CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL SCORE: (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 168, (7) Tracy Chapman 159 .......... FINAL FOUR FINAL SCORES: (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 154, (1) Joy Division 90 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 137, (1) The Cure 89 .......... ELITE EIGHT FINAL SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 74, (14) Low 60 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 85, (1) Elliott Smith 69 ..... THE CURE 65, (2) Radiohead 58 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 74, (1) Neutral Milk Hotel 44 ..... FINAL SWEET SIXTEEN SCORES: (1) JOY DIVISION 75, (5) PJ Harvey & Nick Cave 24 ..... (14) LOW 73, (2) Concrete Blonde (64) ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 78, (4) Gary Jules 44 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 74, (6) Kate Bush 53 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 54, (13) The Church 49 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 73, (3) Sinead O’Connor 35 ..... (1) THE CURE 109, (3) Tori Amos 86 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 76, (6) This Mortal Coil 50 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 96, (9) Mazzy Star 91 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 76, (7) Bob Mould 28 ..... (14) LOW 60, (6) Crowded House 51 ..... (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 65, (4) Alphaville 38 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 113, (8) Replacements 88 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 87, (3) Nirvana 64 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 99, (2) The Eels 62 ..... (3) GARY JULES 103, (12) Morrissey 63 ..... (6) Kate Bush 72, (3) Nirvana 53 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 66, (11) Ride 27 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 106, (5) James 44 ..... (2) JEFF BUCKLEY 95, (10) Smashing Pumpkins 40 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 80, (9) New Order 56 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 102, (7) Nine Inch Nails 99 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 61, (3) Indigo Girls 60 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 89, (5) Swans 40 ..... (1) CURE 82, (8) Tom Waits 68 ............... FINAL 1ST ROUND SCORES: (5) PJ HARVEY & NICK CAVE 93, (12) Midnight Oil 38 ..... (7) BOB MOULD 63, (10) Peter Murphy 47 ..... (1) JOY DIVISION 117, (16) Erasure 19 ..... (6) CROWDED HOUSE 98, (11) Leonard Cohen 54 ..... (7) TRACY CHAPMAN 199, (10) The Smiths 162 ..... (5) MORRISSEY 115, (12) Morphine 83 ..... (3) NIRVANA 137, (14) Slowdive 102 ..... (8) THE REPLACEMENTS 128, (9) Dream Academy 82 ..... (13) THE CHURCH 262, (4) Magnetic Fields 193 ..... (10) SMASHING PUMPKINS 165, (7) Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 155 ..... (9) NEW ORDER 160, (8) Sarah McLachlan 78 ..... (1) JEFF BUCKLEY 204, (16) Bjork 92 ..... (4) TORI AMOS 78, (13) Echo & the Bunnymen 22 ..... (8) TOM WAITS 72, (9) The Pretenders 22 ..... (6) THIS MORTAL COIL 51, (11) Yaz 31 ..... (3) INDIGO GIRLS 71, (14) Pavement 26 ..... (9) MAZZY STAR 132, (8) REM 46 ..... (2) CONCRETE BLONDE 88, (15) Psychedelic Furs 34 ..... (4) ALPHAVILLE 71, (13) Dead Can Dance 36 ..... (14) LOW 120, (3) U2 65 ..... (1) ELLIOTT SMITH 63, (16) 10,000 Maniacs 24 ..... (2) EELS 50, (15) Counting Crows 46 ..... (4) GARY JULES 62, (13) Depeche Mode 19 ..... (6) KATE BUSH 59, (11) Sisters of Mercy 20 ..... (1) NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL 42, (16) Violent Femmes 12 ..... (11) RIDE 25 (6) Peter Gabriel 24 ..... (3) SINEAD O'CONNOR 37, (14) Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 17, ..... (5) JAMES 24, (12) Red House Painters 23 ..... (7) NINE INCH NAILS 46, (10) Wilco 31, (5) SWANS 31, (12) Pet Shop Boys 18 ..... (1) THE CURE 50, (16) Gear Daddies 10 ..... (2) RADIOHEAD 40, (15) Liz Phair 35


Friday, March 18, 2016

The Sweet Sixteen: (2) RADIOHEAD vs (6) THIS MORTAL COIL

(2) Radiohead, "Fake Plastic Trees"

Analysis by Matt Vadnais

It is tempting to divide Radiohead’s oeuvre into two periods separated by the arrival of blips, beeps, and other bits of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. However, listening to “Fake Plastic Trees” now, years after Radiohead of The Bends became Radiohead of Kid A, one remembers that Radiohead songs are and have always been about the emotional cost of living a world seemingly and increasingly designed to alienate and dehumanize. As such, Radiohead’s famous transition away from guitar-driven anthems like “Fake Plastic Trees” is probably better understood as a clarification of purpose through an evolution of form. Even in the band’s earliest anthems – the crunched power chords that punctuate “Creep” and the orchestral guitar work that threatens to over-inflate this song– we can find dissonance and interruption. From The Bends to Ok Computer and eventually Kid A, these dissonances move from being elements of crescendo in service to fairly conventional rock songs about alienation into being truly obstructive elements that threaten to drown their respective songs in joyless, alienating mud.

