Thursday, April 30, 2009

Video: Radiohead- Reckoner

We're drawing to a close with the Radiohead Primer entries, so here's a video to give me a bit more time to dig into Thom Yorke's solo album, The Eraser, and formulate a proper review. 'Reckoner' is a pretty good example of the excellence that In Rainbows has in store. This performance is taken from a webcast or something they did called 'Scotch Mist', so if you're wondering what that weird stuff is at the beginning, it's supposed to be there.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Album Of The Week/Primer Part 8: Radiohead- Hail To The Thief

As Radiohead had already released three albums by the end of 2002 (assuming you count the EP/mini-LP live album I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings), it was particularly surprising to me when Hail To The Thief came out in the summer of 2003. For a band with a reputation for being studio rats and perfectionists, it seemed to be a adjustment of the celestial order when the band took four years to deliver another album. I picture some winged creature bathed in light saying to itself, "ha ha, that'll teach those Oxford-ites for trying to keep up a Beatles-esque release rate!!" But let's set chronology and celestial beings aside for a moment and consider Hail To The Thief as a point in Radiohead's career that is important for almost every reason but its statement and musical experimentation. This was perhaps the first album in Radiohead's career that didn't seem to have some major artistic thesis, some major change or development to offer. I think some reviewers drug it over the coals for this; hey, Radiohead were supposed to make albums that changed the world, weren't they??

If Hail To The Thief sounds like a victory lap, a consolidation of everything that made the band great up 'til that point, than it's not a bad thing. During the sessions for this album, Radiohead were riding high on the good will from the Kid A and Amnesiac albums as well as what Ed O'Brien described as a "swagger" that the band developed on tour. Combine all of this with the fact that Hail To The Thief was recorded in a fairly short period of time (apparently, most of the songs were finished in two weeks), hardly the year or three birthing process of Radiohead of old. And the thing was recorded in a Los Angeles studio, of all places, hardly the sort of locale associated with the glowering English band.

So here's the score so far: an album that consolidates all of the strengths of the band; an album that was recorded coming off of successful tours during which the band had developed a "swagger"; an album that was recorded in sunny LA; an album that was recorded in a short amount of time. Would Radiohead go pop?? Would Radiohead return to the anthemic alt rock of The Bends??

Well, not so much. But kind of.

The immediate impression of Hail To The Thief is that it is both more of a guitar oriented album and more of a full band sound than the Kid A/Amnesiac recordings. This much is true, but the band have not forgotten the lessons of those albums. This album ably makes use of keyboards, loops, drum machines, and other experimental elements alongside the guitars and pianos of old. The difference is that Hail To The Thief has a more "live" sound to it. It is an immediate and sprawling album that leaves only a few details and secrets to pick up on subsequent listens. If and when there all those electronic elements, you get the impression they were played "live" in a room with the rest of the band. Which, apparently, is how it was done, at least according to the always dubious Wikipedia.

Forget the alternate song titles and oddly memorable signs-making-up-street-maps artwork and Hail To The Thief reveals itself as Radiohead's most self assured and effortless album. There is indeed a swagger about it, a drunken headlong rush that may not make for Radiohead's most accomplished or groundbreaking work but is still worthy to stand alongside their best.

That's because it was at this point in their career when they had many tools at their disposal and began to focus on making fantastic songs with a confidence and power that it always felt like the band never knew they had. This sense of swagger, confidence, and "focus on the songs" would be more prominent on 2007's In Rainbows but it is here, too. Hail To The Thief is Radiohead's longest album but there isn't a clunker here; frequently one is pleasantly surprised by interesting twists and unexpected turns, whether it's the towering drum intricacies of 'There There', the short-but-touching 'I Will'; the emphatic "raindrops" chant of 'Sit Down, Stand Up', the guitar led groove of 'Go To Sleep' which picks up where 'I Might Be Wrong' left off; 'We Suck Young Blood' with its absurd handclaps and a sneaky breakdown at the 2:51 mark; and finally 'Myxomatosis' with its thick, blaring dance club keyboards and Yorke's free floating vocal performance that winds in and out of the song. Trent Reznor's last two albums as Nine Inch Nails to date--Year Zero and The Slip--may not be as well known or surprising as The Downward Spiral, but there's a sense of confidence, swagger, and almost fun about them. The same goes for Radiohead's Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows.

