Saturday, October 3, 2009

#89. Radiohead - Amnesiac (Parlophone, 2001) and Hail to the Thief (Parlophone, 2003)

I swear I didn't plan to write my piece on Radiohead's two minor releases the day after Pitchfork proclaimed that Kid A was the best album of the decade. I swear this was totally unintentional timing on my part. The fact that Kid A wasn't gonna be part of this list, on the other hand, was a long time coming on my end of things. I loved it when it came out, and still do to some degree, but as I was making the first draft of this list I never felt the need to include it. When I re-listened to the four albums Radiohead graced us with this decade it didn't engulf me the way it used to, it was pleasant and nothing more. I know there is a certain segment of the people who might be inclined to read this list that will be after my head for saying thins, but as good a first impression as Kid A left it just hasn't held up the way Radiohead's next two albums did.

Both albums have that weird distinction of being well regarded on the whole, but subject to a lot af odd and baseless criticism from a few corners. Amnesiac gets less flak than Hail to the Thief, but it still has the reputation of being an album of outtakes that weren't good enough for Kid A, which I have to say is total bullshit to me. I'd half believe that the overall reaction to the album would be better if the fact that it originated from the same sessions as Kid A weren't quite so well known. That might deflate the whole Kid B school of thought to some extent, but there would still be the fact that any album that came out after a landmark recording like Kid A is gonna be more heavily scrutinized. Hail's alck of a heros welcome seems to come out of people who were either reluctant to embrace the band backsliding to more basic guitar music - while Amnesiac was too far the other direction - or expecting that return to sound more like OK Computer - not gonna go into that one here but I recently knocked it down to 3.5 stars. So the criticisms mostly base themselves around them not being as good as their predecessors, and I was with that crowd for a while, I'll admit - I think I had Kid A at the poll position of my mid-decade top 50 with Amnesiac somewhere in the 30s and Hail nowhere to be seen - but time has been much kinder to Amnesiac and HTTT than I had anticipated. The tracks that struck me as pure experimental wankery grew into at the very least adequate experiments in odd moods if not true highlights of the album and the tracks that struck me as filler turned out to be so much more than that. It was an odd experience to just all of a sudden fall in love with the whole thing while my stake in Kid A was falling, but as it was happening it felt damn near logical.

Back to the whole Kid B thing for a bit: If you think about it, would any of these songs have fit with the overall mood of Kid A? Other than the gorgeous "Pyramid Song," - which I won't say anything more about for obvious reasons - "Hunting Bears" and maybe "Packt Like Sardines" none of the material that wound up on Amnesiac could have been dropped in amidst the songs on its predecessor without drastically altering its effect. In my mind Kid A is the mood album and Amnesiac is where the band let loose with all manner of odd genre experiments that still work in the context of an album. It's not quite as varied as its follow up, but it still offers a much wider breadth of material than any previous Radiohead album. There's the most experimental stuff the band's ever done ("Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors" and "I Will") some excursions into light dub ("Dollars and Cents" which rides the funkiest - read: only remotely funky - bassline Colin Greenwood has ever constructed) and jazz (closer "Life in a Glasshouse") alongside a few throwbacks to their more guitar-based 90s albums ("Knives Out" and "I Might Be Wrong") and those few that actually sound of a piece with Kid A mentioned earlier. Sure, Kid A had it's share of variety, but for my money Amnesiac pulled it off better.

And if you're talking variety, that's something that Hail to the Thief has as it's best weapon. I remember a lot of people crying that it didn't sound like Radiohead at all - and for a band as malleable as Radiohead proved themselves to be this decade that sort of criticism is a bit odd to say the least - but to my ears it's exactly what Radiohead would sound like if you let them loose in the studio, without the self imposed guitar phobia of the previous two albums. It results in what's possibly the band's creepiest album, especially the central trio of "Where I End and You Begin" through "The Gloaming." I'd say that once those three clicked my appreciation of the album increased quite a bit. I always found it to be better than the consensus opinion would dictate, but I never loved it until I realized that it was centered around evincing paranoia without spelling it out too much. Sure there's the allusion to 1984 in the first track, but after that things get much more insidious; the overlapping vocals on "Sit, Down Stand Up" seem to play a game of text-subtext with mundane instructions obscuring sinister ideas, the coda of "Where I End..." gets sinister with its repetition of 'I will eat you alive/And there'll be no more lies' and "A Wolf at the Door" is just incessantly unpleasant on all levels but couched in a wonderful melody. It's easy to call it an unpleasant album but it's unpleasantness sounds so damn good that I can't fault it.

Coming up tomorrow: The much more alienating flipside to these two.

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