Reviews

Radiohead

Shan Fowler

. They eschew attention, yet they're media darlings. Reactions to their recent recordings are anything but lukewarm, yet they refuse to explain themselves. They transform studio-centric creations into live songs that are both towering and incandescent, yet they tour infrequently.

Radiohead

Radiohead

City: Santa Barbara, California
Venue: Santa Barbara Bowl
Date: 2001-06-30

If ever a band lived and died by what it hates the most, it is Radiohead. They eschew attention, yet they're media darlings. Reactions to their recent recordings are anything but lukewarm, yet they refuse to explain themselves. They transform studio-centric creations into live songs that are both towering and incandescent, yet they tour infrequently. In essence, they're the more cynical soulmates of Chance the Gardener in the book and film Being There: the more ambiguous and ambivalent they act, the more adored they become. Most of these perceptions revolve around lead singer Thom Yorke, whose disconcerting expressionlessness begs for misinterpretation. He is the prototype Mystery Man. You never know what's going on inside his head, but you wish you did because there always seems to be a fury brewing behind those sleepy eyes. His uncomfortable silence has made him an easy foil for music critics -- a profession whose members Yorke largely disdains -- and as a result he's been branded a mad, reclusive, wounded genius. There are plenty of reasons for thinking he's not a genius and that Radiohead are hacks who've received far too much attention from a cultish following of decoder ring intellectuals who've mistakenly sought meaning in songs that are more form than function. Nothing stops the quest for canonization in Radiohead circles, though, where everyone's out for transcendence: Is this merely a rock band, or is it that rare entertainment commodity that is greater than the sum of its parts? Pick your perception. Or put them on a stage, give them guitars, amps and all manner of lights, and watch as perception becomes irrelevant. Forget the squabbles over the originality and technical merits of their studio recordings, because in concert Radiohead are as organic and explosive as any band playing today. In concert is where Yorke's fury boils over. As the gutteral riffing of "Airbag" quieted only two songs into the set, Yorke stood there shaking uncontrollably, allowing his already slight singing to wander in and out of the microphone's range. The loss of control led to disjointed vocal that was more annoying than inspired, as if he was messing with the levels for no other reason than to do it. It was a rare miscue, however, and Yorke calculated his bursts with more thought and personality the remainder of the evening. He was hardly outgoing, but the cold shoulder he turns toward the press, and that the press in turn reports as his universally unpleasant demeanor, was nowhere to be found. To an audience of intense fans -- many drove two hours or more to be at the comparatively isolated Santa Barbara Bowl -- these touches of humanity were a revelation. Even Yorke's mistakes were greeted with rapture. After flubbing the first verse of "Bulletproof", Yorke stopped the music and said "I forgot the first verse . . . aw fuck it, I'll just make it up." The band had to wait for the applause and shouts to die down before starting again. During the next song, "Talk Show Host", when Yorke stepped out to the edge of the stage in front of the orchestra pit, a crush of hands stretched out to get just a touch. As seriously as Radiohead fans take their music, they, like most other pop culture devotees, need an icon. Thom Yorke was happy to oblige. The scene was not only the perfect visual for Radiohead's greatest strength in concert, but for their greatest strength as a band: Radiohead's arguable brilliance does not lie in their incomparable originality, it lies in how they excel at displaying their originality. Yorke knows when people will gaze at him as if he's a rock icon not because he's trained himself to do so, but because he has a natural suspense about him. Guitarists Ed O'Brien and Johnny Greenwood dropped to the ground to play their distortion pedals by hand during the eerie "Everything in Its Right Place" neither because it made it easier nor because it looked cooler -- they simply wanted to show what they were doing. Intelligence without arrogance is a tough task to pull off. Try too hard and you're pretentious. Don't try hard enough and you're misunderstood. Radiohead show you how smart they are without elaborating, which is good because if they did elaborate, the mystery would be solved and the band wouldn't be half as interesting. Besides, concerts are all about elaboration. "Everything in Its Right Place" was given a stronger backbeat as Yorke knobbed and twiddled his voice into oblivion. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box" was transformed from an atmospheric meditation to a jolty dance number with its guitar riffs mangled to sound like a CD skipping, while Yorke plaintively chanted "get off my case" over and over again. The piercing riffs of "I Might Be Wrong" obliterated any polished electronic edges, yet Yorke's ghostly wail and piano playing right after on "Pyramid Song" couldn't have been less alike the collision of sounds that preceded it. At other points the collisions and juxtapositions were purely visual. "Dollars & Cents" was an electric Aurora Borealis as the fluorescent bulbs and Christmas tree lights behind the band and the spotlights above them came in gentle, ethereal waves, while on "Idioteque" they blinked and flashed like a thousand electric signs, as if Radiohead had embraced commercial trash and purged it in the same moment. After seeing such disparate highs and lows all on the same stage by the same band, you can't help but wonder if Radiohead thrives on its contradictions. Are they the band that smashes through "Idioteque", or are they the skinny lead singer who can open the first encore with a solo acoustic track as fragile as "True Love Waits?" Are they the band that can please the crowd with inexplicable sing-alongs like "Karma Police", or are they the band that can spend the rest of the evening slightly above such standard concert cliches and still give the audience what they want? Perhaps they are the sum of their contradictions. People may love Radiohead because they're just misunderstood enough to keep them guessing and just predictable enough to always sound familiar. The familiarity gives Yorke the leeway to get away with shameless segueways like "That song's for anyone who thinks we're going to die in a flood, or maybe I'm just paranoid" before "Paranoid Android". The misunderstanding requires that he introduce a gravelly, inspired cover of "Cinnamon Girl" by saying "This is for Neil Young -- and it's meant as a compliment." And the culmination of familiarity and misunderstanding allows Radiohead to close with "Fake Plastic Trees", an aesthetic masterpiece that after six years can still bring an audience to stone silence before lifting them to climatic crescendo. A more -- or less -- self-conscious band couldn't get away with this kind of pandering, but by staying mysterious and letting the music do the explaining in concert, Radiohead can get away with just about anything.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image