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.

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