Of course, for Radiohead fans, the magic of latter-day Radiohead is that dissonance itself becomes meaningful. I stand by my initial description of these elements as Brechtian; however, where Brecht employed the distancing effect to allow one the intellectual remove necessary to avoid getting swept up in an emotional diction that Brecht believed to have no choice but to reify the status quo, Radiohead’s distancing effect is ultimately interested in its listener feeling things, things that are unavailable to songs generating emotion via a traditional emotional diction. In comparison to the kind of isolation and alienation that ironically animates “Everything in its Right Place” or “How to Disappear Completely,” we might be inclined to hear “Fake Plastic Trees” as naïve, immature, or, worse, as unaware that its emotional crescendo is as fake as the plastic things Thom is on about. As such, “Fake Plastic Trees” can be understood as an early and fatally flawed attempt at a Radiohead Song, one in which words have meaning and a person can articulate what he or she wants. “Fake Plastic Trees” contributes, in spite of itself, to the illusion of shared human experience that better Radiohead Songs associate with numbness and alienation.

Returning to the tendency to think of Radiohead as two bands, we would do well to remember that the arrival of the blips and bleeps was coterminous with the band becoming famous. “Fake Plastic Trees” only became the kind of song that non-Radiohead people loved after they had already stopped making songs like “Fake Plastic Trees.” Ok Computer was possible because no one really paid much attention to The Bends. All of this is to say that the song isn’t just an artifact made by a band foolhardy enough to believe that an anthem intended for mass distribution could be an emotionally honest portrait of loneliness and isolation, but one that was made by a band that desperately wanted to be famous. Even if, for me at least, this song isn’t on the shortlist of best Radiohead Songs, it is perhaps the saddest Radiohead Song because, every time we hear the swell of Jonny’s guitar cut away to an organ and Thom’s naked and embarrassing wish to “be what you wanted / all the time,” we hear the voice of a man who once believed that fame would alleviate all of the stuff that Radiohead Songs are about.

Matt Vadnais writes reviews and essays for Cover Me and is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver, a collection of stories exploring the notion of the cover in a variety of literary contexts. He wrote extensively and autobiographically about music in a social media project, The Best 200 Songs in My iTunes Library. He hosts The Liminal Space, a weekly radio show on WBCR, the campus radio station for Beloit College where he is an assistant professor of renaissance literature and creative writing.


(6) This Mortal Coil, “Song to the Siren”

Analysis by Brian Blanchfield
On the floating ship’s oceans I did all my best new smile / to your singing eyes and fingers, germane of any to your isle / and you sang, said to me, say to me, let me enfold you. / Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you. 
Did I dream you dreamed about me? Were you here when I was for sale? / Now my foolish boat is leaning, broken floor on your rock. / For you sing: touch me not touch me not, come back tomorrow. / Oh my heart, oh my heart shines from the sorrow. 
Well I’m as poisoned as a newborn child, I’m as a riddled as the tide. / Should I stand at the breakers, or should I lie with death my bride? / Hear me sing: Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you. / Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you.

Are these the words? They are anyway the ones I moaned and howled when I wore this cassette out in the late eighties. Ander will say it is true to form that I refuse to know better; but, in the case of this song, which above all others in my Walkman’s high rotation carried insuperable mystery for me, the haziness is constitutive. I mean, what could it mean? I’m quite sure I had not read Homer. Still, I knew what a siren was, and the gender play of singing siren-like about listening to the siren song had what in it what I was discovering was my kind of enigma. Also, where were they: some kind or cathedral or bridge anchorage?—there are not more cavernous acoustics than these in any recorded song I know—and by the way, who were they? This Mortal Coil, yes, but wasn’t this the Cocteau Twins? It took me a while to learn, daring to ask my questions at Repo Records on Central Boulevard in Charlotte, NC. I would’ve nodded as if knowledgeably when told this was a cover of Tim Buckley (reckoning on the spot that he was distinct from Jeff Buckley), and the other great song on the tape was a cover of Big Star. I backfilled my music history same as I do my bookshelves, revivalist to the end. To the beginnings.

