Friday, October 20, 2017
Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool sounds more like an album of moods and atmospheres than songs. For some bands, this would be a negative. Not for Radiohead.
Album opener, "Burn the Witch," sets the sonic tone, string-dominated music, steady, minimalist drums, acoustic or non-distorted electric guitar, and a Thom Yorke who sounds both engaged and resigned. Really, the story of A Moon Shaped Pool is the strings, with Johnny Greenwood putting his film composition experience to great use. They are absolutely beautiful, and they drive the album's strange, organic mood. The supporting all-star is some lovely, often treated piano work. These are not staples of rock music, and I would hesitate to even call A Moon Shaped Pool a rock album. The amounted of distorted guitar is minimal, almost entirely relegated to the raucous guitar solo tagged onto the end of "Indentikit," and by "tagged on," I mean unexpected, yet perfectly placed--not extraneous.
In addition to the non-rock instrumentation, A Moon Shaped Pool features a definite lack of hooks, choruses, or other pop-derived elements commonly found in much of rock music. This is why I consider A Moon Shaped Pool more an exhortation of mood and atmosphere than a collection of songs. Each track is distinct, but none, outside of the piano-based closer, exist under any pop or rock terms. They're more movements in a piece, making this more akin to classical music than anything. Of course, most classical music doesn't feature guitar, electric bass, and a drum kit, though to turn this statement around, the drums are aided by Portishead's Clive Deamer, a master of straightforward, propulsive, yet rhythmically minimalist beats--not exactly a staple-style of playing in rock.
Yeah, I am bleating on and on, but I could sum it all up by stating that A Moon Shaped Pool is some strange cross between a 50-minute classical composition and a 70's British rock album, replete with classic Radiohead electronics and sound manipulation. It sounds like emotionally-attuned space aliens who mastered music a million millennia ago created it, and it is evocative of a late fall afternoon with dimming sunlight falling on a lake and some old train passing on a hillside so far away you can feel it more than hear it, and a resignation that sadness might be here to stay and life goes on and is beautiful anyway. Every time I listen to it it sounds better and newer, and if Radiohead wanted to call it quits here, that would be fair, but if they want to release an album a year like this until all five members are in the grave, that would be alright.
What a great band.
1. Burn the Witch 3:40
2. Daydreaming 6:24
3. Decks Dark 4:41
4. Desert Island Disk 3:44
5. Ful Stop 6:07
6. Glass Eyes 2:52
7. Identikit 4:26
8. The Numbers 5:45
9. Present Tense 5:06
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief 5:03
11. True Love Waits 4:43
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Ah, so the comment I made in my review of Hail to the Thief, "Almost every band I feel a strong emotional connection to has an album that I unfairly malign upon its release, only to come back to and love later" is doubled when it comes to Radiohead. Hail to the Thief isn't the only one of their albums to grew on me over time. The King of Limbs is another slow grower. Again, my own expectations were my biggest obstacle to enjoyment.
The King of Limbs follows one of Radiohead's greatest albums, and maybe their most complete, In Rainbows. In Rainbows features a full, lush, beautiful, enveloping, highly-textured,sound. The King of Limbs, in many ways, does not. It is beautiful at points, but in completely different ways. In Rainbows features a confident, complete sound. The King of Limbs is completely transient. It was creating by chopping the band's performances into bits and pieces, and then gluing them back together in hopefully a pleasing manner. Glitchy rhythms shuffle along. Guitars start and stop. Sometimes even the vocals are garbled samples. Thankfully, Colin Greenwood's basslines are allowed to roam free from the editing knife, and serve as a bedrock for each song. Tom Yorke's vocals, even more emotive and naked than his work on In Rainbows, at least when they're not diced up, soar high. This is a unique sound the band have forged here.
However, even getting past my "Ugh, it isn't In Rainbows" expectations, there is still some fault to find here. For one, having a restless sound that can't be nailed down can be invigorating at first, but it does grow a bit stale. When the weighty piano ballad, "Codex" comes at track six, it's refreshing that the song feels mostly intact. Also, the entire album is only eight tracks, the shortest ever for this band. This isn't necessarily a negative, but when the music feels so weightless, overall, the short length feels a bit cheaper. In some ways, The King of Limbs feels more like a quick thought than an album. Thankfully, though, despite the short tracklist and occasional feelings of restlessness, the album's positives are bountiful.