Hail To The Thief is neither a revolution nor an evolution. Rather it is a kind of lateral step, the sound of Radiohead ceasing to fret about what they're doing and instead merely enjoying the simple process of making music together. It isn't as light hearted and lean as In Rainbows and it isn't as important/surprising as OK Computer and Kid A, but it is still a really great album.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Primer Part 7: Radiohead- I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings

Radiohead began this decade like a shot, releasing three things before 2002: Kid A in 2000 and Amnesiac as well as the live EP/mini-LP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings both in 2001. My impression at the time was that this was a reminder to the fans that Radiohead were indeed still a rock band; even if their newest albums had been stripped down and experimental, they remained an awe inspiring live act. I saw Radiohead in the early Fall of 2003, after the release of Hail To The Thief, and I can tell you that the in-person-experience exceeds the slices presented on I Might Be Wrong. In thinking about that concert and returning to this live document over for the past few days, though, it's occurred to me how important the tours during the Kid A/Amnesiac era must have been for the band. If all of the members weren't always playing on every song on the albums, trying to present those songs live enabled them to change, add, or delete elements, giving every Radiohead member a chance to help shape the sound for an audience.

Radiohead are a great live band but they aren't a great live band in the way that Phish or Animal Collective are. They don't change the songs too greatly, they don't segue them together, and there is no true improvisation going on. What they have is an energy and power that is almost astonishing. The songs are played almost exactly as they are on the albums, so if you're going with the expectation of some musical journey or epiphany, someone has been lying to you. The songs from Kid A and Amnesiac are the most surprising and interesting ones to see live, in my opinion, because each member doesn't have the usual role to fulfill. I think of Radiohead as fundamentally a rock combo unit--singer, guitarists, bassist, drummer--but when they approach the songs of Kid A and Amnesiac this goes out the window. They couldn't reproduce all the elements of those albums live, and at times they need to add or change things as well. This is why I find I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings so fascinating, because it approximates what Radiohead would be like if they approached all of their songs in a live show with more of a liberal attitude.

'The National Anthem' begins this EP with scorched Earth throttling, noticeably faster and dirtier than the studio version. The bass is coated in fuzzy distortion, the drums a bit more breakneck, the horn section replaced by eerie and screechy electronics. 'I Might Be Wrong' is similarly faster and dirtier with more a pounding beat. 'Idioteque' is a true rave up, ending abruptly as if everyone collapsed from imitating Thom's seizure dancing. 'Everything In Its Right Place' sounds like a live remix; when I saw the band in 2003, they ended the show with it, the band members slowly leaving the stage one by one while Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien continued to fiddle with nobs, looping and distorting samples of Thom's voice and the sounds of the rest of the band. Of most interest to fans will be 'Like Spinning Plates', an acoustic piano take on the eerie backwards electronic experiment of the album version, as well as a performance of the unreleased ballad 'True Love Waits' (which is mostly unspectacular despite what most reviews say, though I do like the line "I'm not living/I'm just killing time.")

Like everything they've released after Pablo Honey, if you're a fan of Radiohead you'll want this live release in your collection. It does leave one desperately hoping for a full fledged live album or DVD (rumors are floating around of something along the lines of the latter, probably taken from their performance at Bonnaroo a couple years ago), but taken on its own terms this is an excellent release. It proved that Radiohead were still a band and also still a great rock band. Their next release would see the band letting this feel slip back into their studio work as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Primer Part 6: Radiohead- Amnesiac

With hindsight, it must be said that it's too bad that Radiohead didn't release Kid A and Amnesiac on the same day. Since the two albums are from the same sessions and the band had toyed with the idea of a double album, they should've shoved the two releases down the record company's collective throat. It would've changed a lot about the reception of both of these dense works, but I think it would have worked in Amnesiac's favor, spared it the fate of being known as "the leftovers from Kid A." Even today I wonder about people who are just getting into Radiohead, who might hear Amnesiac before Kid A, or at least hear them concurrently. For my part, it would be futile for me to pretend that I didn't experience the eight month wait between the releases, didn't hear them with that sense of separation and expectation.

With that in mind, if you're just here for the Consumer Report's angle, know that Amnesiac as a whole is not better than Kid A. It is, however, a very, very good album and expands on everything Kid A did. There was some talk after Kid A's release that the "next album" would be more of a return to the guitar based rock of previous Radiohead releases, but I think this was a miscommunication. When they said "next album" I think they meant the eventual Hail To The Thief and not Amnesiac, the latter of which has tracks that are more experimental as well as some that are more rocking/accessible than Kid A.

