Thursday, July 30, 2015

Radiohead Appreciation Post: The Bends

“You can force it but it will not come.” Dear god this album’s sweet perfections. It’s the thing that convinced me Radiohead were making music I’d never heard before but would listen to a million times without feeling drudgery. Listen to the drums and the nearly demonic, menacing synth noise that crashes during the first chorus. “Everyone is...broken.” Yes. Yes. Add on the original title Planet Xerox and you feel how this album begins without any sense of positivity. There’s no chance of “Anyone Can Play Guitar”s Romantic view of Rock. This album was spawned by “Blow Out” and the cynicism of “Inside My Head” (as I said in my post on Pablo Honey: track it down, dammnit!) 

Yorke’s lyrics take a huge leap in complexity, avoiding rock cliches and reminding we feeble Americans that there’s a fine line between opaque lyricism and outright gibberish (see: 90s grunge and post-grunge nonsense lyrics). Do I wish some of the lyrics made a bit more sense? Not on The Bends. (Ok, maybe “Sulk” could be a bit less obtuse -- it’s about a serial killer, according to Yorke.) 
The Bends really captures a sense of paranoia and a shifting earth. Does Yorke trust anyone? Even his bandmates? Well, dig through the countless interviews and figure it out. Regardless of the personal demonology, the album does its best to capture the rush towards the age of over-sharing and under-trusting via the still nascent online world (this is the age of CompuServe and Prodigy and AOL). 
“We don’t have any real friends!” Yorke declares on the title track, the band’s first draft of a “Paranoid Android” kind of epic. Hear the imagery, absorb the shifts in rhythm and energy. “I wanna live, / breathe, / I wanna be a part of the human race!” Have you ever played the riff that follows that line? It’s neat, like the perfect leap of a little spider. The whole song crashes down.
But the idea of leaping reappears in the silly little pop song “High and Dry.” Here’s song that often leaves the daredevil suspended, despite the threats of injury that Yorke’s obsessed with in this period (see: “Bones” & “High and Dry” b-sides: “Killer Cars” & “Stupid Car.” Nevermind the imagery of “My Iron Lung”). The simple solo, the verse-chorus-verse setup. It’s not surprising Yorke seemed to despise this song, often introducing it as meaningless and “just a pop song.” In fact, they only played it a total of 81 times between 1994-7. (Perspective: they played “Creep” 129 times and the single “Just” 142 times in that same timeframe. Info from

Anyway, who cares about “High and Dry,” right? This album is all about two tracks: “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit [Fade Out].” Right? Well, yes if you’re not old enough to know Radiohead as something other than the publicity shy, MTV-avoiding, press-hating band that they’d become post OK Computer. But this album offers such amazing moments, from “Bones” spiking vocals and gritty guitar along with “I used to fly like Peter Pan! / All the children flew when they touched my hands!”
But still, there’s more and more here. Yes, I extolled the virtues of Pablo Honey, but The Bends is near perfection in terms of pacing both on a song-level and in tracklisting. “Nice Dream” feels like floating on the ocean, watery, soft feeling after the crunch of “Bones.” “Nice Dream” then leads into the upfront guitar mastery of “Just,” one of the band’s most complicated early songs (There’s a thousand chords crammed in there.)
Then, “My Iron Lung,” one of the best songs to hear live. Drink in that metallic, twisty riff that sounds like robot cancer—yes, robot cancer.“The brain / says I’m re-ceiv-ing pain, / a lack of ox-y-gen, / from our li-fe support.” What fresh hell did Yorke experience in his life to obsess about pain and death so much? Oh, just a bunch of hospital visits for his eye when he was a little kid. Just a summer of working at a mental hospital (which would inspire “Climbing Up the Walls.”) Couple of car accidents. I mean, what else do you want from the guy, sunshine? Drinking songs? Leave that shit to Oasis. Radiohead makes the stuff that sounds like art compressed into neat packages. “When the power runs out / we’ll just hum.” Hum what? Pop songs.
But oh, before I hear the wrath of thousands arguing that Radiohead isn’t a pop song writing band, that the albums supersede the beauty of the tracks, before that happens we hear: the soft throb of “Bullet Proof.” What a chilling song featuring Johnny Greenwood’s nearly liquid arpeggios and Yorke’s gentle, haunting prolonged “proooooooof.” And oh the guitar work and the sound of a solemn wind behind it all—it’s perfection. Like a song captured in sap, eventually becoming fossilized. Track down some live versions to hear Johnny Greenwood get all sound-nerdy. (1995 Paris Cafe de la Danse, for one; 1995 Stockholm FM recording for a better sounding one).
We need to fade out, again, though. The pressures and paranoia of the album all get soothed by the tap-tap-tap of the drums and the driving arpeggio of “Street Spirit.” Simple backing keyboards, Yorke’s best vocal performance out of the first two albums, and lyric imagery that still outshines some of their later work. “[tap tap tap] Cracked eggs, / dead birds, / scream as they fight for life; I can feel death, can see its beady eyes.” I always felt like the video for “Just” should’ve been used for this song as it seems like there’s something secret here that is just past knowable. Then again, the original is fantastic too. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: MARTians

MARTians MARTians by Blythe Woolston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read Blythe Woolston, I never know what the main character is going to ultimately do. in MARTians, Z is booted out into the world not only by her school (recently closed to help balance the budget) but also by her mom, who takes off and lingers like a specter. This is a novel seemingly about a world gone awry where consumers rule the show and the forgotten class of workers—some young, some mentally ill, some fully indoctrinated, some whisked off to parts unknown because they can’t adjust—suffers endlessly.

But, really, this is a book that’s really about transitional anxiety — how little high school prepares people for a non-college bound path, how little our families prepare us for complex social and professional relationships, how little we actually end up needing to survive, but how much we lack when it comes to being emotionally healthy, mentally healthy.

