Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Music: Kid A

When starting my first blog entry about music, i have to note that I’m writing articles about what's considered classics in rock music these days for my university magazine and that's pretty much draining my inspiration to write about music - thus I was delaying blogging about music even though it's a pretty important part of my life. Hover, things ought to change being that for the sake of objectivity, I avoid writing only about music that I fancy.
For my first blog entry about music, I choose a band very dear to me and one of a few most influential (and most successful) bands of nineties, "Radiohead".
When hearing Radiohead mentioned, many people will roll their eyes because this band is being brought up very, very often. Is it deserved? My opinion is that, if this was one of the most successful bands of previous decade, one of the most influential and very fresh in memory, then it's often bringing up is very reasonable and to be expected.
One of the most often believes of those who don't fancy Radiohead - but try to analyze and understand the cause for popularity of the band they don't like (sometimes even despise) - is that it's an artsy band for people who like to proud themselves into believing that they enjoy high art, un-listenable group for those who think that un-listenable music is deep. It's basically a sort of "you're all posers" accuse, an outsider one. As an insider in this case, i can testify that Radiohead can be very listenable, or that I’ve on occasions participated in drunken singalongs of Radiohead's songs, which seems impossible until you try it. In any case, this theory doesn't explain the scope of 'head's popularity, being that it spreads wider than art college causes and that they're more than just a cult group.
As for Radiohead's influence? It branches into metal ("Muse"), pop ("Coldplay") as well as into electro-rock hybrids (though they surely aren't pioneers of this genre). At times i have a feeling that Oxford boys are ten years ahead of time, being that their early stages are being explored by other musicians now, and that their later stages seem like something that will be a prevalent music of future.
But there I am defending them even at the place where noone is attacking. I'd rather like to discuss reasons why I like them and expect that those reasons will make sense in an objective light. But before I start, I prefer to rehash my little history.
I started listening to Radiohead somewhere in the middle of the high school, about eight years from now. First songs I heard of them were "Fade out (Street spirit)" and (of course) "Creep". First album, "Bands". "Ok Computer" came a bit later, but it took a while till it came to this territory. Though at that time I heard their first album "Pablo honey", it never planted into my ears too well until years later. I always found it inferior to later albums, something that will one day be of interest only to fans who want to follow the group all through, something like "Space oddity" album to Bowie.
I have to stress over and over again that at that time Radiohead wasn't popular, or even well-known where I lived. Serbia was pretty much pressured my international sanctions, very little of it could've been seen on TV, and if you lived in provincial town, the source of foreign rock albums was cut out. High school was a place where majority listened to some monstrous deviations of modernized native folk, some of them were sticking to retro ex-Yugoslavian rock, and even though the silent minority has heard of Nirvana, Soundgarden and grunge alike, at time I started listening to Radiohead, I knew noone who was listening to them (the only company i had was my sister who started at the same time as I did).
At the time of expecting "Kid A" to be released, the answer I’d get from most of people was still "Radiohead who?" I am aware that situation in, for instance, their native England, is completely different.
"Kid A", the album I'm talking about now, is surely the most controversial. While "Bends" was a compulsively listenable grunge-pop album, "Ok computer" was much less ear-pleasing but a conceptual album in which songs stringed with some inevitable logic; it was noted as the best album of the year by several music magazines and said to redefine the music genre. Long awaited after that, "Kid A" managed to achieve impossible: to redefine it second time in a row.
Not confined to conventional melody, "Kid A" was a very hard pill to swallow, a hard, hermetic music to get into; it was a culmination of two Radiohead's trends: first one, growing interest in electronic music that was produced into the underlying level of "Ok computer", was here in it's final, stage, some songs completely created on computer (save for Yorke's voice) for the first time. Second, Yorke's singing became more psychedelic, mellow, in term of better, appropriate term, turning into a moan, additional instrument less than trying to communicate a message through lyrics. This also culminated on "Kid A", with Yorke singing short lyrics into long songs.
Yep, "Kid A" was extreme in it's ways; it's closely attached to their next year's album "Amnesiac", also known as "Kid B", that was recorded on same session, the group entering studio after several years. I can see the pattern in choosing the songs for "Kid A" among many recorded: "Kid A" was short, "Amnesiac" was long; first one was strange and hermetic, second one was a piece of the same cloth, but more approachable, more melodic and easier. "Kid A" was often a reminiscence of 'head's old songs on their basic level: "How to disappear completely and never be found" was a piece of their standard ballad, while "Optimistic" was similar to many of their faster, guitar songs. Other songs like "Everything in the right place" and "Ideoteque" were setting new direction rather than saying goodbye to old.
In short, "Kid A" was a shock therapy, a "this is new Radiohead, take it or leave it" statement. "Ok computer" set very high expectations for the group and it was very likely that, if they did the next album in the same style, it would've likely been valued as lesser copy of "Computer" (and to be fair, would they be able to repeat the formula?) which is why decided for the shock therapy.
"Kid A" was, all in all, a statement of new music. This music seems early-Residents-style like Anti-music at first, songs like "Everything's in the right place" or "Kid A" seem lacking in melody and random, but when you catch yourself whistling "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" for yourself, you realize that it's more a new music that we're still unfamiliar with - but not without basic elements that any music has, including audience that is able to like it on basic, emotional level.