Opener, "Bloom," might be the most ascendant song in the band's catalogue, establishing the album's sound, even as it takes flight and soars past it. The diced up guitar and rhythm combine with a stunning Tom Yorke vocal and, of all things, a flugelhorn, to create a sense of sky, the ground far below a majestic blur. In fact, so majestic that the BBC paired composer Hans Zimmer with the band to create a new version of the song to theme their Blue Planet II.
As powerful as that version is, I actually prefer the headrush of the album version, with its Asian textures and more intimate setting, though the climax of the BBC version is almost so transcendentally emotional it is unreal, especially coupled with the BBC's gorgeous ocean imagery. It also helps that the opening verse is the most beautiful lyric Yorke ever penned:
Open your mouth wide
The universal sigh
And while the ocean blooms
It's what keeps me alive
"So why does this still hurt?"
Don't blow your mind with whys
Well, after that, just about anything would be a letdown. "Morning Mr Magpie" is a good natured, quiet and jittery little thing that's close to harmless. "Little by Little" is a little more forceful with its rhythm, creating a lot of momentum that is slightly squandered by the choppy and aimless instrumental, "Feral." This is immediately followed by the album's single "Lotus Flower," a funky, atmospheric song that really lets Greenwood's bass shine. It's not bad to dance to either.
Where the opener and earlier tracks conveyed a feeling of morning and blue skies, "Lotus Flower" brings on a feeling of night, which leads into the dark, piano-led "Codex." Continuing with the nature imagery that is certainly intentional, the music and lyrics of "Codex" are more evocative of a lake at night, pensive and moody. It's a bit gloomy, but well placed, as it is immediately followed by the sound of birds singing and golden sunrise coming through the curtains of "Give Up the Ghost." I've increasingly described Yorke's vocals as "vulnerable" in these last couple of reviews, but this is Yorke at his most vulnerable, totally emotionally exposed as he continuously sings "Don't hurt me," and "Into your arms," his vocals layered and layered on top of each other until he croons "I think I should give up the ghost." Not to get too emo on you, but years after my first listen, the 12th or so time I had heard Yorke hit the note at the end of the word "ghost," I suddenly started sobbing and realized that my bias against this album had been defeated. I love when reviews turn into me feeling like I am having a conversation with the album I am reviewing. Self-revelatory.
The album then ends with "Separator," a light, skippy, almost slight track, except for the reverb-drenched repeated outro vocal, "If you think this is over, then you're wrong/wake me up." This song sums up The King of Limbs to me. Not the most consequential work in Radiohead's catalogue, but one with enough exceptional moments to make it worthwhile. At that particular point in the band's career, after a decade-and-a-half of bearing the weight of having to top themselves again and again, perhaps The King of Limbs is exactly the album Radiohead needed to make.
1. Bloom 5:15
2. Morning Mr Magpie 4:41
3. Little by Little 4:27
4. Feral 3:13
5. Lotus Flower 5:01
6. Codex 4:47
7. Give Up the Ghost 4:50
8. Separator 5:20
Thursday, October 12, 2017
In 2007, I most definitely was not thinking about Radiohead. Sure, I had had magical experiences with their music in the past, but I was soured by Hail to the Thief (at least until the 2008 In Rainbows tour), and hadn't spun their other albums in quite a while. Before completely forgetting about them, I'd even begun considering the band derogatorily as "that downer band," thinking it quite easy to make powerfully negative albums as opposed to positive ones.
On an out of the blue October 1st, 2007, I saw a surprise announcement that the band had secretly completed a new album, and would be digitally releasing it for a pay-what-you-want price (even $0) on their own website in just 10 days. My interest was piqued at this before unheard of musical business model, but not enough to download the album on the 10th.
Thankfully, though, in the fall of 2007, I was experiencing firsthand the greatest workplace environment to ever exist: the circulation department of the Main Branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. Ten days after that Radiohead announcement, Chris, a co-worker who was always passing good stuff on to me (he'd get me Doctor Who episodes the moment they aired on BBC, back when that was a big deal) brought me a burned copy of Radiohead's new album, In Rainbows (don't freak out, I paid cold, hard cash for a vinyl copy a few months later). His wife Mary, who also worked in the circulation department, was a big Radiohead fan, so when he burned her a copy, he did one extra for me. The best part is that they weren't even the only people who gave me music and other media on a regular basis. Another co-worker (an co-former KLSU DJ), Eric, has contributed an entire shelf to my music collection (you can now hear him every week on 96.9 FM, where he broadcasts his show, Subterranean Nation). I also read Ulysses, The Brothers Karamazov, and every Harry Potter book at that library. What a great place to work.
