Reviewed: Thom Yorke, Soul Asylum and Sufjan Stevens

Thom Yorke solo, plus new Soul Asylum and Sufjan Stevens.


Salon Staff
July 11, 2006 9:00PM (UTC)

Thom Yorke, "The Eraser"

Taking a break from his main duties as Radiohead's reluctant frontman, Thom Yorke has released "The Eraser," his first solo album. For anyone wondering who was responsible for the band's shift away from guitar and toward darkly atmospheric electronica, "The Eraser" may provide an answer. As England's NME notes, "'Kid A' acolytes will be on familiar ground" -- for those unfamiliar with Radiohead shorthand, that means "tractor-beam synths, hissy percussion" and "mechanical propulsion" are the foundation of the album's sound.

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Compared with Radiohead's work -- some of the most critically lauded of the past 10 years -- "The Eraser" has been met with a somewhat subdued response. The Guardian (rating: 3 stars) writes only that the album "sounds exactly like you would expect a Thom Yorke solo album to sound: twitchy electronic beats, doomy washes of synthesizer, backing vocals that are invariably high, wordless and ghostly." Rolling Stone (rating: 4 stars) calls the album "full of moments when you wait for the band to kick in, and it doesn't happen"; it also felt compelled to remind itself that "these aren't Radiohead songs, or demos for Radiohead songs."

While certain critics admire Yorke's chilly synthetic music, the album left other critics, well, cold. Slant magazine (rating: 2.5 stars) has the strongest words from this camp, asking whether it's "possible to disappear up your own hard drive?" before deciding that "you could make the argument that it's finally happened to Yorke." Pitchfork (rating: 6.6) splits the difference, calling the album "strikingly beautiful and thuddingly boring in maddeningly equal measure."

Soul Asylum, "The Silver Lining"

Best remembered for 1992's smash hit "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum was last heard from in 1998, but the 2005 death of bassist and founding member Karl Mueller spurred the Minneapolis rockers back into the studio. "The Silver Lining" is the result, and judging from the critical response, the outcome isn't good.

The main problem seems to be songwriter Dave Pirner's lyrics. Harp magazine says the album is "filled with so many lyrical groaners that it's uncomfortable," while even normally forgiving Billboard offers the faint praise that "Bus Named Desire" features a "soaring chorus" reminiscent of "Cher's 1998 smash 'Believe'" and also observes that "some cuts are flooded with clichés." Even the band's hometown listeners are unimpressed. The Minneapolis arts blog Perfect Porridge laments the album's "forced lyrical rhymes," "weak hooks," "adolescent guitar solos" and "blasé pop songwriting."

Perhaps the band's critical decline was inevitable. As Recoil magazine points out, "It has been 14 years since 'Grave Dancers Union'; your bite may have loosened as well."

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Sufjan Stevens, "The Avalanche"

Consisting of outtakes from last year's "Illinois," Sufjan Stevens continues his critical winning streak with "The Avalanche," an album that the Independent (rating: 4 stars) calls a "wonderful companion piece" to its predecessor -- even if it "isn't as endowed with catchy melodies." Entertainment Weekly (rating: A-) also felt the album was more than a collection of table scraps, writing that "these wistful folk-pop leftovers are better than most acts' A game." Not everyone hears it that way. Now magazine (rating: 3/5) disagrees with EW, finding "very little here that ups the ante (or matches the highlights) of the original 'Illinois' disc."

But if "The Avalanche" suffers from anything, it's from comparison with Stevens' highly regarded earlier work. Writes Prefix magazine (rating: 3/5): "Unfortunately, 'The Avalanche' clunks through track after track of damn fine songs while only rarely hitting those moments that make your body tingle in euphoria." Ditto from Pitchfork (rating: 7.2), which says, "Call it burnout or backlash if you have to, but it's hard not to compare the two albums and find this one wanting; even the best songs, which are quite good, wouldn't bump anything off of 'Illinois.'"

-- David Marchese

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