Amnesiac has the basic sound and techniques of Kid A--it is just as minimalist, stripped down, and experimental; that rock music but-not-with-the-typical-90s-alt-rock sound--but offers different results. It visits (revisits??) many of the same themes and sounds that Kid A offered..but it has a different atmosphere and feel, doesn't it?? Listen to them back to back. They feel similar but not identical. Well, as I said, that's because this one takes Kid A to both extremes. There are the experimental tracks which trump anything on Kid A for sheer bravery: the jittery machine funk nightmare lockstep of 'Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors' and the "Thom learned how to sing this backwards and then we reversed the tape of him singing backward to give it a surreal nature" electronic schizophrenia of 'Like Spinning Plates.' But there's also the borderline-dirty guitar groove of 'I Might Be Wrong' and the Smiths-esque jangly guitar rock of 'Knives Out.'

All of this variety comes at a price, however, because Amnesiac is the most disjointed and badly sequenced album in Radiohead's career. It's something you only notice when you compare it to their other works, because it simply doesn't have the same seemingly effortless flow and excellent pacing of a Kid A or The Bends. This, then, is partially responsible for why I don't prefer Amnesiac, but the other reason is two-fold: 'Hunting Bears' is probably the worst track Radiohead has made since Pablo Honey, an asinine and ineffectual guitar wank instrumental, while 'Morning Bell/Amnesiac' is a different version of 'Morning Bell' from Kid A. It's an interesting idea that ties together the two albums, but this one is inarguably inferior even if I still like it.

Which is how I feel about Amnesiac, actually. It's inferior to Kid A but I still like it. Any Radiohead fan needs it. And I can totally understand those who think it's their best work. But for me and the majority, it'll--unfairly or not--always be known as "the thing that came out after Kid A and was even from the same recording sessions but wasn't quite as good as Kid A."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Album Of The Week/Primer Part 5: Radiohead- Kid A

"I don't remember much time playing keyboards. It was more an obsession with sound, speakers, the whole artifice of recording. I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer - it doesn't put Thom in your front room - but one is perceived as 'real' the other, somehow 'unreal'... It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer."-Jonny Greenwood

In my relatively young life, Kid A was the first major release that felt like what the kids today call a "game changer." It was very different from the rest of the music I was listening to, even the things Radiohead had done before themselves. It was a difficult album in the sense that one had to struggle with it for a time before unraveling where it came from, where it was trying to go, and what, if anything, it accomplished. I had give some critical thought and consideration to music before Kid A, but it was the first album I can remember being so captivated by while still having a hard time getting my head around it.

In retrospect, Radiohead practically had to make this kind of music because with OK Computer they had taken guitar based rock music as far as it could go. The band admitted that they argued frequently and had a lot of trouble deciding on a direction to take during the various sessions that eventually birthed Kid A. Bizarrely enough, the "difficult" and "experimental" Kid A debuted at the top of the charts in America, a moment as surreal as any in history. All of this is kind of strange when you listen to the album now, with 9 years of history behind it, because it feels and sounds like such humble, stripped down, and minimalist creation. This album and its sister release, Amnesiac, are undoubtedly the most experimental and difficult stuff that Radiohead ever produced, but they achieved this not through embracing atonality, noise, or electronic music. Rather it was achieved through paring down songs to only the necessary elements, through allowing the lyrics to grow ever more abstract and minimalist, and through abandoning the dominant 'alternative' sound that had been the primary moving force of rock for over a decade. In allowing themselves to be influenced by the underground hip hop, experimental/ambient techno, modern/avant garde classical music, and then-growing post-rock scenes, Radiohead created an album that was still rock music but didn't have the power chords, distortion, and soloing that most associated with rock music, let alone what most associated with Radiohead. If they wanted to get any further away from 'Creep' than the title track to Kid A, they would have to become another band. With such a popular group breaking their music down and rebuilding from scratch, I would argue that Radiohead helped set the tone for this decade, musically, showing a generation of up-and-comers that you could do whatever you wanted and someone would understand and appreciate it.

Set all of these ideas and historical importances aside, though, because Kid A is a dizzying release bursting with exciting ideas and sounds. You won't even hear anything identifiable as a guitar until the fourth track, the post-modern drift of 'How To Disappear Completely.' And wow, how audacious it was to start the album with 'Everything In Its Right Place': it literally sounds like a remix of a song instead of the song itself, Yorke's voice thrown around in a blender in the background while keyboards build, peak, and peal off. Remember, there's no drums or guitars on this at all. Consider that the two most traditional sounding guitar tracks, 'Optimistic' and 'In Limbo', are joined by a little segue jam sort of thing and don't arrive until the mid-point of the album. Finally, remember that Kid A's most astonishing songs come in the last three, a varied bunch that demonstrate Radiohead's range and ability. First, the electronic throwdown 'Idioteque', which is an absolute beast live. Second, the underrated 'Morning Bell', with one of drummer Phil Selway's best performances supporting everything, a stuttering live-techno thump, not to mention that incredible moment around the 3:00 mark where Yorke starts scat-singing to the beat and the band builds to an electric freak-out. And finally, the beautiful 'Motion Picture Soundtrack', pump organ and all, which has always reminded me of the way The White Album ends with the similarly schmaltzy-but-in-a-good-way 'Good Night.'