Anyway, despite my previous reservations, I popped In Rainbows into my car stereo. The album itself was shocking. Radiohead, that Radiohead, seemed, like me at work, to be having fun. Not just on a song or two. On the whole album. And the album wasn't all dark and dreary, wither. Sure, there was a darkness, but it was all lush, and sultry, and sexy. Yes, this bunch of nerdy old codgers were making music that was sexy. What was happening? Was the world, as the band had posited in their own music so many times before, coming to an end?
I think 2007 featured a lot of great new music, and I was in one of those nice, peaceful places in life, so this review may be a bit biased. In Rainbows hits a sweet spot for me. In mood, it's most definitely a night album. It starts off with a lot of fun energy before exploring some more sensual tempos and textures. It's not like the early parts of the album sound like a bunch of anthropomorphic sunflowers dancing around on a wooden fence, though. Actually, that sounds terrifying. Anyway, this is still Radiohead. There's still a darkness, but it's strangely comforting. The band, operating out of a more traditional vocals/guitar/bass/drums mold, use strings and electronics to help create a warm, enveloping sound. This may be the hardest Radiohead album to describe to an outsider, which is why I am using such many staccato descriptions.
In Rainbows is just good. The ten track brevity is incredibly appreciated after the bloat of Hail to the Thief. The pacing is perfect. I love the way that the album's atmosphere thickens as it goes along, particularly with "Reckoner" and "House of Cards." The evocative acoustic guitar and strings combo of two-minute middle track "Faust Arp" is a perfect breather. Everything just works here.
I can't express enough how done I was with this band before the release of In Rainbows. In Rainbows not only reinvigorated my fandom, but completely recontextualized the band's previous works for me. Radiohead are not a one-note act. Radiohead are a multi-faceted band, capable of evoking many disparate emotions and feelings. In Rainbows showcases that more than ever. The desperate fate of man might be a pet-topic for Thom Yorke, but its not all he can sing about. In Rainbows, with its more personal, more universal lyrics, vocalized by some of Yorke's most open, vulnerable singing ever, proves that.
If you've ever wanted to get into Radiohead in the past, but found them too dreary, In Rainbows is your access point. This is an invigorating album. It not only changed the business model for how albums are sold, but it may have subtly influenced popular rock music more than any of the band's previous works--you can make a masterpiece without wallowing in despair. In a post-Y2K, post-9/11 world, that was and still is an important concept to master. The world didn't end, and it's time to make the best of it.
1. 15 Step 3:58
2. Bodysnatchers 4:02
3. Nude 4:15
4. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi 5:18
5. All I Need 3:49
6. Faust Arp 2:10
7. Reckoner 4:50
8. House of Cards 5:28
9. Jigsaw Falling into Place 4:09
10. Videotape 4:40
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Almost every band I feel a strong emotional connection to has an album that I unfairly malign upon its release, only to come back to and love later. Hail to the Thief didn't really have a chance with me in 2003. I could feel myself becoming more politically agitated as the year wore on, and an album which focused on all the stuff I was already angry about didn't really seem appealing to me. I wanted to escape from all that stuff. Plus, four-minute alternative rock songs instead of the vast experimentation of the last two albums? No thanks! Hail to the Thief also seemed like a big downer at a time when I was already...on a downer. I purchased this right about the time I began an anxiety-fueled migraine that lasted nine months--if you haven't figured it out by this point, The Nicsperiment is not a normal person.
Thus, Hail to the Thief was relegated to my CD shelf never to return again... Just kidding, it did return five years later. I won't spoil my upcoming review of Radiohead's 2007 release, In Rainbows...I will simply state that it restored my love for the band, and inspired me to ride out to Houston with a van-load of friends and family to catch Radiohead on their In Rainbows tour. On the way their, I had a long talk about life with my cousin Jessica, who always seems to offer a perspective I haven't yet considered. She vastly disagreed with my opinion of Hail to the Thief, and suggested I give it another listen on its own merits, free from my own expectations.
