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Radiohead Week, Day 7: “And if I Could…Be….”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 17, 2007

All the time

One of the more frequent arguments that I used to get into involved with Radiohead was the argument of whether or not they were a Britpop band. The conventional wisdom mostly says no–no one’s gonna be confusing OK Computer with Parklife or Different Class anytime soon, mostly because they were too artsy, they were too intellectual and too unconcerned with concepts like image and capturing the zeitgeist to ever truly be part of such a NOW movement like Britpop. If nothing else, they just weren’t British enough–true Britpop should’ve been inextricable from its nation of origin, and knocking out reference after reference that non-UKers couldn’t possibly understand.

But for the longest time, I still refused to accept that Radiohead were never a Britpop band. And that’s because aside from the cleverness, the accessibility, the sheer UKness, there was still a quailty to certain Radiohead songs that stuck with me as Britpop. And that was the truly epic, generational feel that all the best Britpop songs had–from Blur’s “End of a Century” to Pulp’s “Common People” to Oasis’s “Live Forever,” all the best Britpop songs had this feeling that made you, as Noel Gallagher might say it, “put your arm around your best mate and sing along”–and that’s absolutely the way I felt about “Fake Plastic Trees”. It’s too epic to be anything else.

You get the feeling that if Radiohead had had a few more years, or even a few more minutes, to think about “Fake Plastic Trees,” that they might never have recorded it at all. The main influence that the band lists for the song in the first place is Jeff Buckley, that doomed American singer/songwriter that really only the lamest of dudes still list as influences. But Radiohead caught him in that rare moment in between his cult status and his actual cult status, and consequently, they were able to actually be influenced by him without realizing that eventually, by doing so, they would be in company with some of the weakest dudes ever.

Consequently, “Fake Plastic Trees” has that distinct “I Want to Be a Doomed Rock and Roll Star with This Song as My Last Testament” feel, and that’s pretty much the feel that all the best rock songs have. You wouldn’t think of it from a song that starts with the lyric “A green plastic watering can / from a fake Chinese rubber plant”. Indeed, even to this day, I have no idea what that lyric means, or really what the whole song means. But it just has that feel, y’know? That kind of feel where even though you don’t really know where the lyrics are talking about, you just understand that they’re talking about the most important thing in the world. Accoustic guitar can do that to you at its best, really.

So the song builds and builds and builds, until the climax of the third verse. “SHE LOOKS LIKE THE REAAAAAAAAAALLLL THING / SHE TASTES LIKE THE REEEAAAAALLLLLL THING / MY FAKE PLAH-AAAAAAAAASTIC LOVE” By this time, the song is in full on rock-out mode, in a way so conventional and pleasure-center-appeasing that you can’t believe this band could ever go on to do “Everything in Its Right Place”. “But I can’t help but FEEEEEEELIIIIIING / I COULD BLOW THROUGH THE CEEEEEIIIIIILING / IF I JUST TUUUURRRRRNED and ran……”

Then comes my favorite Radiohead moment in any song ever. After Thom admits, like has so many times in this song before, “It wears me out,” he comes to the song’s point of ultimate confession. “And if I could…beeeee….who you wanted…” That pause before the “be” makes all the difference. Without it, it’s still a Britpop song, but just another Britpop song, but with it, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard–far more emotionally involving than “End of a Century,” “Common People,” or even “Live Forever”. Supposedly, Yorke did the song in two takes, and broke down in tears after doing so. That makes sense, since I’ve heard about a half-dozen live versions of it since, and every other time, he delivers the “If I could be” line without that hesitation. And it’s just not half the song that it is with the pause before the “be”. It’s that pause that makes the difference between being just another Radiohead anthem of pre-millenial alienation and being a legit Britpop anthem, which I still firmly believe FPT is.

The fact that Radiohead would probably be hugely insulted if they heard me referring to “Fake Plastic Trees” as a Britpop song demonstrates what an important song in the band’s catalogue it is. Like I said, if they recorded it today, it’d probably be all sorts of different–it’s doubtful anyone in the band is listening to Jeff Buckley that much these days, or breaking into tears about anything–but the fact that they were able to record something so unrestrainedly emotional before their intellectualism got the better of them is so unbelievably crucial, because it proves, despite the band’s best efforts, that they aren’t all brain and no heart. And it’d be hard to love the band like I do if I didn’t know that potential for unabashed flag-waving and anthem-writing wasn’t in them somewhere.

Posted in Radiohead Week | 7 Comments »

Radiohead Week, Day 6: “Just ‘Coz You Feel It, Doesn’t Mean It’s There”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 15, 2007

Somewhere I’m not so scatterbrained…

Expectations can be a bitch.

