This week, I’ve been listening to the Pixies‘ 1989 album “Doolittle.” My introduction to this alt-rock guitar band probably came through Nirvana and the Breeders. You can definitely hear that Nirvana influence coming from songs like “Tame.” “Doolittle” was nearly a decade old by the time I heard it. Though I know a few of the songs, this week was really my first time getting to know the whole album.
This Pixies album album sounds very 90s, even though it came out before music that typifies the 90s. At the time, it must’ve seemed so strange and new. It’s still unusual today, but definitely sounds dated. Just strange that it sounds dated to a time after it came out. That’s how influential it was.
I fell in love with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” the first time I heard it, whenever that was. The unusual start of the song caught my attention. A series of ascending chords drive out of nowhere, drums begin, then a hit from the bass as if this song is going to rock. Then.. a pause and the vocals calming state “There was a guy.” Instead of rocking, the collected and slightly menacing voice, tells us a story like recalling a legendary news item: “An underwater guy who controlled the sea got killed by ten million pounds of slugs from New York and New Jersey.” That’s the first verse: Nonsense that seems to make sense. The chorus consists of the line “This monkey’s gone to heaven” repeated four times.
“Here Comes Your Man” provides a great example of something I noticed throughout the album. The guitars often play monophonic surf-rock inspired lines. There’s not so much strumming of full chords as usually found in rock music. The album also features a lot more clean, or at least less distorted, guitar than I would’ve expected. When guitars are distorted or fuzzed, they are mixed further back than the clean guitars, providing more of a pad than a heavy drive.
The nearly instrumental “La La Love You” songs also features a lot of surf-rock style lead guitar. Again, this track opens with some rockin’ drums and then takes a mellow turn. It borders on instrumental cheese and surf rock. I love the bright clean electric with dripping reverb sound. The bass rolls along uninterestingly, which is actually in contrast to most of the album where the bass carries much of the instrumentation. The lyrics aren’t much, but that’s really the point. “All I’m sayin’ pretty baby, La la love you, don’t mean maybe.” is repeated several times as the song ends. In a way this song seems to represent much of what the undercurrent of the album: It’s an angular love-affair with rock n roll; it attacks what it loves.
This week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead’s album “Kid A” from 2000. When this album was released, I had just moved to Asheville a few months prior. “Pablo Honey” was one of my favorite albums and I really enjoyed “OK Computer.” I also liked the singles from “The Bends”. With each album, they were obviously evolving as an experimental band expanding the possibilities of the alt-rock genre. My first reaction to “Kid A” was one of disapproval. From my perspective, they’d gone off into the stratosphere, losing touch with rock music and the audience. It also got dangerously close to ambient music at times. In short, I did not like it.
About fifteen years later, I’m running into people who love this album. Some even consider it Radiohead’s best. So, I give it another chance. I now heard a band casting aside the confines of rock to focus on what had made them unique before. It seems they were rebelling against what people said and expected from them. Perhaps, they finally completely rebelled against the brit-pop Nirvana labelled they’d inexplicably acquired in the early 90s. I never understood that description, but there’s definitely no way anybody could say that about “Kid A.” I still didn’t like it.
Three more years pass and here I’m spending a full week listening to “Kid A” because it’s considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. After devoting all this time to it, I still don’t really like it much. However, some parts of it grew on my a little. Some parts wore on me a lot. Overall, I think the album suffers from too much repetition without enough variation. Each song has some cool stuff going on. However, even the cool stuff becomes boring when it goes on for too long.
The “Everything In It’s Right Place” is one of the best tracks on the album. The few lyrics are oblique and opaque, which is true for most of the album. The lines capture a feeling of being overwhelmed and in a generally foul mood. Thom repeats lines several times, which makes them memorable and catchy. I almost don’t notice how little description the words give.
The chords follow an unusual pattern of I-II♭7-III♭6 for the intro, and then IV-I-II♭7-III♭6 for the verses. These strange series comes from playing a constant tonic note (C in this case) while playing triadic chords below it. I assume that the use of a constant C puts the song in the key of C, however, it feels like it may actually be in the key of F. The moments of the song that return to that IV chord FEEL like they are returning home to the tonic. This is not a conventionally way to work with chords in rock music and really sounds much more like jazz.
“The National Anthem” grabs my interest with its cool driving bassline. Unfortunately, that bass continues without deviation until it is mind-numbingly monotonous. I think of Mancini’s bassline in “Peter Gunn” which holds up to repetition because so much musically interesting happens over top of it that the bassline becomes a groovy background texture. In “The National Anthem” the unchanging bass line stays to prominent; furthermore, the other instrumentation fails to pull the focus away. I don’t like the chaotic brass free-for-all section. With its lack of musical substance, it’s just chaos. It sounds too much like an imitation of the sound of more avant-garde jazz without any direction or purpose. Rather than building on the bassline, they make stylistic noise in spite of it. And again, that pulls my ear to the bass.
The vocals provide the most interesting element of the song. Or, more specifically, the processing of the vocals. There seems to be a combination of doubling-up with a resonant synth, perhaps some ring-modulation, and altered reverb/delay. I’m not sure, but it does wonderful things to my ears. Too bad the lyrics fail to provide much to the song. All they gives us is “Everyone around here, everyone is so near. It’s holding on. Everyone is so near, Everyone has got the fear. It’s holding on.” That’s it. With this bassline and those horns, I feel that more story-telling is in order.
Probably my favorite track on “Kid A” was “Optimistic.” Again, the vocals repeat the same lyrics multiple times. The chorus has six lines, which are three lines repeated, the first two of which are the same: “You can try the best you can. You can try the best you can. The best you can is good enough.” It certainly helps the lyrics to be memorable.
I probably prefer this song because it’s a little more rocking than the others. The song features guitar. The clean guitar strums rhythmic chords like the Velvet Underground or Stereolab. Drums trip loosely across the toms, creating a somewhat exotic texture. Unfortunately, the song shares the quality of flatness with the rest of the tracks. From start to finish, there’s a feeling of samess due to the dreamy drift between sections and the lack of solid dynamics.
Overall, I didn’t think this was that great of an album. I appreciate it as serious shift transition from the old Radiohead to the new Radiohead, but I don’t know if I consider that a good thing. My tastes are more for the earlier Radiohead than what came after.