Friday, April 22, 2005

Radiohead and the Unwashed Masses

I have been struck of late by the dichotomy between the public perception of Radiohead (who?) and the almost godlike status they claim among rock critics and mavens of popular culture. Here is a band that has had one certifiable hit ("Creep," from the 1993 debut album Pablo Honey), and yet is semi-widely acclaimed (or maybe I just keep strange company) as the most important band on the planet, a band that is creating hugely important music, both from the standpoint of influencing other musicians and in providing trenchant cultural commentary.

A case in point: David Dark's very good book _Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons_ argues that Thom Yorke is creating genuinely apocalyptic works -- apocalyptic not in the sense of addressing the end of the world, but in the sense of the future pushing into the present, "cracking the pavement of the status quo ... announcing a new world of unrealized possibility," as Dark puts it. Heady stuff, particularly for guys with guitars and synthesizers. Now David Dark is a very smart man, and when I could follow his meandering trail I genuinely enjoyed his comments at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. But I wonder if he's overstating the case. It's the old conundrum: If an apocalypse falls in the middle of the forest, does anybody hear it?

Radiohead, of course, does have a fairly sizable and fanatical base of followers. I'd probably number myself in those ranks. But the music simply does not reach the unwashed masses. It is not played on the radio, at least in Columbus, Ohio, it is not featured on the non-musical cable TV music channels, and therefore it does not register for most people, even those who would consider themselves music fans. For Billy Ray and Wanda, watching Hollywood Access and Entertainment Tonight from their farmhouse outside Bucyrus, Ohio, Radiohead does not exist. This isn't exactly Beatlemania we're talking about here. The revolution came, and somebody forgot to notify 95% of the western world.

But ... there is that fanatical base, and they tend to be a proselytizing bunch. I've recently encountered two new albums that do their best to pass the word. Brad Mehldau's Anything Goes contains a fine jazz interpretation of Thom Yorke's "Everything In Its Right Place." And upping the ante, classical pianist Christopher O'Riley has released an entire 15-song cycle of Yorke's songs entitled True Love Waits: O'Riley Plays Radiohead.

Those who have followed Mehldau's career will know that the Radiohead cover is nothing new. Slowly making his way through the Yorke back catalogue, one song per album, Mehldau should be set well into the 22nd century. His earlier covers of "Exit Music (for a Film)" (available on both studio and live albums) and "Paranoid Android" (from his 2003 album Largo) are well worth seeking out. On "Everything In Its Right Place," he works his usual magic. The song is recognizably Radiohead, but Mehldau's left hand dispenses plenty of dissonant block chords, filling in for the schizoid nature of the lyrics, while the right hand elongates the melody here, chops it into staccato machine gun fire there, and generally deconstructs a song that is already heavily deconstructed in its original incarnation. It's a tour de force, and it's what makes Mehldau great. I don't know of a finer jazz pianist working today.

O'Riley's musical preaching is, impossibly, even better. I'm not a classically trained pianist, but I do know that this music is enormously complex and enormously moving. Regardless of the apocalypse, O'Riley has figured out that behind all the dire warnings, the existential despair, and the technological dystopia is the undeniable fact that Thom Yorke writes beautiful melodies. I had feared a sort of New Age arpeggio fest when I bought this album, but O'Riley strikes just the right balance between exuberant, flashy romanticism and difficult, knotty lines. He has prodigious technique, as befitting a classical dweeb who cut his teeth on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3, but he also has an inherent feel for the subtle undercurrents in Radiohead's music, effectively mimicking the uneasy, fractured nature of many of these songs through chordings that are always just a little off, a little dissonant, as if the romantic facade cannot quite cover the ugliness peeking through the artificial beauty. And that, of course, is very, very Radiohead. True Love Waits is a wonderful album, one that non-Radiohead fans could fully enjoy as well. But the music is all the more impressive when one fills in the missing lyrics as one listens, and marvels at how O'Riley communicates in finely nuanced ways through only a box with eighty-eight keys.

True love may wait, but I see that O'Riley has a newly released album of Radiohead songs. I'm impatiently ordering it today.


mg said...

I used to LOVE radiohead, especially circa "the bends" and "OK computer". I tolerated "kid a" and even found moments of genius in it, although i think they were trying to distance themselves from all things pop music, including good melodies.

I still think they are a good band and important musically, but hardly the greatest thing since sliced bread. I enjoy their music on occasion, and even had the opportunity to see them live once. But somewhere in between 'kid a' and 'amnesiac' I lost whatever brilliance they were selling. I do hope for a return to more straight ahead guitar rock with soaring melodies a la "ok computer" but I fear those days are gone, and for those looking for something along these lines would be better off (and more pleased) checking out MUSE.

Just my $0.02

Andy Whitman said...

I pretty much agree with you, Michael. I do like Radiohead. A lot. But like many others, I think they've peaked (so far, at least) with The Bends and OK Computer, and that the subsequent albums have been more "interesting" and "innovative" than good or great. I appreciate the theory more than I appreciate the reality, and I find that I simply don't listen to albums like Kid A or Amnesiac very much. Hail to the Thief was a near return to form, but we're probably never going to get OK Computer Pt. II. Part of me understands that, and appreciates the desire to grow creatively. Part of me wishes that Thom Yorke would understand what he does best -- create beautiful, melancholic songs -- and stick to that.

For what it's worth, I have a similar reaction to Wilco, another "critic's darling" band. I truly do appreciate the fact that Jeff Tweedy and company are willing to move on, to experiment, to push the creative envelope. But I don't find myself pulling Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born off the shelf very often, because a little bit of a fifteen-minute drone goes a long way for me. When I strip off the weird sort of peer pressure that comes from all the fawning reviews, sometimes it seems like the emperor's not wearing any clothes.

Along the "classic Radiohead" lines, I've recently been fairly impressed by a British band called Longview. There's a bit of Radiohead in there, a bit of Coldplay, a bit of the arena anthems of U2. Pretty good. And there are some lyrical references that make me think that these guys may be interested in Christianity. At least they quote the Our Father, or the Jesus Manifesto, or whatever we're calling it these days. :-)