And I don’t mean expectations that other people have of you/your band. Yeah, those are a bitch too, but everyone knows that, most of all Radiohead, who spent the better part of a decade trying to dodge them in one way or another. I’m talking expectations that you have of other bands. No one ever talks about how stressful that can be, but it really is a squeeze. Being a fan of a band–I mean, a true fan, in the geekiest, most un-self-conscious way possible, which I think you can only really be for about a half-dozen artists in your entire life–means that not only do you hope a band’s new album is good just because you want a good new album, but because you’re terrified of the ramifications if it wasn’t up to snuff. You’d be overcome with depression over your band’s fall from grace, ashamed over not “getting it” in the way the artists intended, and utterly wrakcked with guilt for not being able to whole-heartedly defend the album to the band’s haters. It’s terrible pressure to put on a fan, really.

The week I got Hail to the Thief, I’d estimate I listened to it between 20 and 25 times. To some of you, this will seem horrifically excessive, to others, you’re probably saying to yourself “wtf, 20 to 25 times? And he calls himself a fan?” But considering I don’t think I’ve listened to the same album more than eight or nine times since I left for college, understand that this is a fair amount. And every time I listened to the album, I had a different opinion of it. But what I eventually realized was that these weren’t really my opinions–they were my opinions about what my opinions probably should be. My expectations for the record had been so great, I had spent so much time in mental preparation for it, stressed so much about what I was hearing during my first listen through, and then listened to it so many times, that I had completely psyched myself out of any pure, legitimate thoughts I could have about the album.

I had absolutely no idea how I felt about this album.

And as the months passed, it got no easier. Each time I listened to it again and started to think “hey, this is actually pretty good!” my brain countered with is that what you really think? Or are you just over-compensating for the devestation of what is essentially a sub-par Radiohead album? And then, every time I realized “yeah, I guess this album isn’t that great,” there my brain was with yeah, sure, just take the easy way out, that’s just you toeing the critical line because you’re too scared to say what you really think. My brain can be a fucking asshole sometimes. I mean seriously, what the fuck??? This wasn’t some ridiculously difficult noise rock album or something hard to wrap your head around, this was the most straightforward Radiohead album in eight years. Why couldn’t I just like it or not?

Flash forward to about four years later, and a funny thing happened. I was listening to In Rainbows for the first time, really digging the first few songs, when all of a sudden something reminded me of Hail the Thief, and as my mind flashed to it, I thought to myself “hey, there are some pretty cool songs on that album.” I waited, almost reflexively, for my brain’s inevitable retort. But much to my surprise, it didn’t come. I was just sitting there, listening to “All I Need” for the first time, and all I was thinking was “yeah, ‘Sit Down, Stand Up,’ that song was kinda great. And ‘I Will,” how fucking underrated is that song?” My first logical explanation for this was that this meant In Rainbows was actually so disappointing that I was already getting nostalgic for the last one. But that didn’t make sense–I was actually enjoying this album a lot, and “All I Need” was (and still is) the best song I had heard on it yet. But then the real reason came to me.

There’s a memorable scene in Homicide: Life on the Streets, maybe somewhere around the 5th season, where Kellerman is complaining to someone, Meldrick I think, or maybe Munch, about how pissed off he is about still being treated like the New Guy. He’d been there for a couple years/seasons at that point, and he didn’t understand why people were still acting that way. Lewis/Munch says something like “don’t worry about it, Bailiss was the New Guy for years, and now he’s one of us.” Kellerman says “So when do I stop being the New Guy?” And Lewis/Munch responds, of course, “When some other New Guy comes along.”

And I realized that that’s exactly how I felt about Radiohead. As long as Hail to the Thief was the New Guy, I would still treat it like that, wrapped up with all the anxieties of expectation, the pressure of that fateful first listen, and the mind-numbing redundancy of listening to it dozens of times in a row. But now that In Rainbows had come along and become the official new New Guy, HTTT instantly became just Another Radiohead Album. ‘ve been listening to my Radiohead mp3s on random this last week, and as miscellaneous HTTT tracks have come on (“Sail to the Moon,” “Where I End & You Begin,” “2 + 2 = 5”) I’ve been stunned with how fresh they sound–new, but oddly familiar. It’s an amazing freedom.

What’s more, I realized the same exact thing happened once before, with Amnesiac. The amount of expecation I had for that record was completely insane, even when compared to HTTT. I wore a T-shirt to class literally advertising the album the day it came out–I even pasted a print-out of the album cover to the front. The week after it was released, I absolutley refused to listen to any other album lest it cloud my judgement, so much so that when I accidnetally left it at a friend’s house that weekend, I didn’t listen to anything at all until I got it back two days later (or maybe I caved and borrowed a friend’s copy first, I don’t remember). I’d like to think that I was young enough at the time for it still to qualify as precocious, but needless to say, my obsession was thorough. Yet, for all my enthusiasm about the album, as with HTTT, I found myself perplexed as to my genuine opinon about it. Until, of course, HTTT came out, and then for once, I could sort of size it up at face value.

And all of this is what Radiohead’s approach to releasing In Rainbows was so unthinkably brilliant. Not only did they completely nullify fan expectations–no one had time to pigeonhole it before the thing got released–they freed their fans from placing expectations on themselves. My debut spin of In Rainbows, it was just like listening to any new album for the first time–it just so happened to be that that new album was by my favorite band still making music. And though I can’t say I’m positive I know how I feel about the album, I certainly know which songs I like more than others, and I know that the album has caused me far more joy than it has stress and misery, which is probably the first time I can say that about the release of a new Radiohead album.