It's hard to choose between OK Computer and Kid A. I think that OK Computer is better known and better loved, but Kid A is the more impressive and fascinating work of art in my book. It tries things and goes places that Radiohead had only hinted at before, never settling for an easy hook, melody, or chord change. Nothing is ever obvious about this album and that's what makes it such a rewarding, continually challenging and interesting release. You couldn't legitimately make a list of "best" or "most important" albums from this decade without it on there, and even if you don't like Radiohead, you can't deny the importance of something like Kid A, perhaps the most experimental and "out of left field" album to debut at the top of the American sales charts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Shuffling V




1) Death To Everyone by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: Will Oldham's music is often dark and dire, but it's usually in an impressionistic and withdrawn way. At the same time, he has an understated, dry sense of humor. Notice the way he frequently sneaks in sex references in his music, and his often brilliant choice of covers. For a good idea of what I mean, take 'Death To Everyone', which bludgeons you with the notion that "death to everyone is gunna come": you are going to die. But, this "makes hosing much more fun"; once you know that 'hosing' refers to, err, knockin' boots, then the song takes on a new meaning.

2) Appels + Oranjes by The Smashing Pumpkins: You know what, I don't care, Adore is an awesome album. I spent a good part of my younger days listening to almost nothing but Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, and Radiohead, so this song brings back a lot of memories. And I still enjoy it today, in fact. Oh, also, song titles like this were partially reponsible for my obsession with writing and language, the way I constantly arrange and re-arrange letters in my head and make up alternate spellings and pronunciations.

3) Everyday by Yo La Tengo: I know this happens for a lot of people, but I sometimes listen to albums so many times that even from the first sound I already know what album/song it is. 'Everyday' is one of these. Hearing those first seconds of buzzing electronics and the flaccid, foggy drums flips several switches in my head, makes me heart rate slow down and my mood turn to relaxed and nostalgic. I would also award this song top marks for perfectly setting the tone and 'feel' of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The first time I heard this album I hated it, though it began boring and ended boring. Now I adore it and understand that not every album needs to be full of melody and dynamic, catchy songwriting.

4) Dragonfly Pie by Stephen Malkmus: It's safe to say that I would follow Stephen Malkmus wherever he wants to go, musically speaking. He doesn't always hit a home run but his work is always interesting and frequently brilliant. I wasn't immediately keen on this track or most of Real Emotional Trash, but if you've got a classic rock/guitar loving bone in your body, its charms eventually wear you down.

5) The Race Is On Again by Yo La Tengo: I got sidetracked for this one because my brother-in-law called and then two friends started IMing me. But this is one of those tracks where I can hardly remember what album it's on. Yo La Tengo have been consistently good for a long time but you could probably criticize them for being too varied and too consistent. Don't get me wrong, I love I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and I'm Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass but they are kind of the same game plan.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion- Orange

Here's a fun experiment: peruse your music library and dig out something you haven't listened to for years. Pop it in and give it a good listen. Then, fill out this questionnaire.

Album: Orange by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

How Long Has It Been Since You Last Listened To It (Approximately)??: At least three years.

Why Haven't You Listened To It For That Amount Of Time??: I'm not really sure how much slightly funky blues/punk you need in your life. For that matter, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion never really transcend what they are and what they always have been. Their albums are much more about sound and feel than they are about lasting impressions and memorable songs. To put it simply, Orange is good beer drinking music. It's an album stuffed with a thick two guitar attack mostly played in the mid-range, with riffs instead of definite melodies, set against an underrated and grooving drummer. Above it all swaggers Jon Spencer, the sort of performer who apes a specific rock idol (in his case, mostly Elvis) but you're never sure how much of it is a pose, a winking self conscious irony, and how much is sincere.

But this is probably not the point. Blues Explosion albums aren't meant to be thought about and examined. I guess this is why I haven't listened to it for years. Orange is (probably) their best album but it doesn't take itself seriously enough to deliver excellent songs and it's hard to really love the riffs and funky blues/punk stuff when you think the band might just be putting you on.

