Here is the plan:
Over the past 25 years there has been no band that has remained a part of the culture of the English speaking world as much as Radiohead. To look at their career is to look at two things: first is to see a frozen representation of a moment in time. The second is to see a band pushing against that time, making strides forward musically and culturally. I believe that by looking carefully at the music of Radiohead, great insight can be gained about the culture prevelant at that time.
If you'd like to know more about Radiohead, wikipedia has a pretty good article. Also, the bands website gives a good impression of heir aesthetic.
In these album projects, you will be getting my thoughts on these albums. Pablo Honey and The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows. It is going to be very important that you listen to the albums, if not for my point to become clear, then for the sheer fact that you need to hear them.
Over the next couple of months, I hope to lay out my general understanding of Radiohead's importance and why they might be my favorite band ever. I hope that you'll join me on this trip.
Radiohead - Pablo Honey and The Bends
Published in 1993 and 1995
Part I - Pablo Honey and The Bends
Let's put these albums into context. These are two of the formative albums by Radiohead. They are also their weakest efforts, by the incredily high standards of their later albums. They give great insight into where the band is going to end up, and the moments of genius are fantastic.
No work about these two albums could be considered complete without talking about Creep, so let's use that as a starting point. As the second track off of the album Planet Telex, it is the track that defines the early sound of Radiohead. It continues to be one of their most popular songs, and if there is one Radiohead song that everyone knows, it is Creep.
The first time I heard Creep, that I can remember, was in my fathers 1989ish Toyota Celica. Needless to say, it was kind of a peice of crap car, but it had a pretty good radio, and we would listen to it constantly. I'm sure I had heard the song before, but this was the first time I really remember listening to the lyrics and understanding them, in a naive way. It was a song that I fell in love with, as so many did, because of the open display of hurt and longing that was on display. The mixture of a soft whispering verse and a screaming chorus was exactly what I needed from a song at that time.
As I grew up, I realized more and more that the song was not just about hurt, but also about the appearence of the singer through anothers eyes. The fear of inadiquacy is the through line of the whole song, but the more it is listened to, the more it becomes apparent that he has never expressed these feelings to the 'you' of the song. This alienation is a theme of Radiohead's music, and will come back in the future.
While I quite enjoy the rest of Planet Telex, for the most part, it is just pretty generic rock. Thome Yorke has an amazing voice, Johnny Greenwood plays a great guitar, and the bass and drum parts are solid. Anyone Can Play Guitar is a great example of the band doing it's best to sound like U2. This is not a problem, but it doesn't really do all that much for me.
This was the state of music when Radiohead made it's debut. Guitar, bass, drums, vocalist, playing loud and emotional songs to what sounds like a huge stadium. Everyone wanted to be U2 and sell out huge stadiums. However, as Creep is evidence of, there was a backlash coming, and soon, it would no longer be about pure volume, but about closeness and the use of space.
I think the best way to think about Planet Telex is to think about it as a baseline for Radiohead. They could have continued down this path of solid rock, but they went a different direction.
The Bends is a different beast, but is a child of Planet Telex. The first track is a testiment to that, not just in the fact that it is named after the album, but also because it takes what that album did and moves it up a notch. The band has added the piano that will be important moving forward, and we start to hear the distortion that will become increasingly important to Radiohead.
The second track, The Bends, the albums title track, is a lot more like the original album. An interesting thing to consider is the direction that radiohead would have gone if it hadn't gone the route that they had. I have a feeling that they would have occilated between Planet Telex style experimentation and something like this. One thing that I must emphisize is exactly how much I like this album. I think that it is well made and well produced, but, in the scheme of where they progressed, it's tough to love at the same level.
High and Dry is one of those songs, and the third on the album. It's a song that just screams wandering around in A cold and indifferent city to watch the sun rise in an indie movie because it is too good. It is musically well done, the lyrics are clear, and the ideas are well executed. It's maybe the perfect song of it's time.
Speaking of timeless songs, have you ever seen something sad in a movie or tv show with a budget? Then you have heard the next track on the album. Fake Plastic Trees is a masterpeice that has become so connected with crappy movies, that it makes me sad to listen to it. It's so well made, heartwrenching and beautiful that my heart hurts when I have to think about how it's been taken from his album.
(Side note: I know I am kind of harping on this commercialization thing, and that deserves some explination. I am the kind of person who associates things easily. So, let's say someone takes a song and puts it into a movie. I will then store that in my memory as a moment that defined the song and the movie. Sometimes, this is an amazing pairing, like (most obvious example in history) Steeler's Wheel in Resivoir Dogs, a moment that would be less if one subtracted any part of it. This is why the Radiohead thing bugs me, because they never use them well, especially this album. To prove my point about how obvious the uses are: Entourage. Convinced? You should be. Now back to writing about music.)
