Sunday, November 10, 2013

Song #418 of 9999 - Weird Fishes/Arpeggi by Radiohead

No guest blogger last week means TWO guest bloggers this week! I bring back my good friend Erik Schlosser (not the food writer, the guitar player!) so he can riff on one of his favorite Radiohead tracks from 2007. Erik has just started writing a very interesting blog about musical creativity and I urge you to check it out. It's called The Musical Muse and can be found right here:

Song #418 of 9999

Title: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Artist: Radiohead
Year: 2007
Album: In Rainbows

Radiohead proved to be innovators once again in 2007. However, instead of presenting a radical new sound, this time they offered a radical new distribution method. In Rainbows was released in October first as a digital download (the CD was released a few months later). That is not that innovative in itself, but the pricing scheme was. Customers could “pay what they want” for the download from Radiohead’s site. If you wanted to pay $0.00 (plus a small download fee) you could. If you wanted to pay $100 you could as well. You would receive the same content. The band reported that most people paid what the standard price for a proper album would be. According to them only a few consumers paid nothing.

This way of selling an album was an interesting experiment. In 2007, the future of music distribution was uncertain (and still is today I guess). Offering an altruistic method for compensating a band may work well for an established group like Radiohead, but I doubt it could be replicated with success for other less known artists. Plus the 1.2 million sales on the day of its release is probably just because this was a novelty. Once the 3rd or 4th band offers the same model, I’m sure it would be met with significantly less success.

Let’s talk about this tune. As true to the title, harmony will play a key role. After a 4 bar drum groove, the guitars come in playing simultaneous arpeggios with different voicings of the same chord. Each part has its own unique syncopated rhythm which creates a hypnotic accompaniment for Thom Yorke’s haunting melody. As a guitar player, I love this sound because it is impossible to produce on one guitar. The combined voicings of the guitar arpeggios sound more like an intricate piano accompaniment which to my ears is very fresh.

There are four basic chords that repeat every 16 bars. If we consider the key to be D major they are:

                        ii   iii   V   IV
                        em   f#m   A   G

Functionally, this is the basic progression. However, the arpeggios also include the extensions of these chords. So it is actually something like em9, f#m9, A, A7, A6, Gmaj9. These lead to some lush harmonies that provide a soft bed for Thom to rest his stirring lyrics:

Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
Everybody leaves
If they get the chance
And this is my chance

As this chord progression repeats for the first 3 minutes, the tune ramps up gradually in intensity thanks to the following features: steadily increasing dynamics, more complex arpeggio patterns, avoidance of a clear I chord. This last one is key. Even when we get to the “weird fishes” part we have the following chords:

                V7     vi  V7     vi  V  IV
                A7/C#  bm  A7/C#  bm  A  G

The V7 to vi chord is what we call in “music theory land” a deceptive cadence. You expect there to be a I chord but the V chord resolved to vi. As a result, to whole tune starts to feel like it is actually in b minor (which is the relative minor key of D major). So there is no D major chord in this tune? Can the first section actually be called D major then? (maybe there is a music theory teacher who can chime in here?)

This is made even more evident in the outro. The progression from 3:40 on is:

                vi  bVII vi  V  IV
                bm  C    bm  A  G

The tonic here is clearly bm so it probably would be better to analyze it in that key, in which case it would be (i, bII, i, bVII, bVI). No matter the roman numerals, it is clear the piece all along has been guiding us to this minor territory. As a confirmation, the piece ends with a single B note in the bass. With this knowledge I think we can retroactively go back and identify the whole piece as being in b minor.

The texture, harmonies, dynamics and lyrics come together to make this one of my favorite tracks on the album. Actually, the whole album is pretty good. It was worth the money I paid for it.

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