by Michael Goldberg
Monday, May 19, 2003
Radiohead's 'Apocalypse Now'
A new album captures the anxiety of our times.
We Suck Young Blood
To say that these are disturbing times is to state the obvious. And yet each day seems to bring a new atrocity. Sometimes it's just business as usual for the Bush administration (a tax plan to benefit the very rich; the relaxing of FCC laws regulating media ownership; more idiocy in Iraq; the installation of fanatical right-wing judges). At other times it's a terrorist attack, a crazed lone gunman killing the innocent. Or, in my little part of the planet, news that Las Vegas gambling interests have plans to build a casino in Sonoma County a blight that is much more than just a slap in the face of a number of communities that have worked hard to limit growth, protect the local environment and maintain this area as one of the most beautiful on the planet.
We've all been living with this for a number of years now, and so it's no surprise that some of our artists are reflecting our high anxiety in their work. With their previous two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead turned our fears, our paranoia, our general disease into art. And with their upcoming album, Hail to the Thief, they have created what may be their most powerful (and listenable) musical statement, while using non-topical lyrics to describe how it feels to be alive in this particular moment in time.
Hail to the Thief showed up in my old fashioned P.O. box the other day. Actually, it's not the official version of the album. Someone I know downloaded the supposedly unfinished or not-yet-mastered tracks off the Net, burned them to CD, and sent them my way. Thank you!
On a piece of white paper that also includes the 14 song titles, it says: "Radiohead Hail to the Thief (Bootleg)." Since this material was floating around the Net in late March (it's a February version of the album, according to the unofficial Amnesiac Radiohead site), about three months before the album's June 10 release date, for all I know the band could have made some changes since. Producer Nigel Godrich has been quoted as saying the tracks that got onto the Net haven't been mastered. Further, members of the band including guitarist Jonny Greenwood indicated that there was still work to be done on the album, and expressed some disappointment that Hail had prematurely escaped the studio.
All well and good, and perhaps once I've heard the official release, I'll agree with them that this version doesn't quite cut it. But at the moment, this bootleg Hail to the Thief sounds exquisite. It sounds like the group has just kept heading off into its creative vision, with singer/writer Thom Yorke keeping his eyes open to what's going down all around us, and then doing what artists are supposed to do, make more art. This is not a return to rock, as some had thought it would be. This is not Radiohead's All That You Can't Leave Behind.
And why should it be? Radiohead sold plenty of copies of Kid A and Amnesiac, and remain a major concert attraction. They don't need to look over their shoulders. Their fans have rewarded them for taking chances. And so, with Hail to the Thief (take a bow, George Bush), that's just what they do.
The album opens with what at first seems to be a minor-key dirge, "2+2=5." Yorke's airy vocals soar above a minimal instrumentation as he sings, "It's the devil's way now/ There is no way out/ You can scream and you can shout/ It's too late now/ 'Cause you're not there..." And then the song explodes into a punk rock-fueled chorus, Yorke's voice reminding me of Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten: "...Payin' attention, payin' attention, payin' attention..."
It is, of course, a wake-up call. It should be obvious, and maybe it is, that we're being hoodwinked day in and day out. Still, the latest poll I saw showed that George Bush has more than a 60% approval rating. Pretty weird, given the current state of unemployment, the lack of any sign of a near-term economic recovery, and the fact that we have, thus far, made a royal mess of Iraq.
"Walk into the jaws of hell," Yorke sings during "Sit Down, Stand Up," and sadly, we seem to already be there. Over and over he exhorts, "Sit down, stand up," indicating the lunacy of blindly following orders. In "Sail to the Moon," we get: "Maybe you'll/ Be president/ But know right from wrong."
But strong as the lyrical messages are on Hail to the Thief, it is the music that carries this album (as it should). As any fan knows, Radiohead have been working hard since the success of O.K. Computer to deconstruct rock and make a new kind of music informed by some of what's transpired in electronic and underground rock. If Kid A and Amnesiac were transitional albums that found the band experimenting as their success empowered them to try to forge a new sound, Hail to the Thief finds them more comfortable (and more able), making a new, melodic and highly listenable music from odd sounds, unlikely beats and, at times, a minimalist approach ("Backdrifts," "The Gloaming").
