Radiohead: Cosmic Kid
One of the many unusual sounds on Radiohead’s new album, Kid A (Capitol), is made by an instrument called the ondes martenot. A primitive electronic keyboard that predates the synthesizer, it produces a single tremulous tone that can swoop and dive in a manner that evokes the human voice but is, at the same time, recognizably not human. It’s an eerie sound, and one not frequently heard in pop music. Up until now, the most notable employer of the ondes martenot was the French composer and mystic Olivier Messiaen, who made it the centerpiece of his monumental ” Turangalila-Symphonie” . Not coincidentally, Radiohead’s resident multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, who plays the ondes on several Kid A tracks, studied Messiaen’s work in school.
It may also not be coincidental that the ondes martenot carries the trippy main tune of the original theme to Star Trek . For the music that Radiohead has been striving to make for at least the last five years is, literally, space music. They’ve been struggling to escape the gravitational pull of the record industry, break free from pop’s tiny globe and, like Messiaen and Spock, explore the cosmos.
It’s tough to do this when you’re stuck in an earthbound human’s skin with no easy means of transport; tougher still when you’ve got to deal with the commercial and artistic expectations of a multinational corporation and several million fans. And so it’s not surprising that this English quintet’s music and career has been fraught with tension.
As the author of a book on Radiohead, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Dell), I’ve heard plenty about the traumatic process of recording Kid A , which took two and a half years to complete and nearly broke up the band. Then again, tensions within the group nearly broke them up during the making of their previous album, OK Computer , and the album before that, The Bends . All of this strain must get wearying after a while. But it’s an inevitable result of the Sisyphean quest that Radiohead have set themselves on: the quest for sounds that haven’t been heard before, and that all five members can agree are worth hearing.
Something else to note here: OK Computer has won numerous critical and industry plaudits in the U.K. as well as a Grammy; it has sold almost 5 million copies worldwide; it has been nominated in various music-geek polls as one of the greatest rock albums of all time; and in the three years since its release, the album’s expansive, passionate art-rock sound has influenced a whole host of bands, from Travis to Coldplay.
For Radiohead, this is all the more reason not to repeat themselves. And with Kid A , they certainly haven’t.
I first heard Kid A at its official world premiere for the public on Sept. 5, in the cavernous Sony Imax Theater on Broadway at 68th Street, along with approximately 600 other people: one-third media types and two-thirds fans. (Strangely, the album was unveiled while the Imax film Into the Deep –which had lots to do with eels and squid but not much to do with Radiohead–played.) I’d heard live versions of several tracks already–MP3 bootlegs from the band’s brief summer tour of Europe. I’d also heard that lead singer and creative catalyst Thom Yorke had given up listening to pop music entirely following the release of OK Computer and had turned instead to the work of English electronic artists like Autechre, Squarepusher and the Aphex Twin. Even so, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the new album.
What I heard was remarkable, mostly for its utter lack of commerciality. “Everything In Its Right Place” opened Kid A with a steady bass-drum pulse and a mournful electric piano vamp in 5/4 (always a popular time signature with the kids). Mr. Yorke’s high, plaintive voice faded in slowly, but the syllables he sang had been sampled, cut up and then reinserted into the music seemingly at random, resulting in an unintelligible drone that suggested a human jaw harp. Eventually some words became clear, but the significance of lines like “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon” and “There are two colors in my head” were difficult to ascertain. The crowd waited for the big payoff–a biting guitar line, a hefty backbeat, a sudden modulation. It never came.
For more than 45 minutes, the album continued in this vein: thorny, meandering, almost defiantly experimental. There were few audible guitars (this from a band with three guitarists), few identifiable verses, choruses or catchy hooks. On several tracks, Mr. Yorke’s voice was either hidden by a cloud of effects or computer-processed to sound like some futuristic man-machine hybrid. The influence of groups like the Smiths and U2, so strong in much of Radiohead’s earlier music, had been replaced by the strains of ambient, drum-and-bass, German progressive rock and even–on one clamorous number, “The National Anthem”–free jazz. The final song, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” ended with an incongruous swell of sampled harp and female choir, a move oddly reminiscent of the way the Beatles followed “Revolution 9″ with “Good Night” on the White Album .
When the lights came up, the reaction among the media types was clearly mixed. Someone sitting close to me said that the band’s label, Capitol, must be tearing its hair out over this one; that Kid A made Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile sound like the Partridge Family.