Fake Plastic Trees sounds a lot like Creep to me, in that it deals with the minor heartbreaks and deaths tha
are experienced every day. The beginning ofthe song evokes a lonelyness expressed so well that it is still effecting me after three listens in a row. Following High and Dry is also a stroke of genius. The song sounds so different that it creates a tension on the record that holds for the rest of it. We are now on the hit parade.
Bones is a retrn to a more classic song, which could be a U2 song. However, for a complete education on radiohead, it's important, because it has some distortion, and Thom Yorke is starting to experiment a lot with the fallseto that becomes more important.
(Nice Dreams) is a great song, which follows the heavy distortion of Bones with a quiet and delicate sounding acoustic riff. There are a bunch of layers in this song, giving time to a beautiful violin part and some wonderful backgrounds. The voice is firmly in the middle distance, with contrastig lyrics giving different sentiments, and just a lovely song, all together. (just a lovely song).
We switch back to more of a rock vibe with Just, a pretty great song. It's a very sing alongy song for me, and it is a very excellent rock song. I think the hit song aspect makes it a little easier to get into, and the solos, if basic, are perfectly okay.
We go back to the more weird with My Iron Lung, a very delicate and well composed song. The title is somewhat interesting to me, just because it is the first indication of the man and machine theme that rules OK Computer, but mostly this is a basic Bends era Radiohead song. Consistantly good, but it doesn't seem to be reaching for much more than basic compitence. The distorted sections are good and rock and roll, but it's somewhat tame overall. Fun to listen to though.
Bulletproof ( I wish I was) is a great example of where we are going in the Radiohead pantheon. It's suprisingly subtle, quiet and looming. The guitar parts are simple, but the sounds are beautiful and they completely make the song for me. It's not the best rock song on the album, but it is obviously the one that no one expected from them. It's almost a candidate for being the frontrunner for emo, but Coldplay is probably a better comparison.
Black star, for all of it's bland structure and boring lyrics has one of my favorite sing along verses from this album. The hook is really really good, and I love a good hook. The lyrics are delicate and intricate if a bit bland. The instrumentation is good, but nothing to write home about. It's just consistant.
Take that last paragraph and repeat it for Sulk. There is more ambient sounds and there are more interesting little touches, but it's just a good song.
(I know, another aside. I realize that I'm complaining a lot about "just good" songs, but it's dificult to seperate the good from the truly excellent with a band this good one comes to expect more.)
Street Spirit (Fade Out) however, is a truly excellent song it's a slowly developing, well constructed, quietly powerful song. The flourishes seem completely needed, and it just holds up really well. It's a fitting end to an album that played with both sides of a truly great band.
I've delved a lot into the individual songs in this album, and we talked about Creep, so let's step back and look at the big picture. Radiohead as an entity is at an interesting point. They have already had unimaginable success with a grunge influenced song that has become an instant classic. Their great contribution to music may very well be that song, and their second album shows glimpses of genius in two different directions.
Imagine if the band had gone down the other path. Radiohead writes another three or four albums of grunge inspired rock, trying to remain relevent in the oughts, but slowly being overtaken by young, nu-metal groups. Their more mature sound relegates them outside the polite company of radio and they slowly fade out of relevance.
This would have been a sad fate for them, and everyone would have listened to Creep and thought, "hey, whatever happened to these guys.
As it turned ot though, well, that's the next part of the Catalog Project: Radiohead.
That's what we call a cliffhanger, ladies and more feminine ladies. These are probably going to come once a month or two, but if you'd like them to come faster or slower, please leave a comment.
In other housekeeping news, we have almost reached 1000 hits on the site, and when we do, I'll add some stats to the next album project, so you can see where everyone else who reads tap is from, and we can figure ot together who is reading from the really weird ones. January, by the way, has been by far our most successful month ever, and I would like to thank you for that. Every time I check the blog and see the counter turned over, it warms my cold monster heart. Te next update will be next Saturday, same bat time, same bat channel. If you'd like, you can subscribe to the blog, spread the word, or even suggest an album. Also, and this would be crazy, if you wanted to write an album project, we can always use more insight.
For the future, I have a list of things I'd like to do, including an audio commentary of an album, a group chat about the album as an art form, and the Eppys or Albys for epic or interesting suggestions.
Okay, housekeeping over, go back to your lives or leave a comment or something, or tell me what you think about these albums.
"You like monkey?" "Sure, I like monkeys." "I hate monkey."