Later that night, at the incredible show, one of the most overwhelmingly powerful live performances by a live band I have ever seen, something strange happened: my favorite moments were from Hail to the Thief. "Where I End and You Begin," a song I had barely even noticed before, reduced me to tears, even as it sent my body into strange writhing motions that can only be described as "The Nicsperiment dancing." "There There," which I admittedly did enjoy before, became stratospheric. "The Gloaming" went from gloomy bore to fun.
Jessica was right. Time to reevaluate.
Radiohead are a complicated band, and Hail to the Thief, composed of 14 tracks, and running nearly an hour, is a complicated album. In the face of a war begun under false pretenses, a highly controversial presidential election, and a post-9/11 malaise that felt it would never end, Hail to the Thief is a defeated album, even for Radiohead. At the same time, if your head is in the right space, it's a lot of fun. Radiohead have never haphazardly recorded and released music like this before or since. In this one instance, they forced themselves to work quickly and send to market what they had created before they had time to overthink anything. Because of this, Hail to the Thief is at once too long, with songs piled up without winnowing, and incomplete. For instance, that previously mentioned live performance of "The Gloaming" featured a rocking, triumphant outro the band hadn't conceived of back in 2003, when Hail to the Thief was released. On the album, the song just sort of ends.
On the other hand, it's nice to hear the band acting on the fly without second guessing themselves. There is a certain livewire, firecracker feeling to Hail to the Thief that the band's other work lacks. You can see them throwing a lot of stuff at the wall, even if they aren't necessarily concerning themselves with what sticks where. The slow, b-movie horror stomp of "We suck Young Blood" is likely meant to be tongue in cheek, but placing it after the sky-scraping emotional power of "Where I End and You Begin," relegates it to camp. The minimalist, dark balladry of "I Will" is fine, but it slows the momentum of "There, There" heading into the fun, funky "A Punchup at a Wedding." This can make the album a bit of a slog, particularly when vocalist, Thom Yorke, already seems so beaten. The album's closing lyrics are:
I keep the wolf from the door
But he calls me up
Calls me on the phone
Tells me all the ways that he's gonna mess me up
Steal all my children if I don't pay the ransom
And I'll never see them again if I squeal to the cops
So I'm you just gonna...
Well, maybe "squealing" is the victory. Whatever the case, Hail to the Thief is flawed, but I can't deny its immediate power. The band wield despair here like never before. Tell me this performance of "Where I End and You Begin," which matches the album version's power, doesn't give you the chills.
"Where I End and You Begin" takes lessons the band learned from their experimental period, but puts them into a more immediate setting--instead of sweating over electronic manipulation for months, the band throw on-the-fly electronics into a more traditional alternative rock sound to create something more intense than anything they've ever made. The tension between the two is quite palpable and electric. The band experiences enough hits throughout the album by doing this that Hail to the Thief's strengths, over time, inexorably crush its flaws.
Fourteen years later, outside of dredging them up for this review, the flaws can't touch the album's highs. At the same time, the tension in the album created by everything I've already mentioned is an excellent encapsulation of the time it was made--I don't think Hail to the Thief could have been created in any year other than 2003--the year that gave me the nine-month migraine from hell. Removed from that year, "There There," and all of Hail to the Thief's wandering, aimless walk through these dangerous musical woods is more timeless than ever.