Do You Feel Differently About This Album Now Than You Did The Last Time You Listened To It??: Well, let's see now. I stumbled on the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion via Beck, who delivers a weird, out of nowhere (pre-fame) rap on the track 'Flavor' on Orange. I eventually bought Acme as well but traded it in to my local record store a few years ago. Because I didn't own nearly as many albums back then, when I first got Orange and Acme I used to listen to them quite a bit. It was one of those situations where you end up listening to a band over and over out of habit, smashing your head against a rock repeatedly in the hopes that it'll feel better the next time. Well, that's not being fair. Orange is pretty good for what it is, it's just that the entire output of this band is more of a curious branch on the indie rock family tree than anything else. I kept wanting this band's albums to be as good as the stuff I was concurrently discovering by Tortoise, Radiohead, and Pavement, but even judging them on their own terms, the John Spencer Blues Explosion are never truly great.

It is kind of funny to examine them in hindsight of the garage rock revival of the early 00's. It really must've burned their ass to see a bunch of upstarts do a similar thing to what they had been doing for over a decade without much success. Yes, there are a lot of differences between what the Blues Explosion does/did and what bands like the Hives, Strokes, etc. were doing, but ultimately I think it comes down to sincerity and classicism. At the heart of all of those "The" bands, even behind the aloof New York cool of The Strokes and the self-conscious foreign buffoonery of the Hives, was a true love of their craft as well as a fondness for garage rock/punk rock of the past. The Blues Explosion are arguably more "original" and interesting, but there is always a pretense about them, singing about fornication with "full grown women" and making their opening track about, uh, bell bottoms, complete with a breakdown where Spencer intones "thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, but right now I'd like to tell you about the most fabulous....most groovy....bell bottoms" in his best Elvis showman voice.

So, do I feel differently about Orange?? I guess I do. I don't like it as much as I used to and my favorite song off it is the closing instrumental 'Greyhound', which I think is as much indicative of how irritating Jon Spencer as a vocalist can be (is it just me, or is his shtick on 'Blues X Man' far more pretentious and affected than anything Roger Waters ever put out??) as it is how much I love the sound/riffs part of this band way more than the songs and band itself. I suppose a lot of other people must too, because the Blues Explosion have a surprising amount of remixes for a--yes I'm going to use this description again--slightly funky punk/blues band. Your best bet is probably to watch a few of their videos on YouTube and decide if this band is worth your time/money from there. Still, Orange is good for what it's trying to be, and is arguably their best release.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Album Of The Week/Primer Part 4: Radiohead- OK Computer

Kurt Vonnegut wrote five novels before Slaughterhouse-Five and eight after, yet it's the work he will be remembered for always. You may personally prefer other books of his (for me, Breakfast Of Champions is his best), critics may claim that other of his books are underrated and/or that Slaughterhouse-Five is overrated, but it doesn't change the fact that it's a novel that belongs to dictionary entries, short biographies, and lists of "best books ever" or some such thing. It belongs to eternity; it has been and will be taught in schools. Moreover, it was the book that made Kurt Vonnegut a household name, gaining him fame and, if not fortune, then a comfortable life.

Radiohead made two albums before OK Computer and four after, yet it's the work they will be remembered for always. You may personally prefer other albums of their's (for me, Kid A is their best), critics may claim that other of their albums are underrated and/or that OK Computer is overrated, but it doesn't change the fact that it's an album that belongs to dictionary entries, short biographies, and lists of "best albums ever" or some such thing. It belongs to eternity; it has been and will be enjoyed and studied extensively by music listeners and critics. Moreover, it was the album that made Radiohead a household name, giving them fame, semi-fortune, and an uncomfortable life (as evidence by the documentary Meeting People Is Easy and the direction of Kid A and Amnesiac).

I really don't think there's an original angle to approach OK Computer from, review-wise, unless you're just including healthy doses of your history with the album. Like other "best albums ever", such as those by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan, it has been praised, torn down, re-appraised, overrated, underrated, and absorbed into the human psyche. Just as you can hear disparate influences in the music of OK Computer (the band have acknowledged Miles Davis's late 60s to mid 70s electronic phase, Can, The White Album, and Ennio Morricone), it would be difficult to imagine the development of popular and 'underground' music without this album. Arguably Kid A had more to do with inspiring artists to do whatever they felt like during this decade, to follow their inspiration even if it meant alienating fans and critics, but almost everyone has heard OK Computer and understands what it did and still does.

