Simon Price on Atoms for Peace: Nice grooves, Thom – shame about the moves
Sunday 28 July 2013
If you'd told the average Radiohead fan 20 years ago that their leader would one day be on stage with his hair in a scrunchy, wheeling his fist like he was at an old-skool rave, while the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers gyrated next to him like an ape wrestling a rubber python, they'd have looked at you with the kind of paranoid mistrust that extended exposure to Radiohead's music engenders.
But Atoms For Peace, the supergroup formed by Yorke, Flea, producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco, have made the most enjoyable music to carry Yorke's name this century. Debut album Amok is all about the polyrhythms; with hints of Brazil and Africa, underlying its glitches and bleeps.
Their unsung hero is Godrich, conceivably the least rock'n'roll person I've ever seen on a stage, his awkward body language that of a science teacher asked to demonstrate his invention on Tomorrow's World, circa 1977. At least he never tries what Yorke attempts several times: a "sexy" dance. If that mental image has you screaming "My eyes! My eyes!", imagine being there. Still, journalistic honesty compels me to report that it elicits roars of love – or even lust.
If Yorke, bobbing his head to the groove like he's fronting some abominable surfer-funk outfit on Newquay beach, looks as if he's auditioning for the Chili Peppers, then Flea looks like he's trying to forget he was ever in them – dressed head to toe in black, as if reprising his role as one of the fictional Kraftwerk doppelgangers Autobahn in The Big Lebowski.
As there is only one AFP album, tonight doubles as a Yorke solo show, with extensive extracts from The Eraser, plus UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights". And if one thing is clear, it's that the Yorke whine has one outstanding merit: it obfuscates his overrated lyrics.
Seriously, where has this man's reputation as a great intellectual force in modern music come from? "I want to eat your artichoke heart" (from "Atoms for Peace") is not clever; it's laughable. And Amok's title track, with its refrain "a penny for your thoughts my love", first recalls Marillion's "Lavender" then dares to rhyme "they're spaghetti, they possess me". Play up, Flea. Play up, Nigel. Play up, Joey and Mauro. Anything to drown out the horror.
If anyone could match Thom Yorke for a grating male voice in the 1990s, it was Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins (Wembley Arena, London ***). And, in the 21st century, Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins, having declined to invite bassist D'arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, and having since lost drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for a second time. Circumstantial evidence points to Corgan being a difficult man to be around.
Nosferatu in grey slacks, he is not a man blessed with rock-star charisma. Not that he cares what I think: "All you tarts in the media can stick it up your fuckin' ass," he petulantly snarls after revealing that he's been told he talks too much and plays too little.
The Pumpkins' style-over-substance grunge-prog, with show-off Flying V solos from new guitarist Jeff Schroeder, can become wearing, and the video screens, shaped into Aztec pyramids like a scaled-down version of a Muse show, only remind you that you could be seeing another band doing "excess" with more excellence.
And yet .... for all his charmlessness and pomposity, the wrestling entrepreneur and tea-shop owner still has his moments. And a largely thirty-something crowd will all have moments of their own, connecting one Pumpkins song or another to their own emotional baggage from the Nineties.
For me it was hearing the heartbreaking "Disarm" over a car radio in LA just after the news of Kurt Cobain's death broke. For others it might be the majestic sweep of "Tonight, Tonight" or the stage-managed angst of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings". But one doubts it'll be the superfluous cover of "Space Oddity" for anyone.
The material from 2012's overcooked Oceania album is self-consciously loaded with echoes of the past, and "The Celestials", with which he encores, is an acoustic, string-laden ballad which harks directly back to "Disarm".
Ultimately, though, you're grateful when the owner of that vintage whine finally puts a cork in it.
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