Monday, May 19, 2008

Musical Heresy... or Not So Much?

The Bends - Radiohead (mp3)
All I Need - Radiohead (mp3)

One of my longest and closest friends hates pizza. Always has. Although it's generally considered an Italian-inspired dish, I can think of few things more un-American than disliking pizza. In my 36 years, I can't even recall another soul who disliked pizza.

I still love the guy, but who the f*#k doesn't love pizza? What kind of mutant freak who loves any kind of unhealthy food would dare deny his or her tastebuds the culinary orgasm that is pizza??

This is exactly how I feel when I admit to the following: I don't like Radiohead.

Now, there's two responses to this declaration. The first, as signified by my wife, is "Who's Radiohead?" (Yes, that was her actual response.) To the world of folks like my wife, my dislike of Radiohead is no more consequential than my dislike of red velvet cake or Abercrombie & Fitch. But then, my wife isn't very into music in remotely the same way many of my friends are, so her response and those like her are kind of irrelevant in the land of music blogs, no?

The other response, likely offered by most anyone reading this tripe, is directly parallel to the one I get when I tell true music lovers that I love Hanson. They first look to see if I'm kidding, and then, when they realize I'm actually not kidding, that I actually like frakkin' Hanson, they get this look of nauseated confusion, as if everything they once assumed about me was now under suspicion.

I didn't always dislike Radiohead. In fact, they burst into my life like an unexpected supernova.

I purchased The Bends from a store near my house that was going out of business in 1995. I was just out of college and had just been "let go" from my bartending job at the time, so I wasn't exactly rolling in dough. But I needed to get my fix with music, so I just bought seven or eight CDs by bands I'd heard of, hoping I could milk enjoyment from them at massive discount. What a find. That CD is easily one of my five favorite CDs from the '90s.

I even went back several weeks later and purchased Pablo Honey, a damn fine album that didn't have quite the arena rock bombast of their second effort. When OK Computer emerged, I was definitely one of those making his way to the store that first day to see where Thom Yorke & Co. took their brilliance.

Although the critical raves were immediate, OK was a difficult pill for me to swallow. Oh, I learned to enjoy it. I grew to appreciate its brilliance, its ambition, its grasp. But it took patience and work, something anyone who knows my musical preferences will attest doesn't come particularly natural to me.

My patience and work in learning to love OK Computer would end up haunting me.

Kid A and Amnesiac followed. A hoarde of disciples and critics gushed praise, but even the biggest fans I knew kept saying things like, "It takes some getting used to" or "It's not what you'd expect" or "It's very experimental."

For me, the only kind of "very experimental" that generally results in my liking an artist more than before is when the bandmates sat around in the recording booth asking whether or not a song needs more cowbell. When albums from bands I love are described as "very experimental," what that really means is it has a 96% chance of sucking.

But with Kid A, I listened and listened and listened. You learned to enjoy OK Computer, you can learn to enjoy this, I said to myself. But, dammit, I was wrong. I am incapable of learning to love Radiohead v.2.0. After trying on and off for eight years, I can finally admit it.

Radiohead is the James Joyce of the alternative music world. In my very skewed opinion, a novel requiring detailed side study of the author's intentions or hundreds of footnotes ain't much of a novel. It's more of like a study guide with a plot.

Radiohead exists to provide musical "intellectuals" an easy Mason-Dixon line between their kind and the primates in their midst. Those who don't truly love Radiohead are posers, simple as that.

But here's what I can't escape. Here's what is incontrovertibly true: if some no-name band came out with any of these last four Radiohead albums, they would either (a) still be some no-name band you'd never heard of, or (b) the album would never have seen the light of day.

I mean, Patty Griffin, who's gotta be one of the more highly-respected and adored musicians in certain country-folk circles, had one of her albums shelved back when she was still up-and-coming. I've heard over half of it, and it kicks delicious buttock, but the dorks who sell albums didn't see the greatness and shelved it. And refused to give the stuff back to her, because music suits are bastards, which is precisely why lots of people don't feel so bad about kicking their financial teeth in when it comes to downloading music.