A great book, brisk and funny, dark and weird, set in a world that’s got so much depth it made me think we might not be far from what Woolston’s arranged here.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Radiohead appreciation post: Pablo Honey (1993)

[Note that links to the album and individual songs are to the Spotify Web Player, which will require you to login to listen. Was the easiest way to link to audio without legal issues.]

Oh, Pablo Honey. It all starts so delicately with the trilling and the swaying rhythm and then the polished distortion before “You…are…the sun and moon and sky are you….” Already, Radiohead’s career long interest in the moon is in our face, but the crucial thing with “You” is that it showcases one of Pablo Honey’s great strengths—the constant, successful shifts between soft and loud. The energy doesn’t even have to change—the soft sections of “You” and “Stop Whispering”—maintain a bouncing element. Don’t you wonder what “Exit Music” on OK Computer would sound like if given the same treatment (not as a replacement, of course, but as an alternate take)?
Who made this silly cover? Where’s Stanley Donwood?!
 Of course, the infamous, beautiful, career-launching “Creep” is the model for many Radiohead songs offering the soft, loud, soft, loud, louder, loudest build-up, which “Karma Police” and other tracks offer in slightly modified forms. Is “Creep” deserving of twenty-plus years of fan-lust, the kind of song that old fans secretly dream will appear on setlists between more the mature songwriting of “Lotus Flower” or “A Wolf at the Door”? Yes. Yes it does. It’s the perfect song of self-loathing, delivered by Yorke’s authentic misery and aided by the chu-CHUNK of the guitar (the noise of which the band admitted was an attempt to sabotage the song during a performance and essentially became the key element. The most fitting sound for a beautiful song about feeling ugly.)

The album’s not without its weaknesses, though, and “How Do You?” is certainly lacking in many areas, particularly lyrical prowess. Now, fans of 21st century Radiohead might scoff and suggest that Pablo Honey doesn’t have much in the way of compelling songwriting, but I suggest people who believe that are bastards. While I agree that “Thinking About You” offers a vanilla verse-chorus-verse structure only made interesting by its frank talk of masturbation while “Ripcord” and “Prove Yourself” do little to break out of basic rock song presentation, there’s much magic to be found in Johnny Greenwood’s guitar work on “Stop Whispering” and “Vegetable” nevermind the nearly-fit-for-The-Bends closer “Blow Out.” Seriously, listen to the whirlwind of guitar noise at the end of “Stop Whispering” or the near-march pounding of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” which, in addition to its uncharacteristically positive lyrical content seems to let the bass drive the rhythm while the distorted guitar drapes over the bass line like wet sheets. When this song starts it suggests a fast-pace as the noise swirl approaches, then the drums kick in, cutting through to set the pace. Perhaps Yorke seems too earnest when he sings about getting to Heaven or yearning to be like Jim Morrison.

But I’m going to set this song up as evidence that the dancing Yorke of the “Lotus Flower” video has always been inside this enigmatic lead singer; it’s just tough to stay positive, you know? Listen to the solo around 2:30 (it’s buried a bit far in the mix, yes, but who can blame the band for that?). Listen to the song fade out, like the tide receding. You still think the album lacks some kind of uniqueness? Something worth returning to? Then listen to the guitar on “Vegetable”—it’s not dependent on chords at all, just a beautiful little string of notes whose repetition barely stands out. It neatly mimics the vocals, adds trills here and there, then dives into a puddle of tidy distortion that gives the song a late-afternoon-in-the-late-summer feeling. And you can’t deny hearing Yorke sing “I’m not a vegetable! I will not destroy myself!” isn’t thrilling. Especially because he doesn’t give that great moment away until the latter part of the song.

Doesn’t this feel more like a Radiohead cover?
At least it’s more in line with The Bends and OK Computer...

This whole album has moments that are not basic chorus moments. It’s not the solos alone that stand out. It’s all about the construction. Listen to the difference in distortion on the solo in “Vegetable” versus the initial, cleaner sound. Listen to how Johnny and Ed O’Brien swirl the sounds around. “I Can’t” has a falsetto-teasing Yorke sing about the doubt of young love. (Or lust, hard to know the difference.) But something about the opening guitar riff, which the chorus and echo (maybe some flange?) has an amazing quality. The song almost doesn’t fit on the album. Yorke’s voice is restrained; the palm-mute-happy guitar; the repetitive chorus—it sounds like a lesser band’s best song. “Even though I try, I can’t.” Yes, yes. Do I need to even mention that the word ‘lurgee’ is a 50s radio show term for an illness? A slow song that relies on guitar-work similar to “Vegetable” and showcases Yorke’s obsession with health issues but also a sense of humor.

Finally, Yorke’s proclaimed favorite song (at least for a while). “Blow Out” has a minimal chorus that leads into noise, pure noise, the kind of composition of sound that would pave the way for the opening track on The Bends and suggests other songs like “Paranoid Android” and “The National Anthem”. But, staying in the moment, listen to that late night sound—the cymbals, the jazzy chords, and the high-pitched PINNNGGGGGG. Where does this song come from in the band’s short history? I think it’s the song that opened up a path in their mind. I think it’s the last song on Pablo Honey because it points the way forward. Sure there’s the chaos and noise of “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and non-album track “Inside My Head” (worth tracking down as it’s more brilliant than half of Pablo Honey). But “Blow Out” is a layered masterpiece that may not sound as great as later songs, but it showcases each band member distinctly. Selway’s drums drive towards the release of the final metallic-tunnel sound of the closing solo. It comes crashing down and I suggest you go right into The Bends opening track “Planet Telex”, because it’s meant to be that way. How could it not be?