Thursday, March 26, 2009

Primer Part 0: Radiohead- Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP

This is going to be an awfully solipsistic, navel gazing review for the most part, so if you're just here for the 'consumer report' type stuff, you can skip down the last few paragraphs.

I'm going through one of those 'transitional' periods of life where you look around and realize you're getting old(er), that you have more responsibilities than you ever have; more opportunities have arisen, and every where you look you seem to notice and feel new things. Every person you pass interests you in some indefinable way. You feel as if you could fall in love and meet that next significant other any day. Something about the weather, the way the sun and the sky feel like it's trying to tell you something but you can't grasp what. At the same time, somehow, you feel trapped, restless. You are suddenly small and confused, the headlong rush of time a terrifying thing. Personally, these sorts of periods always make me long for the seemingly more simple and well-defined times of my past. And since a large part of one of my jobs entails picking over the things that people have donated to Goodwill in order to post them online on their eBay like site--the memories and physical remains of thousands of lives: their toys, clothes, books, records, etc.--I seem to be stuck in a particularly nasty pool of nostalgia. So, I'm finally going back to Radiohead.

I feel as though I've mentioned this in every other review I've written, but Radiohead were the band (and OK Computer was the album) that got me into music on a serious basis. I had liked, even loved, music before Radiohead but they were the first band that truly engaged me as a listener with ideas and complex music that I had to struggle and work at to understand and appreciate. I'm reading Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme at the moment, and when flipping through the book attached to Airbag/How Am I Driving? it occurs to me how it all reads like excerpts from something he wrote. To think that the 13(!!) year old version of me was grappling with those sorts of ideas, and all the neuroses and pre-Millenium existentialism inherent to OK Computer, is kind of mind blowing to me now. I'm not trying to brag, though. Mostly all I did was fill journals with lyrics and awful poems/stories that outright stole or were heavily influenced by Radiohead.

Indeed, there was a span of three or four years where I listened to Radiohead almost every day. More than once, I didn't feel quite right until I had my 'Radiohead fix.' Some weekend afternoons were given over to listening through their discography up until that point, straight through. I can't do that sort of thing with bands any more, not because none of them are as good as Radiohead, but because I like too much music to be so mono-maniacal. Monogamous with women, polyamorous with music. Anyway, since roughly 2004 I've maintained an unconscious distance from Radiohead. I still think they make incredible music (I'll get around to reviewing In Rainbows soon), and the dozen or so times a year I listen their stuff I love it just as much, but I associate Radiohead with a more innocent, carefree time of my life, when I hadn't had any jobs or girlfriends yet. When I was barely writing anything and just starting to get into books and movies. When almost all of my money went to videogames.

For whatever reason I was compelled to bring OK Computer and its sister EP Airbag with me on the commute to work this morning. Maybe it is just wanting to get a small reminder of what life was like for me from 1997-2003, but I'd like to think it's a kind of renewal; a starting over, if you will. I've experienced so much since the last time I seriously sat down with Radiohead's discography and this feels like how I should bring them into this new 'period' of my life. A younger version of me posted reviews of most of their stuff on, and I believe it's time the more measured, nuanced critiques of mid 20s Greg (or is that GregRadiohead??) are brought to bear. Besides which I find all of this reviews embarrassing and amateur-ish. If nothing else, I've become a better writer in the ensuing years. Well, my reviews have gotten a lot longer, anyway.

So, then: Airbag/How Am I Driving? was an EP released after OK Computer, collecting a good portion of the B-sides from that album. The cover indicates it is a " album aimed at the USA", which is record company speak for "here is a stop-gap release because we wanted more product in stores sooner rather than later." Not that I'm complaining, because it would be much more costly to buy all the singles needed to collect these songs. More importantly, the six 'unreleased' songs on Airbag are all excellent. Pavement were a band long said to have very good B-sides but the reissues of their albums have merely proven that their non-album songs were as every bit as uneven as the average band. Radiohead, though, have fantastic B-sides. You can always see why the B-sides wouldn't have worked on the album but you still need to hear them.

I'm not sure how easy or difficult it is to track down a copy of Airbag these days, but if you're a fan of Radiohead, or you just want more music that's closer to the more traditional, guitar based sound of The Bends and OK Computer, then Airbag is worth the effort and expense to obtain. 'Pearly' is a fan favorite with the unforgettable line "that's how/she got her/sweet tooth/for white boys." Instrumental 'Meeting In The Aisle' more obviously points the way to the post-OK Computer era, a dreamy/spacey piece for synthesizer and drum machine that sounds like nothing the band had done up to that point. 'Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)' nods to the multi-part songwriting style of 'Paranoid Android', an unhinged Yorke admonishing the listener to "sell your suit and tie and come and live with me." And the barnstorming 'Palo Alto', which featured so memorably in the Meeting People Is Easy film--was to be the last recorded time we'd hear Radiohead overtly rock out for a few years.

Returning to this EP and its parent album after a few years off, I'm struck at how consistent and satisfying it is. Here is a companion piece to a legendary (for at this point we can surely declare OK Computer legendary) that is almost as good as the main event. Here is an EP of an album track and six B-sides which are far better, have more ideas and more pay-offs, than the entire recorded output of many bands that have flashed bright in the night sky of music since 1998 but had no staying power. Maybe I am just being overly generous because I'm falling back in love with Radiohead. But, no. I have always loved them and always will. Airbag/How Am I Driving? has stood and will stand as a metric for how I judge EPs and 'companion' releases. It is that good.

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