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?