"Go to Sleep" begins like a folk song before jagged rock rhythm guitar comes in, followed by some over-the-edge guitar skonk. "Where I End and You Begin" could be a dreamy ballad, due to Yorke's almost Bono-esque vocal. But then you hear the words: "There'll be no more lies/ I will eat you alive/ There'll be no more lies/ I will eat you alive..."
For a multimillionaire rock star, Thom Yorke is one depressed and upset guy. And thank God for that. The world's a mess, we know it, and he knows it. Hail to the Thief, better than just about any "rock" album I've heard since 9/11, captures these bummer times, in words and music.
And yet, Thom Yorke's voice not the music, not the words, but his voice at times is so beautiful (like on "We Suck Young Blood" and "There There") that it offers hope. Listening to Hail to the Thief, I feel like I should be really depressed instead, this new Radiohead music makes me feel like dancing around the room.
Lynyrd Skynyrd: 'Nowhere Band'
Today I got a press release via email all about a new album from Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band I've never cared for. In case you, like I, don't listen to the radio, the group now has its "biggest radio hit in 25 years," according to the press release, with a song titled "Red White and Blue."
It's true! I checked Billboard and in the May 10th issue the song was at #34 on the "Mainstream Rock Tracks" chart.
To hype their new album, Vicious Cycle, the group will be doing some "Special Wal-Mart In-Store Signings." Reads the press release: "The band will sign copies of Vicious Cycle when they meet fans at Wal-Mart stores Tuesday, May 20 in Jacksonville (the band's birthplace), Wednesday, May 21 in Atlanta, Thursday, May 22 in Charlotte and Thursday, May 29 in Nashville."
They're going on the road, and the tour is being sponsored by Jim Beam. There are only two original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell in the current lineup. As you might recall, vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines died in a plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977, and the group disbanded at that time. They reformed a decade later with Ronnie's brother Johnny on vocals.
Note that they'll be co-headlining in Europe with Deep Purple (who have three original members in their current lineup). And in the U.S. with Sammy Hagar (he used to sing in Van Halen). Oh yeah, according to the press release they'll "perform the soaringly melodic and gutsy song ['Red White and Blue'] for American troops when they launch their worldwide tour with a free show at Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany June 12. Frontman Johnny Van Zant says, 'We couldn't think of a better way to start this tour than with a concert for the men and women who defend this country. It's our way of saying thanks.'" Hail to the Thief!
Megan Reilly, Arc of Tessa (Carrot Top): Megan Reilly grew up in Memphis, which explains her appealingly moody Southern voice, which might remind you slightly of a young Rickie Lee Jones or of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval. She's now based in Brooklyn and backed by an all-star band: drummer Steve Goulding (Mekons, Waco Brothers), guitarist Tim Foljahn (Two Dollar Guitar/ ex-Cat Power), keyboardist Eric Morrison (Home) and bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) on her stunning debut. Chris Lee sings backup on one track ("Gypsy") and adds guitar to another ("Girl"). This is a mellow, modern folk-rock album with such outstanding tracks as the alt-country flavored "Cease to Start," the pop-rock album opener, "Girl," and the sadder-than-sad title track. A low-key gem.
Kaito, Band Red (spinART): Do Kaito sound like The Raincoats or The Slits or Elastica? Is this the second or third coming of British post-punk? Does it matter? Not when you're grooving to the primitive rock of this quartet: lead singer/guitarist Niki Colk, bassist Gemma Cullingford, guitarist David Lake and drummer Dee Quantrill. Colk has one of those unforgettable British punk voices, and on songs such as "Enemyline" she screams, whines and generally does her best to annoy in a most endearing way. She sings words like "I did nothing wrong till I saw you/ And it's all gone wrong 'cos I like you." Kaito take all kinds of noisy sounds and arrange them in hooky ways. Once in a while they even deliver a slow, melodic song such as "Nothin New." But mostly this is loud, angular melodic punk. Exhilarating!