In the best Radiohead music, the songs and the arrangements are almost inextricably linked and holistic. The free-jazz madness in the midst of “The National Anthem” is just as crucial as the lyrics or vocal melody; “Pyramid Song” wouldn’t be “Pyramid Song” without its heady, wobbly percussion. The man behind that indelible drum part, Philip Selway’s third solo album comes impressively close at times to the work of his main band in terms of the ambition and inventiveness of his musical settings. They tend to draw from a similar well of influence: the dissonance and rhythmic pulsation of contemporary classical music, or the forward momentum of krautrock, with various electronic devices beeping and whirring at the edges.
But these arrangements don’t stick to the heart of the songs as strongly as they do on Selway’s main band. Swap out the powerful ballad orchestration of one song for the soft mallet percussion of another, and they just might sound just as natural as in their original forms. The songs themselves are part of the problem: slow and somber, with little lyrical specificity or melodic surprise, they give the sense of strange dance like a set of beautiful musical trappings in search of compositions worthy of adornment.
As you might expect from a drummer, Selway does best as a songwriter when the music is rhythmically active. strange danceThe best track on by a significant margin is also its most upbeat: “Picking Up Pieces,” which progresses in a series of interlocking syncopations, with guitars and rubbed strings acting as percussion instruments, making their brief contributions to the precisely arranged tapestry. and then back off until it’s time to attack again. The title track also highlights Selway’s idiosyncratic approach to rhythm, placing his vocals against rattling, echoing drums like a digital-age update of Tom Waits’ junkyard blues, with little else accompaniment. (Interestingly, Selway decided not to play his main instrument in strange dance, handing over drum duties to Valentina Magaletti of Vanishing Twin.) In these moments and others, such as “What Keeps You Awake at Night,” which begins with seeping vibraphones and dissolves into a flurry of pizzicato strings, it’s possible to glimpse a alternative vision of Selway’s music, which focuses on his ears and those of his collaborators for unusual rhythms and surprising combinations of sounds, treating them as the main event instead of a set.
strange dance more often it comes across as a traditional singer-songwriter album, albeit with killer sound design. Most of the lyrics seem to describe some sort of break up, though the details are hazy. As a writer, Selways works with broad, soft strokes: “I couldn’t be alone tonight/I need you here by my side/I’m lost without you now,” says a representative passage from “Look for signs of life. There are plenty of great topical pop songs out there, but Selway has neither the melody as a songwriter nor the expressiveness as a singer to sell these things. “The Other Side” strikes a particularly sour note, addressing a couple on the brink of the end of a relationship. “I’ve seen you in all your faults and doubts / I can’t unsee now,” Selway sings, his almost cartoonish delivery and a prim orchestral arrangement reinforcing the notion that the narrator couldn’t possibly shoulder any blame. A breakup song as bitter as “The Other Side” should come with a little urine and vinegar. This one just sounds smug.
familiar, Selway’s 2010 solo debut was sheepishly understated, relying heavily on vocals, acoustic guitar, and the occasional electronica. Given Selway’s membership in the biggest and best art-rock band of our era, it’s no surprise that he could eventually aim higher. But as attractive as the arrangements and the production of strange dance are sonically, they end up hurting the songs as often as they help. The dramatic crescendos and ostensibly cathartic bribes of “Little Things” and “The Heart of It All” suggest depth, but mostly call attention to its absence. Take away the bombast and these are humble little songs. Humble treatment might be right for them.
Our editors independently select all products featured on Pitchfork. However, when you purchase something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.