Reviewed on this page:
Pablo Honey - My Iron
Lung - The Bends - OK Computer - Kid A -
Radiohead isn't great, but they're halfway decent, and in the
dismal rock landscape of the late 1990s, that's cause for jubilation.
Guitar-driven Britpop with interesting chord changes, spiced up with
abrupt transitions, plus art student tricks like radios tuned to random
frequencies. Their lyrics are about alienation (what else?), but with
science fiction themes and nonlinearity that's made comparison to
70s Bowie inevitable. I don't think their
basic shtick has changed much, but they've gotten better at it as
they've become more proficient on their instruments and in the studio.
Thom Yorke's voice is servicable if unexceptional, somewhere between
Colin Blunstone and Bono. (DBW)
Whoa. Radiohead is a good deal better than "halfway decent" - they're clearly the best new rock band of the 90s.
Yorke's an extraordinary singer: it's no small compliment to say he sounds very much like Bono, the best rock vocalist of the preceding decade.
The rest of the band tends to be understated, but they're a heck of lot more musical and imaginative than any other Brit pop I've ever heard, not to mention gritty and experimental.
They've got a really amazing grasp of dynamics, their sophisticated chord progressions make their catchy tunes durable, and their artistic integrity is almost unsurpassed - no snotty superstar whining with these guys.
I haven't had a chance to fully digest The Bends and OK Computer. But both of them are clearly superb, and in my view this band is one of the few reasons to hold out any hope for rock in the coming few years. (JA)
There are a ton of fan sites, especially in the UK. But the one with the coolest name is definitely
Thom Yorke, guitar, vocals, keyboards; Jonny Greenwood,
lead guitar, keyboards; Ed O'Brien, rhythm guitar; Colin
Greenwood, bass; Phil Selway, drums.
Pablo Honey (1993)
A perfectly competent, guitar-based pop-rock record, with solid instrumental work, decent tunes, and phenomenal tenor vocals by Yorke.
But like so much of the decade's other conventional rock, an unlike their later records, it's faceless and workmanlike.
The eerie similarity of Yorke's voice to Bono's ("Lurgee") just makes that problem worse, particularly on their big-deal hit single "Creep," a mopey power ballad with memorable dynamics (an alternate mix is the hidden bonus track).
The record also features a second, albeit much weaker single ("Anyone Can Play Guitar," with Bowie-esque guitar hooks), and there are plenty of enjoyable, mid-tempo tunes (the jangly, feedback-drenched "Stop Whispering," with another stratospheric Bono imitation; "Ripcord," with a chorus worthy of Midnight Oil; the anthemic "Prove Yourself").
The production is basic, with minimal harmonies and overdubs; and Yorke's lyrics are okay but not really noteworthy like, say, Jim Ellison's. But they do have a good sense of dynamics - they typically alernate overamplified, distorted power chords with half-empty spaces ("Vegetable") - and they sometimes try to stretch themselves with, say, a driving acoustic ballad ("Thinking About You") or a bossa nova-like guitar part and a wall-of-noise fade (the smooth, dreamy "Blow Out").
Nothing special, but a promising debut effort.
Produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. (JA)
My Iron Lung (1994)
- An EP containing the first single from The Bends (title track),
an acoustic live version of Pablo's "Creep," and six new songs with bare-bones production.
Since most everything's a tossoff ("You Never Wash Up After Yourself"),
this isn't a great introduction to the band, but it's fun: only a couple
of tunes drag ("Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong"). Mostly produced by John
Leckie, except for "Permanent Daylight" (produced by Nigel Godrich and
the band) and the live tracks. (DBW)
- A worthwhile effort that almost makes up for the disc's short running time.
"My Iron Lung" can't be heard too many times, Yorke delivers a staggeringly overwrought vocal on the acoustic "Creep," and the other material is varied and audibly more sophisticated than what you'll hear on their first record.
"Lewis (Mistreated)" is like David Bowie's toughest glam rock; the dreamy, expansive "Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong" is pleasantly reminiscent of Abbey Road; and "Permanent Daylight" has a digital-delay saturated guitar line that puts the Edge to shame.
Admittedly, it's not a masterpiece: the Indian-flavored acoustic song fragment "Lozenge Of Love" and the 6/8 time folk number "You Never Wash Up After Yourself" are pretty but don't add up to much. (JA)
The Bends (1995)
For whatever reason, the mood is extremely sullen this time around, as both full-band rockers ("High And Dry") and
acoustic numbers ("Fake Plastic Trees") sound slow-moving and depressed. But their emphasis on melodic hooks keeps things
from getting as mushy as most mope-rock ("Bullet Proof.. I Wish I Was"), and there are still a few tunes that rely on sudden
dynamics changes ("Just," the extremely U2-like "Bones"), and get some energy going. Studio effects are occasionally in evidence
("Planet Telex") and there's a fair share of obscure, disassociated lyrics ("My Iron Lung"), so I guess you could say this is
transitional toward their OK Computer sound.
