Radiohead: Access Denied … Lucinda Williams: The Essence of Loss

Radiohead: Access Denied

Call me crazy, but there’s a Radiohead backlash brewing. It has nothing to do with whether or not Radiohead are pretentious. Of course they are. Always have been. But who cares–other than pop critics, of course? No, the problem stems from the fact that the arty English quintet hasn’t lived up to expectations. Their fourth album, Kid A– more a collection of meandering mood pieces than songs–may have debuted at No. 1 around the world last October, but secretly, fans reasoned the boys had to get this one out of their system before returning to good old angst-ridden rock.

Now, a mere eight months later, Radiohead is back with Amnesiac (Capitol). Advance word–or hope–was that it would contain more “accessible” material from the Kid A sessions. Once the new music made its inevitable appearance on the Web about six weeks ago, however, that notion dissolved. Yes, Amnesiac boasts a higher percentage of identifiable melodies and lyrics than Kid A , but it’s not exactly a potential crossover smash. Most of the songs are as chilly and slow-drifting as snow on the tundra; singer Thom Yorke is still prone to bouts of morose mumbling; and there isn’t a single shout-along arena-rock chorus.

Industry pundits have already launched the attack, dubbing Amnesiac “Kid B-Minus.” And while that’s not fair, something is missing here: unity. While Kid A was made up of 10 discrete tracks, it sounded like a complete 45-minute statement. Amnesiac feels pieced together.

Three of the pieces are strikingly out of place. “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” features plenty of cool sounds, but no trace of a tune. “Hunting Bears” is an inconsequential doodle. And a remake of Kid A ‘s “Morning Bell” in 4/4 time (the original was in 5/4), though interesting, would’ve been better off as a B-side.

But three other pieces of Amnesiac rank with the band’s best work. On “Pyramid Song,” Phil Selway’s languid drumming and Jonny Greenwood’s sinuous string line merge behind Mr. Yorke’s aching vocal, creating a sonic force that powers through the speakers like an ocean liner. “Knives Out,” a cheery number about cannibalism, is also a welcome revival of the inventive three-guitar arrangements that used to be Radiohead’s stock-in-trade. “Like Spinning Plates” is a swirl of backward samples and throbbing synths that builds to an almost operatic peak with a pained falsetto melody by Mr. Yorke that may be his finest performance on record.

The rest of the album is evocative, often thrilling, but it confirms that the band’s decision last year not to issue a double album was the correct one. Several songs sound similar–at least in intent–to Kid A tracks.

It’s funny how Radiohead has made such strenuous efforts to challenge both its audience and itself with each album, yet despite all the attempts to sound new and different, it’s ended up sounding more and more like … Radiohead. They call that a style, and it’s not a bad thing. Neither is Amnesiac . So don’t believe the backlash.

–Mac Randall

Lucinda Williams: The Essence of Loss

The best singer-songwriter albums have been primarily born of unhappiness and loss: Joni Mitchell’s Blue , Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and, more recently, Lyle Lovett’s Road to Ensenada and anything by Aimee Mann. In Lucinda Williams’ case, a split with her bass-player boyfriend has inspired an amazing, raw, forlorn album. Essence (Lost Highway) is an empathic nursemaid for broken hearts from one of our premier songwriters.

As produced by guitarist (and sometime Dylan sideman) Charlie Sexton, Essence has a sparer, blues-pop shimmer than 1998′s gold-selling, folk-rock-flavored Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Though it can make for mellow background listening, her mournful vocals and keen, writerly lyrics pierce through. Ms. Williams seems wracked by fatalism and confusion. In “Are You Down,” she says: “Can’t put the rain back in the sky once it falls down / Nothin’ will make me take you back”; in “Reason to Cry,” she muses: “I guess I’ll never know why something as good as this could flower up and die.”

Ms. Williams, who will appear at Roseland on June 6, has a remarkable talent for crafting songs so finely honed they could be mistaken for classics. The waltz-like “I Envy the Wind” uses an almost childish directness to deliver erotically charged lyrics: “I envy the sun that brightens your summer / That warms your body / And holds you in her heat / And makes your days longer / And makes you hot / And makes you sweat.” Even sexier is the title song, an R&B-flavored come-on asking for a dose of the “essence” of a lover she calls “my drug”: “Shoot your love into my vein,” she growls. But for all the confidence, there’s a pleading tone: “Please come find me and help me get fucked up.”

