah Peel, Adrian Utley, Quinta, Laura Moody, Valentina Magaletti and producer Marta Salogni. All join a set of 10 songs written by Selway at home, with little more than a guitar or piano for company. This initial intimacy makes it through to the listener in spite of the crowded guestlist.
Selway opted against drumming on the record, assigning that task to Magaletti so he could concentrate fully on the vocals. These are subtly delivered but often probing in their thoughtful poise, staying at a relatively constant timbre as the music around crafts the light and shade.
Laura Moody’s opulent scoring marks Little Things out as an orchestral tour de force, with the London Contemporary Orchestra sound swelling beautifully. The message within, however, has a dark edge, revealing its author’s candid lyrical insights. “Don’t believe what they say”, sings Selway, “their unbearable lies will make fools of us all”.
What Keeps You Awake at night is led by Moody’s cello, its lines blossoming like a snowdrop in stormy weather. This is one of several songs where Selway conjures up images of the great outdoors, his pastoral approach reaping dividends. Beatific closing track Better Days typifies this approach, blossoming with optimism at the album’s close, while by contrast the strings of The Heart Of It All are still in winter, their icy tendrils wrapped around the track. Strange Dance is a different beast, its moves slowly executed on what sounds like a roof of corrugated iron.
Selway’s singing voice dips to sotto voce on The Other Side. This is a song to draw the listener in, with a darker undertone to its story. “We both know what these games are all about,” he whispers with a hint of menace over string harmonics previously found in the darker side of Talk Talk: “Where’s the light? I can hardly see it now.”
Strange Dance is notable for its strength in production, though this is not always matched by equivalent light and shade in the vocals themselves. What Keeps You Awake At Night is a nuanced nocturne, with a lot going on at once, but the vocal sits in the middle ground. Picking Up Pieces is one of the most radio-friendly songs, but its richly layered coda is the star. Salt Air is on much firmer ground, and packs a good deal more feeling. “I need to breathe the salt air, feel it sting upon my face,” Selway sings, “and all my senses come alive.”
Strange Dance is an ultimately rewarding listen, its many and varied colours matched by Stewart Geddes’ cover art. It may not make the strongest impact initially, but repeated listens reveal more in the way of deep thought and renewed optimism for tomorrow.