Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Radiohead -- Kid A

What follows is a record review that I wrote about 10 months ago, during my first attempt to start looking for work as a free-lance journalist. I'm not sure why poeple didn't like it or use it (besides the fact that it was a 5-year-old record by then), but I still like the work that I did. Thus, to read more of my attempts to find outlets for my writing, please visit me at The Music In My Ears. I will be posting my review of the new Sufjan Stevens album "The Avalanche" later today. Thus, I ask of you -- read, enjoy, comment.

Kid A
Columbia; 2000
Rating: 9.3

I bought a 12” Macintosh PowerBook G4 in July 2005. In so doing, my technological capacity leapt headfirst into the 21st century. It was rather startling actually. I went from owning and operating a 1997 Toshiba laptop what was running Windows 1998 (barely) to actually being proud of the computer that I owned. I went from crawling around on the World Wide Web to cruising along in First Class with all possible amenities on an intercontinental flight.

(And yes, all clichéd Information Superhighway metaphors will cease as of now.)

It was an amazing feat of purchasing power, though I simply bought it used from a friend who was entering seminary. She was upgrading to a much newer model and wanted to sell her 12-inch model, and, because she was willing to let me pay her a bit each month, I was able to help her out with her move. And if you’re interested, she’s attending Regent College in the Great (Seasonally) White (and Unbelievably Picturesque) North that is Vancouver, BC, Canada.

I say all of that to say this: in the process of uploading all of my CD’s into my new (to me) computer’s iTunes, I got the chance to give a fresh listen to an album that I have long loved, but often never fully appreciated. In my estimation, Kid A from Radiohead has to rank as one of the best, most misunderstood, and taken-for-granted albums of the past decade or so. Most of my friends who are hardcore Radiohead fans typically citeOK Computer as their preferred album, while a decent minority are big fans of Hail to the Thief, mostly because it’s the band’s most guitar rock album since OK Computer.

Don’t get them wrong – they all rather do like, love, and regularly listen to Kid A, but they feel it’s too electronic, that it’s not rock enough, that it’s too low-key and ambient in too many places. Those are rather appropriate responses, but, when I listen to the album in its entirety, in its proper place in chronological order of Radiohead releases, I can’t help but proclaim the genius that is Kid A.

Let me explain more fully, or at least permit me move through the course of the album, song by song, or rather, movement by movement. To begin, I don’t think that there’s another trilogy of songs as complete or as moving as the 3 opening tracks on this album. “Everything In Its Right Place,” “Kid A,” and “National Anthem” are as well-crafted, flowing, and 3 parts of 1 whole as anything you might have ever heard on a progressive rock band’s concept album (like Six Degrees of Separation by Dream Theater). Thus, with these 3 songs, Thom Yorke & the boys begin their meanderings through the most guitar-less rock album probably ever recorded (and that’s a compliment in my book).

From there, the listener hearkens upon the start of the second movement in Kid A. Comprised of “How to Disappear Completely,” “Treefingers,” “Optimistic,” and “In Limbo,” it seems that Radiohead is attempting to redefine the components of a rock song, whether in a recorded fashion or when taking these songs on the road. Moog-style synth sounds abound, along with well-crafted and well-played electric guitar and string arrangements that call to mind a symphony, as opposed to a rock record.

Admittedly, one can easily get lost sonically and thematically within these tracks, as it sounds that there is no continuity, no rhyme or reason behind the noises or the direction of those noises. If there is a downside to the album, it can be found amongst these 4 songs, and not because they don’t fit the flow of the album, but because they do. The average (and even above-average) rock music listener simply doesn’t get this section of the album – there’s no hook, no big single, and nothing to really keep you going onto the next song (unless you count the fact that the CD keeps going on the next song automatically). I remember reading reviews and talking about this album with friends when Kid A first came out in 2000 – few people got it and those who did were Radiohead fans who were disappointed that they didn’t get to listen to OK Computer 2. And I was amongst them, but not anymore.

Into the last movement, probably the most recognizable: “Idioteque,” “Morning Bell” (reprised and reformatted on Amnesiac), and “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” On an album filled with string swells, organ hums, and pulsating synthesizers and Moog keyboards, these 3 songs ring true, ring deeply, and ring out loud with a dark cynicism that only songwriters like Thom Yorke can muster. While “Idioteque” resonates with calls of a coming Ice Age, “Morning Bell” has the clarion call of a band trying to wake us up from expecting what’s normal in life and normal in music.

Simply put, few bands have the ability to create an album as esoteric and still as timeless as Radiohead has done with Kid A. Why are we compelled to return again and again to this album? Because if we didn’t, Thom Yorke would scowl us to death as Johnny Greenwood turned his guitar or a seemingly random box of electronic ingredients into an instrument worthy of inclusion in the finest of European orchestras.


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