I’m calling it at eight listens for this album, too. For both its sake and mine, I’m gonna try to treat it as litlte like the New Guy as possible, and maybe I won’t even have to wait for the band’s next LP–which, for all I know, might not be for another ten years, or might not come at all–for In Rainbows to become just Another Radiohead Album.

*Underrated Radiohead Songs of the Day*

Trans-Atlantic Drawl A bizarre one, even for a b-side in the most bizarre period in Radiohead history. This definitely used to be one of my favorites of theirs, the ridiculous energy and XTRMNTR-like aggression to the first half just melting into the noodly, ambient bit. It’s a little too awkward, but hey, it’s a b-side, awkwardness is its birthright.

Bulletproof…I Wish I Was (Acoustic) One of Radiohead’s prettiest first-period songs, slowed down to near-country levels of balladeering, and sounding all the prettier for it.

Easy Dub All-Stars f/ Toots & the May-Talls- “Let Down You’d have to be insane not to be skeptical about an all-Radiohead reggae cover band (much less one called Radiodread), but these guys do a shockingly good job of making the song their own.

Kid A Theory An experiment based on a theory circulated about five years ago–that if you play two copies of Kid A with something like 12 or 13 seconds in between them, they sync up in all sorts of cool and entirely intentional ways. Dunno if I buy it, but the evidence is certainly worth examining.

Banana CoIn-and out in 2:09, with some nifty hooks, nonsensical lyrics and a guitar solo that actually sounds like it’s drowning in its own distortion. Cool beans.

Posted in Radiohead Week | 7 Comments »

Radiohead Week, Day 5: “I Wanna Be, Wanna Be, Wanna Be Jim Morrison…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 14, 2007

“Your old albums, they sound quickly…old?”

One of my favorite Radiohead theories (which I may or may not have come up with on my own, I can’t remember) is one comparing their run of albums to that of The Beatles. I believe you could apply this to almost any major band of the last 40 years (especially the British ones), but it works especially well for Radiohead. Observe:

  • Rubber Soul = The Bends. Both albums sound like the same bands that made all their previous albums, but with an unmistakably huge growth in songwriting, instrumentation and production. Not quite into experimental territory yet, but enough signs of weirdness to foreshadow later progressions.
  • Revolver = OK Computer. The bands’ universally beloved masterworks. Cohesive, consistent and utterly staggering, two of the only albums in the rock canon that seemingly everyone can agree on. Also function as the sort of midway point for both bands’ careers, separating the early rock/pop stuff from later bizarreness.
  • Sgt. Pepper = Kid A. The bands’ most conceptual records, also the most fluent and least easily broken into its component parts (and of course, neither feature any singles, but are surprisingly commercially successful anyway).
  • Magical Mystery Tour = Amnesiac. Consist of leftovers from the previous album, consequently sound fairly choppy and inconsistent, but contain moments of brilliance that have given them a cult rep in the bands’ ouevres.
  • The White Album = Hail to the Thief. Both bands’ longest and most diverse albums, while marking a sort of “back to basics” compared to the bands’ previous two records.
  • Abbey Road = In Rainbows. Haven’t quite worked this one out yet, but it kind of feels right, doesn’t it?

Obviously there are numerous minor flaws in this theory, but there’s one big one that I’m sure you’ve already noticed–it leaves out all the early stuff. For The Beatles, that’s a lot of stuff–four albums, at least two of which are consider classics, and seemingly countless non-album singles and flips to fill in the gaps. For Radiohead, though, it’s really not that much–it’s one album, one non-album a-side and a handful of b’s. Well, if the theory was perfect, you’d probably have heard it a million times from people way more insightful than me by now.

Nonetheless, I think it kind of brilliantly demonstrates why critics and fans tend to be so harsh on Radiohead’s early years, namely their 1993 debut, Pablo Honey. Imagine if The Beatles released Please Please Me, went away for about a two and a half years, and then came back with Rubber Soul, skipping stepping stones like A Hard Day’s Night (the movie, the single and the album), “No Reply,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” years of Beatlemania exhaustion, and basically anything else that would make you think that this band was capable of more than awesome teeny-bopper anthems and above-average R&B covers. Anyone around for it in the 60s would still be feeling the whiplash today.

Yet this is essentially what Radiohead did. It’s sort of hard to remember these days just how ridiculous Radiohead was in those pre-Bends days–if they didn’t quite have the success of world-famous rock stars, they certainly had the attitude. Take this video of the band performing “Anyone Can Play Guitar” at the MTV Beach House. If you’ve seen it before, the mere mention should send shudders down your spine, if you haven’t, whoa Thommy. Even if you can ignore his sunglasses, his tres Parisienne shirt and his ungodly peroxide blonde hair–which, believe me, you can’t–witness the way he preens, the way he attacks the camera with his unbelievably typical rock-star narcissism. The song’s famous Jim Morrison lyric might’ve been meant as ironic, but what’s so notable about it is that there was ever a time when being or not being like Jim Morrison was even on their radar.