With Ms. Williams, what’s unspoken can be just as powerful. “Bus to Baton Rouge” is a vivid catalog of items in her grandmother’s house (“the dining room nobody ate at, the piano nobody played”) and the metaphorical missed opportunities, disconnects and regrets. In one line, she engineers an amazing emotional reversal: In the middle of recalling “the sweet honeysuckle that grew all around,” she suddenly reveals that they “were switches when we were bad.” The pain of being whipped by honeysuckle–that’s love in a nutshell, ain’t it?

–David Handelman

Gram Parsons: High, Lonesome

When the casket of Gram Parsons burned to cinders in the Joshua Tree National Park in 1973, it fertilized the bloom of a million-and-one 70′s stinkweeds. For not long afterward, the country-rock hybrid of which Mr. Parsons was a progenitor would turn radio into a cauldron of sentimental soft-rock goo. For every Willie Nelson who stretched out of the Nashville orthodoxy, there were five Eagles, three Olivia Newton-Johns and a Kenny Loggins.

Which is to say that Mr. Parsons mixed up some mighty strong medicine and we, the people, overdosed on what he wrought. Taken in a smaller portion, such as Sacred Hearts and Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons Anthology (Rhino), one will–as Mr. Parsons’ old group, the Byrds, put it–feel a whole lot better. Sacred takes up a year after Mr. Parsons had thrown over his Greenwich Village folkie influences, with the 1967 International Submarine Band album Safe at Home. There was certainly something in the air at the time, and what the 21-year-old Mr. Parsons was doing had its antecedents in Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and others, but rarely had a bunch of hippies sounded so reverential (musically) and so hairy (lyrically).

But no one heard Safe at Home . Mr. Parsons locked horns with his label owner, ornery kitsch visionary Lee Hazelwood, and the record sank. At issue was Mr. Parsons’ leaving for the Byrds, a band he pretty much molded in his image for the one album he appears on, 1968′s Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But Mr. Hazelwood legally barred his voice from most of it, and only since the exemplary recent CD reissue has one been able to hear the album as intended. Mr. Parsons’ songwriting was growing considerably, as evidenced on “Hickory Wind,” possibly his most famous composition. But more important was his knack for recontextualizing old country and soul tunes–such as the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life”–into countercultural dirges, swollen with expectation.

Soon, Mr. Parsons’ reputation was just as engorged. By 1969, everyone from Kris Kristofferson to the Band to Kenny Rogers had picked up on his cue, though it was mostly subliminal next to Bob Dylan’s just-released Nashville Skyline . Mr. Dylan had heard Mr. Parsons, of course, as had Keith Richards, who sought him out as a party buddy and would write “Wild Horses” for him (the definitive version is on Sacred ). So it comes as no surprise that Mr. Parsons was destined to O.D. at the age of 26. Musically, there were still plenty of high points–with the Flying Burrito Brothers, solo and in duet with Emmylou Harris (who has her own, more problematic two-disc set just out on Rhino)–but Mr. Parsons was pulling a Sly Stone, drinking and drugging himself into the jet set and out of the Burritos.

As with Mr. Stone, his music didn’t really suffer, but after 1970, it didn’t really grow, either. The songwriting receded, and the high points are his revisions of classics, such as “Love Hurts.” He still had good songs in him, but nothing approaching the breathless purity of the unfortunately titled “Hot Burrito #1″ and “Hot Burrito #2″ from 1968.

This is written not as a caution against hedonistic abandon, but rather the sort of mindless talent-wasting that stems from a type of mid-level fame, burning yourself up as you find your music listened to but not heard. When Mr. Parsons sang “We’re not afraid to ride / We’re not afraid to die” in the song “Wheels,” it was not with self-regarding bravado, but rather a matter-of-fact sadness that rarely rises to the top of the charts. Not that Billboard ‘s blessing is any reason music should be celebrated–as this box set will show.

–D. Strauss