Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.

Radiohead’s “Kid A”

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.

BBC recording of “Everything In It’s Right Place” since the  album version is not available.

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.

A fan-made video for “The National Anthem” by Radiohead.

“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.

Live performance of “Optimistic” by Radiohead.

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.

Radiohead’s “OK Computer”

Radiohead "OK Computer" album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Radiohead‘s 1997 album “OK Computer” to learn from as a songwriting musician. I remember when this album came out and I loved it immediately. This week served not as an introduction, but as an opportunity to re-examine the familiar for something new. As soon as I heard the open guitar line of “Airbag” I knew it was going to be a great week. I love this album. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to listen to objectively and write about.

Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood enjoys experimenting with the possibilities of his instruments. Effects pedals alter the sound of the guitar in unusual ways. He also incorporates a variety of unusual playing techniques. I remember being blown away the first time I saw the “Creep” music video. Jonny’s guitar stabs introduced the chorus. His manic strumming launched into a guitar solo that feels much more like he’s trying to save his life.

The song was innovative for Radiohead’s sonic character of their instruments, including vocals. The song itself borrows a lot from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” but the sound and performance are wholly unique. Today’s listeners often hear “Creep” as typical 90s alt-rock. Radiohead so quickly evolved far beyond their first album, it’s difficult to realize how strange it sounded when it first came out.

The second track “Paranoid Android” remains one of my favorite Radiohead songs. It opens with a latin-influenced rhythm including a clave and a gentle acoustic guitar playing broken chords. This suggests an atmosphere of elevator and dreams of a 1950s family vacation. Appropriate for the “Please could you stop the noise

I’m trying to get some rest” line. The second verse has the unfriendly, yet catchy, line “When I am king, you will be first against the wall.” After about two minutes, the music takes on a slightly sinister feel thanks to some rhythmic single low notes on the guitar. At 2:40, distorted electric guitar strike as Thom spits, “You don’t remember…” Jonny then plays a great, flourish-free, fuzz guitar solo panned full left. A mixture of time signatures add to the exotic other-worldly feel of the song. And then it moves into a mourning-choir section. Distorted guitars rip back into the song. The Rhythm guitar and drums play the ending rhythm, but the fuzzed out lead guitar soars into high notes drawing the song back into life before letting it end.

The great song “Karma Police” does interesting things with chords in their key. The first part of the song is in G major, then the outro is in B minor. The chord progression for the verses could be i-III-v-VII if in A minor, which would be great. However, being in G major, the chords actually follow an unusual ii-IV-v-I progression.

The chorus could be a I-II-V-IV#7 in the key of C major, which again would be great though weird. But, still in G major, the chorus is actually a IV-V-I-VII7. These unusual progressions are played simply on the piano with a strummed acoustic guitar adding texture to the background. Overall, the song has an ambivalent feeling of stability and fragility, marching and floating.

Thom lifts his voice up during the outro;  He sings, “Phew for a minute there, I lost myself.” This matches the peculiar contradiction of a minor key with a triumphant feeling. I love that combination. The opposite happens in the chorus where the chord progressions seem to go from A minor to C major, but the mood drops with an mildly threatening statement of purpose: “This is what you get when you mess with us.”

The blissfully perfect “No Surprises” remains one of my favorite songs. Sonically, it bears some resemblance to The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from their debut album. With the slower tempo, use of glockenspiel and guitar over a bassline with little percussion and softly sung vocals. The two verses vollow a I-vi-ii-V-I-iv chord progression. The minor iv adds a sense of longing to the pull for resolution. I love this song. The sound is delightfully pleasant tinged with melancholy.

Throughout the album, obtuse lyrics build emotional images of anxiety and distress. I don’t want to make too much of the comparison, but it bears some relation to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both albums deal with the difficulty and burden of living in modern society.  With Radiohead, the lyrics are much more post-modern. At times, they’ve constructed lyrics from lists and yet others are collections of sentiments.  These are pulled together to create an overall sense of meaning, sort of like reading between the lines.

Overall, “OK Computer” continues to be one of my favorite albums. Radiohead make great use of inventive chord progressions. I also appreciate their attention to sonic detail, from use of effects to the choice of instruments. This is true, of course, with all bands. Yet, Radiohead seek out new ways to create strange auditory experiences. They thoughtfully combine these in meaningful ways that suit the songs.