The next time we saw the boys, it was the video for “Fake Plastic Trees,” and the rest is pretty much history. Even though, musically speaking, The Bends has far more in common with the band’s early years then anything they would do later, the jump in sophistication–lyrically, musically, and perhaps most importantly, visually (The vids for FPT, “Just” and “Street Spirit” all rank among the tops for the whole decade, and Blondie Thom was never heard from again)–would forever isolate their early material from the band’s later, important years. Consequently, Pablo Honey constantly ranks bottom on fan album-rankings, and is a regular fixture on “Worst Albums By Best Bands” type critic lists.

But I believe that the band’s pre-Bends stuff is extremely worthy–in fact, I’d rank Pablo Honey about as highly as any of their non-OKC/Kid A albums. Listening to songs like “How Do You,” “Thinking About You,” “Vegetable,” “Million Dollar Question,” and yeah, “Anyone Can Play Guitar”–they all shimmer with the energy, hooks and general enthusiasm that all truly great bands should have in their embryo periods. The production is quality, the playing is immaculate, and what’s more, it’s not like there’s nothing connecting this band to the Radiohead we’d come to know and love–take the instrumental last half of “Blow Out,” the 23/8 time hook to “You,” and oh yeah, a little song called “Creep.” Just imagine if we’d had a couple albums’ worth of transition between this and “Street Spirit,” and there’s no reason why Pablo shouldn’t be as beloved as early Beatles.

As long as you forget about “Pop is Dead,” anyway (which, luckily, everyone seems to have done). Still gotta be one of the worst singles of the 90s.

*Underrated Radiohead Songs of the Day*:

India Rubber This FPT b-side is one of the group’s most enigmatic pre-OKC numbers, still can’t quite put my finger on it but I definitely dig it OK.

The Thief A new one on me, a cover of an early Can number that provides the band with one of the best live jams I’ve ever heard from ’em.

Alligators in New York Sewers An early, piano-and-vocal only live run through of the song that would eventually become the “Knives Out” b-side “Fog.” The completed form is much fuller a song, but this is a fascinating and still-spooky look at one of the band’s best b-sides in its most skeletal form.

Paperbag Writer Most of the band’s HTTT-era b’s weren’t phenomenal, but they all at least had some cool ideas, and “Paperbag Writer” had some of the best, including a super-slinky bass line from ‘Head unsung hero Colin Greenwood

Paul Lansky – “Mild Und Leise OK, so maybe you don’t have to listen to all 18 minutes of this ambient keyboard piece. But you do at least have to stick around for the four-note pattern that Radiohead sampled for the hook to “Idioteque”. No matter how much you love it already, it’ll give you new levels of appreciation for the song, I guarantee it.

Posted in Radiohead Week | 14 Comments »

Radiohead Week, Day 4: “I Can’t Pretend…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 14, 2007

A little bit of noise will destroy you

Any Radiohead fan worth his ammonia knows that musically, the albums only tell half the story. The rest can be found through the band’s practically countless amount of b-sides, unreleased tracks, remixes, alternate versions and live covers–view all 24 DISCS of the widely internet-circulated box set Towering Above the Rest for evidence of this (and no, the original albums aren’t even included). Frankly, at this point, a comprehensive and official box essaying all of Radiohead’s non-LP material would probably be even more exciting than a new album, although to really be comprehensive, the thing would probably cost in the hundreds. Hey, no one ever said Radiohead fandom came cheap.

So, naturally, one of the most fun things about being a Radiohead fan in the early days of file-sharing (ahhh, Audiogalaxy, we’ve yet to find your equal) was unearthing all these tracks–scouring ‘Head discographies over at Follow Me Around and AtEase and creating my own b-sides & unreleased mini-comps. I’m not gonna go into too far depth about all the great discoveries I made–I’ll continue to up a bunch of them each day, and most of them are old hat by now anyway. But suffice to say, I truly believe that you could’ve made alternate cuts of The Bends, OKC and Amnesiac using only the stuff that didn’t make the albums, and they’d be nearly as good as the LPs they missed.

Anyway, one particular favorite of me and my friends during this time (Spring of ’01, just before Amnesiac was released) was a b-side we found called “Cuttooth.” It was this really cool, spooky number, just Yorke and a four-note piano riff for a few minutes, until about halfway through when Johnny’s manic guitar scrapes enter, and then the whole band kicks in for this cacophonous, pounding, bad-ass sounding squall. Almost instantly, we bumped it up to the highest echelon of our favorite Radiohead tracks (and oh yes, we made lists), and pointed to it as one of the definitive examples of the kind of insanely creative, unique shit that Radiohead could afford to toss off on b-sides. The only thing unusual about it was that I couldn’t figure out where it came from, since I couldn’t find a listing for an official release of it or anything. But that wasn’t that weird–tons of Radiohead’s best songs were never officially released, so I didn’t think about it too much.

