Posts from 14th September 2000

14
Sep 00

Kid A

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Kid A: “Dear Sir, please cancel my subscription to Freaky Trigger forthwith. First you review Stephin Merritt’s new record unfavourably and now you give a lukewarm but reasonably charitable review to an album by Radiohead??? What is your site coming to??”. Full-length review of the most hyped rock album this year.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

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Radiohead – Kid A 

I’ve enjoyed Kid A most when the office is empty and it’s just me and the striplights and the screen, too late in the evening. At quiet times like those I’ve been only too happy to indulge it – in fact I’ve found it soothing, a good album to work to. I’ve enjoyed Kid A least when I’ve wanted to feel something, or get excited. I think it’s a wilful, insular record and by some stretch the best thing the band have done.

But I’m not a Radiohead fan. I disliked OK Computer quite a lot, its reputation more. It felt shallow and misanthropic, full of bluster and a disgust which felt barely earned. ”Fitter, happier and more productive”, Thom Yorke made a robot voice sneer. But I wanted to be fitter, and more productive, and as for happier – at the time the record came out I was just coming off anti-depressants and trying to claw back together some vestiges of a social life and personality. Frankly, this scrawny little fuck carping at human happiness – yes, even the ‘simple’ happiness of the career-minded – made me sick to my stomach.

Of course, I was biased, but you filter music through your personal experience, and I’m not going to bend backwards to be objective because a record gets called Important in Q. I’m better now, though, and I borrowed OK Computer from a friend to discover that I loved one track on it (the funkless beat-spasms and dizzy riffing of “Airbag”) and still was left cold and patronised by the rest. Radiohead’s greatest failure, from my perspective, was their social criticism – from the lyrics, the packaging, the huge juddering sound of it all, you picked up the idea that Radiohead had something big to say, a disgusted message to a fallen world. From “Fitter, Happier”, from the previous record’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, from the doubled-up ironies of the slogans (“YOU ARE A TARGET MARKET”), you started getting an idea of what it was. Nothing they’d ever spell out, you understand – they saved their hints of politics for the website – but still, something about art and mediation and just how perfectly horrible it was to be young and alive in the late 1990s. It was ”I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” pulled out of the can’t-talk-to-girls-at-a-party context and magnified into a bottomless dread which turned the world into a greyed-out nightmare. The vomit, the vomit, and all that, but the bile was mostly Thom’s.

Now, in a sense I could sympathise, though I failed to see where all those pompous Floydian guitars fitted in. But it looked to me like Radiohead had fallen into the first pitfall of cultural critics: you – even and especially if you’re the most ‘important’ rock band of your generation – are part of the problem, not the solution. Whether it was their intention or not, OK Computer seemed to be standing aloof from the rot it diagnosed, offering a pure and stable vantage point for the enlightened and disaffected to feebly shake their fists at the rest of us.

It’s just my feeling, but Kid A, for all its hype and ceremony, seems humbler than OK Computer, beaten down by events, not raging against them. This record, so self-consciously experimental, could have been a rich man’s folly, but instead I find myself taking the band at face value. “How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found” is how they’ve titled one of the more straightforward songs on Kid A – it could have lent its name to the whole record, since disappearance – of vocals, of structure, of guitar heroism, of lyrical meaning – seems to be what Radiohead are aiming at. For half an album, it’s the shyest big-release record I’ve ever heard: enervated and doubtful, not by any means difficult but certainly diffident.

You can tick off the new influences on Kid A easily enough – brittle, queasy Intelligent Dance Music and pitter-pattery fusion, mostly. The old models break loose once or twice, too – the band still bring on the strings when they want a quick emotional fix, and Yorke’s voice carries too many of the songs, despite still being one of the most overrated in rock. His dulled, smeary singing – it’s one of the great mysteries of our time why anyone calls the man ‘angelic’ – is as overdone as ever, and he comes close to ruining some interesting tracks. Kid A tends to work best where his voice is brutally treated or isn’t there at all. Fans of his lyrics needn’t worry – where you can work them out they’re utterly fractured, freaked nonsense. You could spend a hundred wasted paragraphs trying to puzzle out what all this stuff about new ice ages, Pied Piper fantasies and floating down the Liffey is about: best just to say that Kid A is a busted flush lyrically, and move on.

When you’ve made a record which got the kind of reception OK Computer did, making an ‘experimental’ follow-up becomes one very obvious option. You can, after all, get away with it, and since your next record is likely to be gruesomely self-conscious anyway (think of REM’s floundering back-to-basics Monster), you might as well indulge yourself too. So I don’t think Kid A is particularly brave, and I don’t think it’s surprising, and I’m not going to give Radiohead any points for trying what they’ve tried here. I am going to give them points for putting a surprisingly listenable record out at the end of it. The humility I sensed in Kid A is what keeps it being intolerable, Radiohead’s equivalent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, or Blur’s 13: the band sound tentative and confused, and in my book that’s a very good thing.

