Sub.bionic: 1997 Radiohead Lite

Listening to the radio these days is something like jamming all of your favorite old bands into the CD player and extracting a song, a mixed and mashed result of everything that came before it. A lack of originality is surely nothing new in the music world. Every band has its influences, but it seems that what passes for originality these days is merely a mixing of styles (rap, rock, etc.), and nothing sounds as fresh or revolutionary as the Beatles and Dylan did in the ’60s or the first growls of Nirvana’s grunge did in the early ’90s. That’s not to say there isn’t still some fine music being made, but one wonders at what point sounding like someone else did in 1997 became the best way to get a hit.

Consider the Calling’s huge radio hit, “Wherever You Will Go,” the latest super-sappy ballad produced to shine and take the teenage world by storm. Of course, the song sounds good, as hard as it is to admit, so its popularity isn’t surprising. But it is hard to deny that it sounds exactly like Lifehouse did a year ago, who sounded exactly like Creed 2 years ago, who sounded exactly like Pearl Jam did 10 years before that.

Radiohead is a band that people love to imitate. And like Pearl Jam, Radiohead itself chose to take its sound in a different direction, albeit a less commercially successful one, but one that departed from the formula that made them popular in the first place. As soon as Radiohead got a little weird, we were hit with bands like Travis and Coldplay, picking up right where early Radiohead left off. Both bands scored hits in the U.K. and the U.S., and it was clear that Radiohead’s own departure from its early style had not left the music world wanting any less of it.

Enter Sub.bionic, the latest in the Radiohead lite sweepstakes. Hailing from L.A., Sub.bionic’s debut release you i lov/// could easily be confused for Coldplay or Travis. Acoustic guitars, swirling mellow anthem-laced rock, and light and dreamy vocals fill the album. Singer Jimmy Tuckett’s vocals easily recall Thom Yorke, particularly when he hits his falsetto.

Despite comparisons to its obvious influences, Sub.bionic has crafted a solid and promising album. There are only a few keepers (“Last Song On Earth,” “Quasi-Dead” and “Phono-phobic”), but the rest, although tending to run together, are generally quite listenable. Tuckett doesn’t really approach much of anything new lyrically, but he usually avoids detracting from the music. He comes up with so awkward lines (“I’m planning seats for thought poachers/to help you define what your new protein is” he sings earnestly in “God is in Neutral”) but usually the music is good enough to help us ignore him. Who knows what the hell he’s talking about, but his lyrics are so muffled it doesn’t matter.

Surprisingly, it’s when Sub.bionic’s influences are most painfully obvious that they make their best music. “Last Song on Earth” builds like the best anthemic Radiohead and “Quasi-dead” sounds like it could be an outtake from The Bends. When Sub.Bionic tries to expand on the formula, either lyrically (“God is in Neutral”) or musically (“Love Trans Holistic Bottle”) they fail, sometimes with laughable results.

If you i lov/// proves anything to us, it’s that it is hard not to like a good song, despite the use of any obvious formulas. Questioning Sub.bionic’s originality is legitimate, but some bands are at their best when they aren’t original, and being able to craft songs comparable to early Radiohead is no small feat. It’s tough not to enjoy Sub.bionic, probably because we liked Radiohead so much to begin with. It isn’t so much of a loss that bands like this and its brothers keep coming out, particularly with Radiohead off in its own world. There’s a good reason we liked this ear candy 5 years ago, and there’s no good reason to not enjoy it now, originality be damned.