But then really something strange happened. I had amassed a set of the “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out” singles, I think through an online CD trade or something, and I popped it the “Knives Out” single that “Cuttooth” eventually ended up on. And the song that came on…well, it wasn’t “Cuttooth.” It wasn’t just a different version, it was an entirely different song–a swirling, neo-psychedelic sort of song that was actually one of the poppiest things I’d heard Radiohead do in a long-ass time. It was quite good, as all the Amnesiac b’s were. But what the hell was the song my friends and I loved so much? I did a little lyric googling, and I learned something that made my jaw drop, and my stomach turn–because I didn’t just get the title of the song wrong, I got the band wrong.

It was a Muse song.

And not just a Muse song–a b-side, some “Muscle Museum” flip that the band’s own rabidest fans probably couldn’t care less about. This would perhaps not register quite so resoundingly outside of my group of friends, but Muse had always been something of a musical punchline to us. They were the palest of pale imitations, a band with zero originality that would only be worth a damn in a universe where Radiohead had either failed to materialize or were banned by law to listen to, on punishment of death. My friend Anton actually dared to stick up for them, and we never stopped giving him shit for it. So for us, this plot twist was some Crying Game-type shit.

Unsurprisingly, that was more or less the end of our rabid “Cuttoth”/”Con Science” appreciation. My friend REL, the most vocal proponent of the song, soured on it completely–now that he realized it was actually Muse behind the song, he claimed that he no longer appreciated the “originality” of it, and thus could not enjoy the song on the same level. And personally, I certainly never heard the song with the same ears again–I still liked it, but I certainly wouldn’t have put it up against my favorite RH songs or even b-sides anymore. Anton must’ve felt vindicated as a motherfucker.

Listening to it now, I can’t imagine how we ever could’ve mistaken “Con Science” for a Radiohead track. Musically it sounds like one, I guess, but how we allowed ourselves to believe it was Thom Yorke singing–I mean, the falsetto’s a dead ringer, but the rest is clearly Matt Bellamy, even though I would never have been able to name or identify him at the time. And I do still think it’s a pretty cool song, but then again, I’ve come to respect Muse a lot more across the board. They still sound a lot like Radiohead, sure, but their songs are getting stronger and more ambitious (can’t wait to play “Knights of Cydonia” on GHIII), and I appreciate that they give RH fans something to chew on while the ‘Head is off noodling for years at a time, and often refusing to give the fans what they want. They’re like the RJD2 to Radiohead’s DJ Shadow. And while I’ll never respect ’em on the same level, I can acknowledge now that there’s a place for them in the art-rock sandbox.

In the end, I think we all learned a valuable lesson about the nature of music, and of art in general–the politics of who created a song isn’t what’s impotant, what’s important is the way a song makes you feel, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s The Clash or if it’s Rancid that’s actually peforming it. Or, failing that, at least always make sure to doublecheck your Audiogalaxy file information.

*Underrated Radiohead & Radiohead-Related Songs of the Day*:

Million Dollar Question One of their earliest classic b-sides, a poppy rave-up that could’ve really energized side two of Pablo Honey.

Kid A (John Mayer Version) Probably one of the five least likely Radiohead songs for a notoriously sensitive singer/songwriter to take on, but his rendition does the song surprising justice. Just about quintupled my respect for the dude.

Meeting in the Aisle This “Karma Police” flip is one of Radiohead’s most unapologetically cinematic numbers, a trip-hop beat matched with gorgeous cascading synths and sweeping strings. What I sort of hoped Moon Safari would sound like. One of my favorite titles of theirs, too.

Creep (Aoiwe Remix) There’s a wonderful and frightening world of ‘Head remixes out there, and though I’m still catching up, this one is definitely a winner. Removing the rhythm track and emphasizing the song’s atmospherics, Aoiwe turns “Creep” into what it might’ve sounded like if Radiohead had recorded it a decade later.

I Promise A live track that never saw official release, a surprisingly sweet-sounding love song from Yorke and co. Of course, there’s a creepy, sinister subtext in there somewhere, but ignoring it every once in a while won’t kill you, will it.

Posted in Radiohead Week | 9 Comments »

Radiohead Week, Day 3: “I Had Never Even Seen a Shooting Star Before…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 12, 2007

Everything in its right place

Kid A

Rating: 10.0

If it wasn’t for Radiohead, I might never have discovered Pitchfork. In 2001, Radiohead announced a new tour, with an opening act that I had never heard of before, The Beta Band. Since me and my friends were anxiously anticipating the show, we wanted to find out who the hell these guys were. I did a quick google to find out more info–luckily, this was before Wikipedia, otherwise I probably never would’ve gotten further than that–and one of the first things I came across in my search was the Pitchfork review of the band’s self-titled album, written by a guy named Brent DiCrescenzo.

Now, I had delved minorly into the world of music criticism since I discovered the rock canon the year before (via SPIN and Rolling Stone, mostly), but I never read anything like this before, not even close. It didn’t even feel like a review, and in conventional terms, it wasn’t really–it was closer to fiction than to the kind of music writing I was used to. And yet it made me want to hear the album, the band, more than any straight-laced review could have–it was so vivid, so fascinating, that I couldn’t wait to hear the kind of music that inspired it.