1. 2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.) 3:19
2. Sit down. Stand up. (Snakes & Ladders.) 4:19
3. Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky.) 4:18
4. Backdrifts. (Honeymoon is Over.) 5:22
5. Go to Sleep. (Little Man being Erased.) 3:21
6. Where I End and You Begin. (The Sky is Falling in.) 4:29
7. We suck Young Blood. (Your Time is up.) 4:56
8. The Gloaming. (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.) 3:32
9. There there. (The Boney King of Nowhere.) 5:25
10. I Will. (No man's Land.) 1:59
11. A Punchup at a Wedding. (No no no no no no no no.) 4:57
12. Myxomatosis. (Judge, Jury & Executioner.) 3:52
13. Scatterbrain. (As Dead as Leaves.) 3:21
14. A Wolf at the Door. (It Girl. Rag Doll.) 3:21
Thursday, October 05, 2017
For me, Kid A and Amnesiac exist in the same musical world. Kid A is blurry, and Amnesiac is a vision of that world come into focus. It's like an optometrist putting a new lens in front of a patient's eyes, and asking, "How does it look now?" Kid A is largely icy electronics, ghostly, alienating vocals, and only a bit of organic instrumentation. The world it paints, to me at least, is one of a post-apocalyptic, post-Western Civilization landscape, bathed in strange, cold light; artifacts of the world-that-was only curiosities for whoever is left. Jagged lines reveal themselves to be skeletal trees, fuzzy distance to be the background of a 1930's cartoon. Amnesiac puts that world into focus with more organic instrumentation--i.e. a lot more electric guitar and real drums, even strings--but it doesn't abandon the heavy lean on electronics. When the organic instruments arrive, they sound warmer. For instance, horns appear on one Kid A song and one Amnesiac song--the horns on Kid A sound like they are played by malfunctioning robots, butAmnesiac's feel human, even if they are ancient and ghostly. More than anything, though, more than my nebulous blurry vs. in-focus description is this simple fact: Kid A is tense, and Amnesiac is relaxed. Even though there is certainly tension within these songs, there is a certain airy freedom, a sense of space and unpredictability throughout Amnesiac. This becomes especially clear in its raucous, jazz funeral ending--that while this might be serious, incredible music, it is still incredibly fun. This is why, while I love Kid A dearly, I will give a possibly unpopular opinion: Amnesiac is my favorite Radiohead album.
I'll close this review, which frankly, as I've said all I need to say, doesn't need to be any longer than this, with a quote from Evan Pricco's 2010 Juxtapoz interview of Radiohead's longtime artistic collaborator, Stanley Donwood:
How come you don’t live in London?
Because there you can’t get out. You can’t see the countryside. It’s too flat. I grew up in Essex County and it was very flat, and very close to London. Funny enough, though, London is my favorite city in the world. In a fucked up way, though.
I’m really into the history of a place, and the first thing I do when I’m in a place like San Francisco is say, “How did all this stuff get here, and what was here before?” And a lot of American history has been erased, a lot of the Native American culture and history destroyed. But in London you get a full history of things. People have been writing about it for 1,000 years. When I wander through London, I feel like I’m drifting through the autumn leaves of the past.
London is probably dying as a city, it probably won’t last another 100 years in terms of economic and political influence. The influence is waning. So I walk through this faded city, and everywhere I go, every name of a street means something, there is a story. And you can picture very clearly how everything in London looked 100 years ago, 200, 500… its all there. It’s all written about. That is why I love London.
And that is what all the artwork I did for the Radiohead album Amnesiac is all about: London as an imaginary prison, a place where you can walk around and you are the Minotaur of London, we are all the monsters, we are all half human half beast. We are trapped in this maze of this past.
So Amnesiac was a London album?
For me it was. The work I did on Amnesiac was done by me taking the train to London, getting lost and taking notes.
And that was sort of what the album was about, wasn’t it? Like finding all these historical documents in someone’s attic from a hundred years ago. Nothing sounds like it goes together, but there is this voice that links it all together, verifying that its from the same culture. That’s an amazingly underrated album.
We wanted it to be a like a book. And someone made these pages in a book and it went into drawer in a desk and was forgotten about in the attic. And the attic was then forgotten. And visually and musically the album is about finding the book and opening the pages. And that is why I wanted to make that physical book with the album that we did.
1. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box 4:00
2. Pyramid Song 4:49
3. Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors ([note 1]) 4:07
4. You and Whose Army? 3:11
5. I Might Be Wrong 4:54
6. Knives Out 4:15
7. Morning Bell/Amnesiac 3:14
8. Dollars and Cents 4:52
9. Hunting Bears 2:01
10. Like Spinning Plates 3:57
11. Life in a Glasshouse 4:34
Monday, October 02, 2017
Where's the guitar? If there's a joke to be made at the "listen to the album once while texting someone, then write a definitive review of the entire album" mentality's expense--and there are even more jokes to be made at that mentality's expense than there are words in this sentence--it's in the groupspeak reevaluations that invariably occur ten years after any truly great album was initially greeted lukewarmly. Then again, we are reaching peak mass to a degree that I wonder if any album released after 2010 is ever going to be reevaluated. There are too many of them, and genres have splintered and sub-splintered to a degree that the only people posting retrospectives will be blogs like this one visited only in the thousands per-month, all retrospecting different things so that it all only adds up to so much noise. Yep, I, the Nicsperiment, am noise. I just admitted it...
