Will a review of EOB’s début album, Earth, ever neglect to mention the fact that its author – Ed O’Brien – is one fifth of Radiohead? No. So good to get that out the way early doors, really. Where this one is made that bit more interesting from many, if not most so-called ‘side projects’, though, stems from O’Brien’s role as rhythm (more often than not) guitarist within the Oxonian fold; his voice, which features so prominently here, is therefore one few will have heard committed to music before. Unlike Radiohead, this isn’t totally extraordinary – and, to be totally honest, nor is his voice – although that it has taken O’Brien quite so long to get around to a solo début is more so, not least when his contemporaries’ extracurricular activities are manifold: from Thom Yorke’s Modern Boxes, to Jonny Greenwood’s dextrous work on numerous soundtracks, to Philip Selway’s lukewarmly received efforts released via Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union label. As sort of goes without saying at this stage, Radiohead may amount to more than the sum of their mere parts, although they’re as collectively prolific as they are individually proficient.
So what of O’Brien’s aforementioned vocal? Well, at times it recalls Damon Gough (Brasil, Long Time Coming), at others Stephen Dewaele (Olympik), while Bankers carries with it the deftly manipulated dryness of Trent Reznor. In essence, it’s something of a chameleonic presence, fitting in with its surroundings without ever really commanding them or commandeering your attention. It perhaps doesn’t help that lyrically, at times, it’s glib: “Where did all the money go?” goes the limp choral rhetoric of Bankers for instance, atop loose, sliding acoustic redolent of Beck’s Guero. Which brings to the surface of Earth what may well be its most compelling parallel: a penchant for genre-bending, akin to Hansen’s, is a fire which fuels the core of this record.
Opener Shangri-La, with its invitingly open production (and faintly Yorke-esque falsetto), shifts its shape throughout vernal verse brimming with riffs that are both highly accessible and decidedly idiosyncratic, and brittle, eminently 6 Music-amicable chorus; Brasil, where O’Brien has lived intermittently and worked occasionally, all the more so. It’s the sole track which features a fellow Radiohead, Colin Greenwood contributing bass, and graduates from dulcet acoustica à la Badly Drawn Boy’s About a Boy to pulsating Jon Hopkinsian throb, as O’Brien goes from confessing “the flame is gone” to professing, “I love you.”
Stylistically, it’s changeable, but rarely does it touch upon his previous. Indeed, it’s only really the shimmering tambourines of Olympik which do the trick, yet hidden within the primal rumblings of Nathan East’s Screamadelica-esque bass lines, restive guitar tracks and prescient lyrics concerning “shaking up all the mess we’re in,” they make for more of an indiscreet hat-tip to In Rainbows centrepiece Reckoner than shameless harking back to prior hallmarks. Beneath a thin veneer of muzak, Banksters also had me trying – but ultimately failing – to place a discographic comparison. It was, in fact, with Coldplay maybe ripping off O’Brien & Co. on God Put a Smile Upon Your Face – a realisation never likely to turn a frown upside down.
But this is somewhat reductive stuff, for Earth really does have its moments: the subtly lavish, tastefully orchestrated Long Time Coming takes up precious little at a scant 170 seconds, yet beguiles in its short while; likewise Sail On, evocative of Atlas Sound’s thalassic Logos, is every bit as breezily lo-fi as Bradford Cox’ masterwork. And perhaps more importantly, epitomises the understated nature of Earth.
Given O’Brien’s notoriety, and the fact the record was produced by Flood (né Mark Ellis, hence the odd nod to NIN, Soulwax, and so on), it could all too conceivably have become some overproduced, excessively polished exercise in nullity. That it’s not this is one of its greater strengths. For in spite of the odd facile lyric and a slight lack in stylistic consistency, Earth makes for a rounded, interesting listen of interest even to those indifferent to Radiohead. And in the closing, Laura Marling-featuring Cloak of the Night, he signs off with that scarcest of commodities: an exemplar of modern British folk which, if not entirely progressive, is certainly relevant.
It does of course prompt the question as to whether there would have been more benefit to be mined from more pronounced collaboration (Omar Hakim, Dave Okumu, and Portishead’s Adrian Utley do also happen to lend hands in the background), but that probably wasn’t the point. What that is may be known only to O’Brien alone, but for all of 45 minutes, this particular record makes the world seem a slightly less alien place.