Radiohead drummer Philip Selway steps out with ghostly, understated solo debut

With a handful of exceptions — namely, Dave Grohl — outside projects from drummers in successful rock bands are usually a bad idea, and that includes Don Henley. And the Eagles, for that matter.

It does not, however, include Radiohead’s Philip Selway.

Selway knows the deal: “It’s a cardinal sin for drummers to come in to rehearsals with the comment ‘I’ve got this song!’” he cracks in the press notes for his solo debut, “Familial” (Nonesuch).

That makes sense when your band boasts a principal songwriter as talented as Thom Yorke, but Selway demonstrates on “Familial” that he’s no slouch, either.

It’s a ghostly record, full of whisper-quiet songs Selway was inspired to record after his mother died in 2006. It’s elegiac, then, but softly optimistic too — an album he says is less about grieving than “that process of having everything shaken up.” (NPR streams the record here.)

The songs reflect that sentiment in subtle ways. His lyrics focus on elements of family: his mother, of course, and also his wife and children and the emotional and blood ties that unite them. Recorded with Lisa Germano, Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg and Wilco members Glenn Kotche and Pat Sansone Most of the songs are built around acoustic guitar and close-miked vocals, with understated musical textures and minimal percussion that often comes from loops.

The simplicity lends added weight to the damp, crackling electronic noise that bubbles up through “Beyond Reason,” or the somber strings on “Falling” that gleam with the faint brightness of wet leaves beneath a full moon. Selway murmurs a serene vocal melody on “Don’t Look Down” as dissonant piano rolls distantly beneath a droning organ, building to a scratchy, enveloping  blanket of sound that includes loose, clanking percussion like rummaging through a box of hinges.

It’s a beautiful song from a musician who demonstrates on this elegant and assured solo debut that his musical persona extends far beyond the drum parts on “OK Computer.”

— Eric R. Danton

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