The Pequod Review:
Yes all of these pieces appeared previously in The New Yorker, but Alex Ross is a music critic without peer and these are uniformly intelligent, detailed, and well-informed essays on a variety of musicians. Here for example is Ross on Radiohead's first hit "Creep":
It was the first of many Radiohead songs that used pivot tones, in which one note of a chord is held until a new chord is formed around it. (In the turn from G to B, the note B is the pivot point.) "Yeah, that's my only trick," Yorke said, when this was pointed out to him. "I've got one trick and that's it, and I'm really going to have to learn a new one. Pedals, banging away through everything."But a reliance on pedal tones and pivot tones isn’t necessarily a limitation: the Romantic composers worked to death the idea that any chord could turn on a dime toward another. Yorke’s “pedals” help give Radiohead songs a bittersweet, doomy taste. (“Airbag,” for example, being in A major, ought to be a bright thing, but the intrusion of F and C tones tilts the music toward the minor mode. “Morning Bell” sways darkly between A minor and C-sharp minor.) It’s a looser, roomier kind of harmony than the standard I-IV-V-I, and it gives the songs a distinct personality. It also helps sell records: whether playing guitar rock or sampling spaced-out electronica, Radiohead affix their signature.
Through the years, many bands have thrown bits and pieces of jazz and classical into their mix. The Beatles were by far the best at this kind of genre assimilation. Lesser psychedelic and prog-rock bands turned orchestral crescendos and jazz freak-outs into another brand of kitsch. But Radiohead’s classical complexity isn’t pasted on the surface; it’s planted at the core. If you did a breakdown of the music, you’d find the same harmonic DNA everywhere. Another trademark is the band’s use of musical space. Riffs are always switching registers, bouncing from treble to bass, breaking through the ceiling or falling through the floor. In “Just,” from “The Bends,” the Greenwood brothers play octatonic scales that sprawl over four octaves; the effect is of music looming miles above you.
The remaining chapters are just as insightful on a wide range of other artists: Led Zeppelin, Mozart, Bob Dylan, Cecil Taylor, Sonic Youth and Bjork. Here is Ross’s title essay from The New Yorker, which became the first chapter of the book. At the back of the book is a useful survey of recommended recordings.