There is everything in the world to say about this album and yet nothing to say. I mean, I still use 'GregRadiohead' as a username online and I've probably listened to OK Computer more than anything else in my life; it'll always be with me, physically, mentally, and spiritually. So, while I could write thousands of words about this album--about its sounds, themes, ideas, what it makes me feel and imagine--I am paralyzed by the possibilities. Even to start with surface things like its perfect pacing and sequencing would carry me off into the verbose night. Anyway, that misses the point. Like I said, this album has been built up and knocked down time and again: rated, overrated, and underrated by all manner of people. It feels futile to pretend there's anything interesting, critically, to say about it.

Yet this, too, misses the point. I don't need an interesting critical thing to say, and you don't need to read it. The only thing you need to do with OK Computer in 2009 is listen to it. Forget all the debates and discourse. Try to hear this album with the freshest ears possible. Remember what makes it so good. Remember the incredible songs, sounds, ideas, and emotions, as powerful and lasting as any "committed to tape" (as the liner notes say) in the history of rock music. Remember that, yes, bands can keep getting artier and more experimental and yet get better at the same time.

If, as I suggested in another review, The Bends can be seen as Radiohead accepting their fate to be one of the best bands of all time, then OK Computer is them not only trying to live up to this but going all the way. To quote Charles Bukowski: "If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods. And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is..."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Video: Radiohead- Karma Police (live)

This would be the official video for this song, but it turns out that EMI/Capitol records are cocks and don't allow embedding of their videos. Oh well!! Since it's Easter I won't have time to get a full article written today, so enjoy this video instead and look for a review of OK Computer on Tuesday.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Complainer: DSi?? More Like, DS-Why?! Sorry...

Let me ask you something: do you really feel like the potential of the Wii has been utilized?? I remember this idyllic time when the concept of controlling videogames in a way we never had before was tantalizing and interesting, but the end result has just been a bunch of gimmicky, me-too stuff that either ably (and rightly) caters to the casual market or tosses in arbitrary "you need to flail the Wii-mote around" sequences to remind you that you are playing on a Wii and not the PS2. To my mind, the only two games that properly delivered on the promise of integrating the motion sensing controller into gameplay were Super Mario Galaxy and, arguably, Metroid Prime 3. These games wouldn't be the same without the Wii-mote, but 99% of the Wii's library would be. Swinging a controller like an idiot man child is fun, sure, but ultimately it's the same as mashing a button.

So if we can agree that Nintendo has failed to take advantage of the Wii in the way we might like, I hope we can agree that the DSi is a waste of potential, too. Anymore I feel as though Nintendo is a hardware first, software second (or even third) company. They don't really need to put in the effort to develop excellent games because people will buy their stuff in droves no matter what. Anyone who might argue that Nintendo still develops and publishes games as good as they did during the NES, SNES, hell, even the N64 days needs to take a serious look at the Wii library and be honest with themselves. I fear this is the same fate the DS has been going through over the last couple years and seems to headed with the DSi stuff. While everyone owns a DS and so a lot of companies release great stuff for it, has Nintendo been the best supporter of their own system?? I would argue no, and the limp stuff they wrangled for the DSi's "launch" speaks volumes for how little of a shit they need to give. When you're on top by a long shot, what incentive is there to put in a lot of effort??

As with the Wii controller, Virtual Console, and WiiWare stuff, there's a lot of potential in the DSi for great things. But Nintendo doesn't seem to be interested anymore. Everything about the way they use or don't use the controller, Virtual Console, and WiiWare just makes me furious. They could do so much more with it but they don't because they don't have to. There are one or two chinks in their armor: after all, Wii Music didn't succeed as well as predicted because it is a baby's toy after you've tried Guitar Hero or Rock Band.

Wii Fit isn't even a game, that's how little Nintendo has to care about "gamers." What launched with the DSi?? Well, they released Rhythm Heaven at the same time, but that's based on an old Gameboy Advance title and doesn't use the DSi's cameras in any way. And by all accounts the DSi-ware downloadable stuff is overpriced and skippable. Again, they could have done so much more with the DSi already, and put way more resources and effort into the launch, but they don't have to so they don't.

