History will remember Phil Selway as the little engine that could. The ballots are in, and across the board, we can agree that this beloved baldy — the driving drummer behind so many of Radioheads most kinetic, rhythmically perfect ballads — kind of sucks at being a soulful singer-songwriter.
Nonetheless, its pretty surprising that Selway decided to take the Elliott Smith route on Familial, even if it does sound hopelessly uncomplicated and not particularly original. Selways mostly short, sweet, mellow guitar ballads work against him just as much as his reputation.
Too much of Familial happens as Selway perceives it, not so much as he experiences it, to its failure and success. All Eyes on You, with its lyrics supposedly referencing Selways more-famous Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke might enter and leave your stereo so quickly and so unassumingly that its difficult to understand what hes talking about. Structurally, the songs two-and-a-half-minute running time limits it from really exploring any pathos or deeper meaning to speak of.
That same reservation carries on through much of the album, and in the end, songs like All Eyes on You or the impeccably rhymed (and inscrutably clichéd) The Ties That Bind Us start and either sputter, or just drive down the block when they could be hitting the highway. Theres neither imagination nor humor in lines like, your word is not enough, he was caught in the crossfire, lights are burning bright, and no ones home on Patron Saint, which only further piles on overused, unmemorable lyrics like those over a childs guitar melodies.
It doesnt help that nearly every song begins and ends formulaically — with very quiet opening chords and whispering on his part.
Listening to Familial almost demands an unbroken 35-minute melancholic stupor that could very easily be filled by a soundtrack comprised of any of the more established subtle songsmiths that Selways material draws from. It just seems silly to listen to Philip when you could listen to the work of John Darnielle, or Leonard Cohen, or Elliott Smiths or Nick Drakes respective back-catalogs.
What I really want to know is: Why now? Why did the until-now reserved, newly christened Philip Selway (as hes so clearly identified on Familials album cover) decide that it was a good idea to do this after 25 years of being in one of the most unimpeachably consistent (and successful) bands in the world? Its open to speculation until Selway comes out and gives the word on it, but could its release be related to Radioheads impending next album?
Selways solo project probably sounds and will forever sound the least like Radiohead of any of his bandmates. Still, hes a great drummer, and hes proven that, so what is he trying to prove now?
Thats the real question to ponder, considering his work as a frontman does little to provide us with many others.