I know where I would have first heard it, this song that felt captured from another reality. I was sleepy all Monday morning every Monday morning in high school, like my friends Tom Bavis and Greg Donilon, from watching Sunday night’s 120 Minutes, which had the intensity of scholarship for us, reviewing for each other the nuances of all that declared itself, like us, alternative. And also performing lines from the (if there were more than a dozen, I’d be surprised) episodes of The Young Ones that aired afterward. I did a good Neal, but I had a lot of Vyvyan in me. “At one stage, I sort of slipped me dungarees down…”

The bigger mystery is whether and how This Mortal Coil anticipated that a boy in central-piedmont North Carolina needed to wail the elongated phonemes of this song of huge, free-floating desire, in the fathoms of its depths, even as he pivot-turned the lawnmower and paced parallel swaths, back and forth, back and forth, rewinding, starting again. I could not perform without that engine of covering. Reminds me of a habit I had living in New York City, quite unconscious. On any station platform, day or night, I’d stand at the very end, so as to board the last car, and as the screeching train roared out of the tunnel and began its long braking, I would then and only then launch into song, some deeply ingrained line, utterly releasing. Full sail. That’s not the words. Neither are these, but they were mine, apostrophic as a prayer and better off answerless, sung to the sound of sound:

Were you here when I was for sale?

Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of poetry and prose--most recently Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, published by Nightboat Books, right about now. He's the host of Speedway and Swan, a poetry and music show, in partnership with KXCI Community Radio and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. 


Which does sadder better? Vote by 9am 3/19

Song to the Siren
Fake Plastic Trees
Poll Maker

Trouble voting? Click here to go directly to the poll.


  1. Bless these song write-ups. Especially the one on Fake Plastic Trees. But damn, both great analyses and scenes. Thanks

    1. I second that. These little essays here are excellent (as are the others in today's Cure vs Tori game). It makes me very sad (appropriate much?) to see "Song to the Siren" on the ropes here, down by what's probably an insurmountable lead, albeit a lot of game to play, and I puzzled over why for some time.

      I mean, doesn't everybody get how powerful "Song to the Siren" is? In my mind, it's the saddest remaining entry in the tournament aside from maybe "Atmosphere" (and head-to-head I can't say I wouldn't pick "Song to the Siren" over it). I mean, I do get it though, listening to both songs head-to-head. Partly Radiohead's just a better-known band by several orders of magnitude, and that matters. So that's part of it, but I think it's the way that "Fake Plastic Trees" turns in the last minute to the "If I could be / what you wanted," as Vadnais points out, that does it. That turn is where the song becomes first-person and—weirdly for me anyway—that's where it really opens up and allows us in for the first time. That's an intense move. What Yorke articulates in that moment is also something that we've all surely felt (re desire or romance, if not re fame in Vadnais' reading), where much of the rest of the song is beautiful but less accessible. Listening to "Song of the Siren" is like overhearing someone speaking to a God or a myth. "Fake Plastic Trees" is us listening to Yorke singing to us at the very end somehow in our own voice.

  2. First, thanks for the kind words. It was fun to write; the other essays are so good/alive that I felt clinical and robotic in comparison but that's probably appropriate in regards to Radiohead. I am chiming back in for two reasons. First, I may have come down a little concretely re fame; I just meant that Yorke still believed there were subjunctive conditions involving being wanted that could fix what I think the bad has later understood not to be a glitch but a feature. I should also correct my false lyric: Thom wants to be "who" I wanted. My habit of what/that when who should be used is a feature of growing up near North Dakota but it also speaks to my tendency to hear early Radiohead with ears that have listened to a whole lot of late Radiohead.

    Second, and probably more important, I want to push back on the notion that we're seeing results altered based on songs being better known. I mean, yes. But it's not their profile. It's that more of us had an emotional experience with the song to begin with so that remembering the song (let alone listening to it) is remembering ourselves in a variety of moments, many of which either do or don't enhance the song's sadness. I, to my shame, have no history with This Mortal Coil (or the original song) so all it gets in terms of my sadness is what it has been able to generate in the five or six listens since the tournament began. While repetition can hurt songs too, for songs we still love, it makes it almost impossible for a new song to be sadder because our only compass is our own feelings. Without a history or a car trip in which someone I liked but wanted to love helped me figure out the lyrics and sing the thing, "Song of the Siren" is merely pretty and super forgettable, which is blasphemy I'm sure, but sadness will almost always privilege songs we've known forever because, when it comes to sadness, the real instrument being played is us.

    Which is why that, even as I think the turn Ander and I have both mentioned is the goods, the Radiohead song generates sadness in me because of the guitar stuff ahead of that moment. I know it so well I move along to it, accumulating feeling because of mind/body stuff the Enlighttenment got wrong, which sets me up for the turn. Beyond my having memories of the song, it works because I've internalized Jonny's guitar and can physically play along. And that's the funny thing here: I planned on voting for "Hurt" in the second round (perhaps to punish the song for not being "Let Down") until Jonny's guitar had me doing what it always does and I felt something I thought I was too smart/sophisticated to feel again.