There are, crudely divided, two streams of post-Beatles music, first one is writing-based, music that isn't so dependent on it's studio recording, one that preserves most of it's appeal when played in any competent interpretation. Then there is production-based music that was conceived by Beatles in their psychedelic phase, perhaps most clearly through studio work that MaCartney and George Martin put into Lennon-written song "Strawberry fields", to turn it from a catchy demo song (as heard on "Anthology") into an otherworldly listening experience. It is not a coincidence that at that phase Beatles never performed live, nor is coincidence that other production-based groups like Pink Floyd had live shows orchestrated to the last detail.
Radiohead, though not being so strict with live shows, are continuing this approach to music. Their studio recordings are nearly impossible to repeat, complexity of arrangements makes each listening a different experience, because each time we notice new sounds coming from new sides, things that we didn't notice before. Sounds, expressions, coming from instruments or tapes, are carefully chosen and timed. Thom Yorke said at time that "Pyramid song" from "Amnesiac" was the best song they ever recorded and he might've been right considering that it's one of songs that take production-based music furthest.
Take "How to disappear completely...", simple song turned into a full experience through production, listen to it, notice sounds that suggest disappearing into other worlds (song, as said by Yorke, is inspired by technique of distancing yourself from stressful reality, taught to him by Michale Stipe). It is a kind of song that you listen loud, with eyes closed, letting sounds overwhelm you and work suggestively on other senses too.
Of course, I'm talking about their electro interests, but looking back I realize that this polyphony and richness has been their characteristics since the beginning. Namely, Radiohead is one of rare groups that feature three guitars, aside from bass and drums. Most of groups will consider one or two guitars enough for the rich sound, in fact, vast majority of them, setting first as solo guitar and second as rhythm (backup) guitar, wouldn't even know what to do with the third one. Radiohead, since their famous arrangement on "Creep", favour three guitars, each working it's own and complementing each other: Thom Yorke, leader and author of majority of material as singer and guitar, reliable Johnny Greenwood and primary guitar, and Ed O’Brien as the third.
It's as if Yorke is not only able to think in music, but in multiple channels as well. Still, music suggests that the rest of the group participates in creating arrangements as well, each giving their part, which, being that studio work often seems more decisive than songwriting part, makes them as important creative forces.
I generally like electro-rock hybrids. Radiohead's approach to electro is very dear to me. But it's this unique 3-guitar approach that made me want to see them go back to guitar rock.
Yet it's worth mentioning that Radiohead wasn't the only band that went through guitar-to-electro evolution in nineties. Other, similar transitions were done by Blur, Beck (whose initial, pre-"Loser" music was strictly country), David Bowie, David Byrne, even Tom Jones. Tampering with computers isn't a thing of trend anymore, horizons of new music have been expanded and anyone with a bit of creative experimental spirit wants to step into this new territory. On the other hand, many musicians who started initially in electro music have over the years steered toward pop and rock; including: Moby, Massive Attack, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, and then later hybrids like Moloko. It seems like both of these streams are meeting in the middle, at the territory where many an old divisions are rejected, something that could as well be music of future. It is interesting to watch these groups of such various starting points, finally meeting at the same place.
(Worth noting: this hybridization trend is irritating for many conservative guitar rock fans. It was inevitable that backlash of guitar rock groups, songwriting-oriented rather than production-oriented, would display in form of huge popularity of basic rock groups like The Strokes, The White Stripes or The Jet. Don't get me wrong, I think that Julian Casablancas and Jack White are wonderful writers, but I believe that erasing of the line between electro and guitar music has already been erased and that both guitar rock and fundamental electro genres like house, are things of the past.)
To finish the story of "Kid A". Between songs that close the old chapter like "How to disappear completely and never be found" and "Optimistic" and those that open a new one, like "Kid A" and "Everything in the right place", short intermezzo "Treefingers", and "National anthem", based on growing cacophony started from a simple riff (not one of the best IMO), there's hard to get a grab on "Morning bells", whose mellow version is placed in the middle of "Amneziac", stating that Amneziac indeed is mellow successor to "Kid A's" thing, finishing "Motion picture soundtrack" and then a bonus number that's basically something played backward to form curiously distinctive tune. But I don't thing that, despite everything, this album would work if there wasn't for born-to-be-a-hit electro statement, song that grabs you and makes you play the album again, "Ideoteque"; stripped, consisting of two drum machine loops, one keyboard harmony and Yorke's nervous chant, "Ideoteque" somehow glues pieces together. At the second verse where harmony stops and leaves the beat alone with restless chant, song stops your breath and keeps it in for a while, as if expecting an explosion.
So then, to sum up, what else is Radiohead? It's Yorke's childlike, fragile voice, it's lyrics that always address an issue or event, but never directly, always leaving space for interpreting it in any way (which you may like or not), it's will to risk and experiment with anything, but determination not to repeat the story on two albums, even if it makes them wait for years between albums.
Along that line, successor to "Amnesiac", "Hail to the thief", had guitar and electro music almost rhythmically switching on album; it was more a collection of good songs they wrote meanwhile, than a finished concept; it was not a milestone album, brought by the realization that they have proven capable of making milestone albums, so they don't need to anymore.
Recently, Thom Yorke's solo "The Eraser" is playing in my CD. It fills me with hope for new Radiohead release: it's a simple electro album of melodic, almost conventional songs, it's unpretentious. It feels like Yorke is spending his conventional stuff and keeping other, surprising and new stuff, for Radiohead. It's just like an album that Radiohead would make if they were an ordinary group, and it feels like that's the reason why it's not released as Radiohead album. Because Radiohead is not an ordinary group.
It fills me with great expectations.


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