I never did make it to that Radiohead concert–I don’t even remember why, but it wasn’t until the Hail to the Thief tour a few years later that I would finally get to see them live. But it was the beginning of my love for the Beta Band (the s/t is still my favorite album of theirs), and it was the beginning of my love for Pitchfork. Of the events that would prove the most influential on my music listening over the course of my life, this one surely ranks in the top five. Not only would I go on to read almost every review in the ‘Fork archive (I can still remember with disturbing accuracy the ratings that they gave any major album released between ’00 and ’03 or so), but it would prove to be the start of my life as an indie kid, as well as my life as a would-be music writer.

It seems appropriate, then, that my favorite Pitchfork review should come courtesy of Radiohead. The number of debates I’ve gotten into over Brent DiCrescenzo’s 10.0 review of Kid A have been enough to make me doubt my own sanity–people say it goes too far, tries too hard, feels too fanboy-ish. And to be fair, they’re totally right–this is among the least restrained, most unabashedly gushing reviews ever written. Consider some of the more exorbidant claims:

  1. Kid A makes rock and roll childish. “
  2. “Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper.”
  3. “The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.”
  4. “When the headphones peel off, and it occurs that six men (Nigel Godrich included) created this, it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who.”
  5. “Breathing people made this record!”

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t at least a little over the top. Yet for those of us who sort of came of age musically around the time of Kid A‘s release, this is basically what the album felt like–the kind of record that just blows your mind about how full of possibilities music really is. And no other critics really quite articulated this at the time–in fact, a good deal of them panned the record upon its release, especially in the UK. To see Pitchfork and DiCrescenzo go so far over the top with their review of Kid A sort of validated the way I felt about the record, but couldn’t (or was sort of intimidated to) articulate.

What’s more, it sort of validated my generation a little bit. The kind of praise in this review was praise I had only seen applied to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and other dinosaurs before, and the closest I felt I had to a real musical hero of my era was Nirvana, which had disintegrated before I even really started listening to modern music. Reading the Kid A review made me realize that I didn’t have to be ashamed to stack my favorite contemporary artists against the legends of past decades, and made me giddy with the thought that it was even possible that the greatest album ever made could theoretically be released in my lifetime. It’s more exciting than Rolling Stone automatically rewarding five stars to new Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger albums, certainly.

Reading it now makes me almost sickeningly nostalgic–for the days when Pitchfork was willing to go so far out on a limb for a record they honestly thought deserved it, for the days when music seemed new and exciting and infinite, for Kid A. Everyone has that one album that made them realize that music just meant something more–something more than they had expected, something more for them than for most, something more than they had probably thought possible. Kid A was certainly that album for me, and I need to give Brent and Pitchfork their propers for vocalizing that so beautifully.

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Radiohead Week, Day 2: “And God Have Mercy On Us All…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 12, 2007

Suckered you but not your friends

Choosing a favorite Radiohead video is like choosing a favorite Scorsese movie–it probably should be hard, but it’s actually ridiculously easy. Though I love all of Radiohead’s videos in their own weird ways (with the exception of only their three most cringeworthy clips, “Stop Whispering,” “Knives Out” and the stunningly terrible “There, There”), its the Jamie Thraves-directed video for The Bends‘ “Just” remains their all-time classic, one of my favorite music videos of ever. And, of course, by far the most frustrating.

It’s entirely probably that I won’t remember my own wedding day as vividly as I remember the first time I ever saw “Just.” Back in 1997, MTV briefly had this weekly two-hour video program (Saturday late-nights, I think–naturally, I had to tape it)) simply called, I believe, “The Greatest Music Videos of All-Time.” What exactly the qualifications were for a video appearing on tis show were predictably sketchy, but it tended to show some pretty cool sutff–in fact, the first time I ever saw or heard Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” was on this show.

I probably wouldn’t even remember the program today, though, if it hadn’t been where I first saw “Just.” Seeing that I had snared the vid while checking my tape one fateful Sunday morning, I was ecstatic–even as a 5th grader, Radiohead were one of my favorite bands, and “Just” was my 2nd favorite song of theirs, behind “Street SPirit (Fade Out),” which remains the source of my go-to internet user name to this very day. What’s more, the short clip of “Just” that I had seen at the VMAs when it was nominated for Best Breakthrough Video looked amazing. I watched with baited breath. Or maybe I didn’t breathe at all, hard to tell.

If you’ve never seen the video before, lemme sum up (though for the love of God, watch it before I do). Man takes a bath, get dressed, goes and lies down in the middle of a busy city sidewalk. An unsuspecting pedestrian trips over his body, and after apologizing and expressing concern (through subtitles at the bottom of the screen), demands to know why the man is lying there, which he refuses to explain. A crowd quickly gathers, and a police officer is called over, but the lying man still refuses to justify his actions. Eventually, he relents, but warns the crowd forebodingly that making him do so probably isn’t the best idea. Even Radiohead themselves, playing in a nearby building, assemble by the window to hear his explanation. The lying man looks upwards and begins his explanation, but as he does, the subtitles drop out, and we never see what it is he says. Seconds later, the entire crowd is lying on the pavement, and the video ends.

