Album Review: Philip Selway – Weatherhouse




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Something icy has touched Philip Selway. An opaque current of melancholy ran through his first solo effort, 2010’s Familial, but the almost too-precious folk melodies hung just out of the reach of darkness. On Weatherhouse, Selway’s sophomore record, he replaces his lightly strummed acoustic guitar and delicate harmonies with reverberating bass and vocals pitch-shifted into a darker register. The overall feel is no longer sepia-toned nostalgia and twinges of missed opportunity, but deep, fresh pain.

This move into the mechanical might come as no surprise given that Selway is best known as the drummer for Radiohead. Though he’s rarely in the spotlight, his contributions to the band shouldn’t be overlooked; his erratic time signatures and increasingly complicated drum patterns have played a significant role in defining Radiohead’s sound for decades. Familial‘s biggest shock was simply that it offered none of the genre-bending exploration you might expect from one of contemporary rock’s most influential percussionists.

In 2009, reports that Radiohead were recording again had fans, critics, and industry wags quivering in anticipation (and fear). As speculation mounted, Selway announced that he would be releasing his first solo record. Many were surprised to find that Radiohead’s backbeat had a voice, both literally and figuratively. Thom Yorke had put outThe Eraser a few years prior and was gearing up his side project Atoms for Peace, but with the exception of Jonny Greenwood’s film-scoring work, the non-Yorke members of Radiohead had been largely silent during one of the band’s regular lulls. Fans looked to Selway’s release with tasseographic intensity, as if by sifting through the grinds, they might augur Radiohead’s future.

Under that spotlight, Selway released … a folk album. Soft-voiced and gentle, Familial was far more attuned to the melancholia of Nick Drake than Radiohead’s progressive rock. Most critics panned the release as unoriginal, while fans seemed to listen once, shrug, and move on. Within a year, The King of Limbs was released, further obscuring Selway’s solo effort.

Today, many of the same elements are again in play. Selway announced his follow-up some months ago, and Radiohead, who had stayed relatively quiet since King of Limbs, re-entered the studio. Even more puzzling, while Weatherhouse has had a release date for months, Thom Yorke just released a solo album without warning. With his second album, Selway gets another chance to make an individual artistic statement, but fails to cast a shadow all his own.

On Familial, Selway’s touch (assisted by members of Wilco) was delicate to the point of being precious. Within the first seconds of Weatherhouse’s opener, “Coming Up for Air”, it’s clear the game has changed. Throbbing synth and echoing bass are joined by a snicker-snack snare groove that recalls the work of Massive Attack instead of Fairport Convention. With a sigh of relief, we confirm that we’re still in the 21st century.

While the strings and gently strummed acoustic guitar of Familial are largely absent, there remains a careful delicacy to each song. “Let it Go” begins with tambourine in an empty room. Electronics skitter, and Selway’s voice reaches out plaintively. As the song progresses, swirls of synth and piano join thumping drums, building a dark yet evocative tapestry. The follow-up “Miles Away” also opens sparsely, letting the careful rhythmic patterns and Selway’s isolated vocals build mood before transitioning into a subdued lounge-jazz swing.

This obvious care keeps the album dense and rewards close listening. Unfortunately, that weight starts to feel like a burden on songs like “It Will End in Tears”. Here, Selway rushes into a swinging verse with a sweet melody that lacks the urban grit of earlier tracks. The track builds toward a crescendo, inviting strings back into the mix, but then it all starts to get saccharine. Fellow UK band Elbow play such emotional registers perfectly; in Selway’s hands, the sentiment feels trite. Selway sings with heart, his voice high and clear in the mix, but he wears emotion so nakedly on his sleeve that it’s almost distracting. His songs lack anything resembling emotional complexity. Just guess what “It Will End in Tears” is about.

While there are certainly criticisms to be made of Yorke’s lyrics and delivery, his inscrutability allows more room for personal interpretation. With Selway, the curtain has been removed entirely and the pressure on the lyrics to support themselves is two-fold. On “Drawn to the Light”, Selway refers to “pulling back the curtain” and “the wicked games we play,” a veritable parade of gag-worthy cliches. Yorke’s lyrics might mostly be gibberish, but at least we haven’t heard them a hundred times in other songs.

As an experiment in contemporary songwriting,Weatherhouse is a smart step forward for Selway. He has moved beyond whatever retro-folk phase he was entrenched in while composing Familial. But anyone looking for a sign of Radiohead’s new direction or another dominant songwriting force in the band will be disappointed. The album is an interesting but probably forgettable footnote in the history of one of the most influential bands of the 21st century.

Essential Tracks: “Coming up for Air”, “Let It Go”, and “Don’t Go Now”