Produced by Leckie; the only outside musicians are Caroline Lavelle on cello, and John Matthias on violin and viola. (DBW)
OK Computer (1997)
- The band produced this time, and they dug deep into their bag of
tricks: high-tech guitar effects, spooky synth, found sounds, ambient
noise. There's even an anti-consumerist spoken word piece that's
straight out of the 60s, brought up to date with synthesized voice
("Fitter Happier"). Where they combine the gadgetry with clever,
memorable tunes and good old fashioned guitar distortion, it works
magic: "Paranoid Android" uses dynamic shifts to great effect.
Elsewhere, they get lazy, and can be maddeningly derivative (the
radio hit "Karma Police" which rehashes "Sexy Sadie") or just dull ("Exit Music,"
"The Tourist"). Throughout, the lyrics seem like someone had taken a
left-wing political treatise and a 50's science fiction story, cut them
both into pieces and tossed them up in the air - it's hard to tell
whether they're trying to communicate and failing, or simply trying to
be clever. Still, there are enough propulsive numbers like "Airbag" and
"Electioneering" to keep things entertaining. (DBW)
- The most significant record by the most significant rock band of the decade (if not the best 90s record by the best 90s band).
Everything works here, from Yorke's dreamy vocals to Jon Greenwood's mesmerizing modal guitar lines to the unpredictable, techno-influenced production ("Airbag," the band at its funkiest).
There's heavy Beatles-influenced psychedelia everywhere ("Climbing Up The Walls"), and they mix unusual song structures with huge dynamics (the epic "Paranoid Android").
They play with time signatures and mood-setting instrumentation like 12-string, trippy synths, and electric piano (6/8 time on "Subterranean Homesick Alien"; glacial waltzing on "The Tourist," the world's most sensual country-rock song).
They toss off some excellent, relatively straightforward rockers ("Let Down"; the thrilling "Electioneering," worthy of Cheap Trick; "Lucky," more worthy than Pink Floyd).
And they do as well with light as with heavy (the uplifting, lullabye-based "No Surprises"; the Cat Stevens-like piano ballad "Karma Police").
The track times are long, and some parts drag (the churchy "Exit Music (For A Film)"; the computerized voiceover "Fitter Happier").
But no other 90s record is so worthy of a heroic reputation. (JA)
Kid A (2000)
A cruel trick, Radiohead's Lumpy Gravy.
Electronica at its least entertaining, with a few endlessly repeated "atmospheric" samples and synth lines per song ("Everything In Its Right Place"), and almost no guitar or vocals.
When Yorke is audible, he's extremely subdued, except on the robotic drum machine-based "Idioteque."
There are a couple of songs with rock instrumentation, but they're as dull as the rest ("The National Anthem," in which a sluggish vamp is first augmented and then overwhelmed by amateurish
Thirty-some years ago, this might have been avant garde - the attention it's getting today is due solely to the band's rep. I mean, "Treefingers" and
the dreary pseudo-classical title track sound like outtakes from Tubular Bells - what's inventive or moving or exciting about that?
I never dreamed the band would release such a bland, simpleminded, just plain insipid piece of work.
Grammy winner for "Best Alternative Album," whatever that means.
All the details about this one seem to have slipped my mind. (JA)
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001)
An ungenerous eight-song, forty-minute set, drawing almost exclusively on Kid A and Amnesiac material. (DBW)
Hail To The Thief (2003)
More of the same, with just a couple of real songs ("Go To Sleep"; "There There").
The Eraser (Thom Yorke: 2006)
In Rainbows (2007)
Well, the price was right (the band famously offered the record for download on a "pay what you want" basis, and yes, I paid $0.00).
They're still working the underwritten electronic mood music angle ("House Of Cards") they've been wasting time with since Kid A - even U2 got back to normal rock and roll sooner than these guys.
They are getting a bit better at it, though: "15 Step" has a fun, samba-style drum loop;
and "Bodysnatchers" has a beat and loud guitars if no structure.
Yorke, unfortunately, is more vague and spaced-out than ever, except on "Nude," a slow song that's
like a mellower "Creep."
So it's an upgrade from bite-the-end-off-your-pencil irritatingly boring to just regular boring ("Videotape").
Produced by Godrich.
Let down? Join the club.