But back to my point, which is that her shelved album was pretty darn good, but it never saw daylight. If she'd somehow tried to release Amnesiac, it would never have seen daylight, either. No way. No chance. Kid A is a Richard Bachman book that Stephen King burned rather than publish.

I've spent the last three nights fiddling on this computer and playing my entire Radiohead collection -- everything but Hail to the Chief -- on random. All this did was serve to confirm that there ain't a single song on the last three other albums containing anything that holds a candle to their work on the first three.

Radiohead is a Tootsie Roll Pop, and I'm sick of licking and believing there's any candy goodness somewhere deep inside.

Wow. I feel better now. I've held that in for a long time. I'm probably out of the club now. I'm prolly blackballed from all the cool people music parties from here forward.

"The Bends" is off Radiohead's second album of the same name. "All I Need" is off their latest, In Rainbows, now available just like all other albums, proving that their little download ploy was more marketing trick than attempt to revolutionize an industry.


jbradburn said...

Good take on Radiohead. Like you, I'd heard that Kid A was supposed to be special. Well, it was special in the same sense in the way some independent movies are's almost as if it's a test to determine just how sophisticated your intellect is, and if you don't like it, you're just dumb and shallow. It's not that I don't get these things, it's that they don't blow me away in a fashion to warrant "the genius" label.

And it's not that I despise the CD - it was good to listen to w/ headphones while I was working (before I got my ipod). However, when I did get my ipod and it was time seperate the wheat from the chafe (or however that saying goes) - only 1 song from that CD made the cut. (It was Optimistic, which I think is a great song and worthy of a "genius" label.)

Bob said...

I remember when Kid A was up for the Grammy and people complained when Steely Dan won that the "academy" (or whoever it is)was a bunch of old people who were out of touch. The fact is Two Against Nature remains an incredible CD full of songs that are fresh and "hospitable" each time you hear them. I do like Radiohead, though as Bradburn suggests above, I like the qualities of individual songs more than the whole concept. Want some GREAT Radiohead? Get Gillian Welch's cover of "Black Star."

Billy said...

I almost included "Black Star" over "The Bends," but to me "The Bends" is, like, a middle-of-the-pack song on the album, and I didn't want to win my argument by putting that album's best feet forward.

Or something.

And yes, the latest albums have a noteworthy song or two, but the glory of Radiohead is supposedly in their albums, right? Not just their songs?

Anonymous said...

I like some of radiohead when i hear it, but i don't own any of their music, and I honestly can't name 1 song of theirs except "Creep" --- and as Bob would probably attest, I'm probably classified as a pretty big music snob -- not by choice anymore. I guess what I am trying to say, It's probably ok that you don't like Radiohead. I was never really crazy about the Replacements, Uncle Tupelo (they were great live though), Wilco, or that other Tupelo spinoff band named after a gas station, but I do like all of these bands better than Radiohead. After saying all that, I guess I will have to sign off as anonymous.

Hank said...

James Joyce sucks!

Chris Carpenter said...

Speaking on behalf of the cool people, I think Radiohead got kicked out of the party a while back. Plenty of people were ready for them to go after Kid A, but I don't know anyone who held them in esteem after Hail to the Chief.

My take on Radiohead's devolvement is that Thom Yorke decided to make his own voice the lead instrument instead electric guitars. The guitars ruled Pablo and The Bends, then there was a nice mix on OK, but from that point forward it was too much Thom and not enough Les Paul. All the "experimental" beeps and such is just an excuse to get the instruments out of the way of Thom's falsetto.

It is basically the same mistake Billy Corgan made with the Pumpkins and even Jeff Tweedy with Wilco to a certain extent. At some point, they all decided they wanted to be more than rock bands and that rock music was beneath them. It is easy to laugh at a band like The Rolling Stones for keeping the same basic formula for 40 years, but what's wrong with actually liking rock & roll?

(I am conveniently forgetting Her Satanic Majesty's Request...)

To me, the Tootsie Pop analogy works in a different way. The outside exterior is sweet and tasty, but it gets weird as it goes along when the sucker part combines with the tootsie roll part. I like to enjoy the sucker for a while and then toss it before I get to the inside. That seems to be good advice with Radiohead as well.