The final thirty seconds of this video mark what surely must be closest thing to the Zapruder film in 90s alt-rock. Personally, I watched the thing at least a dozen times in the next few hours trying to figure out the mystery. In retrospect, I have no idea what I was looking for, but I guess that I figured Radiohead must’ve left some clue hidden somewhere in the video, anything to put my mind at ease. I think I even tried a couple to read the lying man’s lips at that pivotal moment, eventually coming to the conclusion that espionage probably wasn’t the smartest career path for me. It was like watching The Usual Suspects for the first time, if the movie had suddenly and inexplicably cut out at Kujan dropping his coffee mug. The Lady and the Tiger ain’t got shit on “Just.”

Of course, it wouldn’t have meant anything if the first three and a half minutes of the video hadn’t been so fucking cool. The whole thing is shot and structured like a classic Hitchcock flick–an almost unbearable level of suspense generated by ordinary people reacting to an unlikely, inexplicable, and near-maddening situation. It even looks like it could’ve taken place in Hitchcock’s era–the dated-looking suits, the somewhat stinted dialogue (“He must be mad!”) and the muted color palatte give it a disorienting, out-of-time feel, one which contributes brilliantly to the video’s general feeling of unease.

Really, though, this one’s all about the editing. Few if any videos could bost a song-to-image synchronization as fluid as this one (well, OK, “Star Guitar” probably has it beat, but I dunno if that should count). Watch the way Johnny’s screeeeeeching guitar squall intensifies the slow pan-in on lying man warning the people of the dangers of his confession, or the way the slow-roll of Colin’s bass line makes lying man’s climactic eye-shift pretty much the creepiest thing ever. And you can’t forget maybe the video’s most iconic moment–when the song goes silent for just a moment, and there’s a cut to a close-up of Thom up in the apartment, his face covered with a drape, which blows out of the way for just long enough to get a glimpse of ol’ Lazy Eye doing what looks like a Lon Chaney impersonation. Then the song kicks back in, and we’re back to the main plot. Phew.

“Just” would have leave such a profound impression on me, that when I got an assignment in my HS Junior Year photography class to create a sort of silent short through a slide show of photographs I had taken, my immediate instinct was to do a remake of “Just.” I got a bunch of my friends to act it out, and over the course of two painstaking days of shooting, I crafted my first (and to date, last) music video cover. The highlight had to be when some bystander actually came by to ask if my friend playing the lying man role was all right–Thom and Jamie would’ve been proud. Somewhat remarkably, when I actually presented the slide show, someone in the audience pointed out that a student in the class the year before had done the very same thing for his project. I was bummed that I had been beaten to the punch, but was glad that I wasn’t the only one with the video’s imagery permanently ingrained into my psyche.

“Just” ended up losing the Best Breakthrough Video VMA to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” Harumph.

*Underrated Radiohead & Radiohead-Related Songs of the Day*:

Kinetic B-side to “Pyramid Song.” Hypnotic, rumbling death crawl, featuring Yorke’s best autophobic lyrics since “Airbag.” Would’ve sounded great on Kid A, if that album wasn’t perfect already.

Nobody Does it Better Hilarious, and oddly touching live cover of the Carly Simon theme to The Spy Who Loved Me. No one can make a line like “Why’d ya have to be SO GOOD??!!!?!” sound as unsettling as Thom.

How I Made My Millions Sob-worthy “No Surprises” b-side, just Thom, a piano, and for some reason, a dishwasher.

Lurgee The first half of the one-two knockout punch to end the super-underrated Pablo Honey, even the biggest haterz of Radiohead’s debut gotta give it up for this beaut.

El Presidente By forgotten 90s UK outfit Drugstore, who likely would’ve been completely forgotten to time if not for this Yorke-guesting gem.

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Radiohead Week, Day #1: “We’re That Band, Radiohead”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 10, 2007

Just wait until Robert Smith of The Cure week

As you know from reading my blog yesterday, as well as from existing in the free world, Radiohead semi-officially released a new album today. Consequently, it seems only fair to devote the next week here at IITS to the band. Don’t worry, it’s not gonna be something lame like me going through and reviewing all of their albums (which you should probably know pretty well), and it’s not gonna be something even lamer like long pontifications on why they’re the best band since Sliced Bread: The Band (which you should also probably know pretty well). Just gonna share some thoughs on certain moments of the last decade and a half of the band’s existence, some personal vignettes relating to the band, maybe a haiku or two. Oh, and mp3s of a whole lot of underrated tracks of theirs, of course.

First up: the classic South Park episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die”. Since premiering in 2001, STMD has become one of the most beloved and well-known South Park eps, even ranking #8 in Comedy Central’s 2004 countdown of SP fan-favorites. The episode’s rep can mostly be attributed to two things. Firstly it cemented Cartman as possibly the most evil character in TV history. Before his feud with Scott Tenorman, Cartman had been whiny, selfish, sexist, anti-semitic, cruel, and just outright bad, but I don’t think he ever quite approached pure evil the way he did here. Hell, even Wendy Testaburger had sent a possible rival for Stan’s affections on a rocket into the sun, nothing Cartman had done had been nearly that terrible.

