Recording of July 2020: Earth
EOB (Ed O’Brien): Earth
Capitol (24/88.2 streaming). 2020. Flood and Catherine Marks, prods.; Alan Moulder, Stephen Marcussen, engs.
Calling himself EOB, songwriter/singer/guitarist Ed O’Brien has released his first solo album after 35 years with Radiohead. Over the decades, bandmates have branched out for high-profile projectsJonny Greenwood writes film scores and Thom Yorke has several solo recordingsbut O’Brien has stayed mostly in the background. Earth pushes him to the forefront, revealing a knack for collaborative creativity.
From the first moments of the album’s opening song, “Shangri-La,” it’s apparent that O’Brien is steeped in Radiohead’s musical languagebut also that it’s not his only language. The opening percussive riff has a bright-edged coyness that evokes Peter Gabriel more than O’Brien’s usual band, but the falsetto vocal floating over it might call Yorke to mind. The sonic spectrum ranges from crisp maracas at the top to thudding bass at the low end.
Coproduced by punk expert Flood, a friend of O’Brien since childhood who also plays synthesizer on the album, and Catherine Marks, known for her work with The Killers, Earth is a fine example of an artist tapping other people’s talents to make something personal and new.
There’s an impressive roster of guest performers. On “Brasil,” which was released as a single last December, Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood joins on bass, and session giant Omar Hakim comes in on drums as the song’s lush, acoustic intro morphs into electronica. Flood’s spacious, reverberating synths underpin the song’s development. Contrasting “Shangri-La,” O’Brien now sings in his natural baritone range, grounded and a bit breathy. What’s missing is strong lyric-writing to complement the music.
More successful in that regard is “Olympik,” a relentlessly roiling number that hints at society’s hopeless state; it’s no surprise that producer Flood previously worked with Depeche Mode. David Okumu, guitarist with British trio The Invisible, brings his expertise in atmospherics to this and several other tracks; his approach is complemented by contemporary jazz bassist Nathan East. The jazz influence continues with guitarist Adrian Utley of the band Portishead, who adds smooth dissonance to the song “Sail On.”
O’Brien has said that his biggest inspiration for Earth was Screamadelica, Primal Scream’s 1991 release. That record, like this one, has many faces and styles, but one can imagine the machine-like percussive riffs on Primal Scream’s “Slip Inside This House” and the distorted sax and other experimental effects on “I’m Comin’ Down” sparking O’Brien’s creative fire. The personnel list on this album gives a good indication of its huge range of other musical influences. In addition to those mentioned above, Glenn Kotche of Wilco plays drums and percussion on “Mass,” supplying a simple but mesmerizing beat. The sound on this track envelops you like an ocean swell. The focus is on sonic atmosphere; there are almost no lyrics.
Appropriately, the album’s most Radiohead-like piece is also the one with the most distinctive and complex lyrics: the sardonic, angry “Banksters,” about the despotism of the world’s financial institutions. “Banksters” shows off O’Brien’s abilities as a storytelling singerquite different from what’s required when sung words are just part of the sonic landscape. His delivery here is both understated and effective; his emotional engagement is believable. On percussion, Richie Kennedy lays down a slow, ominous Latin rhythm as if life is just a dance party for the fat cats with the money.
The final track, the short, moving “Cloak of the Night,” features guest vocals by Laura Marling. A brilliant neo-folk composer and poetdon’t miss her new album, Song for Our Daughtershe ties her voice into close harmony with O’Brien’s. The straightforward fingerpicking pattern on acoustic guitar and the way the sound slightly shimmers help make this a satisfyingly unsentimental love song. “Cloak of the Night” encapsulates what makes Earth worth listening to: O’Brien allows other artists to expand his vocabulary. While he retains one of the best aspects of Radiohead’s soundvocal lines that grow organically from textured instrumental atmosphericshe expands the possibilities of that method by incorporating other styles. The result is something rooted in Radiohead but reaching beyond.
This album’s collaborative approach may explain why O’Brien used the less-specific EOB as his artist name, as if this were a band. (Hopefully it is, and more albums will follow.) But Earth is very much a product of O’Brien’s musicianship and songwriting conceptions. Most Radiohead fans know O’Brien’s voice only as backup to Thom Yorke’s ethereal sound; it’s good to hear O’Brien’s distinctive tone and approach now elevated and featured.Anne E. Johnson
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