Radiohead creates such complex webs of sound assembled from so many disparate elements and instruments that it can be hard to figure out the division of labor on any given recording. Bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Philip Selway have their assigned duties, but Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood each play a barrage of keyboards, and even their guitars are heavily processed. Ed O’Brien is primarily a guitarist, but also relies on effects to transform his guitar into other sounds.
O’Brien’s understated contributions on guitar help hold Radiohead’s sound(s) together, as do his background vocals. After nearly 30 years of recording with them, he’s now released his first solo album, as EOB. Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and Selway have each made multiple solo albums, but O’Brien spent nearly ten years writing the songs on Earth before entering a studio to record them. The album was produced by Catherine Marks (The Killers, Foals) and Flood (New Order, U2), who also mixed.
The layers of instruments and electronics in “Shangri-La” announce it as a Flood production. It’s loose and funky, with snappy percussion and a strong bass line, both by O’Brien, whose falsetto shows a more relaxed approach to singing than bandmate Yorke’s. The track shifts into distorted hard rock, then back to funk. Acoustic and electric guitars intertwine with electronic sounds and programmed percussion, but even as details accumulate, the music is always easy to follow.
“Brasil” begins calmly with acoustic-guitar arpeggios, and O’Brien’s singing is unhurried and serene. Omar Hakim’s kick drum punches in after three minutes, with help from Colin Greenwood’s strongly rhythmic bass line, to move the track from English folk pop into something more techno. Synth lines develop as the music grows more rhythmically complex and O’Brien’s voice repeats a single line over expanding electronic effects.
“Brasil” is one of two tracks on Earth that exceed eight minutes. Hakim provides the driving beat for the other one, “Olympik,” which features jazz session bassist Nathan East (Fourplay, Joyride) and guitarist Dave Okumu (The Invisible). As in many tracks on Earth, densely programmed keyboards provide the backdrop to crosscutting guitars, fluidly thumping bass, and O’Brien’s airy vocal.
All three tracks I’ve mentioned show a pronounced U2 influence in spots, with a funkier backbeat and enough original ideas to keep them from being pale copies. The only track on Earth that’s reminiscent of Radiohead is “Banksters,” which carries an overtly political message that would fit in well on that band’s Hail to the Thief.
The best tracks on Earth are based in arrangements for acoustic guitar that give O’Brien’s voice room to shine. In “Long Time Coming,” electronic effects are kept to a minimum, and acoustic- and electric-guitar arpeggios are used to develop melodic flow. It then segues softly into “Mass,” with a guest vocal by singer-songwriter Laura Marling. Though punctuated by the occasional distorted guitar, the overall effect of this track’s floating ambiance is calming, and gives the otherwise simple lyrics (e.g., “Stay in love”) a vaguely spiritual tone.
“Sail On” is calming in much the same way, using effects to create a dramatic, darkly atmospheric soundscape. In “Cloak of the Night,” Marling harmonizes with O’Brien, whose fingerpicked acoustic guitar here is a high point of the album. This song’s minimal arrangement -- just guitar and voices -- is something O’Brien should pursue.
EOB gets help from a number of musicians on Earth, including, in addition to those already mentioned, Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Adrian Utley of Portishead. I was pleased and a bit surprised at how much detail I can hear, given that Flood was a producer -- I expected more compression. There’s a tremendous amount of low-frequency energy throughout -- in “Brasil,” Hakim’s kick drum really jumps out of my speakers. But the positions of instruments on the soundstage are always precise, and O’Brien’s voice is sharply focused.
O’Brien’s likable, pleasant voice could easily carry an album that relied less on programming and effects and gave his guitar -- and his songs -- more space. On its own terms, Earth is perfectly enjoyable. But it left me feeling that while Ed O’Brien hits familiar marks well, he could do more.
. . . Joseph Taylor