2003 / Music

Review: Radiohead, Stephen Malkmus Embrace The Mainstream

Brit Rockers, Ex-Pavement Leader To Tour U.S.

Read The Reviews: Radiohead | Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks

As with anyone paying attention to popular culture, it’s hard not to trace the recurring patterns that seem to emerge in the relationship between artists and their audiences.

The creation of art in a commercial environment is the subject of a continual tug-of-war that each artist faces. It’s a fight between artists’ freedom of expression while still giving fans something that they can fall in love with.

In the case of British art-rock outfit Radiohead, the band responded to their platinum-selling, much-praised third album, “OK Computer,” by attempting to do what Kurt Cobain threatened to after the monumental success of “Nevermind”: record albums so inaccessible that they would alienate their exploding fan base. (As I suggested in my last Radiohead review, Pearl Jam arguably followed a similar game plan.)

Like Cobain, however, Radiohead backed away from fully carrying it out. Their subsequent albums, “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” were denser, electronic-leaning and more fiercely experimental than the prog-rock of “OK Computer” or its underrated predecessor “The Bends” — despite glimmers of frontman Thom Yorke’s intrinsic melodicism still shining through. Overall, the albums were just challenging enough to put many fans and critics off.

When we last heard from Radiohead in 2001 with “Amnesiac,” it wasn’t apparent whether the band was slowly moving toward seeking a certain popular rehabilitation, like Pearl Jam has, by next releasing more catchy, guitar-based songs or if they intended to continue on in a more radical vein.

On the surface at least, the group’s new album, “Hail To The Thief,” resembles their early albums mainly because there’s more guitars in the music. But is this a return to the “OK Computer” good old days as Yorke has said in several press interviews? Keep reading.

At the very least, the band seems willing to win back the faithful by going to them. They recently announced a dozen August dates for their first U.S. tour in two years and their first extensive tour of North America since the “OK Computer” era.

And when they do, Radiohead will be taking with them Stephen Malkmus. Like Radiohead, the former Pavement leader has a new album out — recorded with his backing group, the Jicks — that follows his first solo by embracing more conventional melodies.

Radiohead “Hail To The Thief”

Whether through their music or talking about global politics, Thom Yorke and Radiohead have consistently hammered home one idea to those that will listen: break away from the mold and seek out your own answers.

Photo: Parlophone Records

Photo: Parlophone Records

Nearly every song and every interview, implicitly asks for understanding and for people not to fall victim to intellectual laziness, to see the forest from the (fake plastic) trees.

It’s a philosophy that the group has shown the courage to carry over into their career choices. Each record that the band makes is a musical experiment distinct from its predecessor.

So don’t go on believing Yorke now when he says in press interviews that he thinks “Hail To The Thief” is a return to “OK Computer” rock. In all probability, his head is buried in a Noam Chomsky booklet and wearing headphones with the sound of Kraftwerk or the latest underground Euro electronica export reverberating between his ears. He’s got other things on his mind rather than accurately judging his own artwork. Just ignore him, or at least whatever he says outside the context of these songs.

Especially because what he’s singing about on “Hail To The Thief” is new and intriguing. For a group that’s arguably made a career fixating about alienation, this is a record narrated by someone who is profoundly disturbed by the outside world — more so than ever before. (With lyrics like “Lay me down/In a bunker/underground” and “It’s too late now/Because/You haven’t been paying attention,” it would be fair to call “Hail To The Thief” Radiohead’s reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and the United States’ war on terror).

Often accusatory, pessimistic and condemning, the record’s emotional tone is built on equal shares of fear, frustration, rage and apathy. Even the album’s most lilting melodies are weighed down with The Message — that the narrator believes the world has been turned upside down and no one’s going to turn it around.

The music that supplies the other half of these bleak, world-weary images are less surprising. Granted, the band is showing a renewed willingness to utilize the guitarwork of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, but “Hail To The Thief” is musically closer to “Amnesiac” in that both seek a balance between the computerized beats and studio trickery of “Kid A” and the guitar-driven melodies and pop sensibilities of “OK Computer.” Although still more accessible than “Kid A,” “Hail To The Thief” is in total a weaker collection of songs than “Amnesiac.”

That’s not to say there aren’t stellar moments on it. “Go To Sleep,” with it’s chugging rhythm, squawking guitar interplay and distortion-less production, is the closest will likely get to the “The Bends” from Radiohead circa 2003. As the musical tension increases, Yorke’s voice, reminiscent of a heavenly organ, warns, “We don’t want the loonies taking over.”

Another track with a clear musical arc is “There, There.” Built around bobbing guitar chords and some tribal drumming, the song finally explodes with Yorke and the guitars wailing in unison about our impeding doom.

Not all the songs on “Hail” are built around the guitar. The album features a trio of slow songs — “I Will,” “Sail To The Moon” and “We Suck Young Blood” — that are carried by Yorke’s ethereal voice. Occasionally creepy but always highly emotional, his singing is the closest to spiritual music that modern rock has.

But it’s this lack of an arc or any sense of musical drama where some of the songs on “Hail To The Thief” come up short. Typically, these are the record’s most avant-garde songs, like “Backdrifts” or “The Gloaming.” They come across like studio-derived experiments instead of true songs.

In all likelihood, “Hail To The Thief” won’t win the kind of large audiences that “OK Computer” brought to Radiohead. Nor will it repel hardcore rock fans like “Kid A” did with its electronic experimentality.

But when the group hits the road this summer, it will give the band members a chance to leave their computer consoles and keyboards and rock the crowd with their old instruments.

For More Info:

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks “Pig Lib”

Not satisfied with just being lauded as a clever songwriter and the brains behind one of the ’90s most seminal bands, former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus has made a valiant effort on his new solo record “Pig Lib” to win yet another title for his resume: guitar hero.

Like his idol Lou Reed, Malkmus has always shown a fondness for parsing his surrealistic, image-heavy lyrics with lots of guitar action. During his Pavement days, Malkmus closely followed Reed’s example by opting to upend his songs with discordant guitar breaks and lots of feedback. Now, Malkmus seems to prefer showing some fancy fingerwork. (While we’re not talking about Steve Vai-style hot dogin’ just yet, Malkmus is jamming, stretching his songs out with intricate, wire-y guitar lines.)

In fact, Malkmus’ fretwork is so exhilaratingly unpredictable yet melodic that during the record’s nine-minute centerpiece, “1% Of One,” he easily bests the latest offerings from his other primary influence (and prime proponents of indie rock jamming) Sonic Youth.

Malkmus embraces classic rock’s guitar tricks too. He follows the power chords that propel “(Do Not Feed The) Oyster” forward into a psychedelia-type breakdown that features some guitar melodies played in reverse. For “Sheets,” he rocks out on a wah-wah pedal to answer the thumping rhythm.

Besides his influence on Malkmus’ guitar playing, one can pick out Reed’s impact on the record’s sweetest love song, “Vanessa From Queens.” Poppy and tenderly sung, the track bears the stamp of the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” album, but Malkmus’ humorous imagery (“Got your ballerina tights around my head/In a samurai pose on the bed”) and the combination of guitar different tones and sounds move the song beyond its influences.

The guitar work on “Pig Lib” might not snag Malkmus the cover of Guitar Player magazine just yet, but it reveals that he’s clever enough a songwriter to want to broaden his horizons and talented enough to pull it off.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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