So it may have seemed on first listen. But in the weeks since the event, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Kid A many more times (thanks not to the band’s record label, which has been unwilling to send out advance copies to most critics, but rather to the enterprising soul who got hold of a rare advance and put the tracks online as MP3’s). And repeated listening makes it clear that Radiohead has not, in fact, given up completely on the conventions of pop music.
Each one of these 10 songs has a recognizable structure. It’s just that, unlike most present-day chart fodder, the transitions from one section to another aren’t always blindingly obvious. “Optimistic,” a grinding guitar-driven number, and “How To Disappear Completely,” a drifting angst epic, are the most old-fashioned and immediately rewarding tracks, but even initially obscure tunes like the swirling, polyrhythmic “In Limbo” begin to cohere over time.
Perhaps the strongest song on the album is “Idioteque,” which at first appears to be the least Radiohead-ish piece here. Principally composed of a sparse, frantic drum-machine beat and multiple tracks of Mr. Yorke spitting out fragments of verbiage (“Women and children first … Ice age coming … I laugh until my head comes off”), it seems like a throwaway until you realize you can’t get it out of your brain. If the track had guitars and normal drums on it, it would sound like a classic Radiohead song. Actually, it sounds like a classic Radiohead song just as it is.
In recent interviews, the members of Radiohead have said that they’re tired of the tension, tired of working for years making albums that nearly cause them to break up. Next time, they say, it has to be easier. But they’ve said similar things before, and from the evidence accumulated so far, it’s hard not to conclude that struggle is a necessary part of their creative life. In any case, we should feel lucky that they’ve made it this far. Kid A is not only a calculated spit in the eye of the marketplace; at its best, it also boasts a distinct air of the cosmic, ondes martenot and all.
Monte: Celestial Sex Music
Marisa Monte (pronounced “monch”–go ask a Brazilian) is a piece of work. She’s a geographically untraceable beauty (I’d peg her for Armenian, and those red lips would do justice to a 30’s movie star); she’s a pop chanteuse whose concerts turn into ecstatic be-ins, and she’s the logical culmination–the perfect flower, if you will–of the post-bossa nova Tropicalia movement.
If Caetano Veloso and the genius founders of Tropicalia liked to philosophize about the irresistibility of Anglo-American pop culture, Ms. Monte bridges the cultural divide simply by opening her mouth. Sultriness is the medium in which she mixes Brazilian samba and forró and American pop and funk.
Listening at random to her past three albums, Mais , Rose and Charcoal and A Great Noise , you may think, “Wait a minute, isn’t that a Roberta Flack song?” or, a moment later, “Holy cow, that’s Bread”–only to discover it’s a Monte tune of recent vintage, typically written with such co-conspirators as the percussionist Carlinhos Brown. Unlike, say, her song sister from the Portuguese colonies, Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora, Ms. Monte is never going to win huge points in this country with holier-than-thou world music fans, but the 33-year-old Rio native has a way of making generic or cultural distinctions seem beside the point. Singing a signature tune like “Beija Eu” from Mais (sample translated lyrics: “Wet me / Dry me / Let me be the sky / And receive / What is yours / Night fall and day break me”) in her endlessly supple mezzo-soprano with her flawless articulation, she comes across like an angelic messenger from a celestial sex party.
In this country, Ms. Monte hasn’t toured enough to expand much beyond her devoted expat-Brazilian fan base, although New Yorkers will be able to check her out when she plays the Beacon Theater on Sept. 30. Back in Brazil, she’s top of the pops and rightly so.
Which brings us to the new album, Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love, Proofs, Texts and Denials (Metro Blue). As the title might suggest, it’s quite a busy piece of work, and, in fact, not the best place for the uninitiated to penetrate the Monte oeuvre . The arrangements are, for the most part, elaborate–on “O Que Me Importa,” for instance, we get a small army of six cellos, one French horn and one downtown New York guitarist, Marc Ribot. On a few too many tunes, the blips and blats of electronica rear their digital heads. The producer behind the dials here is downtown musical eminence Arto Lindsay, and while it’s tempting to think of him as the American seducer and Svengali–his relationship to Ms. Monte a variation on a Stan Getz-Astrud Gilberto theme–Mr. Lindsay is actually a thoroughly bicultural missionary kid who has produced all of the singer’s internationally distributed albums.
