Radiohead | Christopher O'Riley
Dunno quite what those sobbing over the frigid mechanics of Kid A and Amnesiac were complaining about; I like Thom Yorke's voice for how it sounds and not for what it says, which normally isn't much beyond the woe-am-me nonsense every wan Britpopper over the age of consent has to offer these days. Where the naysayers had a point was when they kvetched about how the rock songs didn't and the pop songs wouldn't. Those albums were so restrained they couldn't move, breathe or live outside the moment in time in which they were recorded, which is why the live variations thrived; those songs, say "The National Anthem" or "Everything in its Right Place," needed heat and smoke and sweat, what a band gives and an audience takes and returns a thousandfold. Kid A and Amnesiac, and their progenitor OK Computer, were just code, zeroes and ones on CDs in search of generous programmers who'd give them meaning and substance--life, really, since they had none of their own.
If nothing else, Hail to the Thief doesn't need to borrow someone else's heartbeat to make it substantive and tangible; you don't need to forgive the band its pretensions and idiosyncrasies to let it move you--and by move I mean your hips if not exactly your heart, unless getting "flan in your face" is a waste of a dessert too tragic to contemplate. It's still art-rock, but blessedly more rock than art this time--Belew-era King Crimson rock twixed with Abbey Road-era Beatles rock, which is to say not very rock at all but infinitely more so than, oh, Pink Floyd, a good start. (Being generous, I will ignore the random Smashing of Pumpkins I hear--and there.) And good to see the band recalls it employs Jonny Greenwood, whose guitar has long been gathering dust in the studio corner while he falls into the keyboards. On a handful of tracks, chief among them the soft-loud-slow-fast "2 + 2 = 5" and "Scatterbrain," he shows up and sticks around long enough to remind you there's still a human being working the computer. Best of all is the acoustic-to-electric "Go to Sleep," which strips away all the electronic flab and reminds you the veins surge with blood, not electrical current.
Still Hail to the Thief doesn't destroy-deconstruct-decompose what's come before; it's more of the same, only without the furrowed-brow conviction of software programmers. There's no such thing as radio-friendly esoteric, though Radiohead wants to play it both ways--to lay down skittering static and noise ("The Gloaming") and to go top-o'-pops with songs that could actually double as singles ("There There"). You know what most of Hail to the Thief will sound like before you play it once; been there there, done that that. Ah, but says here on the Internet this is Radiohead's post-September 11/Great White House Swindle record, which, if you're inclined to believe such message-board speculation, adds meaning where there are only consonants and verbs. Guess it is possible Yorke's burning a Bush when he threatens, "Don't question my authority," in "2 + 2 = 5," and guess it is possible he's making allusions to the World Trade Center when he moans that "the sky is falling in" and terrorists when he groans "murderers you're murderers/we are not the same as you." Ah, if only I cared enough to read the lyric sheet, laid out in booklike chapters.
Christopher O'Riley knows enough to care little: The classical pianist, joining the likes of Luka Bloom (ugh) and Brad Meldhau (hunh) as Those Who've Covered Radiohead But Are Not Rock And/Or Roll, dissects the back catalog (all the way back to Pablo Honey's "Thinking About You") till all that remains are melody and intent. These transcriptions, the result of O'Riley's "obsession" with the band after hearing OK Computer, sound at times like demos but without blanks remaining to be filled in; these are no novelties, no gimmicks à la Tori Amos turning "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into a precocious high school recital offering. O'Riley loves these songs because exposed to the elements they still feel warm to the touch--because the band, despite its best/worst efforts, still writes astonishing songs it would prefer to bury than praise. They need no guitars, no static, no singer--no words, in other words, just someone with a match and a can of gas to set them ablaze.
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