But of course, I love the sound of my own voice, and I set up this review with that lumbering intro simply to point out the fact that critics largely dismissed Kid A at the time of its release, wondering what happened to the old alternative rock band, confused by this experimental entity in its place. Then, all of a sudden, it's the greatest album of the 00's. My own nearly eight-year-old "HOT TAKE!!!" best albums of the 00's list put it at number one, as well. Now that I am older (I could be President now!) and considerably less hot-takey, I'd love to make a new best albums of the 00's list. However, I am not sure if I would replace the album in the top spot. Do I hate that I posted an opinion agreed upon by Pitchfork? Does Pitchfork even still exist? I'd type in the URL to check, but I didn't sleep well last night, and I don't feel like it. But yes, I do hate that not only did I post an opinion similar to Pitchfork's, but also that I cannot make fun of them for suddenly changing their minds about Kid A. They always thought it was perfect. However, I must say, I did, too.
* * *Before Blockbuster Video became obsolete, Blockbuster Music became obsolete. Actually, our Blockbuster Music become Wherehouse Music, and then FYE, and now it's an empty building with a FOR SALE sign in front, which really makes me miss the 90's and 00's, random college nights digging through CD racks with friends. I also miss seeing posters of gorgeous album artwork plastered on Blockbuster/Wherehouse/FYE walls, which, if it was good enough, could coerce me into buying an album I'd never heard a song from. This happened one beautiful spring afternoon when I purchased a double-whammy of The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Radiohead's Kid A, Kid A's jagged, forlorn, majestic mountain peaks rising on the store wall, Yoshimi a marvel of graphic design. I dig that Flaming Lips album...at least the first half of it, but that drive home, and my subsequent hours of music listening were dedicated to Kid A. I felt transported. The gorgeous, dense CD booklet, full of incredible artwork heightened the experience even more--it was like I was unearthing artifacts from another world--you can even remove the back of the CD jewel case to see secret messages! Yes, jewel case! This really is an artifact from another world!
And get this: the CD version is actually the definitive one--the vinyl has a minimalist version of the original artwork, missing its secret messages and most key image. But what about the music?
* * *I'll do a breakdown of song emotions, as I did for OK Computer, in a moment. First, I'd like to say something about the album as a whole, and why it checks off my boxes, but may not check yours.
World-building and musical storytelling are extremely important to me in an album. By that, I mean that I like albums that exude a cohesive tone and feeling, and that follow some kind of consistent emotional arc--the first track sounds like an opening, the last track sounds like a closer, and what comes in between follows a natural path from the first point to the last. Surprisingly, few albums actually do this. In fact, you could just shuffle most of them and never know the difference. They're more a collection of songs. A bunch of random Polaroids instead of photographs ordered deliberately to tell a story. I don't mean that I only like concept albums, but albums with a cohesive emotional flow. Kid A's got a Nile's worth of that. Again, as Kid A has been pontificated about to a great degree in a great degree of groupspeak, I feel it will be more worthwhile to break the album down by my emotional reactions to each of the ten tracks, particularly as those reactions have changed little in the last fifteen years:
1. "Everything in Its Right Place" From the icy, isolating opening keyboard tones, this album immediately envelops you. Even though this song is barely more than Thom Yorke's vocals, haunted by distortions of itself over the aforementioned keyboard and cold electronics, the listener is plunged into a unique aural dimension, continued with...
2. "Kid A" This song starts off like a suddenly come to life late-night railroad crossing in a mountainous, alien, blue-ice-toned landscape, as strange aurora blossom overhead. One can easily picture that landscape dotted by enormous, incomprehensible glacial shapes, as the floating train of Thom Yorke's nearly illegible computerized vocals cheerfully tell a story of horror over a glitchy, ice-tapped beat.
3. "The National Anthem" The best proof that this is a completely transportive dive into a fully-realized world of Radiohead's creation: The first song to sound anything like a "full band" song is the most unsettling yet, even though it's one of the most fun songs the band ever recorded. A propulsive bassline and funky drumbeat highlight the band's newfound reliance on rhythm, with atmospheric, space-filling spectral sweeps in the place of guitars, punctuated by a funky, insane chorus of horns, and strange radio snippets.