The first side of Kid A is, basically, the best thing this band could have put out at this time. It has one coherent song (strings, Thom, crowd-pleasing), one Warp Records-influenced soundfield excursion, one very pretty piece of pure Enoid ambience. It has the excellent title track, where Yorke’s voice is pleasingly atomised over stuttering, padding drums (one otherwise disappointing thing about Kid A is the drum programming, which in “Airbag” seemed like the bands strong point but now seems too in hock to its post-techno influences). And it has “The National Anthem”, a geeky, bottom-heavy, 23 Skidoo-style skank which uses free jazz a lot better than PRML SCRM did, mostly by remembering it’s not just cool noise and actually had dynamics.

The second side, though, shows the project’s downsides. Firstly, Radiohead seem to lose their nerve, with “Optimistic”, a straightforward and ugly rock song. The momentum breaks, and so does the shaky trust you’ve been building up. If you’re an old-time fan, you’ll suddenly want more of this stuff. If like me you’re not, you’ll find it intrusive and irritating. “In Limbo” – essentially, Radiohead having a bash at Talk Talk – brings things back on track, but Yorke is all over the song like a weed. “Idioteque” is plain awful, a piss-poor tilt at Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” with Yorke yammering excruciatingly over the top. And as the sleepy “Morning Bell” descends into bleeping and burbling, it’s the only time Kid A feels fatally noodly. The last listed track is “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, a cornball Radiohead ballad, which keeps Thom smothered enough in the mix to stand a hope of working.

No longer central to the band’s sound, Thom Yorke is still plainly the key to its vision. He’s gone into the studio consciously seeking to boggle the fans (one original album title was Emperor’s New Clothes, a reviewer’s gift sadly dropped) and he might actually have done it, judging by other early reviews. He’s also ducked out from under his albatross in neat style: though sadly there’s a new album of song-based material due in the Spring, Radiohead have served notice that from this point on they can and will do and release anything they want. The only question is, can they do it well? On this showing, possibly: Kid A is by no means a good album and can’t often rise above the influences its chosen: far too much of its impact is down to the fact that it’s Radiohead doing this stuff. But it’s still more interesting than the highest-selling rock record of the year has a right to be.

SCOOBY DOOBY DOO

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SCOOBY DOOBY DOO

What do you answer when someone asks you what your favourite Kraftwerk album is, then? If you’re like me you say, “None of them”. If you’re like most people you’d say Computer World (1981) or Trans-Europe Express(1977). But wait! Perhaps you think those answers are the answers a BLEATING HERD OF SHEEP would give. Perhaps you, and you alone, know that the true answer is 1972’s Ralf Und Florian. Mmm, yes.

What’s that, you say? You can only get R&F as a sell-your-kidney expensive vinyl import, illegially copied off the original pressing by a Japanese lunatic? Well, that MAY BE SO, but it’s nothing to do with the quality of this transcendent record. No no no. Or, just perhaps, you horrible indie snob, yes. Really, it’s the Scooby Doo Theory of Music Taste – “My God, it was the LEAST LIKELY PERSON who dressed up as the Mummy!”. You pick the most underrated record you can and you bullishly praise it, you look cool and your questioner looks fool, works every time.

“But I really like that album!” you squeal. That’s OK. I believe you. I applaud your discerning tastes. In fact, let me help you out. Here are some other records you might just ‘enjoy’….

NEIL YOUNG – On The Beach
YOU WILL SAY: “How oh how could Neil never have released this harrowing masterpiece on CD? Especially since it is his greatest work hem hem. Apart of course from the free CD of feedback that came with Weld…”
THE TRUTH: On The Beach exactly like all other NY records, i.e. fogeyish castrato w/acoustic whinges about state of nation, girls. Girls ignore, nation ditto. Free CD of feedback as dreadful as description suggests, also pointless because of…

LOU REED – Metal Machine Music
YOU WILL SAY: “The most influential thing he ever did! Wait – you have the….CD Reissue? HA HA HA HA HA! I pity you missing out on the vinyl original and its sophisticated use of overtones!”
THE TRUTH: MMM a ridiculous chore which has ‘influenced’ only weedy men who wear niffy black T-Shirts and make ‘power electronics’, cf. ‘nihilists’ off of The Big Lebowski. Incidentially a curious coincidence that all these pioneering ‘power electronics’ releases sounded exactly like Commodore 64 computer game tapes, and came out in the mid-80s and were ‘cassette-only’ issues, don’t you think?

PINK FLOYD – Ummagumma
YOU WILL SAY: “This is their finest hour. Well, several hours. The individual suites by each member show off their furnace-like musical imaginations, while the collective live disc is a progressive masterpiece unequalled, except of course by their film soundtrack work….”
THE TRUTH: Quite simply, there is no way a civilised culture can call itself so and sanction the issue of solo works by Nick Mason and Richard Wright. Being bombed back to the caves (where we could have perhaps grooved, Pictlike, with small furry animals) would have been simple cosmic justice.