But oh man, Scott Tenorman. In case you somehow managed to avoid this episode all your life, here’s the rundown (feel free to skip forward two paragraphs otherwise)–Cartman swears revenge on South Park 9th grader Scott Tenorman after he swindles Cartman for $16.22 by selling him his pubes (Cartman mistakenly thinks owning pubes is just as good as possessing them), but his several successive attempts to get satisfaction backfire and end up leaving him more and more humiliated. Eventually, he hatches a grand scheme to get Scott to come to his “Chili Con Carnival,” in which he claims to have trained a donkey to bite off Scott’s dick. Scott also has plans, though, and gets every teenager in town to contribute their pubes to his chili submission, which Cartman will have to eat.

The day comes and they eat each others’ chili, but before Scott can get the last laugh on Cartman, he reveals that he was in fact well aware of Scott’s plan, and switched his chili with Chef’s submission at the last second. What’s more, he reveals that the chili Scott has just eaten is actually the flesh of Scott’s dead parents, who Cartman tricked into trespassing onto private property and got shot by the property’s hick owner. Thus, Cartman becomes arguably the only eight year old in TV history to offer the immortal taunt: “Nyah nyah nyah nyah, nyah nyah, I made you eat your parents!” It looks something like this:

Even the normally unimpressed Stan and Kyle have to kind of give it up for Cartman on this one. “Dude,” says an utterly shellshocked Kyle, “I think it might be best for us to never piss off Cartman again.”

But of course, that’s only half of it. In addition to this Satanic fruition, STMD also boasts the guest appearance of the titular 9th grader’s favorite band: Radiohead. Doing recon work on Scott at the advice of Ned and Uncle Jimbo, Cartman learns of his foe’s love for the ‘Head, and decides to use them in his plot to foil Tenorman. At first he fakes an MTV broadcast of the band talking about how much they hate Scott, which he quickly sees through. Cartman then decides to actually get Radiohead to come to South Park, which he does by writing them a letter pretending that Scott is deathly ill (with ass cancer, specifically), and only wishes to meet the band before he dies. The band finally shows up at the very end of the episode, after Cartman’s dirty deed has been done…

The truly amazing thing about Radiohead’s appearance in this episode is the way Trey Parker & Matt Stone designed it in relation to the public’s general understanding of the band, which is to say, that most people don’t really know anything about them, aside from the fact that they did the song “Creep” and are generally some pretty depressed dudes. So the beginning of the episode plays with this limited info a bit, with Jimbo not even recognizing the term “Radiohead,” until Cartman sings him a few bars of “Creep” (joined in by a vox-impaired Ned). Then, when the band gets Cartman’s letter about Scott’s ailment, they are moved to tears (see above) by the boy’s story, and immediately cancel what they’re doing to join Scott in his misery (“Didn’t you hear the letter? This poor kid has cancer! In his ass!“).

Just as often, though, the episode plays on the fact that no one really knows for sure who these guys are, a hilarious representation of the sort of “other” status that Radiohead has in American rock music. Cartman’s letter to the band, which Thom Yorke reads aloud, begins with Cartman identifying himself as a “young, supple eight-year-old boy” (which causes Thom just a split-second’s hesitation, barely perceivable but ridiculously funny) as if for all he knows, Radiohead (or all British bands, or all British people) are openly pedophilic.

Then, once they finally do show up in South Park amidst the chili-cannibalism confusion (“Uh…excuse me?”), Stan asks “Who are you?,” not recognizing them despite the fact that Cartman already told him they’d be showing up at some point (and though there probably aren’t many British quintets walking around South Park, much less famous ones). Johnny’s classic response, “We’re that band…Radiohead,” drives this point even further, referring to themselves as they imagine most of the people in South Park do (“Oh right, that band”). Then, they respond to Scott’s sobbing over his parents’ demise:

  • Ed (elbowing Johnny): “Geez, what a little crybaby!”
  • Colin: “You gonna cry all day, crybaby?”
  • Thom: “You know, everyone has problems, it doesn’t mean you have to go and be a little crybaby about it.”
  • Ed: “C’mon guys, let’s go, this kid is totally not cool.”
  • Thom: “Yeah, that’s the most uncool kid I’ve ever met.”
  • Phil: “Little crybaby.”

This vision of Radiohead as tough-love “Man Up!” types at possibly the most eye-wideningly disturbing moment in the history of the show is one of the most perverse strokes of genuis I’ve ever seen the show pull off. It’s arguably even more surprising a turn than Cartman’s final revelation, though I can never say for certain, having had both endings ruined for me before ever actually getting to seeing the episode (damn you 2001 and your lack of YouTube!!) Nevertheless, it’s a truly hysterical example of one of the world’s most unlikely megastar bands playing with what little public image they’d achieved, and surely marks one of the all-time great celebrity voice cameos in Cartoon history.

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