    1. I think what you say here is largely true: the better the song was known (the more popular the song or band), the more likely it is that any given listener has some history with it. That's, I think, certainly why some of the big dogs (Cure, Radiohead, most obviously, though also Joy Division in a different way) are here when some of the others (like Swans) have gone home. It'll be interesting to see further on, then, when one of them comes up against, say, a Neutral Milk Hotel, a culty band with a smaller (if possibly deeper) following.

      At least in my case, though, my feeling for "Song to the Siren" isn't based on previous experience with it, I don't think. I don't have any memory of having heard Song to the Siren before maybe 2006 or so. I knew exactly one This Mortal Coil song ("You and Your Sister") in high school on account of a mixtape a friend made for me, and while I think I probably listened to the collected works of TMC in college after I got into 4AD bands like Red House Painters, Dead Can Dance, and Cocteau Twins, they didn't make much of an impression on me then. Even on my couple computers that have my accumulated songs ripped from CDs, I had only saved four TMC songs from their albums, which I've never owned or really wanted to own. So the committee's first choice for the TMC song was "You and Your Sister," as I mentioned in today's analysis post, which felt a little wobbly on reevaluation. One of our many advisors independently suggested "Song to the Siren." As usual, I was prepared to say oh hey thanks for your input and just go on with our inclusions as planned, but his was a good list. We selected DCD's "American Dreaming" from it, which got bumped early. And listening to "Siren" at first I wasn't impressed. But I came back to it for some reason a day later, and got lost in it entirely, spent a bunch of time following down those cover versions linked in the earlier coverage of it, and now it's part of me.

      I don't mean to suggest that my experience listening and voting here is typical (in fact I'm sure that I'm taking this project more seriously than most of our voters, though possibly not you), but for me, my feeling about the sadness I hear in "Song of the Siren" seems unrelated to my previous experience with it. (That's not the case for 75% of the songs here: I might compare this experience to listening to the Sisters of Mercy entry, which I have an insane amount of nostalgia for, and was depressed if unsurprised to see eliminated.)

      Of course my vote for "Siren" is also affected by its underdog status, my affection for Cocteau Twins and 4AD, and might well be connected to less obvious sources of nostalgia or whatever emotional undercurrents I contain but am not particularly aware of.

      I'd be particularly interested to hear from those (younger?) listeners for whom this bracket is more discovery than nostalgia. I find myself wanting to have intensive exit polls for the voters, but that's probably not a good idea...

  3. Again, my language was more absolute than I intended. And I'm sure I'm forgetting a million songs I love now that prove me wrong here. The Replacements, for example, are not a band that saved my life or anything but I voted for "Here Comes a Regular" because I think it may be the saddest (or at least most depressing) song here. Still, I think ubiquity matters in memory formation and that memories remembered have something to do with sadness. But clearly I'm not as right as my strident declarations would suggest.

  4. Let's boil this down: You & I both know it's wretched and immoral that Radiohead slunk past This Mortal Coil.

    Hear me, scum: If you voted for “Fake Plastic Trees” thinking it was your entitled opinion, that it would Make America Great Again, you got it twisted. That's basically fascist. Disclosure: I like Radiohead a fair deal. They're a solid act, real upstanding young Brits. But they bring a puny pocket knife to This Mortal Coil's fully automatic warzone. I will say Elizabeth Frasier and Robin Guthrie have more spark and character and imagination in one fingernail than Thom Yorke has in his entire body.

    Do you, confounded voter, have any sense to know the two were once lovers? That he was the father of her first child?* Can you even feel things? The tension of ill-fated romance manifest through their immaculate collaboration? Nope—you wasted your ballot on Thom Yorke, crooning, careening through a supermarket in a shopping cart. And that's not nearly as doleful as his later stunt in the “No Surprises” video, a three-minute shot of his weird head struggling for oxygen as his diving helmet slowly fills with water/absinthe. Enough to incite riot: “You look so tired, unhappy / Bring down the government / They don't speak for us.” Even that bad-ass magnitude can't oust the Scottish glory of Fraser/Guthrie, crafting alchemy atop their glistening sonic cathedral. They are 4AD's reclusive royalty. Flip this whole tournament.

    Ooo, my belly aches. I called in sick the last few days, just pacing around the house, debating whether to take this shit down. As in, the whole blog: Your pithy comments and precious bands. Those lies you told about hooking up with Hope Sandoval in an AOL chatroom circa '94. All eviscerated. But, alas: My motherboard fried during a sophisticated DDoS attack that would have helped you understand regret. Whatever, then, Radiohead moves on.

    *Does anyone know how to reach that kid? I feel like we could start a hot new band.