Can you think of any more, dear readers? Feel free to e-mail me suggestions for a future entry…

HE’S NOT JUST DRAWN BADLY

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HE’S NOT JUST DRAWN BADLY

As loathe as I am to rise to the bait of something as half arsed and uninformed as the Technics Mercury Music Prize (I mean, the prize is named after a company that no longer exists) I cannot let this Badly Drawn Boy nonsense persist. There are two things you need to know about the boy drawn bad.

a) He is the British Beck.
b) He wears a bobble hat.

Let us examine these two stabs at greatness. How much of a compliment is it to be compaired to some Yank with rubbish hair who is quite obviously a loon and only knows one word in the dictionary – which is of course eclectic. In an attempt to be like the hip-hopping, folk rocking, funk maulingly rubbish Beckster – Mr Gough has treated a few knocked out guitar tunes with a flanger. Badly Drawn Boy is also quite badly reading boy and appeard to have mistaken the eclectic for epiletic – which might explain his occasion fits of tunefulness. The rest of his songs sound like The Proclaimers.

But I know I am missing the big picture here. He wears a bobble hat, that most maligned of rock acoutrements. No rock star has ever worn a bobble hat. It is not sexy, it is not clever. The only vaguely famous people to ever wear bobble hats were The Flumps. And here is where the story leads us too. Badly Drawn Boy is merely Grandpa Flump on his Flumpsichord. Well worth an award named after a defunct telecom firm. The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast? Night of the serious muso critic trying to champion a talent so mediorce that even when he rocks out he just sounds like a soft rock version of Chicago? ie Boston.

(Dear reader, I am merely annoyed because my money was on Helicopter Girl. When a poster campaign can win someone an award I will finally be happy and convinced of the death of all music. Music awards should be won on the strength of blitz postering of Camden and a girl sticking her arse in the air.)

KRAFTWERK

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KRAFTWERK

Anyone who cycles is a bastard. You have your pavements, for the use of the foot, and you have your roads, for the use of the car. Neither fish nor fowl, the bicycle exists solely to annoy pedestrians and motorists alike, to let middle-aged men case their flabby arses in lycra and then wave them at you, and to allow people to wear hats even the Pet Shop Boys would shun. I mention this only because an addiction to cycling is the reason most often given for Kraftwerk’s fifteen-year retirement from making music. Makes sense, really. But while not wishing to play dentist to any gift horses, I’d suggest that there might have been other factors involved.

How, after all, would you make a Kraftwerk record? You could follow a simple formula. A hi-tech, but essentially dull, item is chosen. The motorway, for example, or the Tour De France, a race so polite that the riders stop to swap jerseys every few miles. A keyboard is turned on. Now, here’s the cunning bit. As you play a tune on the keyboard – any will do, but make sure you only use one finger – you sing some lyrics about your chosen item. Again, any will do, but make sure they’re very, very simple. For example, if you’re singing about Radioactivity, you might want to sing: “Radioactivity / It’s in the air for you and me”. That’s about the level required. Make sure you sing like a robot – if you put any inflection in your voice at all the spell will be broken and the audience will suddenly realise that you are not in fact a futuristic machine-man harbinger of the new era, but a balding man in an unfortunately tight jumpsuit.

Anyway, say you decided to write a song about your weblog, a hi-tech item indeed but most likely very, very boring. You get your keyboard, pick out some Frere Jacques rip-off with your pinkie, and start singing.
I change my website every day
[doot-doot-doot-de-da-doot-doot]
My weblog is the perfect way
[doot-doot-doot-de-da-doot-doot]
My weblog serves me very well
[doot-doot-doot-de-da-da-doot]
I use Shockwave and XML
[doot-doot-doot-de-da-doot-doot]”

So, demonstrably it’s not the hardest thing in the world to make Kraftwerk records. How come nobody does? (Least of all Kraftwerk themselves). The official history suggests that the band – perfectionists, as the staggering detail of their work so ably indicates – felt unable to compete with the new wave of dance music which built on the foundations they had etc. etc. Rubbish! What actually happened is that, around 1981, people started buying computers, and those computers started making noises themselves, and lo and behold the soundtracks to Chuckie Egg and Frag! sounded exactly like Kraftwerk (except usually funkier). Suddenly the bottom fell out of the cod-futurism market: the future had arrived, and it sounded Krap. Ralf und Florian were reduced to singing horrible songs about phone sex to pay the re-saddling bills, and then just resigned themselves to back-catalogue irrelevance. As for influence, 25 years on and Kraftwerk’s biggest impact has been on a generation of twats programming irritating four-note tunes into their mobile phones. How vacuously modern, how very appropriate.

Western Homes returns

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Western Homes returns (sort of).