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Radiohead Kid A

Review by Robert Brandt

Frank Zappa once asked, "Is this progress?"

One has to think that this is the same question burning on the minds of all those interested in Radiohead's latest effort, Kid A. It's 1999. Radiohead has just completed what was a flawless two years by industry standards. The album OK Computer was a massive worldwide success, enabling the band to tour the world two times over, as well as landing them top spots on numberous "best band/album of the century" polls. They took a break to plot the next course.

The first move was the release of director Grant Gee's film, Meeting People Is Easy. This film was a masterpiece of giving fly-on-the-wall perspective on a rock band, while at the same time demonstrating an outfit of individuals who seemed tired, lonely, and indifferent towards themselves and their work. Enter Kid A.

If OK Computer was a journey through an edgy dream, then Kid A must certainly be a step into a cold, tightly-sealed black box. It's very tranquil in there, but also very limiting. You get the sense that whomever put you in there wants you to feel a certain way, and you won't be let out until you do so. The cover and liner art give it away; it is bleak, with abundant images of glaciers and icy planes.

One immediately gets the feeling that this album is all guitarist Johnny Greenwood's doing. From the get-go, you realize that the mechanically-twinged psychedelia and quirky, pop nuances have been traded in for a newer take on 1970's European electronica (a genre in which Greenwood sites major influence from.) You almost can hear "Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" in the distance on the opener, "Everything In Its Right Place." This segueways into the title track, which is the first of a handful of "instrumental" interludes throughout the album which resemble sound collages more than structured pieces.

To dismiss those interludes (as well as a few actual songs) on this album as pretentious noodling is just not fair, however. The production values and choices of "sounds" on this album are solid enough to rise above that notion. One curious point of interest here is the abscence of a rocker. Radiohead is usually good for a song or two per album that exemplifies good old rock, but here it's nowhere to be found. The closest we get to something you can bang your head to is "The National Anthem," which sounds like what would happen if Thom Yorke sang in front of a combined unit of The Soft Machine and The Melvins.

"The National Anthem" leads into a song that will win somebody's "title of the year" award. "How To Disappear Completely (and Never Be Found)" has Yorke repeating "I'm not here" over a backdrop of eerie strings and melancholy guitars. This was the track rumored to feature what would have been an explosive collaboration with Canadian multi-instrumentalists Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and one can see where the latter would have shone through. You can only hope that the latest rumors of GYBE opening the North American leg of the Radiohead tour are true, so we can possibly hear the two play it together on stage.

The mock-techno number "Idioteque" gives way to the album's high point, which is sadly the closer. "Motion Picture Soundtrack" stands out on this album especially, with it's dreamlike harps, organs, and choirs swirling around Yorke's powerful falsetto, singing "..I will see you in the next life." Like the ending of a grand Hollywood movie of old, with the shot fading into the sky, and "The End" appearing on the screen backed by the clouds, Kid A ascends away out of the headphones and into the cosmos....unless you keep it going through a few minutes of silence that leads to a frankly pointless "sound collage".

Radiohead is promising an E.P. in a few months time that will include more of the nearly 30 songs recorded in the Kid A sessions. The band has stated that this will include more "acsessible" material. This may mean more of Yorke's songwriting and less of Greenwood's sonic impressions. The marriage of those two styles is what has made Radiohead a household name; taking a variety of influences and blending them into some of the most original sounding music in decades.

Kid A has succeeded if it's purpose was to set a mood, or to get the listener to stretch their imagination by way of sound and not lyrical ideas. It has also succeeded if (by a remote chance) it was intended as a blow-off to pop music junkies who we're brought on by the heavy radio play of the band in the 1990's. This album is a tremendous failure,however, if it has attempted to come off as breaking new ground. The sounds here have all been done before, and been done more effectively by many others before them. Here's to hoping that Radiohead is making a POINT rather than a STATEMENT.


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