But this one is a very mixed bag. On the album’s two strongest tracks, “Não É Fácil” and “Cinco Minutos,” we get the delicious melodic hooks and the effortlessly negotiated rhythmic twists and turns that can support all the studio busywork. Somewhere, Os Mutantes–Rio’s late 60’s and early 70’s pop pioneers who channeled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band –are smiling. For the album’s wispier, folkier cuts, though, more is definitely not more. In particular, the opening track, “Amor I Love You,” with a girl chorus contributing “oohs” and “aahs” and the singer intoning the ridiculous refrain like Diana Ross selling “Baby Love,” is a crowding of the admittedly thin line that separates pure pop from pure kitsch.
Without a doubt, Memories etc. has its pleasures (and listening to Ms. Monte is all about learning to trust pleasure), it’s just not the knockout that her last one, A Great Noise , was. That album’s masterstroke, besides the soft-porn-cartoon cover art, was to combine the studio concoctions with the more exuberant live-concert stuff. With Marisa Monte, you hate to have to come inside.
Photek, Craig: ‘Infinity’ & Beyond!
Twenty years from now, Photek and Carl Craig will be looked upon as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles of their niches, so completely did they invent and then re-imagine drum-and-bass and techno, respectively. In fact, Mr. Craig and Photek (very British real name: Rupert Parkes) have been dominant in their genres for so long–despite what would appear to be a mainstream-press blackout–that both evidently felt the need to shake things up, the way Bruce Springsteen did in 1989 when he jettisoned the E Street Band.
For Photek, who recently performed at Centro-Fly in Chelsea, the reaction is probably a necessary one, as drum-and-bass completed its metamorphosis from outré hooligan music to hair-gel jingle material quicker than any genre in recorded history. And the more that its advocates, such as Goldie or LTJ Bukem, have attempted to develop the genre, the more easy-listening it’s become–a paradox that would have put a smile on Lester Bangs’ face, if he had cared about anything that had to do with dancing.
Photek made his name through the insanely robotic precision of his rhythms and his jeweler’s attention to detail. Can’s Holger Czukay once explained to me that it takes unemotional music to create true emotion, and Photek’s early work embodied this maxim. On his new disc, Solaris (Astralwerks), he’s looking for love, stretching out, softening up. Unfortunately, the result is–as Bob Dylan once succinctly sang–”too much of nothing.” The album is only occasionally less than listenable, but when has one turned to Photek for listenability? Hard jungle beats are downplayed (with the exception of the overlong “Infinity,” which is superior in its atmospherics, not its beats) for not-quite-generic trip-hop, not-deep-enough house–and oy ! those garage-y vocals!
Other people do these other sorts of music better, and though there remains plenty of brilliance in the construction of the polyrhythms, many of Photek’s strong points have by now become clichés, partly because of his influence in the drum-and-bass world. Of course, I’ll never need to hear “Louie Louie” again, either.
Several of Solaris ‘ tracks, such as “Glamourama,” impinge upon the Detroit techno territory of Carl Craig, whose Designer Music: The Remixes, Vol. 1 on his own Planet E label is both a ‘tweener and a skilled statement in the way that DJ albums often are.
Mr. Craig, who will be performing live at Irving Plaza on Sept. 30, has also been feeling restless as of late, which has caused him to move in directions that have confused and offended some of his fan base. His Innerzone Orchestra is an extremely forward-thinking fusion of jazz, techno, electro-acoustic improv and a couple of styles that haven’t yet been named. On those occasions when he can control the orchestra’s Sade-esque tendencies, Innerzone can sound like the most important band in America. Designer Music offers no such moments, but it manages to take a diverse roster of mediocre acts, including Bt, Incognito and Spacetime Continuum, and render them more than listenable, usually by downplaying their personalities in favor of the rhythm track. Whatever the names on the original pieces, this is very much Mr. Craig’s work. As befits his spin-off’s name, Mr. Craig is a master orchestrator with a knack for isolating small events of sound and heightening them through subtle adjustments. The results are usually deeply trance-y but never boring. But interestingly, for someone working in a genre that praises itself on pseudo-community, Mr. Craig manages to make his more soulful moves crackle with a Germanic alienation. On his mix of Inner City’s “Buena Vida,” for example, a sharpened voice mutters behind the vocal, and much of the rhythm track is taken up by an electronic shaker. Apologies to Atom Heart’s Señor Coconut personae, but Mr. Craig may have found the real space where Pérez Prado and Kraftwerk merge.