4. "How to Disappear Completely" A terrifying, acoustic-guitar-based track, pierced by the album's secret all-star, a Johnny Greenwood played ondes Martenot. The ondes Martenot is an ancient electronic instrument. It sounds like a jar full of ghosts. Thom Yorke's repeated utterance of "I'm not here. this isn't happening" is his quintessential alienation and depersonalization lyric.
5. "Treefingers" I love how this electronic instrumental is so warm, comforting, and organic, after the coldness and discomfort of the first four tracks. It's like a breather. It reminds me of NIN's "A Warm Place" in that way.
6. "Optimistic" Perhaps the only true full band song on the album, with jangly guitar, earth-rumbling drums, and everyone playing a rather normal part, even as Yorke's "You can try the best you can, the best you can is good enough" sounds about as sincere as a Presidential handshake, especially when he follows it up with "...dinosaurs roaming the Earth," further bringing home the apocalyptic feeling I keep mentioning. There's a picture in the CD booklet that looks like future humans marveling at the detritus of our current civilization, which fits this album just perfectly.
7. "In Limbo" A really beautiful song with some gorgeous, circular, atmospheric guitar lines, evoking a feeling of getting lost in the woods...
8. "Idioteque" And what do you find there but this icily beautiful electronic nightmare, Yorke howling "women and children first" over a savage beat and creepy drones. This song sold me on Radiohead, and for all its insanity, even my seven-year thinks it's a really fun song.
9. "Morning Bell" I love the fact that, though this song is an intentional come-down from "Idioteque," it still keeps momentum going. I also love how spaced-out, disconnected, yet strangely emotional and urgent Yorke makes the lyrics feel, juxtaposing the "women and children first" line of the previous song with this one's "cut the kids in half."
10. "Motion Picture Soundtrack" A bizarro closer, with harps and organ, like having a depressing meal in a 1940's restaurant while an unconvincing friend tells you everything is going to be okay. I love the silence afterward before the short hidden track. Hidden sound might be more apt, a gorgeous electronic object streaking through the sky, crashing into the ocean, and then illuminating the surface, promising some sort of new and beautiful change.
1. Everything in Its Right Place 4:11
2. Kid A 4:44
3. The National Anthem 5:51
4. How to Disappear Completely 5:56
5. Treefingers 3:42
6. Optimistic 5:15
7. In Limbo 3:31
8. Idioteque 5:09
9. Morning Bell 4:35
10. Motion Picture Soundtrack 7:00
Friday, September 22, 2017
Radiohead excavated the buried treasure of their true gift at the end of sophomore album, The Bends: the ability to convey despair. Since they pulled this musical feeling from the pit of their hearts, they've little deviated from it, even as their sound changes in leaps and bounds.
From the first notes of Radiohead's junior effort, OK Computer, the music espouses a certain feeling tragedy like everything in the world is irrevocably wrong. As, I said above, this feeling would dominate the next ten years of Radiohead's work, until In Rainbows let in just a little light. I find all four of the albums Radiohead released between 1997-2003, despite their aural differences, to be thematically and emotionally interconnected--as singular as OK Computer is, taken as a part of a greater whole, it is even more magnificent. Musically, OK Computer takes the instruments from the previous guitar-driven rock work of the band's first two albums, and hands them to ghosts. This music sounds like it was recorded by the spectres of humanity after the apocalypse, and sent back as a haunting to their formerly living selves. Kid A, which I'll get to next, sounds like it takes place in the rubble of this apocalypse (that I am creating as my own narrative because 500,000 think pieces have been written in the last few months in support of OK Computer's 20th year anniversary, and if I'm going to add a 500,001st, I might as well make it my own...otherwise, why add to the noise?).
The band achieved OK Computer's spectral sound by heavily experimenting with effects pedals and electronics, while beefing up and giving greater prominence to their rhythm section. At the same time, it is clear that each of the players have greatly increased in talent and experience--these songs never start to blur together to me the way The Bends' do after a while. Vocalist/lyricist, Thom Yorke, has mastered the finer facets of his voice, and uses it to the emotional hilt, fully exercising his shrill, yet enjoyable falsetto at moments of peak feeling--something that The Nicsperiment, who can only sing on pitch in his falsetto, greatly appreciates.
