Music Reviews

EOB (Ed O'Brien) Earth

(Polydor) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

The reasons why Ed O'Brien never ventured to write a solo album are as predictable as you'd expect. The Radiohead guitarist always held back due to a lack of self-confidence, thinking that he couldn't quite form his disparate ideas into fully-formed songs. Standing next to songwriting giants like Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood may also have something to do with it, both of which practically pioneered the indie-meets-electronic aughts sound that continues to permeate in today's alternative landscape. O' Brien may not be the flashiest guitarist, but really, it's that lack of ostentation that has kept Radiohead's music at a controlled pace without completely falling off the rails.

O'Brien is also a low-key architect of textures and ambiance, and on his debut album under the moniker EOB, Earth, he strengthens his songwriting acumen rather than serve as a dependable counterpoint. He's also been wise in teaming up with a group of people who can elevate his work, including bringing in famed British producer Flood behind the boards. The fruits of that hiring are immediately noticeable once Shangri-La kicks off the album, as O'Brien slinks into a driving groove laid on top of shifting guitar patterns and pitter-patter digital effects—immediately transporting us into some alternate present that feels and sounds like 1997.

O'Brien's turn-of-the-century explorations into dance beats and shimmering synths do sound anachronistic, but strangely, they seem like a perfectly logical entryway. On Brasil, he opens with a pastoral folk arrangement that quickly shapeshifts into a club-ready jam that extends for a full eight and a half minutes—locked into a groove that wouldn't sound out of place in the days of Primal Scream's XTRMNTR, U2's Pop, or even LCD Soundsystem. And then there's the equally lengthy Olympik, which sounds like a blatant Achtung Baby rip-off (which was already a ripoff of rave culture, to begin with). Given that O' Brien and his bandmates were responsible for demolishing rock traditions into the new millenium, it's interesting to hear him go back to those sounds as if experiencing buyer's remorse.

Conversely, the rest of Earth slips into rustic (to avoid "earthy"), sleepy singer-songwriter folk that exposes O' Brien's songwriting limitations. Deep Days sounds like the kind of pap acoustic rock that will make aging dads feel cool because they can play it, where O'Brien tosses in trite inanities like "Where you go, I will go/Where you stay, I will stay." The slick bossa nova of Banksters fares much better, featuring one of his band's descending chord progressions, though to hear him advocate about wealth inequality in the laziest way possible considering his position of privilege—even if well-intended—just feels somewhat misplaced.

From the tone of this review, I make it sound as if Earth has little to no redeeming qualities. At best, though, it's almost as good as a Thom Yorke solo album (opinions on his output may vary). There are many interesting ideas to be found within O'Brien's stark performances, and with the superb personnel featured (Laura Marling, Portishead's Adrian Utley), it'd be really hard to mismanage the quality of the album in a recording sense. It sounds great, especially when he and his backing band let loose on Olympik and Brasil. But no amount of technical prowess can disguise O'Brien himself as a frontman, whose voice and personality is agreeable but never compelling. Because even if he feels it, it doesn't necessarily mean it's there.