Earlier this year, I accused Radiohead of becoming "too oblique" to maintain their popularity. After all, didn't the band already have its moment of glory eight years ago with the grunge-like ballad "Creep," now relegated to "classic rock" status as a local karaoke staple?
right in Wrong
"I Might Be Wrong"
Review by Gary C.W. Chun
"The Bends" was a worthy follow-up album in 1995, but then, two years later, with the pivotal "OK Computer," the music had grown in leaps and bounds while the members of Radiohead were getting weary of the rock-star adulation, something Thom Yorke and company never pursued.
As documented in the film "Meeting People Is Easy," while the support tour for "OK Computer" solidified the group's standing as the Planet's Most Important Rock Group, it was a soul-crushing grind, particularly for Yorke.
The group subsequently found solace in the studio, their sonic and experimental explorations resulting in the esoteric "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" albums, which led to my criticism.
I have since warmed to Radiohead's music, especially after listening again to these albums before taking on this new release, made up of live recordings from the band's recent European tour.
With the exception of the closing track, "True Love Waits," all of the songs are from the "Kid A/Amnesiac" recording sessions. Obvious uptempo choices as "Knives Out" and "Optimistic" weren't chosen for this album, as the band opted for the more experimental songs.
Band member Jonny Greenwood, in a profile in British Wire magazine, said that "the more concerts we do, the more dissatisfied we get with trying to reproduce the live sound on a record. In a way, it can't be done, and that's a relief really, when you accept that, and recording just becomes a different thing."
Stripped of studio multilayering, the live songs can't help but have a more immediate feel to them; after all, Radiohead in concert is still a rock band, despite its eclectic influences, ranging from spiky computer-generated music, '70s German rock (Can, Neu and Kraftwerk) and early Public Image Ltd., to the liberating jazz of Charles Mingus and Alice Coltrane.
While the Mingus-like horn arrangement on "The National Anthem" isn't on the album's opening track, it's just as effective with its mysterio keyboard and sampled sounds, fuzzed-out bass and Yorke's sharp breathy vocalizing.
That segues to a raw, rhythmically insistent take on "I Might Be Wrong," which is much "rockier" than the studio version. "Morning Bell" makes its third consecutive appearance on a Radiohead album, this time opting for "Kid A's" broader version in both mood and aggression. From there on, this album builds up to the full glory of what this band can accomplish.
Reportedly one on Yorke's favorite songs from the albums' recording sessions, "Like Spinning Plates," while not as ethereal as the studio original, is a short but riveting number featuring Yorke's uniquely fragile-sounding voice. When it comes to his singing, it's not so much what he's singing (more often than not, fragments of lyrical phrasing that has to be looked at as a whole to understand) as the sound of his voice that's so arresting. It's like a continual cry, broken through on occasion by moments of emotional clarity.
My favorite track from "Amnesiac," "Idioteque," is described by Yorke in that same Wire profile as "an attempt to capture that exploding beat sound where you're at the club and the PA's so loud, you know it's doing damage."
This song, for me, sums up Radiohead's appeal and importance in rock music right now, with its combination of mechanistic sounds doing battle with the band and Yorke's ghost-in-the-machine vocal. It raises the dilemma of trying to be a human being in this incredible, media-saturated world of ours.
"Everything in Its Right Place" and "Dollars and Cents" continue in that same vein, the group sounding especially in sync with each other. The concert closer, "True Love Waits," presents Yorke and his acoustic guitar in as optimistic and openhearted a number as he's ever done.
Radiohead challenges its fans, but it also challenges itself to make music that matters, regardless of popular trends. These concert recordings show that the connection built on integrity and trust is still strong.
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