Yorke's lyrics have morphed here from straightforward declarations of personal feeling, to metaphorical, metaphysical cultural commentary. He strongly excels at this...actually, the entire band strongly excel at everything they attempt here, giving Gen X their own Dark Side of the Moon, or whatever Baby Boomer rock album you think wildly and trippily experiments, while putting a hat on the alienating feelings of the time.
Critics have broken down these songs on a technical level to such a vast degree, it is nearly pointless for me to do the same, so the only thing that seems relevant is attempting to convey my own emotional reaction to OK Computer. The funny thing is that, living and attending high school in a rural town, with only the local college radio station to let me know what was considered cool, my initial contact with OK Computer was limited. I didn't really get into the band until they released Kid A, and honestly, seeing the artwork at the record store intrigued me to purchase that album as much as the music did. The random songs I did hear from OK Computer, like for instance, "Karma Police," or "No Surprises," didn't really tickle my fancy. It was not until a few years later, after Kid A, that I heard OK Computer in sequence, and experienced those songs true, monstrous power. So in that spirit, in sequence, how about I list the tracks side by side with a corresponding feeling.
1. "Airbag" "From an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe..." The task of this tragic, cosmic hero feels full of despairing futility, on an epic, universal stage.
2. "Paranoid Android" The despair becomes earthbound, hyperkinetic.
3. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" And suddenly things are chill, and a bit wistful, staring at the stars over tall pines.
4. "Exit Music (For a Film)" Until the quiet hate of this song, with "We hope that you choke" never sung so softly, and yet with such veracity, burns that forest down.
5. "Let Down" Total depression, so damn beautiful in its twinkly chimes like a wake-up call to the reality of fruitless striving, but it takes "Everything Meaningless" to such a monumental, universal level, that it's infinitely crushing, "Let down and hanging around, crushed like a bug in the ground," the rhythm section a boot, stomping you down. Makes me think of the album cover more than any song here. My favorite song from OK Computer, analogous to the "American Radiohead," Appleseed Cast's "Rooms and Gardens." Let me go sob despondently for a moment.
6. "Karma Police" This song is like you drop out of the last song into a quiet, brown-grey street, and are immediately and nonsensically arrested.
7. "Fitter Happier" The automated spoken word of this song might be more depressing than "Let Down." This album, by this point, would be the hugest downer ever recorded, if not for the singular artistry on display.
8. "Electioneering" Suddenly, things get wild and fun, out of control, even though it feels just a little wrong, like things are going off the rails.
9. "Climbing Up the Walls" They don't want to choke you anymore, they want to creep up behind you and, in a moment of supreme terror, bash your skull in.
10. "No Surprises" Well after all that, as you lie half-dead in the gutter, things might as well get a little twinkly again.
11. "Lucky" Another thing that draws the thin line demarcating this album in the masterpiece quadrant, and out of the depressing drag one--the inexplicably positive lyrics of this song, like "I feel my luck could change."
12. "The Tourist" There's some bizarre closure to this song that makes it feel like it could go on forever in its demands, "Hey man, slow down. Idiot! Slow down!" infinity being the very opposite of closure. This album is perfect. On to the apocalypse. After the following rabbit-trail:
If you've never suffered from depression, just imagine this song as your mindset every waking second. You can't move. And just like the middle of a depressive episode, it feels like there's no end or hope in sight. Of course, there is, but when you're in the middle of it, that doesn't even seem like an option or possibility. "Let Down" thoroughly encapsulates these feelings better than any other piece of music I've heard.
Sorry for this digression, but I'd be remiss to review this album, say I'm getting personal, and then not mention this. Thankfully, if your life is this song, there are ways out. From someone who's been there--and in the sense that this is something that must be actively fought for a lifetime, even if I feel fine right now, is there--there's no shame in finding help.
1. Airbag 4:44
2. Paranoid Android 6:23
3. Subterranean Homesick Alien 4:27
4. Exit Music (For a Film) 4:24
5. Let Down 4:59
6. Karma Police 4:21
7. Fitter Happier 1:57
8. Electioneering 3:50
9. Climbing Up the Walls 4:45
10. No Surprises 3:48
11. Lucky 4:19
12. The Tourist 5:24