While it's true that we all get hardware lust from time to time and the DSi is cool in that sleek, designed way that Apple products are, I can't understand why anyone would want a DSi yet. It feels like a gimmicky, unrealized remodeling of the DS just so they can trick people into buying more hardware now that Wii's are easier to find.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Album Of The Week/Primer Part 3: Radiohead- The Bends

I know it's really obvious what the moment is supposed to indicate, but one of my favorite scenes in all of film history has to be the part near the climax of Return Of The Jedi where Darth Vader looks back and forth between his dying son and his master of many years, Emperor Palpatine. Many other points in the development of this character are probably much more crucial to his story and destiny, but I really feel like this is the moment he's been living toward. There's something thrilling about the way he suddenly picks up the frail-but-deadly Emperor and tosses him down that shaft. It is a powerful moment in which a character holds the reins of fate in his hands: he could let his son die and evil would rule the galaxy, as it has been doing because of something he did, but he redeems himself instead. I don't know why, but Radiohead's The Bends reminds me of this. After their hit song 'Creep' had run its course, the band was left with a choice of their own: to try to repeat that success and do what the record company said, or to follow their muse and make the music they wanted to. In choosing the latter, they, like Anakin Skywalker, were redeemed.

We may as well face the fact that if Radiohead hadn't recorded The Bends they would've gone down in history as a lesser known version of Bush, another popular English band who aped the alt. rock sounds of America. There was no way to repeat the commercial success of 'Creep' and to follow the sounds of Pablo Honey would be just as pointless. Instead, Radiohead seized the moment--they would never top 'Creep' in terms of popularity, so why not make something artful and timeless instead?? I use those words--artful and timeless--very deliberately here because they're exactly what I think of when I listen to this album now. The Bends was the sound of Radiohead discovering that their destiny was for greater things, attempting to seize that destiny, and, finally, achieving it. Without OK Computer and then Kid A I don't think we could call Radiohead one of the most important bands of our time, but without The Bends they couldn't have made those albums and we wouldn't have cared.

It's exceedingly rare to listen to the result of a band realizing they can do so much more with music, stepping up their game in every conceivable area, but that's precisely what this album is. Literally everything about The Bends is better than Pablo Honey: the lyrics are scores more sophisticated and interesting, the guitar playing is more imaginative and at the same time more rocking, the music is more experimental and (for lack of a better word) cool, the cover is better (apparently, a medical dummy morphed together with Thom Yorke's face), and the artwork is better (The Bends marked the beginning of Stanley Donwood's collaborations with the band, an underrated element of Radiohead's mystique). So many things we would come to expect from Radiohead began here that it's dizzying. In fact, they would go so far from here that you effectively forget they were the ones who did 'Creep.' This is a product of them changing so much as to not even be the same band they were in 1992/1993. If you go to see them live and they happen to play 'Creep', it almost feels like a cover they're doing as a lark.

Any fan of rock music from the 90s onward probably owns a copy of this album so I suppose there isn't much sense in drawing this review out. I do want to point out that The Bends features the most extensive use of acoustic guitar of any Radiohead album. It's one of those subtle things I didn't notice until just recently, but it's true. Much as I love the throttling full force of songs like 'Just' and 'Bones', the lovely ballad 'Fake Plastic Trees' and dreamy, spacey 'Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was' show that Radiohead are every bit as good when embracing the acoustic spectrum of sounds. It really leaves you wishing they would let Thom loose on piano or acoustic guitar more often. Or, I suppose, that his solo album, The Eraser, wasn't electronic.

Now I want you to consider that the only criticism I can offer about The Bends is that it isn't even Radiohead's best album.

....uhm, you do own a copy of The Bends, don't you??

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Primer Part 2: Radiohead- My Iron Lung EP

Radiohead have made it pretty easy on music critics because their career has had a respectable arc: band gets popular right away; band hates being known for a single hit song; band gets artier and weirder; band releases at least two groundbreaking albums; band settles into elderstatesmen-hood, releasing albums that may not be revolutionary and controversial but are still really, really good. It's kind of dizzying to think that Radiohead have been releasing excellent albums since 1995, a winning streak that shows no signs of slowing down even after the quietly brave In Rainbows release. And this can all be traced back not simply to The Bends, their second album, but to the EP that preceded it, My Iron Lung.

This EP was (is??) only available as an Australian import and collected both versions of the 'My Iron Lung' singles, which came well before the release of The Bends. While it's true that even by 1998 Radiohead were popular enough to cause stores like Best Buy to stock some of their imported singles and EPs, My Iron Lung became a kind of 'hidden gem'/Rosetta's Stone of sorts for the band. On one hand it has six excellent B-sides that fans will eat up, on the other hand it has gone down in history as early evidence of how far Radiohead would take their art. Remember that these songs were coming out only about a year after the release of Pablo Honey. The jump to The Bends doesn't seem quite as great after you've heard My Iron Lung.

Even the more 'traditional' songs on this EP--'Lewis (Mistreated)' and 'You Never Wash Up After Yourself'--show a lot of growth and maturity from Radiohead's debut album. But of course it's the other songs that make this EP so compelling. 'Permanent Daylight' sounds like more of a Sonic Youth pastiche than I remember, but it took guts for a British band to try something like this back then. 'The Trickster' is a fan favorite tune that rocks harder than almost anything Radiohead have laid down since 1995. The dreamy 'Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong' is like a preface of all the keyboards, effects pedals, and experimental elements to come. And 'Lozenge Of Love' has an intricate acoustic guitar part that will surprise listeners who, as I do, primarily think of Radiohead as an electric band.

I'm still hesitant to call this EP a five star affair. It's not as good as Airbag/How Am I Driving?, Radiohead's other well known EP, but it is more historically important. This should be at the top of your list once you've gotten all their albums from The Bends onward, however, because it fills in part of the puzzle of "how did they get from Pablo Honey to The Bends in one move??" by answering "well, they recorded a crackerjack single that bemoaned their first hit single along with a half dozen great B-sides, too."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Album of the Week: Broken Social Scene- Broken Social Scene

I've never been an audiophile. I can detect when something has too little or too much bass, things like that, but I've never gotten into spending the money on expensive headphones or stereo equipment. In fact, the majority of the time I'm either listening to music on my sub-$100 Crosley all-in-one record player/CD player/radio or on my laptop's built-in speakers. Not exactly ideal audio quality but I don't feel like I'm missing much. Still, I've gotten really into beer over the last year or so and can see the appeal of extra cost and care. I much prefer splurging on imports and micro/specialty brews to mainstream stuff, taking the time to savor them out of beer glasses and specially designed mugs/goblets/whatever. So I understand the desire to take the time and money to enjoy something more than most do or can; it's just that I don't think having thousand dollar speakers/headphones is going to make good music any better. It may make it clearer or sound richer, but not better.

I do, however, agree with the notion that some music is best appreciated with headphones on. I'll grant that a lot of music seems better when it's pumped directly into your ears instead of cutting a path through the air and acoustics of wherever you are, but I think we all know what I'm talking about: the sort of densely produced, layered studio masterpieces that only reveal their true character when listened to with headphones. Just as beers and wines only open up their full aromas and flavors when poured into the proper receptacles, headphone albums only bloom when you can patiently separate the sounds out and consciously enjoy the various things at work. For a good example think of Miles Davis's Bitches Brew. It is an incredible album no matter how you listen to it, but I only am able to grasp all of its density and layered chaos when I take a seat, recline, close my eyes, perhaps enjoy a good beer, and concentrate.

Broken Social Scene's third, self titled album received mixed reviews upon its release, but I have to wonder how many of those were because the critics didn't give it a chance with headphones. Broken Social Scene is a dense, swampy, borderline psychedelic miasma of sounds. Listening to it now on my laptop, everything seems to smash together into a pile. I still love it this way. It's a fine mess, but it's not the same as the headphone experience.

As You Forgot It In People was one of those huge indie rock milestones of this decade, anything Broken Social Scene released afterward would probably be a let down. That the follow up ended up being a more experimental release, concerned as much with a totality of sound and production as it was songs and hooks, this meant that most listeners would give it a few spins, decide it wasn't as good as the last one, and move on. I always go for the 'weirder, less immediate follow-ups to a highly successful albums' kind of thing, so I love this album. It feels even more wild eyed, collaborative, joyous, and wide-reaching than their breakthrough. Assuming you get the version that comes with the EP, To Be You And Me, you can see what might have been if they had hued closer to the more immediate sound of You Forgot It In People: compare that 'Major Label Debut' (subtitled 'Fast Version') to the album version. The latter is a patient sidewinder of a song, undulating around in an expanse of sound. The 'Fast Version' is all energy and vivacity, a propellant drum beat keeping things going. I like the album version better, true, but I do have the 'Fast Version' on an exercise mixtape. Anyway, I'm glad they both exist.

Actually, I think everyone is simply mixed up about Broken Social Scene. I've yet to get to their post-rock/ambient debut or dig too deeply into the two 'solo' albums from this camp, but I think if you listened to their main two albums back to back you'll see that they're more alike than different. You Forgot It In People has just as many instrumentals and experimental bits as Broken Social Scene has interesting, intelligent indie rock/pop. The latter may be more densely produced and have less traditional song structures, may not be as perfectly paced and compact, but it's still just as good and worth a purchase. Just remember the headphones. And beer.